Girl with Beret
1951-52 by Lucian Freud
Manchester City Galleries; currently at National Portrait Gallery
Of course the wonderful thing about an artist retrospective is the immediate sense one achieves of a breadth of a life’s work. Moving from room to room is like moving through patterns of evolution — watching style, colour and subject evolve, each documented in frames on the wall. The earlier pictures are often the most intriguing, as we see artists’ initial explorations into their medium and indeed their way of reproducing the world. Freud is no exception; his earlier sitters are clothed, often only focusing on the head and shoulders, and lack the painterly strokes of flesh that make his later portraits so characteristic. This girl’s skin (just ‘girl’, Freud’s titles are consistently unspecific) is a polar opposite of the later work. Cold, smooth and greyish, it is clinical in both look and effect – drained of the physical flush of life, yet fuelled by the intensity of Freud’s portrayal. However, the power, the absorbing sense of someone, we get from Freud’s portraits is by no means lacking, led perhaps by the large almond eyes that really do seem to act as windows to the soul in their size. Glass-like and shining, they are focused so solidly they cement the sincerity of this girl’s fixed gaze. The clarity in painting, picking out eyelashes and eyebrows, is also frozen with the bluish grey hue that washes across this painting. It is a far cry from the overbearing canvases that confront with over-sized nudity in daubs and waves of yellows and browns.