Lucian Freud "The English," Voltaire said with characteristic zing, "have 23 religions and two sauces." Phlegm, puritan and traditionalist, has long been a quality associated with the English national character. Stolidity, stiff-upper-lipness, a marked preference for custom over innovation, and a general unwillingness to experiment?these unfortunate traits have marked English culture since at least Voltaire's time.
Placing the discussion squarely in the field of the visual arts, it's hard to imagine a worse set of choices: Damien Hirst's silly shark in a tank, thinkable only in a culture just this side of provincial, or perennial Bloomsbury pastiches of Cezanne and Matisse. Thankfully, certain wonderful young British artists today eschew novelty for its own sake. British masters in painting and sculpture, too, go on about their inspired business, making of tradition a recurrent source of novelty.
Enter Lucian Freud, once junior partner to fellow painting giants Francis Bacon and Stanley Spencer, now the grand old man of British art. Freud, a painter's painter, has over the last decade grown in stature among ritzy art connoisseurs while expanding his influence among increasingly younger practitioners. After a retrospective of his work at the Metropolitan Museum in 1993 and a 1996 solo exhibition at Acquavella, his New York gallery, Freud's reputation among Americans grew like a hothouse tomato. In England, where he has long been regarded as something of a national oddity and a treasure, his continuing artistic relevance has served to inspire the latest generation of British artists we currently hear so much about. Kicking against the pricks has served Lucian Freud well. Grandson of the famous Austrian interpreter of dreams, Freud petit-fils has survived fashions that first condemned figuration to the dustbin of history, then painting altogether. Betting throughout on a highly idiosyncratic version of human portraiture that is equal parts classical realism and careful psychological observation, Freud's art has lasted chiefly for two reasons. Firstly, there is Freud's undeniable painting quality, rarely duplicated among living artists. Secondly, there is the intensely modern and existential character of Freud's work, nearly painful in its burrowing scrutiny, boring deep into that most modern of subjects?the never antiquated, ever-present Self.
Portraiture, Freud's set piece of painting genre, has permitted him a variety as ample as the infinite quantity of human character. Considering the real and symbolic carbuncles of his sitters' bodies, Freud has long espoused in painting the notion that pox, boils, burns and blemishes add beauty and excitement to human physiognomy. In the early 1990s Freud painted two principal models, Leigh Bowery and Sue Tilley, human mastodons who later became famous for their blubbery, grossly oversized likenesses. Recalling a particularly pungent remark David Hockney made about a group of male bodies painted by Francis Bacon?"What I liked about them," Hockney said, "is that you could smell the balls"?Freud's massive corpora let off a peculiarly attracting stench. Dried oil transmuted into the suggestion of sweat, Freud's large canvases portrayed his sitters with brutal intimacy, drawing from their elephantine corporeality confessions of the sort extracted under the harshest lightbulb.
In his latest exhibition at Acquavella Galleries, Lucian Freud has scaled back on size but not on the unsparing portrayal of his subjects. Less declarative perhaps than the larger, robust Sue Tilley, less exhibitionistic certainly than the bald and pierced Leigh Bowery, Freud's sitters in his newest crop of pictures rarely menace, withering instead beneath the artist's needling gaze. Consisting of some 30 paintings made up of mostly smaller canvases and five etchings, Freud's faces open up awkwardly, befuddled by their poses and thoughts, revealing despite themselves the inner exhaustion that comes from tireless, normal self-involvement. Freud's two painted landscapes even read like portrait faces: teeming and thickly painted, these densely detailed views of the artist's backyard reveal coarse, all-over features, unremarkable except in the accented depiction of their ordinariness.
Working only from live models, never from photographs, Freud depicts his amateur sitters in smooth and sandpaper-rough pigment and in cramped, slanting rooms. Placing them in shut-in, dreary spaces amidst a few recognizable studio props?a "distressed" leather sofa or chair, a bit of patterned drapery, a metal bed frame?Freud concentrates attention on the model's essential quirks. In one painting, Naked Portrait with Green Chair, a woman is splayed openly on a rickety bed frame. The clotted paint gathered around her fat thighs suggest hard-won abrasions, as if she had opened beer bottles with her knees all night. Another painting, Night Portrait Face Down, features the same model lying on her stomach, her left hand clutching a worn mattress. Large haunches, fleshy shoulders, the model's mussed hair, a slanting bed and slipping floor slats?all point mercilessly down with the force of a downhill sled.
Less overtly staged pictures, like Freud's portraits of highly respectable family and friends, still manage to look discomfortingly louche. Getting down a seedy version of la phlegm anglaise, Freud makes from subjects like Picasso biographer John Richardson and the writer Francis Wyndham portraits of men whose faces are falling off. His portrait of a certain Louisa, a blond, thin-necked, lounging English beauty, makes seductiveness degenerate in that blueblood, elegantly surfeited way. Freud's portrait of eminently respectable Robert Fellowes, aka Lord Fellowes, former secretary to the Queen, is among the best painterly deflations of character I have ever seen. Nearly pocket-sized, the canvas just frames Fellowes' receding hairline and tight collar in a chary enclosure painted in patches, like his skin. The sitter's confused stare is priceless, as are the pursed lips, the hair uncharacteristically out of place, the crooked glasses. Fellowes looks, for all intents and purposes, damaged, terminally out of sorts?affected by some ruminative tragedy or just rousted from a certain dangerous houseboy liaison by HRH herself.
One always wonders how Freud, following in the example of Velazquez, convinces otherwise respectable subjects to sit for such unflattering pictures. Freud's best picture at Acquavella, The Pearce Family, speaks volumes about the sort of bleak pathos Freud is still after in nearly every canvas. One of the exhibition's three large paintings, it features what appears to be a working class English family seated in and around one of Freud's trademark tattered easy chairs. Trapped within Freud's cramped triangular composition, mum, da, junior and baby stare off in different directions, bodies touching in a way that communicates simian security but not, certainly, love. Junior, slack-jawed and hunched inside the picture's foreground, anticipates the inauspiciousness of his primogeniture; mum, pregnant in a flower print gunnysack of a dress, hangs an arm around sullen da; da, the very figure of a barroom bruiser, encircles baby with a huge beefsteak hand. Only smiling baby stares directly at the portraitist. The fact that he does so with a toy mask for a face is the painting's knockout punch. A brute's mug on a child's body, the boy's head resembles Chucky, the tritely comic, monstrously evil movie doll.
The phrase "cruel to be kind" comes to mind in viewing what turns out to be a picture of members of Freud's extended family. Quintessentially modern in dress and attitude, Freud's depressed version of this very Protestant Holy Family (it includes James, brother of Jesus) squeezes brute, raw tension from an ancient practice that is as powerful as anything in a Mike Leigh film. An exercise in engaging age-old tradition to continually raise its declining ante, Lucian Freud's paintings bring home the charm and wisdom found in the road well traveled. Like an Italian country lane or 5th Avenue at dusk, Freud's art reveals new aspects from start to finish, all along its learned, frankly stated, constantly changing way.
"Lucian Freud: Recent Work, 1997-2000," through May 19 at Acquavella Contemporary Art, 18 East 79th St. (betw. 5th & Madison Aves.), 734-6300.