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Lucien Freud's Portraits are Skilled, Smart and Sad, and He Probably Had Sex with Them

Girl with a White Dog, 1950-1 Tate: Purchased 1952 © Tate, London 2012
Girl with a White Dog, 1950-1 Tate: Purchased 1952 © Tate, London 2012

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The Modern's Lucien Freud Portraits showcases 90 works that span the artist's adult lifetime. Standing in the middle of any group of his portraits feels like living with a family for an extended stay. The faces become familiar quickly, and because the painter's technique is so scary good, you know his subjects as real people, know their personalities and, most of all, their vulnerabilities.

Some subjects make repeat appearances; you watch them age, and there is enough whimsical confusion in these faces to make them charming, and enough sincerity to make them a bit sad.

Reflection (Self-portrait) Reflection (Self-portrait), 1985 Private Collection, Ireland © The Lucian Freud Archive. Photo: Courtesy Lucian Freud Archive
Reflection (Self-portrait) Reflection (Self-portrait), 1985 Private Collection, Ireland © The Lucian Freud Archive. Photo: Courtesy Lucian Freud Archive

Freud captures his muses in the precise moment when they forget they're being watched, though he does not deny them sympathy. "Girl in a Dark Jacket" (1947) seems to have a gentle, cautious engagement with the man painting her, but also the same self-consciousness that runs through so many of these portraits like an invisible thread. The girl's split ends are visible and she's almost, but not quite, looking you in the eye. It's a portrait of a person living with authentic disappointment.

Unlike many artists, Freud's technique developed strength with age. His self-portraits are not mere paintings of active vanity, but increasingly complex engagements in the difficult emotions of aging. We even see him die -- a painting dated 2011, the year of Freud's death, has a substantial chunk left unpainted, a death recorded by blank canvas.

Girl in a Dark Jacket, 1947 Private Collection © The Lucian Freud Archive. Photo: Courtesy Lucian Freud Archive
Girl in a Dark Jacket, 1947 Private Collection © The Lucian Freud Archive. Photo: Courtesy Lucian Freud Archive

Earlier self-portraits display an imperiousness, such as Reflection with Two Children (1965) where Freud is literally looking down as if (first interpretation, dramatic) the viewer is far beneath him or (second interpretation, practical) he was painting from the reflection of a mirror on the floor (duh). But his handsome, scruffy, comfortable presence mellows with age, stocked with layers of pigmentation and evolving technique in a shrine to fading youth and eccentric individuality.

Now, The Smutty Bits About Lucien Freud, some of them true:

• Rumored to have fathered 40 children! • Fathered 14 children for sure by a bunch of different women! • Had an affair with London wild child Lorna Garman, then married her niece. One of Garman's other lovers married another of her nieces. That's weird! • Rumored to have had an affair with fellow artist Francis Bacon (a portrait of him in the show intrigues!)! • Slept with his students! • If you've ever had sex, it was probably with Lucien Freud! Lucien Freud Portraits runs through October 28, 2012, at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.


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