i have always loved the paintings of lucian freud. many of them at any rate. along with the pictures of peter blake and david hockney, they were the first exciting contemporary paintings i had ever seen (not very recherche; but i came from northampton; a scuplture by henry moore and a painting by graham sutherland in st matthew's church were the only modern artworks i can recall in the town). freud, of course, also painted portraits. later in life i'd spend a lot of my time drawing and painting people in one way or another and i don't know whether freud's pictures of his mother / frank auerbach / john miton et al. tapped into an obsession i didn't yet know i was going to have or (it only now occurs to me) whether it caused it. strangely he even changed my handwriting. i was briefly working for isis, a student magazine at oxford (drawing cartoon portraits, appropriately), when one of the other students received a short letter from him. i can remember vividly that it was written in a faux-naive childish hand, all lower case, the letters unjoined and the words turning downwards when he ran out of space at the edge of the page. i was mesmerised and have written largely in unjoined-up ever since and been mildly allergic to capital letters.
apart from the obvious pleasures of seeing more of a painter's work in the flesh as well as pictures i've never seen before in any form, i've always found that one of things i get from a big retrsopective is finding out what i don't like about even a loved artist's pictures, which in turn somehow defines more accurately what i do like about it. en route to the exhibition i was talking to a knowledgeable friend who said she didn't like the later paintings. i disagreed and found, half an hour later, that i had to eat my words, though the boundary between early and late fell in a place that caught me by surprise.
in short: there are many things i love about the early portraits. one of which is that they are fascinating however near to the canvas you stand. you can step back and see them purely as portraits (and most of them are utterly gripping as such). or you can step closer and enjoy the near-abstract detail of painted flesh (which is nearly always swirling with e nergy). as you move in and out these two things toggle and swap, paint-person-paint-person which i think says something profound about the nature of painting which i still can't quite put my finger on (see woman smiling, 1958-9, below). this is what starts to disappear from the paintings from the mid-80's onwards, from c. the masterpiece of two irishmen in w11 (copy and paste into google if you don't know the picture i mean). most of them look wonderful in reproduction or from a distance (the pictures of leigh bowery and sue tilley command a room) but the surface of the paintings is no longer so interesting, no longer a sensual pleasure. places where the eyes and hands have lingered (faces, breasts, genitals) are often clotted with paint, not in a frank-aurberach-y way, but in a way which feels troubled.
the ecthings, however, remain astonishing all the way through.
footnote: obviously, every big exhibition now has themed gifts for sale along with the catalogue and the postcards. in the national portrait gallery shop you can buy a small and hilariously naff felt model of one of the dogs in freud's paintings (the whippet eli, i think). i can't imagine freud sanctioning it so i assume it was an opportunistic posthumous kitsch marketing opportunity. if only they'd had benefit supervisor sleeping on a tea towel, i might have bought it.