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Private Faces in Public Places

IT WAS THE TEETH, THE HORSEY ENGLISH CHOMPERS, that signaled the arrival of an alien culture in downtown Los Angeles. They belonged, respectively, to William Feaver, curator of the new Lucian Freud retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), and David Dawson, Freud's assistant and occasional model, and they were well-suited to the paintings both men were in the process of installing on the museum's immaculate white walls. For they spoke of the imperfection of the body, and few men have captured the body's imperfections as precisely as Lucian Freud.

At first I thought that MOCA was an odd choice for a Freud show, because Freud, who is best known for his portraits and nudes, is seemingly the most traditional of artists. But a quick stroll through the museum's galleries changed my mind. Several rooms had been set aside for the work of Sam Durant, a conceptual artist who had created various installations (now closed) of vandalized miniature case-study houses — deliberately crude architectural models that had been bashed in, graffiti'd over and generally made to look like they'd been visited by a delegation of marauding thugs. On the walls were photographs of upended modernist chairs shot in the lurid style of cheap porn magazines, and arranged around the floor, small music speakers belted out songs by the Rolling Stones and Nirvana. On the afternoon I was there, something had gone wrong with the sound: A museum guard, looking rather like an electrician in hell, crawled around the concrete floor fiddling with a cluster of black wires while listening to "Gimme Shelter" for the umpteenth time that day.

The show left me feeling, after five minutes or so, as if I'd just experienced a kind of anti-epiphany, like Svidrigailov's vision of eternity in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment:

We're always thinking of eternity as an idea that cannot be understood, something immense. But why must it be? What if, instead of all this, you suddenly find just a little room there, something like a village bathhouse, grimy, and spiders in every corner, and that's all eternity is?

Or, in this case, that's all an art exhibition is. As for the permanent collection, the Lichtensteins and Johnses and Twomblys and Klines, those iconic paintings are now so overfamiliar and short on human content that many of them would look perfectly at home in a bank. No, it was a stroke of genius — on the part of the artist's representatives, anyway — to host the Freud retrospective at MOCA. Not only would it preserve a patina of hipness even the world's most fashionable 80-year-old figurative painter wouldn't want to give up, it would also, given the competition, make his work look even more interesting than it already was. Reflection With Two Children (Self-Portrait)1965 (did not travel to MOCA)

For Jeremy Strick, MOCA's director, the decision to bring an exhibition of what are in many ways extremely traditional paintings — nudes, portraits, still lifes — to a venue more readily associated with postmodern pranksters like Paul McCarthy and Charles Ray was utterly straightforward.

"I think that it is and has been our policy to present the most significant art of our time, and Freud is one of the most significant artists of our time, so it's fairly simple!" he told me when I asked him how the Freud exhibition fit in with his museum's mission. "MOCA expressed an interest in the show very early — '99 or early 2000. And I think that the Tate [where the exhibition originated] and perhaps the artist himself was intrigued by the notion of the show being in Los Angeles. He'd actually produced a print for MOCA and knew of the museum by reputation, and I think there was a mutual enthusiasm." Sleeping By the Lion Carpet 1996Photo by Elliott Shaffner

As for how a Freud show fits in alongside someone like Sam Durant, Strick seemed quite happy that they don't really fit together at all.

"I really think that's the beauty of it," he replied, smiling broadly. "Contemporary art encompasses those poles, and I think it's our purpose to show this. If the work is serious and of great quality and interest, I think it's wonderful you can do those things in close proximity."

 

"IT'S GREAT TO SEE SOME PAINTINGS OF PEOPLE," I overheard a woman whisper to her friend.

William Feaver, who not only curated the show but is also an old friend of Freud's, would probably be uneasy with that comment. "Sometimes the admirers of Freud admire him for the wrong reasons," he told me as we walked through the galleries, explaining that the painter's art wasn't about such basic skills as getting a likeness. "It's nothing to do with that," he said. "It's much more to do with the use of paint." And so it is — anyone with moderate talent can achieve a likeness. But later Feaver would point to Freud's portrait of Bruce Bernard, a close friend of his who died several years ago, and say, "That is Bruce." It was a likeness, but also more than that: an embodiment.

 

Self-Portrait, reflection 2002 Photo by Elliott Shaffner Feaver, who was the art critic for the London Observer for 20 years, is a tall, slender man with thick glasses, twinkling blue eyes and the aforementioned English teeth. Because Freud almost never gives interviews, and chose not to travel to Los Angeles for the opening of the show, Feaver is in effect the artist's representative. I was speaking to him about a week before the show opened to the public, and many of the paintings were still being taken out of their foam-lined crates. With more than 100 paintings in the exhibition, as well as numerous etchings, the aggregate worth of the assembled artworks was staggering. Freud's annual income is said to be about £12 million and he produces 12 to 15 paintings a year. The small ones start at around $300,000, with the largest going for as much as $4.5 million. Freud's career earnings are estimated at £150 million. Only a handful of artists, such as Gerhard Richter, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, are believed to have earned more.

