A major exhibition of the work of the celebrated British artist Lucian Freud, regarded by many as the most important figurative painter working today, opens to the public at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday 6 June 2007. Entitled simply Lucian Freud, the exhibition comprises some 50 paintings and 20 works on paper and etchings from the last 60 years, several completed just months prior to the exhibition and others being shown for the first time in a public venue. The exhibition is particularly strong in portraits of mature men, many connected to horse racing; in little-known, small-scale works; in a painting and nearly identical etching of the same person, and in that triumph of Freud’s art – nudes depicting “the body in the round”.

Best known for his portraits and nudes, Freud’s subjects include his family, friends, lovers and fellow artists. His early works date from the 1940s. Several drawings and paintings from this period show the artist experimenting with dream-like ideas and with people and plants in unusual juxtapositions. For example, in Interior Scene, 1948, painted during a stay in the Zetland Hotel in Cashel Bay, Connemara, he shows his female subject partly covered by a blackberry branch and a curtain. From the 1950s Freud began to paint portraits and the nude, using muted colours. The artist’s decision to reject a reliance on drawing, to paint with less control – standing instead of sitting – and to handle thicker paint more loosely, changed his work. The consequence, sustained for 40 years, has been a wholly original way of depicting people he gets to know intimately, ‘I didn’t want to get just a likeness like a mimic, but to portray them, like an actor.’

The works in this exhibition are organised around a number of themes. They begin with models ‘awake with closed eyes’, in a particular state special to painting from life. There is a concentration of paintings from the mid-1960s, like A Man, 1965. Self portraits are well represented, beginning with Self Portrait, 1940, and Man Wheeling Painting, 1942. In the latter the figure, apparently a labouring man, transporting a canvas in a wheelbarrow is, in fact, the artist. Also included are the extraordinary Self Portrait Reflection, Fragment, 1965, and a powerful self-portrait etching of 1996. The Painter’s Garden, 2005-06, and an etching After Constable’s Elm, 2003, connect closely to Freud’s lifetime interest in John Constable, renewed when he acted as a selector for an exhibition in Paris in 2003.

Portraits of the same person at different ages and of people who are related form another important group and include those of several daughters, Annie, Esther and Bella and ‘the Irishman’ and his two sons. These works epitomise Freud’s approach to his subjects: “I am quite tyrannical. The more I know them, I wouldn’t say it makes it easier, it makes it more potential, I have to refer less and less to things that happen to be there. I’m in a stronger position to choose what I want to use”. This intensity is manifest in the grand nudes that began in the 1980s. One masterpiece in the exhibition is Leigh under the Skylight, 1994, the last full-length study of the performance artist Leigh Bowery. There are also bold pictures from the last five years, like Irishwoman on a Bed, 2003 – 04.

The exhibition also presents several fragments, or early versions of better known works, allowing the viewer to peer still further into Freud’s working process. A number of remarkable photographs capture something of the atmosphere in Freud’s studio. In the accompanying catalogue, the curator of the exhibition, Catherine Lampert, describes Freud’s magnetic hold on people and his instinct to use this as a tool, while varying his ‘style’ with each work. Many years ago Freud described something akin to this in his assertion: “ The subject must be kept under closest observation: if this is done, day and night, the subject – he, she or it – will eventually reveal the all without which selection itself is not possible.”

In addition to the Cashel Bay painting and the recurring affinity to racing and animals, there are other Irish connections. In the 1940s and ‘50s, Freud made several working visits to Dublin, where he found the rawness of the city of that time stimulating. Dead Cock’s Head, 1951, for example, is the result of his fascination with the butchers’ displays of unwashed meat. By contrast one of his most recent portraits, The Donegal Man, 2006, a portrait of a leading Irish businessman, shows the face of a more modern, enterprising Ireland.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue with texts by Catherine Lampert, art critic and writer, Martin Gayford, and Freud’s son, Frank Paul. ISBN 978-1-903811-75-7