Lucien Freud at the Centre Pompidou
The Lucien Freud show at the Centre Pompidou is a rare opportunity to see a large body of the painter’s work, especially a large body of his fairly recent work which is, to say the least, fleshy. The show is divided into four parts. First, as you enter the exhibition, is the Interior/Exterior room, which features images of the artist’s studio and various outside subjects like views of factories and buildings as well as amazing floral/vegetation pictures. Next is a small gallery called “Reflection,” which features self-portraits for the most part. Then, “On Painting” has a variety of less thematic works that pay homage to Constable, Cezanne, and other painters. Finally, “As Flesh” portrays in large scale portraits of naked people. Not, I must mention, handsome naked people.
I had only seen a few of Freud’s paintings in the original and now that I’ve increased my Freud sightings by about 20-fold I can understand their special kind of grandeur. One can see the progression through the years: the few pictures from the 1960s and 70s are much tighter, both the compositions and the brushwork more controlled, although the palette remains much the same throughout the years with plenty of that “London in the winter” reliance on browns, olives and grays. They are, of course, masterful browns, olives and grays.
It’s hard not to be impressed. Picture after picture simply awes with the virtuosity of Freud’s paint handling. And to me, therein lies the problem. The emotional tone of Freud’s work, at least in this show, is chilly at best. There is little humour to be found. The themes are dull or morose. The painting is fantastic. I’d have trouble living with most of these paintings, once I’d absorbed the virtuosity of the execution and had to just stare at the thing on a wall.
Freud is obviously into flesh. Not prurient flesh or even moderately attractive flesh, but outsized landscapes of flesh. The flesh itself consumes the eye, leaving little for the entirety of the model. You can get lost in a thigh, or a back, or a great bulbous breast. In fact, one of the paintings in the show, the 1995 portrait entitled Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (aka Naked Civil Servant), sold for $33.6m (£17.2m) at Christie's in New York in 2008, a record high for a living painter. In the program, it notes: “To render his flesh, Freud uses a liberal impasto of a paint called Cremnitz white, the broad brushstrokes bringing an ever greater indeterminacy of detail. The strength of these portraits lies in the way they capture the physical inertia of the model.” They certainly do capture some inertia - the video shown in a separate room of the gallery gives the impression that the artist takes months to finish a picture, with the naked models lounging around his studio in their poses seemingly forever. Freud is quoted as saying, “I’m really interested in them as animals.” Personally, I found this exploration of flesh interesting from a technical viewpoint, but ultimately not especially rewarding. They are not exactly gross to look at for any length of time, but close.
One personal indicator of a good painting show, for me as a painter, is whether I take away a feeling of having learned something about painting. In this case, the answer is a resounding yes! I learned something about enriching browns, olives and grays (which I use sparingly, at best), in a way that avoids the dirty swimming pool look. I learned, for the millionth time, the richness to be found in the appearance of looseness, when combined with a high degree of control over the paint and its color in a coherent, often surprising design. I’ve always rebelled against too restricted a palette, but Freud is a fine teacher of the value of keeping to a concise color space, with liberal use of gray as a way of accentuating his muted colors and keeping the eye’s color perception balanced.
You still have a month to see the show: it’s on until 19 July, 2010.