Lucian Freud, “Man with a Feather” (1943), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 50.8 cm (private collection, © the Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images, all images courtesy the Royal Academy of Art, London)

LONDON — Here is a tiny, partial résumé of the life of the painter Freud, Lucian: he never let up until death finally claimed him in 2011. In the studio daily, his painting represented a no-holds-barred attack from first to last. In the shadow of Francis Bacon for much of his life, his prices soared in his later years thanks to a New York dealer. His private life was un-pretty in the extreme: wronged lovers, umpteen children, reckless gambling. 

As a Jewish boy of 11, he had escaped with his family to England from Berlin in 1933. Who was this man to be? What would his self-portrait, were he to make one, look like? 

Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits at the Royal Academy, an exhibition of 56 paintings, a surprising number of which are mere unfinished fragments, tries to give an answer to that question. Yes, the fact is that he made many. He also destroyed as many as he chose to keep. The fact is that he never stopped trying to unlock the indelicate mystery of his own appearance. 

GDK869472 Startled Man: Self Portrait, 1948 (pencil on paper) by Freud, Lucian (1922-2011); 22.9×14.3 cm (Private Collection; © The Lucian Freud Archive)

From first to last there is the reek of unease about all this self-showing, a slow and guarded circling, a making and then a re-making in one image after another after another. 

Freud knew that as a displaced refugee, he would be something of a stranger to himself, lifelong, but quite how much or how little would he ever know — or ever wish to know — of himself? 

His look is full of a wary distrust and displeasure throughout. Is there a single hint at a smile anywhere here? In the presence of a child perhaps? No, there is not. The children come trailing after, looking quite as helpless and forlorn as Freud himself. 

Life is not about smiling. Life is not about self-pleasing. Or other-pleasing. It is about driving on and through and outwitting. He uses mirrors a great deal, magnifying distortion, so that he can seem hole-in-corner to himself, or loom large like a naked threat to his own peace of mind, or merely look marginalized or newly in from the cold. 

Lucian Freud, “Hotel Bedroom” (1954), oil on canvas, 91.5 x 61 cm (the Beaverbrook Foundation, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton; gift of the Beaverbrook Foundation; collection of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery; © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images)

So often in these portraits he is peeking out from behind, part concealed, part revealed — in a corner, or lost and naked among the carefully cultivated not-so-wilds of pot-plant-tamed vegetation, like a so-called primitive man about to burst with a shout of triumph or dismay from the forests of Amazonia into a London drawing room. 

There is not much pleasure in this work, we feel. He never delights in playing, say, Rembrandt games of masquerade. That would represent a kind of settled bourgeois frivolity to Freud, too organized and premeditated by half.

You could say that his painted self goes from smooth to rough. It begins in earnest with this little-more-than-a-boy posed as a rather elegantly dressed, clean-lined, and mystifying surrealist in a painting of 1943 called “Man with a Feather,” hedged about by oddly baffling symbols. He is large-eyed, jug-eared, smooth-faced, utterly impenetrable. In one hand he holds an upright feather. 

Lucian Freud, “Self-Portrait” (c.1956), oil on canvas, 61 x 61 cm( private collection; © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images)

Later on, as the worked surface of the painting gets rougher and more fleshy, his image gets tougher and more menacing altogether, as if he is relishing the edgy life of near criminality. The most magnificent painting of all ( “Painter Working, Reflection,” 1993), so harshly honest in its appraisal, shows him facing his naked self as a standing old man, full-length, unashamedly face-forward. 

Heroic? Anti-heroic? Mock-heroic? A little of all three perhaps. As he stands there, knees almost buckling, in over-large slippers, brandishing his two weapons of war — palette and brush — as if in a hopeless challenge to all comers (arms spread wide, vulnerable and helpless in the presence of truth’s stern and unremitting gaze), he could, we feel, easily topple forward, or collapse back into the dust from whence he came. He hangs on. He teeters. 

Lucian Freud, “Reflection (Self-Portrait)” (1985), oil on canvas, 55.9 x 55.3 cm (private collection, on loan to the Irish Museum of Modern Art; © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images)

He worked parts of this painting over and over, refusing, finally, to abandon it altogether, because, had he done so, it would have amounted, as he declared at the time, to abandoning himself. He knew how addicted he would become in later life to painting as a terrible exposure of human flesh. Far be it from Freud to deny himself, or the rest of us, the truth of his own magnificent decline into decrepitude. Nothing would enthrall him quite so much as the pocked and stippled human face.

When quite young, on the other hand, his work is crisp, sharp, graphic, and precise, with much detailing, as if he is treating a specimen in a laboratory. As he passes into his 30s and 40s, he is inclined to show less of himself – principally head and neck from the late 1950s to the middle 1960s. How tough it is for a woman to get entangled with this man is revealed in “Hotel Bedroom” (1954), where Freud stands above his wife at her bedside, the shady, shadowy onlooker. She looks thoroughly, pitifully discarded and hollow-eyed. 

Lucian Freud, “Self-Portrait, Reflection” (2002), oil on canvas, 66 x 50.8 cm (private collection; © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images)

As he ages, the symbols fall away. Francis Bacon encourages him to shift from a sable-hair to a hog’s hair brush, thereby enabling the paint strokes to thicken out. In “Man’s Head” (one of several versions) of 1963, the head looks a little like one of Bacon’s own, with facetings and twisty sideways distortions. 

In time, he becomes addicted to the self-scrutiny of pure rawness, a face embraced because it is so craggy, creased, and pitted, there to be mined for all the seams and fissures that can be found in any aging human. In a number of paintings, we see very little of him at all — a small reflection in a window, boots at the end of a trouser leg. He looks like the ghost haunting his own banquet. In “Flora with Blue Toenails” (2002), he is reduced to the shadow that falls across a white coverlet. How cheerless poor Flora looks! 

Seldom has a painter indulged in such relentlessly fierce, pitiless, lonely self-appraisal. And yet he could not stop himself. He had to plunge deep into the well of himself, no matter how dark the outcome.

Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits continues at the Royal Academy (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, England) through January 26, 2020.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...