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For Some Britons, Portrait of the Queen Is Not a Pretty Picture

December 22, 2001|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — By the measure of royal portraits, this one is a postage stamp. By the standard of royal postage stamps, this portrait of Queen Elizabeth II is highly unflattering.

Also uncompromising, unconventional and unlikely to be forgotten.

Lucian Freud's 6-by-9-inch portrait of the queen unveiled this week is being touted as "the most important of her reign" by critics who regard the artist as Britain's greatest living figurative painter.

But not even admirers are calling it beautiful. The close-up of the queen is either a brave, frank and forceful portrait of her highness, or it is the picture of a glum, grumpy and dowdy old woman. Clearly, it is not the sort of idealized, full-length portrait of the queen in flowing garments that Britons have been used to seeing.

"It's a Travesty Your Majesty," the Sun tabloid held on its front page Friday.

"What an audacious portrait!" the art critic for the left-of-center Guardian newspaper, Adrian Searle, enthused in a front-page review, calling it "probably the best royal portrait of any royal anywhere for at least 150 years."

The Times of London begged to differ.

"Is this the face that launched a billion stamps?" the lead story asked. "Has there ever been a portrait of the queen--of any queen--so unflattering as the one that Lucian Freud presented to Her Majesty yesterday?"

And presented as a gift, no less, from the artist to the Royal Collection. It will go on display in the new Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace in May, as part of her Golden Jubilee celebration.

"One thing is for certain," the Times article concluded. "Nobody will ever accuse Freud of sycophancy."

The queen is keeping her opinion of the artwork to herself, but if it was flattery she was after, she would not have sat for the 79-year-old grandson of Sigmund Freud. The artist is known for his fleshy nudes and brutally honest portraits in bold brush strokes. Among his subjects was a heavily pregnant Jerry Hall, the former constant companion of Mick Jagger, in the buff.

This subject is clothed and even crowned, but otherwise she is no different.

The head-and-shoulders portrait shows a serious-to-stern woman with tightly permed curls, age-heavy eyelids and a jowl darkened by either a reflection from her blue dress or a 5 o'clock shadow.

Searle, who loved the portrait, described the queen's tight-lipped expression as the " 'before' half of a before-and-after testimonial for constipation tablets."

So why does he like it?

"Portraiture is supposed to get beneath the skin; Freud has got beneath the powder. . . . Both sitter and painter have seen too much, are easily, stoically bored. They know the shape they're in. This is a painting of experience."

The xenophobic Sun tabloid blasted the "German-born Freud," without noting the queen's German roots. "The queen looks glum, dowdy and in bad shape for her age--which she is not," the paper said in an editorial.

Freud told the Daily Telegraph newspaper that his ambition had been "to make a big small painting," and the reviewer said he succeeded.

"It is a little picture but has great impact," Martin Gayford wrote. "The royal portrait is intimate, a picture of an individual rather than a head of state, in every way except one. The queen, exceptionally even among royal portraits of the past, is wearing a crown."

Freud included the diamond tiara, he told the Telegraph, because he "had always liked the way her head looks on stamps, wearing a crown," and because he "wanted to make some reference to the extraordinary position she holds, of being the monarch."

Gayford concluded that the picture is, "at first glance . . . stark, even raw-looking. At second and subsequent glances, however, it becomes more and more humane and full of individuality. It is an image of a certain, absolutely believable personality, and it radiates power."

There is also a pensiveness, even a sadness, in the queen's unblinking eyes--reflective, perhaps, of the difficult times in which she sat for the portrait. The sittings began in May 2000, but the portrait was completed only last week, well after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States that shook the world.

Robin Simon, editor of the British Art Journal, said he finds the portrait "utterly depressing," but not because it mirrors trying times.

"He has made her unnecessarily grim. It is a sort of settled, Hanoverian grumpiness that's been there for centuries," Simon said in a telephone interview. "They wait until Freud is 79 years old before getting a tiny picture out of him and wonder why it's gone wrong. It's partly age and partly the small scale. Massive brushwork on a postcard isn't going to work."

In other words, Freud failed to downsize.

Times art critic Richard Cork, by contrast, lauded Freud's unwillingness to comply with the "conventional, dull rules governing royal portraiture. Cliched paintings of the queen abound, and they rely on monumental proportions to impress the viewer."

This is the antithesis of the 1950s portrait of a beautiful young queen by Pietro Annigoni.

"We feel pressed uncomfortably close to her, and she reacts by lowering her gaze so that intimate, eye-to-eye contact is avoided. Like many of Freud's sitters, she appears to be looking inwards, lost in contemplation," Cork wrote. "Never before has she been seen with such undeviating frankness, by an artist unafraid to expose the human frailty beneath the bland royal mask."

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