The Garden Museum in London, UK until 05 March 2023 presents the first exhibition to delve into Lucian Freud’s paintings of plants and gardens. The undisputed master of the modern nude, Lucian Freud was also a prolific painter of plants. This exhibition will show how integral plants were to Freud’s work, exploring his ability to capture their elusive essence in original ways while giving them the same life as his human subjects.
Bringing together a selection of rarely or never-before-seen paintings and etchings of potted plants and gardens, as well as drawings from his childhood, Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth (8 December 1922). The exhibition also explores why, and when, he chose to paint plants and not people.
Freud was not a gardener but had a close and respectful relationship with plants, from rarely-seen drawings from his childhood in Berlin to his garden in Notting Hill, and the straggly potted plants that followed him from home to home throughout his life that captured his imagination. This propensity to find beauty and truth in the seemingly unremarkable, the overlooked, and the imperfect led him, under the guidance of his mentor Cedric Morris, to develop a remarkably honest approach to the painting of plants—the foundation of what would become his distinctively raw take on the naked body.
Many of the potted and garden plants Freud painted are akin to wise old friends who have seen it all but know better than to speak. Zimmerlinde, one of the plants he painted many times throughout his career, was an unofficial Freud family emblem. Originally grown in Vienna by the artist’s famous grandfather, Sigmund, cuttings of the plant were passed on to family members as a living keepsake.
Freud also relished the unwieldy buddleia that smothered his Notting Hill garden, as seen in Wasteground with Houses, Paddington (1970-72)—a rebuke to the strict rules and restrictions of both the geometric rigor of Italian Renaissance gardening and the decorum of classical art. In the artist’s work, yellowed leaves, blemishes, and tears are celebrated, distinctive traits demarcating the true identity of individual plants: unique portraits capturing a history of shared growth entwining artist and plant in ways that words can never quite adequately describe. Freud’s plants often connected his life history to the people he loved, embodied personal childhood memories, and helped him negotiate his identity and familial heritage.
Curated by art historian and author Lucian Freud Herbarium, Giovanni Aloi, ‘Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits’ emphasizes the importance of the domestic space as an opportunity to rethink our relationships with plants and the roles they play in our everyday lives. Never reduced to passive aesthetic objects, in Freud’s work, plants can teach us to fine-tune our attention, observation, and connection to the world around us. Throughout the history of Western art, plants were relegated to the background—lush fillers or theatrical sceneries – and they very rarely, if ever, took center stage. Today it appears clear that this visual marginalization of the natural world was the symptom of a broader cultural malaise —a growing alienation from the natural world that is in part responsible for today’s environmental degradation. It is in this context that reconsidering man’s relationship with the vegetal world is more important than ever.
This exhibition is therefore a timely invitation to re-learn how to look at plants beyond the traditional lenses of the symbolic reductionism of religious painting and the objectifying gaze of science. Between these opposing approaches there lies a valuable opportunity to explore a more personal and intimate relationship that can only unfold in enclosed places like gardens or in the privacy of our homes: a closeness that defines one’s life, memories, and the passing of time.