Girl – Lucian Freud, which just opened at Ordovas, London (until 1st August 2015), is an enchanting commercial exhibition dedicated to Freud’s second wife, Caroline Blackwood. Despite having only 4 paintings and a handful of archival material in the whole display, each painting is captivating in its tenderness and poignancy – proving that less is truly more.
To cut a long, well-discussed story short: Blackwood met Freud in 1949, aged 18 and 27 respectively, and eloped with him to Paris in 1952 to live in the Hotel la Louisiane. There, he produced his most famous portrait of her - Girl in Bed, top - in addition to Girl Reading and Girl with Starfish Necklace. They married in 1953 and separated three years later. During that time, Freud painted the desperately sad Hotel Bedroom (1954), below; the obsessively detailed The Sisters (1954), which just showed Blackwood’s eye; and Girl by the Sea (1956).
Girl – Lucian Freud features the four paintings Girl in Bed, Girl Reading, Girl by the Sea and The Sisters. After seeing so many digital reproductions of Girl in Bed, it is fascinating to finally see this painting in the flesh. The way Freud painted each thin strand of hair, each eyelash, the ghost of a vein in her wrist, is captured with delicate and loving care. It is obvious that he loved looking at her and taking in her image.
What is more fascinating, however, is comparing the archival material and black-and-white photographs of Blackwood to her portraits. In real life, her hair is thicker and curlier, not as limp and thin as Freud portrayed. Likewise, her gaze is piercing, often severe – the photo of her lounging in bed with Freud, below, and later in the portrait by the famous Walker Evans on the beach, are clear evidence of this. Never once in these photographs does Blackwood have the peaceful vacantness that Freud paints on her face; similarly, there is no trace of the “extraordinary spirit and intelligence” Blackwood was famous for in Freud’s paintings.
Therefore, the most fascinating offering of this exhibition (whether the gallery intended this or not) is comparing how Freud changed Blackwood through art to fit his idea of her. In his paintings, she is calm and serene to the point of being expressionless; undoubtedly, he loved her but undoubtedly also, he did not see her as she actually was. Also worth noting that the majority of Freud’s paintings of his first wife, Kitty Garman, were also entitled Girl (with kitten/in a Dark Jacket/in a White Dress, etc.); the woman is placed on a pedestal as a muse and simultaneously stripped of her own identity.
How difficult it is to be a muse! To be the object of someone’s obsessive affections yet, at the same time, rendered so completely unlike yourself.
To conclude, it was unsurprising that Blackwood and Freud should split up: she left him in 1956 after growing tired of his reckless gambling and behaviour. Freud, reportedly, was so distraught that his friends thought he would take his own life. A year later, however, he fathered a son with his student Suzy Boyt from the Slade School of Art, and the rest is history. Blackwood went on to become a celebrated, Booker Prize-nominated writer with a history of alcoholism.