But in Britain it's not filthy lucre that people think the 80-year-old Freud lusts after, it's young women. The popular tabloid view of him, according to Feaver, is of a "misogynistic vampire preying on people's flesh." Curator William Feaver with a favorite, Two Plants 1977-80Photo by Elliott Shaffner

"Why is that?" I asked.

"Because people have trouble with nakedness, even more than they used to. One reason is vanity. People hate to look at their own bodies, and they hate to think about their own bodies, and everyone's ashamed of their own bodies. And also I think people don't like honesty. They like things to be nice, and they don't like things to be in your face in the best possible way. What I've tried to show is that he's actually a very tender and sensitive painter, as well as a very honest one. I think it comes across, but different people get different responses out of it."

"And he has a 27-year-old girlfriend, I gather?"

"No. He did, but no longer. That's cooled off. She's a very exceptional, intelligent woman who likes older men! There was nothing about cradle snatching at all. It seemed perfectly all right at the time, but that's no longer current. He is 80!"

Born in Berlin in 1922 (his grandfather, Sigmund, was the inventor of psychoanalysis), Freud moved to Britain with his family in 1933 and became a naturalized British subject in 1939 — a year when the chances of a German receiving a British passport were, to put it mildly, slim. But thanks to the Duke of Kent, who intervened on Sigmund Freud's behalf, Lucian and the rest of his family were given special treatment and spared internment or worse.

Sixty-two years later, Freud repaid the debt by offering to paint a portrait of the Queen. Like a lot of women in Freud's paintings, Her Majesty ended up looking a bit like a lantern-jawed rugby player in need of some Prozac, but she did get to wear her crown and Freud gave her the portrait as a gift — according to Feaver, the first time an artist had done so. "He's rather conscious of having been done a favor by the royal family, so he wanted to repay the Queen. It's also because she's the most famous face there is. She's been reproduced more than any face in history." Feaver left the painting out of the retrospective, however, because he felt it would draw too much attention.

Thanks to his surname, Freud had entrée to almost any level of society he cared to enter, but his reputation built slowly and only really exploded about 15 years ago. For most of his career, Freud was just another member of what, in 1976, the American painter R.B. Kitaj controversially termed the School of London (it's still in use, as long as one includes the prefix "so-called"), whose most famous members by far were Francis Bacon and David Hockney, but also included Kitaj, Frank Auerbach (the subject of a stunning portrait in Freud's retrospective), Michael Andrews, Leon Kossoff, Howard Hodgkin and others.

As an art-world phenomenon in the age of Warhol, the school was a strikingly contrarian and Luddite phenomenon that made a cult out of the grubby, paint- encrusted studio. For a long time, Freud and Auerbach didn't even have phones; if they wanted to see each other, they communicated by post card. The studio was the world, and — Hockney and Kitaj aside — the artists all seemed to take a masochistic pride in never leaving their grimy cells and in disdaining (or pretending to) the merest hint of publicity. "Bacon has been painting in the same room for over 30 years — a room so tiny it would fit in Julian Schnabel's bathroom," Kitaj told an interviewer in the late 1980s. "Freud and Kossoff and Auerbach have been in the same small rooms for years, working and working, rarely stopping. Auerbach's studio looks like a dungeon, with that one barred window way up near the ceiling. They hardly ever leave London — I don't think they often cross London."

 

You can see the effects of the grubby-studio aesthetic in Freud's paintings at MOCA. Most were done in times of unequalled prosperity and wealth, from the 1960s era of "Swinging London" to the aggressively materialistic and flashy capital of today, but you'd barely know it from the works themselves. At one point I asked Feaver about a large, very beautiful painting of some typical red-brick London apartment buildings. "It looks quite impressive at first glance, but you see it's actually pretty derelict," he said, eagerly pointing out the broken windows and mismatched curtains, as if afraid I might think this was a nice street or, God help us, a prosperous neighborhood populated by lots of hideous bourgeois clone-people polishing the silverware and calling the town council to clear up the trash. (In fact, Freud had to pay some tramps not to cart off the best of the rubbish before he'd finished the painting.)

Haltingly at first — some time in the 1960s — the trash actually began to enter the studio in the form of paint rags, and by the 1980s Freud really started to go nuts with them, heaping them up in the background of his paintings like indoor mountains. Not only does their presence in the paintings seem like an affectation, they also highlight Freud's greatest weakness as an artist — namely a difficulty in making the area around the figures interesting. His backgrounds are often not just dull but arbitrary, and the problem becomes more acute in the later paintings done on a heroic scale.

Why has Freud become so celebrated in his old age? A cynic might say that, following Bacon's death in 1992, Britain's critics simply felt the need to elevate someone else to world-class status. (They took care of one of his nearest rivals, the American interloper Kitaj, by slaughtering his 1994 Tate retrospective in impressively vicious terms.) Or they may simply have needed an éminence grise to balance the more laddish pursuits of Damien Hirst et al. But most English critics will tell you that their esteem has grown simply because Freud's work has gotten better and better with every passing decade. Some even go so far as to mention him in the same breath as Titian.

