At the weekend, I went with a friend to the Lucien Freud hoopla in London. Squeezing between the fractious, shuffling crowd, we tried our best to actually look at the paintings. Ignoring the passive-aggressive glares and sniffs (thank you middle-class English reticence) I sidled into the respectful space that people left between themselves and the canvasses to place my face a nose breadth away from the paint.
I've seen some of his work in the flesh and almost all of it in reproduction, but was still startled by my visceral reaction to the canvasses and the complete turnabout of all I thought I loved. The fastidious smoothness and precision of paint in the very early works has always discomfited me and I've erred towards the later, larger, looser work. But I found myself drawn to a series of portraits that displayed such an acute drive to render the reality of a person in paint that my dislike of the hand-cramping, fine-brushed stippling was overcome by a frank wonder at his eye and technique.
With the large nudes, the inherent problem of chronologically curated exhibitions took hold. Coming one after the other, room after room, I became desensitized and - rather bored. With a few extraordinary exceptions, I realised that I actually disliked a number of the canvasses I've long admired in reproduction. Even now I find it hard to determine why. Partly a growing aversion to his palette and the obsessive dry stippling that he layered on over faces and contours, but more that his objective eye became colder and more relentless; more obsessed with paint yet less acute. What lingered most as I walked slowly through those rooms: what would that cold, clear, judgmental eye see hidden in me?
The work that caught me most off guard was tucked into the very corner of a wall. Stepping close to the unassuming little head and shoulders of a woman hunched into a fur coat, intrigued only because she resembled an old friend, I was stilled. The extraordinary amber capture of light at the base of her pupils is a little slice straight into who she is. If you ever have a chance to see it, get close and peer at her. The technical mastery and sheer power of looking revealed in those moments redeemed Freud's genius for me. I have that little postcard on my desk and although her eye light is dimmed and dull in reproduction, I take pleasure in knowing that it's there.
All that looking and shuffling made us suddenly starving and we practically sprinted through the crowds massed around the exit. Once we'd taken our comedy ride up and down in the lift to find ourselves always outside the same beautiful (expensive) restaurant overlooking the rooftops, then wound our way down endless flights of stairs finally to find our place in the basement cafe, we fell upon salads and frittata and beer and coffees with hungry happiness.
Watching clouds and crowds moving across the street level skylight above our heads, eating and talking and taking our time, worked to gradually soothe my ruffled inner self. Remembering that afternoon now, it's the time talking together and a handful of paintings that settle inside me as a firm memory. That, and a reminder always to look for the little unexpected sliver of light in the eye.