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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star