Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lucian Freud at the Centre Georges Pompidou

TLS June 11 2010

from Mark Hutchinson's review of "Lucian Freud: L'Atelier" at the Centre Georges Pompidou:

Where, then, does the heart of Lucian Freud's originality lie? Over and above his unquestionable technical virtuosity, there are two areas of his work in which Freud can be said to have opened up new ground. One is the series of portraits he made of his mother, who posed for him in his studio more than a thousand times between 1972 and her death in 1989 . . . not only are they among his most powerful paintings but, as Jean Clair, the man who first championed his work in France, observed some years ago, the theme of the son watching over the dying mother is a visual counterpart (and an unusual one) to one of the most haunting images in Western art, that of the mater dolorosa.

The second area, of course, is his nudes, in which the model's genitals are, often as not, positioned at or near the centre of the composition; and, by extension, at the very heart of the act of creation. So familiar have these "naked portraits", as he prefers to call them, become that it is easy to forget how fearless this self-styled "biologist" has been in his demythologizing of the nude. To remind yourself ot his, you have only to stand before one of his more insistent male portraits, sprawling with his legs apart like the Barberini faun, but without the civilizing reference to Antiquity--"Nude with Leg Up (Leigh Bowery)", say. Try as you might, you do not know where to look, particularly when the model is male. . . .

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Freud's rendering of flesh is almost a byword for clinical detachment; this, it seems to be saying, is what the human body comes down to when scrutinized under a 200-watt bulb and stripped of its airs and graces. A portrait, however, will often tell us as much about its maker as it does about the model, and for all the talk we hear of the complicity and intimacy involved in posing for Freud, it is the painter, I suspect, who is the real object of his excoriating gaze; ultimately, the impression you get from so many of his nudes is of a man bent on mortifying his own fascination with, and dependency on, the flesh.

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The most arresting image of all, however, is the full-length "Painter Working, Reflection" (1993), a portrait of the artist naked at seventy, one hand brandishing a palette-knife, the other with the thumb hooked like a second phallus (a conceit Freud uses more than once in his male nudes) around his palette. It is an extraordinary image, a mixture of melancholy, gravitas and clownish pathos in which the artist stands before us, half-doubting, half-defiant, his heavy legs bruised with blood, and with nothing to support him but the unlaced boots he might almost have borrowed from Van Gogh.

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As for the monumental portrait of Leigh Bowery, what can one say about this eight-foot-tall figure standing with his ankles crossed like a ballerina, who seems to have stepped straight out of Greek mythology, part man, part bull, except to note that, whatever it is Freud has been looking for all these years in the human flesh, he has clearly found it. Candid, factual, admiring and unembarrassed, for once it is openly and unreservedly an act of re-enchantment, and one that makes our conventional categorization of human sexuality look hopelessly threadbare. "I found him perfectly beautiful", says Freud with disarming simplicity.

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