Studio International

Published 02/09/2002

The massive hype generated for, rather than by, Tate Britain’s Lucian Freud exhibition had critics vying with one another to write the best eulogy. Still with another month to run, the greatest display of flesh ever since Smithfield revealed unwittingly many secrets, more of the sitters than the artist himself, who remained contradictory and enigmatically remote in equal proportions. Through the words of the sitters, painstakingly tracked down by the press, Freud emerges as both compassionate and abstemious. Steel fortune heir Thyssen-Bornemisza could not evade the eagle eye, (eagle not evil) as he squirmed in his under-sized throne as Man in Chair. Fortunately, we are denied the baronial flesh experience: and the rare suit concealing this, amid all the bare flesh, looks obscene, a perversity. And yet the more flesh, the more human the subjects are revealed to be. William Feaver has brilliantly described Freud and his work in the main catalogue essay, and has over a considerable period of proximity come closer than anyone in understanding Freud. The twenty-stone Sue Tilley’s figure has been gently preserved, for all its mass, in its innocence. Then a benefits officer cannot be all innocence, and must carry the sins of the locality, and yet Freud manages to combine that and world-weariness too. Another model was embittered at the sudden withdrawal of support: and yet controlling such involvement assumes an ‘all risks’ caveat. And Queen, heroically submitting herself, despite her courtiers’ reservations: in a quest for truth about oneself, she could secretly be assured: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall. This may just be the great master portrait to consign all others, the definitive Majesty, in her own integrity.