Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
September 13, 2019–May 3, 2021
by Shannon Bewley and Chahrazad Zahi
The portraits of Lucian Freud (1922–2011) dominated the discourse of the figurative genre of painting throughout the twentieth century, specifically in the Anglo-American realm.1 As a member of the influential group of figurative artists in the 1970s, known as the School of London, Freud’s life and his career ran parallel to the late abstract expressionists.
In partnership with the Royal Academy of Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), presented Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits, curated by Akili Tommasino, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the MFA (fig. 1). This exhibition was the first to explore Lucian Freud’s self-portraits over the course of his lifetime. The exhibition opened with Freud’s first self-portrait painting, Self-Portrait (1940), then moved through a chronology of his paintings, leading visitors in an oval towards his last self-portrait in 2002’s Self-Portrait. The exhibition showcases the artist’s ability to reveal a broad range of human emotions through different techniques as he shifts from cool-colored, detailed works to the pink, fleshy toned paintings typically associated with his mature style (fig. 2).
The chronological sections of the exhibition, which include “Reflections in the Studio,” “Late Self-Portraits,” and “Drawing,” also trace Freud’s experimentation with different media. His reputation as a magnetic philanderer receives only a quick mention in section-text panels in favor of attention to his professional practice. Instead, the curatorial approach emphasizes the artist’s own fascination with changes in his interior and exterior self-image. The exhibited paintings allow for close visual comparison of his experiments in mirrors, materiality, and nudity in portraiture.
The exhibition points to how the thickly impastoed skin of his subjects, as seen in the 2002 oil painting Self-Portrait, Reflection, reveals the artist’s occupation with the fragility of the aging body (fig. 3). The emphasis is on the artist’s technical tour de force as revealed in his look at the sensual and the scabrous. Yet, self-portraits which trace one’s physique as it morphs over decades are profoundly narcissistic and introspective. This undertones of this fascination with the self-image remains unexplored in the exhibition. Equally unaddressed is Freud’s unsettling emotional relationship with his sitters, implicit in Flora with Blue Toe Nails (fig. 4). Here, the artist’s shadow encroaches on the bed upon which a young woman reclines. The shadow, similar to the mirror, turns the canvas into a double space enclosed by two temporalities: an initial instance of the artist as producer of the scene and a second time when the artist places himself alongside the sitter as a subject of the painting.2 Addressing the uncanniness of this doubling would have provided a useful framework to understand the creative process of the artist in relation to his command of the medium and its materiality, as it enhances the emotional charge of the painting.
The mirrors hung in the “Self-Portrait Studio” room encourage visitors to snap and share selfies from the exhibition, but the space fails to connect these selfies to Freud’s deeper exploration of self-fashioning. Freud’s paintings suggest that we should be skeptical of a consistent, internalized self-image; that we should try to apprehend ourselves the way others see us—as fragments captured from different angles. The exhibition depicts the self without giving viewers much space for a deeper contemplation of the historic and present-day self-portraiture.
The exhibition succeeds in uncovering one of the most iconic twentieth-century Western painter’s interests in materiality and aging. The MFA has pulled back the curtain to the lifestyle of an art-world celebrity, while revealing his obsession with the vulnerability of the aging human form.
Prior to entering Boston University as a PhD student in the History of Art and Architecture, Shannon Bewley was the Provenance Research Fellow in the departments of American and European Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art. Her research areas include photographs of conceptual art, modernist sculpture, and exhibitions histories.
Chahrazad Zahi was an independent curator before she joined the department of History of Art and Architecture at Boston University. Since 2012, she has been concerned with stimulating the publishing of art histories of the MENA region, beyond the western canon.
1. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits, exhibition introductory section text panel.
2. The impossibility of representing a living subject is one of Lucian Freud’s central themes, as the portrait has long been viewed as failing to capture the presence of the sitter’s subjectivity. Discussing the process of being represented, Roland Barthes writes of a sense of inauthenticity: “I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object;” Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (London: Fontana, 1984), 14. The artist circumvents the objectification of the subject by using mirrors and de-doubling, in Barthes’s terms, the subject.