January 16th, 2023
Lucian Freud, The Painters Mother IV, 1973. © Tate © The Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Images. Courtesy of The Lightbox.
Somaya Critchlow, Untitled, 2022. © Somaya Critchlow. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy the artist; Maximillian William, London; and The Lightbox.
Somaya Critchlow is known for her stirring, sultry, smoky-hued paintings of partly fictional, often nude, female figures. In her recent solo show at London’s Maximillian William, a suite of small-scale paintings combined references ranging from Jean Genet’s 1947 play The Maids to Francisco de Goya’s “Disasters of War” print series (1810–20). Titled “Afternoon’s Darkness,” the exhibition was a stirring mix of cruelty and beauty.
Turning her hand to curation, Critchlow has mounted a presentation of works by Lucian Freud—an artist with whom she shares many sensibilities. In 2022, the year Freud would have turned 100, there have been a number of exhibitions across the U.K. dedicated to the British painter, many of which seem to shift focus away from his notorious, widely publicized sex life. For instance, London’s Garden Museum presented an exhibition of Freud’s plant paintings, while the Freud Museum—located in the former home of Sigmund Freud, the artist’s grandfather—showed intimate family portraits.
It’s rare to experience the vision of an older male master painter through the eyes of a young woman artist at the start of her career. Half an hour train ride from central London, The Lightbox in Woking—a small town made famous by H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel The War of the Worlds—is the stage for Critchlow’s take on Freud, informed by her personal and painterly responses; the exhibition is on view through March 19, 2023. She shares an expressionist sensibility with Freud, as well as an abiding interest in the human condition, referring to her own works as “psychological landscapes.”
Charting the evolution of Freud’s practice over the span of six decades, Critchlow draws out the strange and interrogative elements of the late artist’s oeuvre, including his contentious relationships with his subjects. Freud frequently depicted the people closest to him—including his daughters, lovers, peers, and friends—but his work is often thought to harshly expose his sitters. His storied sessions with his models were intense to the point of being brutal, with subjects made to pose for hours until they begged for breaks. Several of them have since written books about their experiences; many were unhappy with Freud’s painted results.
When we look at his paintings, we are excluded from the intimacy of his depicted relationships, yet the candor and frankness of his representations have a powerful hold. “His work is so psychologically charged, everyone notices it,” Critchlow said in an interview with Artsy. “He was so masterful and so real, but he allowed his own personal views and imagination in.”
Lucian Freud, Naked Girl with Egg, 1980/81. © Courtesy of British Council Collection. © The Lucian Freud Archive. All Rights Reserved 2022/Bridgeman Images. Courtesy of The Lightbox.
Perhaps the most powerful piece—and one of the only full-body portraits in The Lightbox exhibition—is Naked Girl with Egg (1980–81). The soft, pink fleshiness of the nude female figure is thrown into sharp relief against the dark bedsheets on which she lies. On a plate resting upon the table next to her is a sliced boiled egg, a detail that emanates an eerie quality while nodding to the Surrealists that inspired Freud’s earliest works.
The depicted naked woman is artist Celia Paul, Freud’s former student and eventual lover of more than a decade. At the time of the painting, she was in her twenties. The vulnerability of Paul, who has spoken of her discomfort during her sessions modeling for Freud, is equally captured in her pose as much as it is in the artist’s gestural brushwork. The intense psychic charge radiating out of the piece seems to represent the crux of Critchlow’s interest in Freud: How can feeling be translated into paint?
Elsewhere, the exhibition asks this question through a collection of photographs of Freud’s studio, many without the artist present. For Critchlow, these glimpses suggest “how wild things can get in the studio,” as she put it, adding: “They are such fascinating places, that trail of stuff of what the artist has been doing, and Freud really brought the environment into the studio.” The photographs also point to Freud’s technical prowess. “I look at how he’s applied paint to the surface, how he handles awkward bits, how he adds light and shade,” Critchlow said. “Meanwhile, the subconscious is hard at work.”
A painterly view of a painter, Critchlow’s curation of Freud’s oeuvre does not delve into the politics of desire or privacy, but pays homage to Freud’s mastery of the medium—his ability to, as critic Peter Conrad once wrote, “[turn] the body inside out and drag the mystery into the daylight.”