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Is Lucian Freud Hot?

His paintings ask: Is this all there is?

by Tom Teicholz

February 27, 2003 | 7:00 pm

British painter Lucian Freud is considered Britain's greatest living painter, one of the towering figures of realist portraiture. The largest retrospective of Freud's work has now come to Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), the only U.S. venue for this exhibit.

Organized in 2002 for the Tate Britain in London, this show gathers Freud's work over six decades -- paintings, watercolors, drawings, as well as new works for this exhibition -- a powerful testament to one painter's life's work. It is a demanding and challenging show. As I walked through the exhibit last week, I wondered, why L.A.? Why now?

The official reason is not particularly satisfying: "Freud's work has never really been shown in L.A.," said Rebecca Morse, the MOCA curatorial assistant who was kind enough to accompany me through the exhibit. Morse, who is thoughtful and articulate, feels that the exhibit itself makes a powerful case for Freud's artistry -- his unsentimental look at the human body, the aging process, his choice of models, his compositions, even his changing use of paint across the years are distinctive elements in his art. True enough.

Freud's work, however, seems particularly compelling and relevant to our lives and to this moment in time. If you are not familiar with Freud's work, be forewarned: Most of the portraits in the exhibit are not pretty -- some could even be considered ugly.

These are not Degas' pretty dancers, or Manet's nude "Olympia" or Ingres' "Odalisque." Freud's paintings are about the body as animal. Young or old, clothed or nude, awake or in repose, emaciated or obese, the portraits are filled with defeat and desire, humans alive yet in a process of decay. The paintings of human shells saddled by their own corpulence are particularly striking -- you stare, thinking as Shakespeare put it: "O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt."

Perhaps it is this display that makes Freud's work the perfect counterpoint to Los Angeles, a fleshpot so notorious that it dares to ask, as the philosopher Lorenzo Lamas put it so winningly the other night on TV: "Are you hot?"

Post Sept. 11, we may also be more receptive to the art of the ugly. Freud's paintings offer a level of truth that resonates at a time when the culture is searching for the authentic, whether in Eminem's raps or in Nia Vardolos' "Big Fat Greek Wedding."

Freud has described his paintings to the critic William Feaver (the show's curator and Freud's biographer) as "factual not literal." They are meant to be as much of our time as Picasso's "ugly" painting, "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon." Finally, in the wake of the trauma of terrorism and the gathering clouds of war, there is some comfort in the pictorial and the portrait, as opposed to the abstract or conceptual.

The Freud exhibit also reveals another question critical to the drama of our lives in L.A.: the tension between the surface existence and a life deeply observed. Freud's paintings dare us to ask: Is this all there is? Are Freud's paintings just compositions -- arrangements of planes, colors, forms on a canvas, a true depiction of the people in his life and who cross over into his studio -- or is there another dimension at work here. Is Freud's work -- dare I say it -- Freudian?

Not that this is an original thought: Freud has repeatedly denied any connection to his famous grandfather Sigmund Freud's work. He didn't really read the work, if at all, until late in his life. If Sigmund Freud's work is about the world of the mind, then the case can be made that Lucian Freud's is all about the body. Yet the connections are unavoidable.

"It's there for anyone to see," Thomas M. Brod of the L.A. Psychoanalytic Society and Institute told me recently. "Whether he disavows it or not. It's obvious and it's deep."

When Dr. Brod, who saw the Freud exhibit in London, heard it was coming to Los Angeles, he immediately called MOCA to organize two panels: one for analysts called "An Introduction to the Paintings of Lucian Freud," at the L.A. Psychoanalytic Auditorium; the other, "Lucian Freud: Psychoanalytic Look," at MOCA, at which various analysts will share their insights into Freud's life and work.

Dr. Brod pointed out that there are many details of Lucian Freud's life and his work to interest an analyst. For example, Sigmund Freud was his mother's favorite and was doted on by her. So, too, Lucian Freud. Lucian Freud was always regarded as special in his family -- as an artist. Lucian Freud, commented Dr. Brod, "is a genius, whether he likes it or not."

In my conversation with Dr. Brod, I also noted that I was struck by the fact Freud is frequently referred to as "self-taught." In Feaver's biographical catalogue essay, Freud comments about his struggle to overcome his limitations and teach himself the necessary technique to paint his portraits.

