I recall the 1993-1994 Lucian Freud retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as possibly the dreariest exhibition I’d ever seen there.
Freud’s paintings are fine in small doses: whenever they pop up here and there, their frank depictions of tainted flesh — starkly lit, grayed-down and shot through with twisty blue veins—are always bracing in their no-nonsense voyeurism.
Beyond their pictorial candor and stark naturalism, what makes these paintings so appealing to the contemporary eye is the way their boldly delineated forms create an abstract structure built from powerful interlocking shapes.
But at the Met, with room after room of them, the dearth of color and the aggregation of maculate, pummeled flesh eventually rolled up into a mass of undifferentiated bleakness. The paintings gathered dust before my eyes.
As mostly everyone who follows contemporary art would know, Freud, who lived from 1922 to 2011, was the German-born grandson of Sigmund Freud. The artist, who possessed enormous personal charisma, was also an Olympic-class gambler and womanizer, rumored to have fathered forty children.
Of the painters who emerged in the 1950s and came to be known as the School of London (Freud, R.B. Kitaj, Leon Kossoff, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Michael Andrews), Freud was most closely associated with Bacon (1909-1992), thirteen years his senior. Even posthumously, these two still dominate the group.
In contrast to their peers in the United States and Continental Europe, the School of London painters mined Expressionism and Surrealism (which Freud’s grandfather had something to do with) not for experiments in abstraction but for new routes into the figure. They also embraced literary and historical influences, which were being rejected everywhere else.
In an exhibition catalogue for a 1974 show at the Hayward Gallery in London, Freud described his work as:
… purely autobiographical … It is about myself and my surroundings. It is an attempt at a record. I work from the people that interest me and that I care about and think about, in rooms that I live in and know.
Cezanne could have said the same, but there the similarity ends. Freud, in his mature works — despite an homage called “After Cezanne” (2000) — withdraws from the modernist strain deriving from Cezanne’s revolutionary reordering of visual experience. He casts his lot with Watteau, Chardin and Courbet.
This happened with the painting of one particular picture, as Robert Hughes notes in his book, Lucian Freud, Paintings (1987):
The turning point in Freud’s work … when he moved decisively away from the ingriste modulation of flatness by contour, came in 1958 and 1959 with ‘Woman Smiling.’ It was attended by a change of instrument, the paint (in [Lawrence] Gowing’s words) being “driven across the surface with the springy bristles of a hog-hair brush quite unlike the touch of the pliant sable which had followed the forms with obedient literalness.”
Freud, who prided himself on his draftsmanship, stopped drawing at that point, and didn’t pick it up again until years later. Consequently, the current exhibition, Lucian Freud Drawings at Acquavella Galleries, contains a substantial number of pre-1958 works on paper.
Before his changeover to thick brushes and the massing-up of forms we now identify with his art-making, Freud’s approach bore a distinct relationship with Neue Sachlichkeit or “New Objectivity” painting, which arose in Germany around the time of Freud’s birth in December 1922 and fell with the Nazi takeover of 1933. The artist’s family, seeing the writing on the wall, immigrated to England the following year.
Freud’s early work, like that of his Neue Sachlichkeit forebears (Otto Dix, Christian Schad, George Grosz and others), was an uncomfortable blend of compressed Cubist space, caricature and magic realism. His masterpiece from this period, the glimmering “Girl with a White Dog (1951-1952), was acquired by the Tate Museum, London, the year it was completed. Freud was 29 years old.
The other element of Neue Sachlichkeit that entered Freud’s work early on and stayed until the end is its overt sexuality, which hovers tantalizingly between the clinical and the decadent. Christian Schad’s explicitly rendered nudes are especially relevant to “Girl with a White Dog,” which portrays the artist’s first wife, Kitty Garman.
Seated on a striped divan alongside the eponymous white dog, whose head rests on her leg, Garman gazes inwardly as her yellow robe slips just below her minutely detailed, milky white breast.
The effect is demure compared with the center-stage genitalia of Freud’s later work. Yet, the painting’s sensuality transcends its classically balanced composition and porcelain-like surfaces, setting off unexpected sparks. Against the icy precision of the color and the contours, the rounded, imperfect flesh feels all the more tender.
It is this kind of paradox and surprise that I miss in post-1958 Freud. The earlier works are not attempts “at a record,” as the artist described his later painting, but layered images of sculptural form, calligraphic line and riffing imagination.
At Acquavella, there are works that are oddly comic, such as “Ill in Paris,” an etching from 1948, where an oversized rose arches over Garman’s wide-set eyes and forlorn stare.
There are others that are childlike. In “Man and Town” (1940-1941), a man wearing a helmet-like hat pops up like a jack-in-the-box as a cityscape unfurls in a skewed, birds-eye-view behind him. And “Tenby Harbour” (1944), a crayon drawing made when the artist was 21 or 22, is as blunt and fantastical as any outsider art.
Or they can be both comic and childlike, like the portrait of the English surrealist poet, “David Emery Gascoyne” (1942). The poet’s name is inscribed on his cap, upon which stands a creepy-looking puppy, while a menagerie of birds, fish and mammals frame the top and side borders of the paper.
Freud just as often plays it straight, however, as he does in “Girl with a White Dog,” with precisely executed renderings inflected by Surrealism, such as the poignant pastel-and-watercolor “Dead Monkey” (1950).
This isn’t the Lucian Freud we know, but an alternative Lucian Freud worth considering. The works he made before he turned his back on the chiseled forms of Neue Sachlichkeit, despite occasional dips into easy caricature, share a sense of delight in discovering the manifold ways that solids and voids can be visualized on paper.
Freud’s later painterly style, on the contrary, imposes the same network of heavy contours and faceted planes on anyone who falls under the artist’s gaze, be it the Queen of England or a naked, nameless model.
It is a practice so deeply conservative that a work like “A Filly” (1970), one of several oil paintings also featured in the show, looks as if Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) could have made it. Freud’s method smacks of a closed system relying on prodigious skill heavily footnoted with historical precedents.
Not that the later paintings aren’t striking or beautiful. Many of them are. And it should be noted that the post-1958 drawings at Acquavella feel spontaneous and notational — a far cry from the ponderousness of the oil paintings’ often problematic color and heavily reworked surfaces.
“Lucian Freud Drawings” is a much fleeter and more gratifying experience than the Met retrospective because most of the work retains an openness to the unknown — the quality most lacking in Freud’s unvarying technique and theatrically staged compositions.
A masterful drawing like “Boy on a Sofa” (1944), rendered in pencil, charcoal and chalk, is nothing more than a crisply defined depiction of a teenager with a scarf tied around his neck. Yet the blacks, whites and grays sing with perfect clarity against the blue field, and the strokes of shading that roam around the weave of the paper create a swirling counterpoint to the solidity of the volumes.
“Boy on a Sofa” displays none of the gravity-oppressed world-weariness of Freud’s late paintings. It has an innocence only slightly tinged by adversity, as evidenced in the tightness of the boy’s forehead and eyelids. Viewed against the Freud oeuvre, it could be easily dismissed as naïve: the juvenilia of a world-renowned naysayer.
But unlike most of the artist’s work, its shock value — delivered not by its content but by its freshness and invention — is the kind that doesn’t wear off.
Lucian Freud Drawings continues at Acquavella Galleries (18 East 79th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 9, 2012.