Museum of Modern Art, 144 pp., $40.00
“For me, the paint is the person.”1 “I’d like to think that I had in some way caught a scene rather than composed it, so that you never questioned it.” “I could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t actually there in front of me. That would be a pointless lie.” By his own account, Lucian Freud is a painter who reaches after truth and substance. And for many today, the claims he makes hold good. To treat him as “the greatest living realist painter” has now become commonplace. Robert Hughes gave Freud that title in 1987,2 the point at which he started to acquire an international renown.
For much of the four preceding decades, he had been a somewhat marginal figure on the art scene, even in his own adopted hometown of London. Twenty years onward, however, the world lies at the feet of the still-active octogenarian. It’s not just that his work is deemed to give new force to the age-old equation between the bodies we look at and the marks we make. His persona—that of a loner and a gambler, trailing, in Hughes’s description, a “long and labyrinthine” sexual history—lends itself to the equally popular pairing-off of high artistic achievement with bohemian recklessness. So it happens that, besides the current MoMA exhibition, “Lucian Freud: The Painter’s Etchings” (showing till March 10), and the imposing 362-plate retrospective volume Lucian Freud, published by Rizzoli, Knopf has recently issued Freud at Work, a book trading on the glamour of his studio. An old photographer friend, Bruce Bernard, and an assistant, David Dawson, catch the famous and the naked sitting for the famous artist, who is glimpsed on occasion nearly naked himself.
Freud’s remark that he, too, wishes to “catch” what he depicts, obtaining an image that is unquestionably real, comes from an interview reprinted in the Rizzoli volume. It is one of several with the London art critic William Feaver, who also supplies an introduction. Feaver and Freud form a long-standing double act: they are talking here in 1998, by which point the one has already been writing about the other for nearly three decades. And yet on this occasion the painter finds that he has to defend himself against his outstandingly well informed interlocutor. His hopes for his work seem thwarted: confronted by one of his most recent canvases, Feaver is driven to question and question again, baffled and almost indignant.
The bone of contention is entitled Sunny Morning—Eight Legs and it now belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago. It is an upright canvas, almost eight feet tall, and like so much of Freud’s output it depicts a corner of his drab and inhospitable London studio. At its top, the cheese-yellow of a papered-over window interrupts the sour browns of a rawly plastered wall to indicate that somewhere outside, a morning sun may indeed be shining. But this is hardly a picture of light effects: the bed that dominates it seems less to pick…
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