As for Sigmund Freud, in matters of analysis, he, too, was self-taught (and self-analyzed), forced to come up with the technique to craft his "portraits" of his patients. At one level, both grandfather and grandson searched to render a great truth from their subjects.

For me, the connection appears even more evident: The edges of the painter's canvas are the same as the four walls of the analyst's room. Both concentrate on figures seated or reclining.

What occurs in the room, like what occurs on the canvas, is "the stuff" -- the process that yields the work. Analysis is a conversation, painting, too, between subject and painter -- and the results of what occurs in the room are destined for the outside world. The dynamic is remarkably similar. A Freud is a Freud.

Dr. Brad Collins has written extensively about psychoanalysis and art, particularly in the works of Leonardo, Gauguin and Degas. Sigmund Freud, Dr. Collins commented, wasn't able to discuss what makes an art work beautiful. But psychoanalysis can address content and the choices an artist makes in his work.

An analyst may choose to go where art historians fear to tread. As an example, Dr. Collins suggested that an analyst might see Freud's fleshy figures as enveloping the spectator, much in the same way an infant views his parents. However, Freud rejects all these analyses, explaining that his paintings are organized as formal compositions.

When I recently visited the exhibit, Morse pointed to one painting in which a pair of legs appears under a bed. Freud has explained that he just decided that worked best for that composition. But that is hard to believe: We all know that sometimes there are more than two people in a bed, and that who's under the bed is as important as who's in the bed.

The Freud exhibit gathers together 110 oil canvases arranged in chronological order. It is their cumulative effect that makes the exhibit's psychological dimension so overwhelming. It is hard not to be struck by the shadow of depression hovering over the work.

Although there are moments of iridescent brightness within the works, the overall palette seems gray. You can blame the London light or the weather, but it seems to go beyond that. And of course, if we are discussing Freud, Sigmund or Lucian, we need to talk about the mother.

In 1972, Freud began painting his mother. His father had died in 1970, and his mother had become severely depressed.

Feaver notes that Freud brought her to his studio to keep an eye on her and continued to do so four or five days a week, until the mid-1980s. Immobilized by her depression, she began to sit for Freud.

Here's what Freud says: "She barely noticed, but I had to overcome a lifetime of avoiding her. From very early on, she treated me, in a way, as an only child. I resented her interest; I felt it was threatening. She was so intuitive. And she liked forgiving me; she forgave me for things I never did."

'Nuff said? One need not be a Freud to get this.

"My work is purely autobiographical. It is about myself and my surroundings." This is the maxim that greets visitors to the MOCA exhibit.

We meet Freud's friends, his lovers, his mother, his children, his bookie, among others passing through his studio. Freud's work may be viewed as violent, brutal, portraits where even the passive and depressed are treated with aggression.

There are also several self-portraits: Freud depicts himself as he ages unsentimentally but ferociously. The brushstrokes in these portraits speak volumes: It is as if Freud's paint were a life force itself, raging against death.

As for Freud's connection to his famous last name, one can argue that Freud, like many if not most people, spent the first half of his life trying to distinguish himself and the second half making peace with who he'd become. But it does not answer whether a famous last name is a blessing, a curse or both. Does it determine who you are and what you do? That's a question Saddam Hussein will probably never get to ask President George W. Bush.

In the meantime, Freud has brought his intense analysis of the way of all flesh to challenge us. The retrospective gives lie to Freud's claim that his paintings are just "factual" formal compositions.

If they were, they would be no more compelling than wallpaper. Freud does not merely chronicle his life or paint his friends -- he uses them to analyze (there's that Sigmund again!) his life and our times.

What makes Freud's paintings so enthralling and so relevant to our lives here in paradise is the drama just below the surface, a battle between who we strive to be and who we become, between our parents and ourselves, between our minds and our bodies, between life and death.

Freud, like his grandfather, asks: Are we just bodies?

The answer is to look closer. Whether we are talking about Sigmund Freud or Lucian Freud, we certainly can agree: If the unexamined life isn't worth living, it certainly isn't worth painting. Even on "Are You Hot?" No one is a perfect 10 (at least not yet).

"An Introduction to the Paintings of Lucian Freud," will be at 7:30 p.m. on Feb 28., at the L.A. Psychoanalytic Auditorium, (310) 478-6541. "Lucian Freud: Psychoanalytic Look" will be held from  3-5 p.m. on March 9 at MOCA, (213) 626-6222. 



Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column on art and culture will appear every two weeks in The Jewish Journal.

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