Lucian Freud dismantled the established conventions of portrait paintingby Sebastian Smee / January 25, 2012 / Leave a comment
“Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” (1995)
Lucian Freud Portraits National Portrait Gallery, 9th February-27th May, Tel: 0844 248 5033
A parent on bedside watch might have had the notion. A certain kind of photographer, too—the kind obsessed, for instance, by isolated fragments and strange magnifications. But among established portrait painters, the idea that the soles of a woman’s feet might testify to her person as eloquently and forcefully as her face feels unique to Lucian Freud.
The picture I’m thinking of is “Annabel Sleeping,” a portrait Freud made of one of his grown daughters in the late 1980s. It shows a woman, lying asleep on a bed, wearing a sky-blue dressing gown.
What makes it unusual, as a portrait, (and Freud thought of almost all of his pictures of people—and animals, too—as portraits) is that the subject is completely turned away from us. Not only are we not shown her face, we can’t even see the shape of her head. The closest we get is a spray of unkempt dark brown hair emerging from behind foetally hunched shoulders. The only parts of her body that are actually exposed are her ankles, her toes, and soles of her feet.
These last, however, convey everything. Intimacy above all, but also a kind of brute physicality. Freud’s handling of paint—an accretion of ridged and dimpled pigments, with sparing use of oil—is such that his subjects could scarcely be more palpable, more awkwardly or inelegantly there. The soft yellow centre of one arch is wrinkled, as if the foot were pleasurably flexed. The other foot is all bony, bulbous forms and thick impasto—not an appendage you could squeeze into high heels; more like a lumpy sausage, held together by elastic and somewhat capricious forces.
We are not in the realm of metaphor here. These feet have sculptural heft. They are not so much representations as new objects in the world. You can feel the press of one on the other, sense the humid stickiness between them. They have a consciousness all their own, a level of nervous awareness from which Annabel’s eyes and face, were they open and in play, could only distract us.
Freud, whose work is the subject of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (the first big show since his death last year) revolutionised our idea of portraiture from within. Ostensibly traditional (he used oil paints, worked from live models, constructed recognisable…