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Freud's "Man with a thistle (Self Portrait)," 1946

By Charles Darwent

In 1917, Sigmund Freud listed the drei schwere Krãnkungen – the three moral wounds – inflicted on man’s view of himself. Copernicus had shown that he was a mere speck in the universe; Darwin, that he was an ape; and now Freud exposed him as a slave to the unconscious mind. After this last revelation, said the father of psychoanalysis, man would forever be a creature divided. One imagines him smiling thinly as he wrote.

It is hard not to sense that smile as you walk through the Royal Academy’s exhibition of self-portraits by Lucian Freud. If we can none of us escape our Freudian fate, how much less so Sigmund’s grandson. Self-portraiture seems like a definition of egotism, a fascination with self. And yet the works in this show – the first devoted to this aspect of Freud’s work – seem to prove his grandfather right.

Take Painter Working, Reflection, done in 1993, just after the younger Freud turned 70. ‘Honest’ does not cut it. The painter turns the same remorseless eye on himself as he does on mountainous benefits supervisors or tramps. He stands under the same brutal strip light as they, centre stage, lit by the same mortuary pallor. Oh, and he is naked, his elderly genitals at the crux of the composition, his feet in old, laceless shoes. Nothing could be more revealing, and nothing less: for Freud’s interest in not in himself, but his art. In his left hand he holds a palette, painted with precisely the same dabbed strokes he has used for his own flesh. Painter Working, Reflection is not about Freud or the pathos of old age, in other words, but about paint.

This revealing-to-conceal is true of pretty well every work in the RA’s show. Early on, in 1946, the 24-year-old Freud paints Man with a Thistle (Self-portrait). Seen as an outsider, he peers in through a window; between him and us is the thistle leaf, less real than emblematic. Noli me tangere, it says: touch me not. In 1954 comes the famous Hotel Bedroom – not just a portrait this time but a double portrait, of Freud and his second-wife-to-be, Caroline Blackwood. Or, rather, it is a double non-portrait, its maker doing everything in his power to keep us out of the picture. Blackwood stares into the middle distance, caught in a world of angst; Freud himself is silhouetted against the light, so we cannot see whether he is looking at her or us or neither; our eye is led through the window to another across the road, beyond which is an empty room. The more we look, the less we see.

There is only one moment when we feel we might discover something about Freud the man and that is in a small picture, 61 cm square, of c1956. Lent from a private collection, it seems, for an instant, to be less about paint than the painter. It is naturally, unfinished.