Body Over Mind: Lucian Freud and Yayoi Kusama

The National Portrait Gallery’s current retrospective of Lucian Freud demonstrates exactly what we have now all lost following the artist’s death in 2011.  The show, which curators

The National Portrait Gallery’s current retrospective of Lucian Freud demonstrates exactly what we have now all lost following the artist’s death in 2011.  The show, which curators worked with Freud himself, is no flamboyant display of curatorial innovation.  Instead, a large number of works, mainly paintings, are hung in a chronological pattern throughout a series of white walled rooms. 

That Freud has the ability to mesmerise even within a fairly mundane setting – overall the rooms themselves lack atmosphere and the acoustics seem all wrong, heightening the annoyance of other viewers’ monologues – is testament to the wonder of Freud’s work.  Either the crowd, which in the first few rooms seemed thicker and more impenetrable than those at the National Gallery’s sell-out Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition, really did disintegrate with each further room walked into, or the beauty of the artworks sent one into such a meditative trance that other gallery go-ers could no longer be seen or felt.  

Having this show at the National Portrait Gallery is, to a degree, oxymoronic.  For whilst all these works are portraiture – many depicting characters from Freud’s own life – the show is essentially about the artist himself.  In this respect, Freud has really superseded the National Portrait Gallery’s raison d’etre, which is to assert the importance of the sitter and their celebrity over the artist.  Thus until the show closes on 27th May 2012, the death of the artist will not be occurring in Trafalgar Square.  This is an unflinching celebration of one man’s genius.  

Taking a walk through the trajectory of Freud’s career gives the opportunity to detect shifts and patterns in his output.  The densely painted nudes that Freud is most famous for start to appear around 1960, with works such as Pregnant Girl (1960-1) and with the change comes the introduction of a new range of fleshly colours which breathe life into the flatter blue-tinged early works such as Girl in a Dark Jacket (1947) and Girl with Roses (1947-8) which have a German Expressionism quality to them.  

The ice blues which resided in his early works always remain, be it in the shirt of Bella (1986) or in the hollows of The Painter’s Mother II (1972), but what takes over the viewer’s mind is the incredible warmth and tenderness of the naked flesh.  Stripped of their armour of clothes, it becomes inconceivable to think of harming one of these fragile and fluid beings.  And here we get to the essence of Freud’s work and his importance.  Freud reveals the softness of the human body.  He takes away the analytical and, simultaneously, any fears regarding nakedness and provides an overwhelmingly relaxing revelation: we are all flesh and blood.  

Contrast this with the works on show at another major exhibition, Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern.  Many of Kusama’s artworks – either paintings or installations – reveal a great fear of the body and the natural world.  Bacteria, multiplying sperm shapes; countless phalluses sprouting everywhere, including from shoes and so many eyes keeping fascist watch over the viewer.  Overwhelmingly these works vividly show what happens when the mind takes over the body to an unhealthy extent.  They represent what occurs when we forget we are flesh, become scared of sex and cannot find the breadcrumb path out of the polka dot forest.  The persistent child-like aspect of Kusama’s work becomes very sorrowful.  Auden comes to mind: ‘Lost in a haunted wood/Children afraid of the night/Who have never been happy or good’.  

Anti-war artist is admittedly not the first label one would think to assign to Freud.  Yet staring at his nudes it becomes unfathomable how anyone could think to tear these soft animals apart with blades and shrapnel.  Kusama may go to the trouble of naming one of her works Remember Thou must Die (1975), but really we do not remember because the degree to which the mind and body is separated means we are already walking in the ethereal plane of the dead when looking at her works.  

One can only hope that depictions of the human being in all its fleshy wholeness, no different to the animals they are curled up with, do not stop with Freud or his death will signal the beginning of an immeasurable loss to the world.  

Lucian Freud Portraits – National Portrait Gallery, until 27th May 2012

Yayoi Kusama – Tate Modern, until 5th June 2012