Halfway through the first-ever exhibition devoted to Lucian Freud’s self-portraits is a tiny canvas of the artist with a black eye. After getting into a scrape with a London cab driver, Freud hurried to his studio to document the effects of the blow. The result is a tightly cropped image of his face with a swollen eyelid, plummy bruising and a slither of light glinting on the bridge of his nose.
The dissection of a wound captures the spirit of this exhibition at London’s Royal Academy, which opens with a series of razor-sharp drawings and paintings. In Man with a Feather (Self-portrait) (1943), Freud appears young and awkward, with straight eyebrows, sticky-out ears, a velvet blazer and a skew-whiff tie. Startled Man: Self-portrait (1948) captures the artist wide-eyed and open-mouthed, on the brink of toppling into an abyss. No detail is left undrawn, down to a stray curl of hair.
At times, he shows us a narrative thread. In Hotel Bedroom (1954) the air is thick with estrangement: Freud lurks, hands shoved into his pockets, by the open window of a Parisian hotel while his second wife huddles for warmth in bed, her fingertips pressed to her cheek. (The marriage lasted four years.) As his style becomes more meaty and abstract, the context begins to blur. In a series of three self-portraits he created with thick impasto around his fortieth birthday, flesh is the main focus.
Throughout his career, Freud would leave mirrors lying around his studio in the hope of taking himself by surprise and seeing something new. For Reflection with Two Children (Self-portrait) (1965) he placed a mirror on the floor, creating an extreme foreshortening of his body. He towers over his two children – who perch on the edge of the canvas – and over the viewer, who assumes the role of model, perhaps laid out below on a bed.
The penultimate room in the exhibition is hung with paintings where Freud appears incidentally alongside his sitters – in the form of a shadow hovering above a naked woman, for instance, or an incomplete self-portrait leaning against a wall. The artwork we end with, however, is all about him. Painter Working, Reflection (1993) depicts the ageing artist in nothing but a pair of unlaced boots, which he wore to avoid picking up splinters from the wooden floorboards of his studio. ‘I’m not very introspective but I was very shy,’ Freud once said, ‘so I tried to overcome it by being an exhibitionist.’ Brandishing a paint-encrusted palette in one hand and a palette knife in the other, there’s something defiant about the pose. Freud is an artist who delights in confronting human flaws – both other people’s and his own.
'Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits' is at London’s Royal Academy until 26 January 2020.