The Dawn of the ‘Blockbuster’ Exhibition

by Louisa Stark
Lucian Freud, Self-Portrait
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I had intended to review Lucian Freud’s retrospective, yet initially upon arriving at the National Portrait Gallery the sheer number of people attending was its most striking aspect.  Following in the footsteps of Leonardo Da Vinci at the national gallery,  David Hockney at the Royal Academy, Picasso at the Tate Britain and most recently Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern, this show takes its place among a series of heavily billed and hugely popular new events, which can only be described as ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions.  After abandoning the enormous queue in turbine hall for tickets to Damien Hirst, I found myself surrounded by yet more people as I clutched my pre-booked ticket for Lucian Freud and waited till the 4 o’clock wave was allowed to surge passed the control barriers.  Curating has become an exercise in crowd control.  Such public enthusiasm for art is undoubtedly a delightful sight, but I couldn’t help wondering whether this was just one more event to tick-off a list, rather than genuine interest in one of the greatest realist painters of the 20th Century…

The phenomenon of the ‘blockbuster’ exhibition has seen tickets fly off the self at astonishing speeds; some being so sought after that instead of paying a meagre £12 admission fee, you may find yourself contemplating bidding £200 over the internet.  Or even, waiting outside a gallery at an absurd hour hoping to grasp one of a handful of tickets released daily.  Despite the precautions of timed entry and a limited number of tickets, there are still enough crowds to make the experience an uncomfortable one; it seems impossible to enjoy and contemplate a piece of work whilst craning your neck to see past the spectator in front of you.  Although perhaps some people attend simply so they can say so, the feverish hype surrounding these exhibitions indicates a desire to see and be moved by real art, in an age dominated by digital media.
Once I had jostled my way to the front of the masses though, I could have been anywhere, so absorbing is Freud’s work.   
His portraiture delves deeper than a simple photographic likeness: with his extraordinary gift for understanding people, his painting reveals a layered sense of the character beneath the skilful exterior.  In each room his painting style was shown to evolve subtly, as he made the transition from early, exquisitely detailed sable brush work to the thick, encrusted hogs- hair brush paintings that have received so much acclaim today, such as ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ (which fetched £17.2 million in 2008).  Despite Freud’s unflinching scrutiny of his models, an undercurrent of affection runs deep throughout his work, as he captured not just the relationship between painter and subject, but also himself and the people who were closest to him.  Poignantly this retrospective was not planned to be posthumous, and the final, unfinished canvas found on his easel at the time of his death shows no sign of his skill waning.
So, simultaneously looking back over the end of an era and experiencing a new one, I can’t help but hope that the current craze for ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions will be short-lived, whilst the timeless work of such a great artist will continue to endure, untouched by any whim, throughout the rest of this century.
Lucian Freud, The Queen
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