Great Works: The Painter's Mother II, 1972 (229mm x 210mm), Lucian Freud

Private collection

We see from this painting by Lucian Freud of his mother, one of several currently on display in an expansive exhibition of his portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery in London, that for this artist the human face is fundamentally a landscape that increases in interest as it matures towards the magnificent, terrifying decrepitude of extreme old age, God's cruellest joke, a sight that seldom fails to induce spasms of pity and horror in just about equal measure. Yes, you could say, somewhat harshly it has to be admitted, that things do get better as they get worse – from a certain point of view. There is more to be looked at – and looked for. As a baby, there is not a lot to interest the painter, except perhaps for the strange and unpredictable physical manifestations of the fact that the tender babe is so unknowing of its human condition. The years of early maturity are sometimes the least interesting of all, when the features are often relatively bland and smooth, and there emerges that tiresome urge towards self-beautification, which tends to mask the interestingly complicated truths about our humanity (although it has to be said that self-beautification can itself be an interesting subject to the painter). Then come the truly absorbing years, when the face is moving inexorably in the direction of its inevitable decline, and the flesh begins to slacken, puff, blotch, contour, decay, collapse in on itself, often quite alarmingly, like a dynamited building,.

Yes, Freud – in common with so many other painters of mothers, which have included Van Gogh, Rembandt and Hockney – is alarmed, fascinated and invigorated by this face in front of him. Part of him – part of the human part – does not want it to have happened. Yet it has happened. This is the face that has been too much with him all his life. He is of it. In part, he is staring back at himself, what he was, is, and shall be. It is a palimpsest of a face that is so well known to him. All those earlier versions of this same face exist somewhere just beneath its surface. It is also a kind of monument, a testament, a grave summation of everything that has been. And yet it is no longer quite that face either. It has fallen away. It is also that face's terrifying caricature, reduced to a kind of cruel game of grotesquery.

And this painter's mother appears, for her part, to be just as alarmed by his intrusive presence scrutinising her so closely. Some part of her understands the truth about herself, we feel; of the fact that she has fallen away from then to become this, now. She too is shocked. Why such terrible impertinence, such nosey-parkerishness though? Perhaps this is not how she should be represented or how she would wish to represent herself were she given the choice. But she has no choice. This is a human face stripped bare of all flattery, all social pretension. It is in the raw, and it is pitiful, tragic. It is nothing more than what she was at this moment, perhaps freshly alerted to the fact that she is today's sitter, with her hair partially kempt and partially unruly, even a little statically electrified. There is alarm in the eyes, which seem partially fogged, partially dazzled by being obliged to attend to the fact that she is inhabiting the present moment. Her left eye swivels a little to the right. The right eye seems to be staring straight ahead, but that is only partially true. It seems partially unseeing too, as if inwardly absorbed or occluded, registering the pain, the discomfort of being looked at.

And yet how wonderful, how hectically dramatic, this landscape is! There are such contours here, such fissurings, such strange poolings and eruptions... Some of the brushstrokes are brutally coarse. The paint is driven into small hillocks and ridges. The flesh looks so thickly piled – like rucked bedding.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Lucian Freud (1922-2011) painted portraits throughout his fairly long life. The people he painted were almost always familiar to him. He seldom took on a commission – and he always painted from life, painstakingly, in one or another of his paint-bespattered, rag-strewn studios.

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