The “unflinching eye” of Britain’s modern master

A powerful self-portrait by Lucian Freud, on loan from the UBS Art Collection, features in a new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts that explores the artist’s forensic gaze

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The “unflinching eye” of Britain’s modern master
Lucian Freud, 'Self-Portrait' (1974) watercolour on paper 34.8 x 25.2 cm. © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images. UBS Art Collection.

When asked if he was a good model for himself, Lucian Freud responded: “No, I don’t accept the information that I get when I look at myself, that’s where the trouble starts.” It is precisely that “trouble”, however, that makes the artist’s self-portraits so compelling: each portrait portrays a different perspective on the artist, as he confronts his own mortality.

Freud’s extraordinary self-portraits are celebrated in a new exhibition at London’s Royal Academy: 'Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits' features more than fifty paintings, prints and drawings that see the “modern master of British art turn his unflinching eye firmly on himself.” Among them is 'Self-Portrait' (1974), a powerful graphite and watercolor study, on loan from the UBS Art Collection, which sees Freud portray himself in complex layers of color.

First begun in 1939, Freud’s self-portraits are also markers for his artistic development. Few artists of the 20th century have turned to themselves as subject with such regularity, and each work reflects the fascinating evolution of his practice – from the graphic works of his early career, to the fleshy impasto that characterized his later output. Together, they span seven decades, with the last painted in 2003 – less than a decade before his death aged eighty-eight.

“The UBS Art Collection, now in its sixth decade of active collecting, has many treasures and notable pockets of depth, including fifty-four works by the acclaimed artist Lucian Freud,” comments Mary Rozell, Global Head of the UBS Art Collection. Rozell praises the “layered dimensions” of Freud’s subject matter; his are works that “command our close attention and thought,” asking viewers to adopt the artist’s meticulous lens.

The complexity of Freud’s self-portraits is a reflection of his process: though his medium shifted during his career, he maintained a forensic approach, insisting “the longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.” In 2007, Freud began a portrait that took sixteen months to complete – requiring his sitter, the art handler Ria Kirby, to lie motionless in his studio seven nights a week. In the 1970s, he spent four-thousand hours on a series of paintings depicting his mother.

Freud’s works capture flesh, wrinkles, hair and veins. In the faces of those he paints, there is youthful ambition and energy, middle-aged contemplation, and the vulnerability of old age. Though he was notoriously elusive – except to sitters, who fondly recall his anecdotes and impersonations – Freud’s portraits offer a glimpse into the mind of one of Britain’s great artists, whose staggering body of work had a shaping impact on the development of 20th century British art.

Lucian Freud, 'Self-Portrait' (1974) watercolour on paper 34.8 x 25.2 cm © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images. UBS Art Collection. This work has featured in several exhibitions including 'Lucian Freud: Closer, Etchings from the UBS Art Collection', presented at Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin in 2017 with an accompanying catalogue published by Hatje Cantz, and 'Lucian Freud: A Closer Look', at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark in 2015.

October 2019