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Lucian Freud captured intimacy, even when his subjects were clothed

Seven exhibitions around London this fall are celebrating the painter’s achievements in realist portraiture

"Girl in Bed," 1952. Lucian Freud's portrait of his second wife, Caroline Blackwood, is one of more than 60 on display at London's National Gallery in "Lucian Freud: New Perspectives." (Private Collection, Courtesy of Ordovas/Lucian Freud Archive. All Rights Reserved 2022/Bridgeman Images)
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LONDON — Having passed through the ceremonial stage of mourning the queen, London this fall is eulogizing the life of Lucian Freud (1922-2011) with seven exhibitions marking the centenary of the painter’s birth. The most important is “Lucian Freud: New Perspectives,” a retrospective at the National Gallery.

With just over 60 works (one of them a 2002 portrait of the queen, no bigger than a paperback novel), it is not the biggest Freud show I have seen. But in its emphasis, freshness and concision, it is one of the best.

The show includes iconic early paintings of Freud’s first wife, Kitty Garman, and his second wife, Caroline Blackwood; close-up head portraits of fellow painters Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon and David Hockney; several powerful nudes (or “naked portraits,” as Freud liked to call them); and two late, large-scale masterpieces — “And the Bridegroom” and “Sleeping by the Lion Carpet.”

But if you don’t know Freud’s work and want a sense of what he did best, a good place to start is “Double Portrait,” a midsize 1985-86 oil painting of a woman in a navy shirt alongside a tawny whippet. The image is cropped, bringing the subjects uncommonly close. The dog’s snout lolls in the woman’s open palm. Forepaw and forearm unfurl toward the viewer in an arresting rhyme. Multidirectional brushstrokes mold and dimple the paint, which is gritty with textures, arousing our sense of touch. Both creatures are at rest, possibly asleep.

In the history of art, there must be greater evocations of intimacy. But when I’m in front of “Double Portrait,” I can’t think of any. True intimacy has that effect, I suppose: It removes the burden of comparisons. The world beyond disappears. The contrast between the light in here and the darkness outside turns transparent windows into reflective mirrors. There is just muffled breathing and the soft, warm, proximate presence of another …

Welcome to the world of Lucian Freud.

Over a 70-year career, Freud concerned himself almost exclusively with getting paint to convey the living weight and mortal gorgeousness of the human body and of other things close at hand, living and dead. He was interested in individuality. The attention he lavished on mottled thighs, plump fingers, rash-ridden faces, raw scrotums, tightly curled pubic hair and ropily veined feet was matched by no other modern artist. Devoid of both expressionist histrionics and visceral repulsion, his art was fired only by a sense of tender, patient scrutiny and a conviction that, as the New York poet Frank O’Hara wrote, “the only truth is face to face.”

Freud, who came with his family to London from Berlin in 1933 — the year Hitler came to power — was locally esteemed as an artist from a young age but became internationally famous only after a critically acclaimed show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington in 1987. This latest show at the National Gallery, London, organized by Daniel Herrmann, takes us from Freud’s hard-pressed, mercurial early style through his glassy smooth, tremblingly intense portraits of the 1950s to the paintings he made over many decades in a more open, thickly textured style, developed under the influence of Bacon and in league, aesthetically, with Rembrandt, Courbet, Degas and Rodin.

Van Gogh through a pinhole

In London’s class-conscious tabloid culture, Freud made good copy. A dedicated gambler, he mixed with criminals, aristocrats, novelists, movie stars, performance artists and supermodels. (A film about his friendship with Kate Moss is in the works.) A serial seducer, he had an undoubted gift for intimacy. “To be with him in his company,” said Louise Liddell, a framer who posed for him, “is like sticking your finger in an electric socket and being wired up to the national grid for half an hour.”

To his credit, Herrmann, in the centenary show, has tried to get away from the fascinations of Freud’s life (recently the subject of a brilliant, densely populated and frequently hilarious two-volume biography by William Feaver). The emphasis instead is on the qualities of subtlety and surprise in the paintings themselves.

In a section called “Portraying Intimacy,” for instance, Herrmann has gathered some of Freud’s most beautiful portraits of couples and family members. Among them are “Double Portrait,” “Bella and Esther” (a depiction of two of Freud’s daughters squeezed together on a couch, bare feet touching) and “Two Men.” The latter, painted in 1988 as the AIDS crisis was peaking, shows one man naked and one clothed, lying on a bed. The dressed man’s hand rests on his lover’s bared calf, but their heads are turned away from one another. You are made aware of individual lives at once tenderly shared and poignantly apart.

