Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Lucien Freud L'Atelier, Centre Pompidou
I came away from the Lucien Freud exhibition, L’Atelier, at the Centre Pompidou very relieved that I was having dinner with my friend Anne, rather than Freud himself. This small exhibition of Freud’s work painted in his London studio was intense, emotionally challenging, and ultimately quite difficult. I admire the force of Freud’s painting, the power of his brushstroke and the transparency of his representational process, I find his intellectual engagement with the history of painting to be exciting, indeed, there is much to marvel at here. And yet, I can’t say I “liked” the paintings; the dominant feeling I had at the end was one of being trapped in a world of self-contemplation, Freud's self-contemplation.
The portraits are, in the best possible vein of portrait painting or photography, all about Freud, and seem to have little to do with the sitter. I appreciate that Freud does not pretend to be doing otherwise. He is unabashedly open about the fact that all the portraits are actually a portrait of himself. Compare this to a photographer such as Richard Avedon who claims to be revealing some undiscovered, fleeting moment of his sitter’s inner self, when really, he is completely immersed in his own obsessive controlling of every look and gesture. The sagging flesh of Freud’s sitters, the somewhat exaggerated distortions of their bodies are the creations of a mind that wanders and wonders about his body growing old. It is his own body that is given substance in these works. It is his own flesh that comes together with paint on the palette and then on the canvas as the material of self-exploration. And then I am unsettled when caught watching a very private moment of contemplation of the sitter, not so much his or her physical exposure on the canvas, in the empty studio, alone with Freud. But I turn away when the sitter’s vulnerability is glimpsed, when I recognize the privacy of the moment I peer into. I feel as though I have entered a room uninvited, caught in my moment of transgression. And yet, like Leigh Bowery above, the pose is always so obviously staged, performed in a gesture which becomes Freud's flaunting of the conventions of classical portraiture. This is Freud's brilliance: his one and the same time emotional journey into the depths of the individual's self and an intellectual exercise in the undoing and subsequent reinvention of the conventions of art history.
And then as if to remind us that all this is always filtered through the mirrors of Freud's mind, we find these self-portraits that encourage us to see the paintings as a reflection (in the two senses of the word) of the artist's most private moment - the moment of artistic creation. Even when no mirror is present, we have the sense the body sits in a distorted time and space, in the studio as mirror of Freud's mind.
Perhaps what I loved most about the paintings in Atelier was Freud's fusion of flesh and paint. The texture of flesh and the materiality of paint become the same thing, merge into one, the subject of the canvas. In The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer (2004-2005), the paint-spattered studio wall and the canvas onto which Freud paintgs become one, as our eye then drags down to the subtle shifting colors of the model's flesh, as it gives way to the cloth that is permanently strewn around Freud's studio. We feel, or rather touch, smell, even indulge in the thrilling texture of paint and flesh as objects to be pushed and massaged around the surfaces of Freud's paintings.
Lastly, to reiterate, the exhibition is small by Pompidou standards. And how refreshing it is to see a well-hung, coherent selection of a single artist's work in spaces that can themselves become vast and overwhelming.