Cruelty courses through Lucian Freud’s work. Think of the painter’s most famous images and you think of flesh rendered lumpily, grossly, aggressively; of sitters forced to lie in twisted shapes for hours to appease his need to stare and analyse; of fat rolls and zits, cellulite and pubes.
So the promise in this exhibition of his self-portraiture is that finally we’ll get to see that scientifically cruel eye turned inwards, to see him tear himself apart just like he did his sitters. But, obviously, that doesn’t really happen. He was an egomaniac. Of course he was.
He drew and painted himself throughout his life. He’s a sullen, morose man with a feather in a heavy-handed painting from his twenties; a handsome, intense, chisel-jawed bloke with antlers or a potted hyacinth a little later. They’re interesting paintings, but they’re not him at his best.
It’s in the 1950s that this all really tightens its grip. In ‘Hotel Bedroom’ he hovers in the shadows behind his forlorn wife, a brutally grim depiction of marital misery. His eyes and nose peer menacingly out of semi-finished white canvases nearby; in others his features melt and re-form like wax.
He makes the use of mirrors obvious later in the 1960s, his reflection warped and distended in a riot of allusions to art history and psychology.
But the real breathtaking stuff comes when you can barely see him at all. In one room of portraits of other people, you catch tiny glimpses of the artist everywhere you look. He’s in the mirror alongside a recumbent nude, reflected in the window behind his naked son, peering out of little canvases behind two Irishmen and – in the standout work in the show – looming terrifyingly as a shadow over a pained, beautiful young woman. It’s a violent, nasty, shocking and utterly brilliant painting. Freud is everywhere here, an eternal, infernal presence.
And then, in one final self-portrait, there he is: nude with boots, a sagging, grotesque old man, his flesh hanging like a cloak of rotting pork. The whole show has been building up to this, and what a climax – it’s Freud being as unforgiving with himself as he is with everyone else.
He once said ‘not everyone wants to be that honest about themselves’, and that’s the real cruelty of his work. It’s that in his brutal, unflinching honesty, he forces us to admit that he’s right, that we can’t be honest about ourselves. Freud painted a human truth that no one wants to confront, and that’s why his ugliness is so goddamn beautiful.