Into the sur-real

Laura Oxley watches the film ‘Exhibition on Screen: Lucian Freud – A self-portrait’.

The grandson of Sigmund Freud, Lucian Freud, is a celebrated painter who is particularly known for his portraits. Recently, his work was featured in an Exhibition on Screen at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge, entitled ‘Lucian Freud – A self-portrait’. It is the first time that Freud’s self-portraits, a collection spanning almost seven decades and comprising more than 50 paintings, have been displayed together in one exhibition. The film explains that Freud was reluctant for this to happen during his lifetime and always said that it could happen when he was gone. Freud sadly passed away in 2011 at the age of 88.

The Royal Academy of Arts in London collaborated with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to put together this exhibition. From Freud’s earliest self-portrait, painted in 1939, to his last one 64 years later, this collection aims to give an insight into Freud’s development, both as a painter and as a person. Seeing his self-portraits alongside each other suggests a study of one’s own changing physical appearance. It highlights the process of aging and self-representation.

The film included many clips of interviews with key people from Freud’s life, as well as with Freud himself. It was suggested that Freud turned to painting self-portraits when he was unsettled or dealing with a change in his life, such as the breakdown of a relationship. He was perhaps taking an introspective look at himself as a person. The film explains that Freud was never satisfied with the fact that he could only see himself with the use of a tool, such as a mirror, and never as other people saw him.

Freud took a great deal of care over making his paintings appear as real as they could be. He talks about surrealism starting off as a concept of a painting being ‘sur-real’, meaning more real than the thing itself. He said that when he was painting something, it was the only thing he was painting and considered it to be the only thing he had ever painted. Interviews with people who had sat as models for Freud’s paintings emphasised how much care and effort Freud poured into each of his creations.

Freud’s self-portrait collection was on display at the Royal Academy of Arts between 27 October 2019 to 26 January 2020. Having seen the Exhibition on Screen, I was interested to go and visit the actual exhibition in London, and was disappointed to see that it had ended only days after the film was screened. Fingers crossed that this or a similar exhibition of Freud’s work will return to our museums soon.

Laura Oxley is a PhD student at the University of York, and one of our Voices In Psychology programme winners.

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