secret light

top: Woman in a Beret, bottom: Woman in a Fur Coat

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. 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 sprinted through the crowds massed around the exit. Once we'd ridden 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. 


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Reader Comments (7)

Love, love, love this. A beautiful testimony to seeing art up close and in person.

Thank you for sharing this -- I will be looking for that glint. Always.
May 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnna
I have a feeling you probably do already Anna x
May 17, 2012 | Registered Commenterlittle house
My mum's an artist, and she's always told me that eyes (and hands) are usually the most difficult things to get right. I agree, there's something special about that slice of light in the eyes - something that's only discernible in person, rather than in reproduction. That's why everyone needs to see art in the flesh every once in a while.
May 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHila
I had to tell you: the word verification I just typed in to approve the above comment I made was 'sublime' - how wonderful is that?
May 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHila
Hila, what lovely serendipity! do you know, things like that make the day seem all together straighter and in order and just plain brighter. And eyes and hands - in paint and in person - can be so revealing. I'm envious of all the art you're going to eyeing in the flesh over these next months.
May 18, 2012 | Registered Commenterlittle house
I love the way you were able to move beyond the crowds in the museum and view the work the way you did. And it seems you visited with the right sort of friend. When I've experienced museums and galleries during quiet times I've dreamed of what it would be like to have the space to myself, just the art and me. But there are those few people who I wouldn't mind sharing the space.
Denise, she was the right sort of friend. Though I'm not always the best person to visit with as I find it hard to combine the social thing with the kind of looking I like to do. But an empty gallery! That's my kind of heaven.
May 18, 2012 | Registered Commenterlittle house

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