Lucian, lionised



MAN’s head (1963). A self portrait by Lucian Freud. Copyright: The Lucian Freud Archive Bridgeman.

THE CHANCE TO be able to get so close to the work of arguably the 20th century’s most important painter, Lucian Freud, that you can see the shadow between brushmarks, is phenomenal. Exhibition on Screen: Lucian Freud – A Self Portrait takes you by the digital hand through an exhibition of this British painter’s body of self-portraits through the decades of his career. It is breathtaking.

Freud (1922-2011) was the grandson of the great Viennese neurologist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and by all accounts, a complicated maverick growing up. The message in the work is his total commitment to his craft, and his enormous body of drawings, paintings and etchings attest to the unstoppable nature of this.

As you sit there and let the glorious work wash over your sensibilities, you are enriched with a sense of immense privilege. The film is detail-heavy and clustered with suppositions about the man’s private life, priorities and magnetism. In a way, this chatty ostensibly sexy stuff detracts from the real heart of the matter: the work.

Compared in many respects to Rembrandt, this artist who lived through much of the 20th century had the will, the work ethic and the chutzpah to cock a snoot at the trendy fashions of artmaking that come and go. Freud didn’t kowtow to ‘projects’ or gimmicks in his repertoire. He didn’t hope to change the world or sway politics with what he was doing. His work unapologetically feeds into the genres of portrait, figure study and still life that have been central to visual art since paintings began to be made on canvas. His work is troubling, magnificent, abstract and timeless, and you get swept into its flow.

By its nature, this film product, part of Cinema Nouveau’s art bouquet, presents a curiously problematic mix of values. Like the play of vision and reality when you look at a person with the intent to draw them, or when you look at a mirror with the same plan in mind, there’s a sheen of realities that concatenates philosophically with the idea of filming an exhibition.

But more than this, the experience of being in the presence of art is something that cannot be replicated in film. For one thing, there are times when you wish to shut out the words of gossip and hyperbole, of attempts to humanise or sexify the marketability of this icon, and just to be allowed to quietly look. And there are other times when you wish to return to looking at a painting and just embed yourself in its nuances, but you’re caught in the trajectory prescribed by the director. It is 12 years since Johannesburg gallery visitors got the unique chance to see an exhibition of Lucian Freud’s work – by way of a body of etchings at the Everard Read Gallery; and frankly, beggars cannot be choosers.

  • Exhibition on Screen: Lucian Freud – a Self Portrait is directed by David Bickerstaff and has the cooperation of the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It released in South Africa through Ster Kinekor Cinema Nouveau on 6 March 2020, for a brief season.


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