A window on the art of reflection
Interior with Hand Mirror (Self-portrait), 1967
This wonderful little picture from the 1960s demonstrates how much Freud’s painting technique had developed in a little over a decade since Hotel Bedroom: from tightly controlled to fluid and richly brushy. It also presents two crucial tools for Freud: a window and a mirror. The first was important because – after his youth – all of his work was done indoors, in a studio.
There were various reasons for this. One was that he found the “changing light outside was a difficulty”. Another was that, always intent on privacy and averse to what he called “attention”, he hated being watched by strangers as he worked, as was liable to occur en plein air. The result was that for him – and for all artists who work from life – “the quality of light in the studio is of great importance”.
Freud was a connoisseur of light. As we talked one day in his Kensington studio, he exclaimed, “The light is very good here just at the moment, better than it was a few minutes ago!” I asked if he meant it was brighter. “Clearer,” he replied. When working on a picture during the day, Freud spent a lot of time standing by his studio window – that was where he took his position, for example, when I posed for an etching, Portrait Head, in 2004-05. “That’s a very good window,” he remarked to me of the high Georgian casement, “practically like working outside”. Another good thing about it, he mused, was “all the time I’ve spent working beside it”.
Doubtless he felt the same about the window in his studio at Gloucester Terrace, a street near Paddington. He must have spent countless hours next to it. This picture is, obviously, a portrait of that window, but also a self-portrait. Since artists cannot, of course, see themselves directly, all self-portraits have to be mediated. Since Freud did not use photography, that meant his self-portraits were all pictures of reflections in mirrors – such an important fact for him that he took to adding the word “reflection” to the title of self-portraits.
As he told Lawrence Gowing, “the information gathered from a mirror is a very different kind of information”. The reason was, he felt, because the light was different. So Interior with Hand Mirror (Self-portrait) is a depiction of these two kinds of light: one coming in from the street, the other reflected contre-jour. It is also a meditation, at once factual and poetic, on the difficulty of seeing oneself.