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Arguably Freud’s greatest painting, “Large Interior W11 (After Watteau),” is missing from the show (it will be sold from Microsoft founder Paul Allen’s collection at Christie’s in November) as are the masterpieces “Girl With a White Dog,” “Pregnant Girl” and “Annabel Sleeping” and seven other paintings published in the catalogue. Did loan requests hit unforeseen snags? It’s hard to say. But it doesn’t matter. The intimacy principle wins out: The works that are in the show make comparisons redundant.

For those accustomed to seeing Freud’s paintings in reproduction, encountering them in real life provokes rolling astonishment. He used paint not just to build up a recognizable image, but also to amplify sensations of presence through touch, texture and color. Even relatively small paintings required months of sitting. The queen sat about 20 times. “You probably think I’m going incredibly slowly,” said Freud, “but in fact I’m going at 90 miles an hour, and if I go any faster the car might overturn.”

There was nothing rote about his approach. The variety and density of the brushstrokes is breathtaking, but every mark is doing its work, carrying its load.

Freud’s best works are bound up, emotionally and conceptually, with the time it took him to paint them. Unlike the deft, well-oxygenated portraits of, say, Alice Neel — notable for their citrus-fresh, glancing quality — Freud’s portraits are infused with a dense, almost humid atmosphere maintained over long hours, days and months.

Their great achievement is to combine that scrutiny with a quality of withholding, a refusal to presume to know more about a sitter’s inner life than can be verified. As often as not, his portraits suppress our impulse to psychologize by showing their subjects dead-eyed or asleep.

The six satellite exhibitions scattered around London focus on Freud’s relationship with horses and gambling, his etchings and studio life, his relations with other painters and his pictures of gardens and plants. Perhaps the most remarkable of them is at the Freud Museum, in the north London home to which Lucian’s grandfather Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, moved in 1938 after fleeing Vienna. (Sigmund got away only just in time: His four sisters all died at the hands of the Nazis).

Lucian was fond of his grandfather. But he intuited early on that, to safeguard his own freedoms, he would need to dissociate himself from such a towering cultural figure. The Freud Museum show, organized by Martin Gayford (also the author, with David Dawson, of a new book, “Love Lucian: The Letters of Lucian Freud 1939-1954”), is keyed to the theme of “family connections.” That’s almost funny when you contemplate Lucian’s inclination to ignore (often cruelly) the expectations most people bring to family. But it makes for a fascinating exhibit.

Lucian’s childhood is addressed through early drawings, letters and footage of him with his famous grandfather. The show also delves into Lucian’s complicated relations with his parents and his own children, of whom there are more than a dozen. Several have forged impressive careers in fashion, fiction and poetry. Cover illustrations he made for their books are displayed behind glass.

But the most extraordinary moment of the Freud Museum show occurs in Sigmund’s study, where Lucian’s painting of his recumbent mother has been hung directly above his grandfather’s famous couch. The mind reels.

Lucian Freud’s career unfolded over a period when academic critics were continually updating their ideas about what constituted “radical art” and why. Again and again, they declared painting dead, even as they fretted about the avant-garde’s evermore tenuous connection to wider society.

Whether people found Freud’s realist portraiture contemptibly conservative or reassuringly so depended, of course, on their taste and politics. But both positions hit snags. To conservative collectors aroused by the smell of oil paint and the sight of bare skin, Freud’s refusal to beautify his subjects and his sense that clotted paint and stilted forms might convey more truth than slick virtuosity could be a letdown. To academics and critics scrabbling away in the ideological playpens constructed by the likes of Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss, Freud’s stubborn devotion to the possibilities of realist portraiture was vexing.

All that now seems irrelevant. In today’s art word, figurative painting is undeniably ascendant. Most contemporary painters of note are concerned with the human body and its surroundings. Style, people have realized, can only ever be superficially radical. If real radicalism and risk exist anywhere, it is in intimacy. Freud’s preoccupations no longer look eccentric or mulish. Rather, he stands as an example of audacity — a reminder of just how deep it is possible to take the game of painting.

“Lucian Freud: New Perspectives”: Through Jan. 22 at the National Gallery, London.