Lucian Freud: Paintings and Prints at the Norton Museum of Art is a small exhibition, but it packs more visual firepower than shows many times its size. Cheryl Brutvan, director of curatorial affairs and curator of contemporary art at the Norton, organized the exhibition, and she describes it as “an extraordinary group of paintings and a great opportunity to show them together.”
Freud, who died in 2011 at age 88, is best known for painting the human figure — clothed and unclothed — and all were portraits, usually of friends, family, lovers. Freud would spend months, even years, with his subjects, painstakingly exploring their appearance and personality in paint.
The centerpiece of the Norton exhibition is The Brigadier, a larger-than-life portrait of Freud’s longtime friend and riding (and betting) companion Andrew Parker Bowles, former husband of Camila Parker Bowles, now wed to Britain’s Prince Charles. Painted when the artist was past 80, the portrait took nearly two years to complete.
It is on loan from Palm Beach collector and financier Damon Mezzacappa and was initially shown at the Norton last May as part of its Masterpiece of the Month program, which showcases art works from private collectors. Mezzacoppa, who has also donated several Italian Old Master paintings to the Norton, agreed to extend the loan to the museum.
At Freud’s request, Parker Bowles posed in the uniform he wore when he was Commander of the Household Cavalry, but, as Parker Bowles recalled, “it had been 20 years since I’d worn it, and I’d got fatter. So I undid my tunic and my stomach came out.”
An unrelenting gaze characterizes Freud’s portraits, which may more accurately be labeled psychological dramas, or as curator Brutvan called them, “discomforting examinations of the models — awkward, vulnerable and far from idealized.”
Some may see the aging out-of-shape subject of The Brigadier as symbolic of the decline of the British Empire, but there may be a more pedestrian explanation of Freud’s request that his model pose in uniform, one in which the artist flaunts his knowledge of art history gleaned from many museum visits. Parker Bowles’ pose references a painting in London’s National Portrait Gallery by the 19th century painter James Tissot, that also shows a gentleman lounging in a red-striped blue military uniform.
One of the other two paintings in the exhibition, Self Portrait/Reflection, may lack the scale and bravura of the Parker Bowles portrait, but it still reveals much about the artist and his working methods. Done when the artist was 80, it is painted with a very limited pallete of grays and browns; the artist has posed himself against a wall of his studio where he used to wipe excess paint off his brushes. The same type of fierce brushwork is employed on his face, leaving the viewer to ponder whether Freud is emerging from or receding into the painted surface.
It would be easy — too easy, actually — to read his work in the psychoanalytic context of his grandfather, Sigmund Freud. Nonetheless, his portraits are emotional character studies that delve deeply into his subjects.
Flora with Blue Toenails, a reclining nude portrait, shows his ability to capture the subject’s state of mind; during the long and repeated sittings, her father had died, and a sense of grief and loss is unmistakable on her face.
Supplementing the three paintings are nine etchings, including a 1982 work, Head on Pillow, from the Norton’s own collection. Freud had taken up printmaking again in the early 1980s after a three-decade hiatus. The black-and white-images of male and female nudes and gardens reveal his skills as a draftsman and match the impact of his paintings.
Particularly noteworthy are two etchings of the whippets he kept as pets, one from 1980s, the other, Pluto Aged Twelve, from 2000. Both show his obvious affection for the dogs at the same time that the viewer can see Freud’s development as a printmaker. Pluto is much more assured in its composition, more complex in its realization.
In the end, all of Freud’s work can be seen as autobiographical. An interpretive panel at the Norton quotes Freud as saying, “What I’m doing is quite simple and, you might say, selfish. I combine my painting with the people that have come into my life. That’s all it is.”