Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits at the Garden Museum, London, is a wonderfully illuminating exhibition that says much about how the artist saw his surroundings. If you want to know how Lucian Freud paints people, you should look at how he depicts plants.
A selection of rarely-seen childhood drawings of plants preface this one-room show which, looking forward, carry their infantile appearance well into works from his mid-twenties. In many ways, this retention of a strong, linear approach to draughtsmanship with minimal modelling heavily characterised the artist’s idiosyncratic early style in painting. One such portrait etching of Kitty Garman (first wife) and a rose in the foreground represents this rather well, as well as the equal importance of both types of ‘model’.
For Freud, plants served as alternatives to human models, and in quite a literal sense; he let them grow as they please in the studio, never wanting to impose of them, and this natural freedom gave his paintings character and enabled Freud to imbue them with emotional connotations. One of them has even taken pride of place in his favourite red upholstered chair on wheels, which he adamantly requested his sitters occupy during portrait sessions.
They were clearly personal to him, even choosing to start a mural of cyclamen in the dining room of a secluded 17th-century manor house he bought with his second wife Caroline Blackwood; the exhibition recreates an unfinished one he started in a private bathroom at Chatsworth upon invitation in 1959, leaving behind his paints and equipment too!
When depicting plants anywhere, he was adamant to portray them as they were, and as they were growing/decaying in time. From zimmerlande and banana trees to spikey gorse sprigs and an unkempt garden, these life models offered plentiful opportunities for Freud to develop his focus and attention to detail, which carries over to his impressive awareness of his environment in his larger portraits of people. Even the top-down view has parallels in his idiosyncratic choice of perspective.
This exhibition shows that plants were more than just props in a studio; they were its lifeblood, its ecosystem, and they had a huge impact on Freud’s perspective on life, observation, and the impact of urban development.
Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits runs until 5 March 2023 at the Garden Museum, London, https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/