Lucian Freud: Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London

No-one could ever have accused Lucian Freud of being a sentimental painter.

The eye he cast on his subjects was cold to the point of cruel. No-one escaped his scrutiny, not even Queen Elizabeth II, whose portrait, sadly, is not included in this massive retrospective.

Freud, who died last year aged 88, acted as a consultant on the show, which surely helped secure his work from public and private collections: there are 130 portraits in all.

Not all are masterpieces. Some of the most disappointing are those Freud must have done on commission, such as that of the suited figures in Two Irishmen in W11, or the uniformed Andrew Parker-Bowles in The Brigadier. The artist’s heart was hardly in either.

Freud’s portraits of his daughters, mother and first wife Kitty Garman reveal a certain tenderness. The paintings hardly flatter their subjects, but he acknowledges their humanity. By the end, he could paint his studio assistant, David Dawson, and his whippet, Eli, with a degree of disengagement that barely distinguished between man and beast.

The most stirring portraits in this show are those of the Benefits Supervisor, ‘Fat Sue’ Tilley, who must be admired for her forbearance in letting Freud depict the great folds of her flesh as she lay naked on his sofa or the floor; and the performance artist Leigh Bowery, whose bulk and lack of inhibition seem to have inspired the artist to new heights of virtuosity.

Marc O’Sullivan

Until May 27

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