Painted in a single day in 1974, the present work is an extraordinary self-portrait by Lucian Freud. Included in the Royal Academy’s major exhibition Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits in 2019-2020, it is as rare in medium – an unusual instance of watercolour on paper –as it is sublime in execution. Freud reveals himself as a master of subtle, diaphanous pigment, worlds away from the visceral impasto for which he is most famed. He paints just his head and throat, floating stark against the paper like an icon. Glassy planes of colour model his flesh with incandescent presence, mapping the strike of light on his forehead and nose, the dark intensity of his stare and the bloom of blood beneath the skin. The work’s coral pinks, sepia strokes and slick flashes of white come together in concentrated velocity, echoing the turbulent portrait-heads of Freud’s close friend Francis Bacon. Fine lines and shadows chart the wear of middle-age.
The 1970s was a time of sharp self-scrutiny for Freud, whose father had died at the start of the decade. Captioned with the diaristic intimacy of a date – 23-10-74 –Self-portrait is a starkly honest vision. As with Freud’s other self-portraits, which are relatively scarce in his oeuvre, it crystallises a rare moment of looking both outwards and inwards, taking stock of his intertwined life and art. At fifty-one years old, he had received his first major retrospective at London’s Hayward Gallery earlier that year. ‘I hope to be able to gauge what, if any, advances I’ve made, if I’ve in fact developed,’ he told William Feaver before the show opened. ‘… When I’ve just finished a painting I look at it and think: so this is the sum total of all those decisions … I feel a bit hopeful about my work at the moment – but then it varies terribly from day to day. I felt much more hopeful two days ago’ (quoted in W. Feaver, The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame 1968-2011, London, 2019, pp. 52-53).
Freud had first experimented with watercolours in the summer of 1961, when on holiday in Greece with his young daughters Annabel and Annie. He painted several swift, fluid pictures of the two children, as well as a sketchy self-portrait, seated outdoors with the sea behind him. In their unusual immediacy, these works announced the loosening that would characterise Freud’s development over the subsequent decade. The graphic, hard-lined control of his 1950s paintings gradually yielded to ever-fleshier oils, and he switched his fine sable brushes for hog’s-hair, coarsening and amplifying his touch.
While Freud was never one to admit influences, this long-term shift was related to his creative dialogue with Francis Bacon, whom he had first met in 1945. Bacon inspired the young Freud, lauded at the time as a unique draughtsman, to renounce drawing altogether. ‘He talked a great deal about the paint itself,’ Freud later remembered, ‘carrying the form and imbuing the paint with this sort of life. He talked about packing a lot of things into one single brushstroke, which amused and excited me ... the idea of paint having that power’ (Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, ‘Beyond Feeling,’ Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1993, p. 13). Self-portrait sees Freud bringing these lessons to bear on his own isolated head—echoing a hallmark Bacon format—with a concise, clear-eyed resolution seldom achieved in watercolour.
Concentrated around the artist’s dark-limned eyes, Self-portrait seems to burst forth from the centre of the blank paper. Its apparitional quality recalls the fierce watercolour visions of Egon Schiele. It also exhibits a process distinct to Freud: rather than blocking out an overall picture, he would work outwards from a compositional core, expanding, mosaic-like, from the features that seized his attention. This technique can be seen in famous ‘unfinished’ works such as Francis Bacon (1956-57) and Last Portrait (1976-77, Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, Madrid), whose negative spaces only amplify their condensed force of gaze. As well as the eyes, in Self-portrait Freud haloes his brow and pursed lips with particular interest. The intense treatment of furrow, crease and glint foreshadows his astonishing portrait of Frank Auerbach, begun shortly after the present work, which explores the great painter’s thought-wracked forehead with unabashed admiration.
One of Freud’s most intriguing early paintings is a self-portrait by proxy. Man in a Headscarf (The Procurer) (1954) depicts David Litvinoff, a sinister doppelgänger who would order drinks on Freud’s tab in the bars of Soho. The artist regarded him with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. This impostor’s face was an unmissable opportunity: for Freud, to depict oneself was already an act of estrangement, or even of disguise. ‘You’ve got to try to paint yourself as another person,’ he said. ‘Looking in the mirror is a strain in a way that looking at other people isn’t at all’ (quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, New York, 2007, p. 31).
From the surreal, vertiginous Reflection with Two Children (Self-portrait) (1965) to the full-length nude Painter Working, Reflection (1993), which sees his late style at its most granular and raw, the major self-portraits Freud painted are all the more captivating for their difficulty. Less concerned with introspection than with the peculiarities of seeing the self, they come at turning points in his practice, and are often formally daring – a quality they share with some of art history’s most memorable self-images, from Dürer to Rembrandt, Van Gogh to Bacon. Naked of symbolism and alive with the strength of Freud’s gaze, the present work takes its place among these landmark paintings. Freud sees himself as he paints: poised, inquisitive, unsparing, and irrevocable.