Author: Livingstone, Marco
Date published: July 1, 2010
The artist in his studio A thematic display shines a light on important strands in Lucian Freud's work, writes Marco Livingstone Lucian Freud: L'Atelier 10 March-19 July 2010 Centre Pompidou, Paris Catalogue by Cécile Debray (ed.) English edition: ISBN 9783777426815 (hardback), £44 (Hirmer Verlag). Italian edition: ISBN 9782844264398 (hardback), euro44.90 (Editions du Centre Pompidou)
Such is the esteem in which the work of the 87-year-old Lucian Freud is now held, and the seven-figure prices routinely commanded by his paintings, that it would be a tall order even for an institution as important as the Centre Pompidou to be assured of sufficient loans across the board to present an even-handed retrospective. The solution of curator Cécile Debray was thus to focus on 'the studio' as the unifying factor for a thematic rather than chronological presentation divided into four sections, with a coda consisting of a new 10-minute film by Tim Meara, a 30-minute film by David Dawson and eight of Dawson's large-format colour photographs of Freud in his studio. It proves a clever curatorial strategy and one that helpfully focuses attention, for a French public only partly acquainted with Freud's art, on important strands in the artist's work.
With nine etchings and around 50 paintings (more than half of them made during the past two decades), what the exhibition cannot do, however, is demonstrate the artist's extraordinary and dogged evolution of his scrupulously attentive observational art from his teenage years through to his commanding maturity. One of the most inspiring aspects of Freud's art is the dedication with which he has constantly challenged himself to create ever more ambitious pictorial equivalents for the intensity of his looking. The characterful clumsiness and naivety of his youthful work, and the miniaturist's precision of the small-scale portraits and figure paintings that followed in the early 1950s, are not part of this exhibition's story. Showing the work as if it had arrived fully formed, leaving out of this account the struggle involved in finding a voice, and then placing works from different decades side by side, the display gives the impression that all the pictures have emerged from a single and unchanging mentality; or, more misleadingly still, that the artist has conceived his pictures in tidy compartments (interior/exterior, selfportraits, art about art and grand formats) rather than as a complex interweaving of inspiration from art and life alike.
As a preamble to the exhibition proper, the visitor is confronted with The Painter's Room (1944), the only work here predating the 1960s. To argue as they do that this self-consciously surrealist invention announces the subject matter of the artist's maturity is rather disingenuous, or at least misguided. The human figures that were to become Freud's most urgent subject are here conspicuously absent, and the potted plant, furniture and animal's head are but distant relations of those routinely featured in his art decades later. This painting is an evocation of a dream state, a eulogy to the imagination. Freud's characteristic work, the subject of the exhibition proper, by contrast insists on the here and now - the process of looking, almost shutting out the imagination, but replacing it with a visually, psychologically and materially acute rendering of experience.
There are undoubtedly many gems in the exhibition, and there are welcome opportunities to study side by side pictures that would not normally be shown together. Such is the case in the opening 'Interior/Exterior' section of the show, where Two Irishmen in W11 (1984-85), hangs next to Large Interior, Notting Hill (1998; Fig. 3). Grateful though I am to compare these large, weighty, impressive pictures, I can't help but be distracted by the uncomfortable sense of a curatorial attempt to impose a conceptual logic on pictures that emerged in response to very different circumstances. What moves me is precisely the opposite: how the conditions that prompted the creation of each painting - the look and character of a particular human being at a specific moment, conveying a marked mood and atmosphere - have imposed themselves on the artist. Fortunately the paintings and etchings constantly remind us of this. Freud's coaxing of a powerful physical experience out of the most prosaic and unpromising circumstances is eloquently conveyed, for instance, by a small canvas, Two Japanese Wrestlers by a Sink (1983-87; Fig. 2). A hallucinatory attention to matter-of-fact, literal detail (the play of light on the brass taps) is brilliantly juxtaposed with paint as metaphor, nowhere more tellingly than in the broken brushwork in whites and greys to convey the sensation of water pouring in fitful jets.
The selection of nine paintings and one etching that constitutes the gallery of selfportraits, and that includes one of the earliest works, Reflection with Two Children (SelfPortrait) (1965; Fig. 1), features one exception to the theme: Naked Portrait (1972-73). It depicts a sprawled female nude resting uneasily on a brass bed, viewed as so often from a high vantage point that speaks of the artist's authority; the artist's presence is insinuated with ingenuity and painterly brio in the form of a paint-smeared upholstered stool, covered in brushes and other implements, that sits in the immediate foreground and acts as the object not only of the model's gaze but of our rapt attention as well.
In 'Reprises/On Painting', a small selection of paintings and etchings demonstrates a tangential aspect of Freud's work - pictures directly and sometimes eccentrically indebted to art historical precedents including Constable, Chardin and Cézanne (Fig. 5). Revealingly, the most persuasive pictures here are those that insist least on their relationship to the past and that direct the viewer's attention, like that of the artist, to a naked individual standing before him. This is as true of the three beautiful fragments of a large 2001 etching of a young female model as of a larger-than-life painting, Two Men in the Studio (1987-89), in which a stocky man stands drowsily and incongruously on a bed cover concealing his sleeping male companion.
The final gallery, 'On Flesh', is devoted to 10 large recent canvases, including three each of the performance artist Leigh Bowery (Fig. 4) and Sue Tilley, the 'Benefits Supervisor'. These are unquestionably grand and (in every sense of the word) weighty pictures. In their revelling in the body and in paint as skin and meat, they present an exhilarating culmination of a lifetime's work. Echoing and competing with the work of earlier masters, but simultaneously sweeping away art history through the sheer physical presence and unbridled sexuality of his naked models, Freud's pictures break free of the curatorial constraints imposed upon them and instead impose on the viewer their own unfettered reality.
Marco Livingstone's book on Peter Kinley, co-authored with Catherine Kinley, was published in May by Lund Humphries.