February 27, 2003
Freud’s Grandson Wields a Wild Brush
Famed portraitist's controversial works could make grandpa blush.
Decades after Sigmund Freud probed unconscious human drives in his case histories, his grandson, Lucian, appeared to do the same on canvas. The 110 works in his retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art reveal his subjects in unflinching, microscopic detail -- enough to make grandpa blush.
Human beings slump and sprawl like flayed meat, their bodies blotchy, skin sagging and genitals revealed. The hefty gay performance artist Leigh Bowery and his friend, "Big Sue," loll like biological mountains or rejects from a Rubens bacchanal. Other subjects recline, pores and chafe marks exposed, in uncomfortable positions on ramshackle furniture.
In "Painter Working, Reflection (1993)," Freud himself stands naked and sinewy, feebly wielding a palette knife. Even the queen of England looks bloated and dour in her 2001 portrait.
"Mustn't be indulgent to the subject matter," Freud, 80, has said. "I'm only interested in my sitters as animals."
Like a shrink, Freud -- who is routinely called the greatest living portraitist -- doesn't like to answer personal questions and rarely gives interviews. But his confidant and biographer, William Feaver, the exhibit's curator, cheerfully addressed Freud's pet peeve: comparisons to his famous grandfather. Speaking by telephone from London, Feaver suggested this is why the Jewish artist has never once visited London's (Sigmund) Freud Museum.
"He doesn't like that much interpretation placed on psychoanalysis in his work," Feaver said. "The parallel people are tempted to draw -- that the [sitters] are lying on couches, opening themselves up to the painter -- is just a very convenient coincidence."
"But Lucian doesn't see people that way," Feaver added. "He sees them as interesting heads and bodies. He is obsessed with painting real people in real space, rather than with any thought process, although he does look for people who have what you call character."
Whether or not Freud has absorbed the psychoanalytic tradition, he is regarded with the kind of raised eyebrows once elicited by his grandfather's theories. In his adopted home of England, where he has had two wives, umpteen mistresses and nine children, the German-born Jew is as famous as a movie star.
His retrospective earned accolades when it opened at London's Tate Britain on the occasion of his 80th birthday, but his less-than-flattering portrait of the queen (and the naked pictures he has painted of his daughters) continue to spark controversy. Last year, Tatler magazine named Freud the most eligible bachelor (after Prince Harry) and gossip columnists tittered over his affair with a 27-year-old journalist.
If he seems to consciously revel in the unconscious sexual appetites his grandfather explored, Feaver begs to differ. He said Freud didn't even meet the psychiatrist until he was 8, when the father of psychoanalysis began trekking to Berlin to undergo treatments for his jaw cancer.
When he visited young Lucian's apartment near the Tiergarten, which sported a maid, nanny and cook, "he was the grand old man with a little white beard who gave generous tips (cash)," Feaver said. "He seemed to Lucian very ancient but full of jokes."
Gifts from grandfather included Bruegel prints and a storybook of "The Arabian Nights" illustrated with Dulac watercolors. When Lucian visited the elder Freud's home, he fingered the small artifacts that made up the psychiatrist's beloved antiquities collection.
As he grew older, he didn't read much of grandpa's psychoanalytic work, although he adored Sigmund Freud's controversial "Moses and Monotheism," which suggested Moses was an Egyptian. "An outrageous book: His final kick at the Talmud," Freud has said.
"Like his grandfather, Lucian has this mischievous streak," Feaver said. "He likes expectations to be upset."
The Freuds were Jewish but nonpracticing, which didn't prevent the Nazis from closing the architectural practice of Ernst Freud, Lucian's father, in 1933. The budding painter witnessed "nasty remarks and bullying," although his description of the time tends to be blase.
Freud has recounted how, as one of two Jews at his school, he was "ineligible for Hitler Youth but was told he wasn't missing much, though the sausages were good," Feaver wrote in the exhibition catalogue. Freud's biographer believes this kind of breezy remark demonstrates "how Lucian has learned the British art of understatement, of making light of things, which actually connotes strong feeling."
Nevertheless, Freud "considers himself an emigre, not a victim," Feaver said. "And he's always been very, very keen on being a kind of anarchist and living by his own rules."
That predilection was evident when the Freuds relocated to England in the late summer of 1933, and the budding artist was expelled from two schools, one of them for dropping his trousers in public on a bet. On a tip from a girl in a coffee bar, he eventually enrolled in the East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting, where he learned that a portrait could be "revealing in a way that was almost improper," Feaver said.
After a traumatic stint as a seaman (his convoy was attacked by Germans), Freud was further disturbed by newsreels of concentration camps in 1945.
The New Statesman has suggested his painterly "mission has ... been to save, in all their ordinary power and imperfect, heartbreaking beauty, some of the millions of bodies lost and broken in the war." Feaver doesn't think so.
He points out that Freud's subjects are friends, lovers and acquaintances who sit for up to 150 hours in his shabby studio.
"People say, Lucian's [subjects] look exhausted and miserable because they are hunted, but they're not," he said. "They're sleepy and unsmiling because they've been posing for so long.
There are, of course, other reasons: In "Hotel Bedroom 1954," Freud's second wife, Caroline Blackwood, lies in bed like a jaundiced waif, as her brooding husband looms against closed shutters.
In "Interior in Paddington (1951)" a desiccated-looking man stands next to a wizened potted palm tree that could be his vegetable twin.
When Freud's mother attempted suicide after her husband's death in 1970, the artist began driving her to his studio to paint her, in part to keep his eye on her. (The painter previously avoided her because she was "the quintessential Freudian, obsessive mother," Feaver said.) The resulting series of portraits depicts the former grande dame as passive and deteriorating.
As to why Freud is preoccupied with sagging flesh, Feaver said, "Because it's more interesting. People go on and on about the stretch marks, but to Lucian's mind, bodies are what they are. One of his principals is that people shouldn't disguise themselves. And once we get past the acne stage, we all sag."
More than 60 years after the death of his famous grandfather, Freud continues to earn his own accolades by meticulously painting friends, lovers and acquaintances for up to 10 hours a day in his fifth-floor walk-up studio.
"He wants to paint himself to death," Feaver said. "He's always felt he's trying to beat the clock, and there's this urgency to keep at it."
For information about the exhibit, through May 25, call (213) 626-6222. For related programs, call (213) 621-1745.