The painter's tabloid-ready lifestyle doesn't hurt, either. Kitaj, who now lives in L.A., once told me how, back in the first half of the 20th century, the notoriously priapic English painter Augustus John would always pat a child on the head and slip him a penny, on the off chance that the child should prove to be his own. Freud sounds a bit like that. He "acknowledges" 11 offspring, but there are rumored to be many more. Certainly he has taken the responsibilities of fatherhood pretty lightly. In fact, one almost gets the impression that he met some of his children for the first time when they entered his studio as fully grown adults. ("That's one of Lucian's sons," Feaver said to me, pointing out a large painting of a naked man. "They only recently got acquainted.") But if so, they seem willing to trade a few months of painterly attention for years of paternal neglect. "His children and grandchildren compete — they're desperate to be painted by him," said Feaver. "Understandably. It does something for them."

 

AS A CURATOR, FEAVER'S POLICY SEEMED TO BE TO let the work speak for itself. The paintings, which start in the 1940s and continue all the way up to a small portrait of Hockney completed last year, are mostly hung in chronological order, and beyond the introductory comments stenciled on the wall of the entrance, there is almost nothing to read. Freud's titles — Girl in Bed 1952, Head 1962 — tend to be brisk and uninformative, and, rightly or wrongly, Feaver has chosen not to elaborate. He might, for instance, have stuck a label on the wall explaining that the Girl in Bed is actually Caroline Blackwood, the subject of the recent biography Dangerous Muse, but he says he's fed up with the proliferation of labels in museums and prefers that people look rather than read.

 

In person, however, Feaver is more informative. When I asked him to point out some of his own personal favorites in the collection, he walked me over to Man in a Blue Shirt 1965, a portrait of George Dyer, Francis Bacon's boyfriend who committed suicide when Bacon's retrospective opened in Paris. "Which is completely incidental, you don't need to know any of that. But you can see he's a kind of confused, depressed and out-of-it person. He's a failed getaway driver, and Lucian painted him because Bacon couldn't handle him, particularly during the daytime. And Lucian was rather fond of him. He thought [Dyer] was completely out of his depth with Bacon, who was so bright and clever and cruel, in many ways."

Next to Dyer's portrait is a small painting of a horse, chronologically out of order, and thus representing one of Feaver's rare curatorial acts of suggestion and interpretation. But why? Because the horse belonged to Dyer? Because he liked betting on horses, like Freud? Er, no. "I wanted to give the faint flicker of the idea that the person and the horse are not unrelated, that the character you admire in a horse can be things you like in a person," Feaver said. And it's true, in fact, that if you examine the picture of the filly closely, there is an odd resemblance between the mouth and eye of human and animal.

There was something so charmingly low-tech about this idea — "People are a bit like animals!" — I could barely believe I was hearing it from the mouth of a contemporary curator. But it was as good a clue as any as to what makes Freud's work so powerful, particularly in a museum where the emotional temperature is set more or less permanently on "cool." Animals, in fact, play a sizable role both in Freud's painting and his life. For much of his career, he gambled heavily on horses and dogs, and, according to Feaver, when he's at work on a painting he proceeds instinctually rather than intellectually — "He follows his nose, rather like a dog" — with little idea of what the final outcome will be.

People are like animals — or failed animals, anyway. Why else would we dote on pets, draw them close to us when we are most vulnerable, tired, depressed, sick or sleeping? And Freud's subjects, as they appear on the walls of the museum — lying on beds, falling asleep on chairs, crashed out on sofas — show us humanity at its most unguarded. It's a side of people that we see only in those we know intimately and, oddly enough, in complete strangers who are unafraid to show us their frankly bored or sleeping faces in train stations and airports.

Feaver moved on to some more of his favorites: A painting of a nude and heavily pregnant woman slumped on a couch ("This is the sort of thing that people could say is cruel, but actually it's so true and unsentimental and heavy. There's nothing really like it in art"); a picture of a sink with two brass taps ("That's virtuoso. Only he could make brass like brass. It's not just virtuoso, it's looking and looking and looking"); and a large etching of one of Freud's beloved whippets lying on its side ("The largest etching he's ever done, I think. It's very beautiful. It's got everything Cy Twombly's ever wanted to do in the background").

Finally Feaver led me over to a rather grim group portrait, The Pearce Family 1998. A pregnant woman, in a dowdy blue dress, has her arm around a gloomy, brooding hulk of a man holding their baby; in the foreground of the picture, apart from the rest of the family, a teenage boy in a Bruce Lee T-shirt crouches on the floor as if eager to leap out of the frame altogether. To my eye, the Pearce family looked working-class, but Feaver assured me that this was not the case. The pregnant woman is Freud's daughter, the novelist Rose Boyt, only just recognizable as the lithe young woman who can be seen posing nude on a couch in a painting done in the late 1970s — see page 26. (An almost shockingly erotic picture, given that the man wielding the brush is her dad.) Her husband is the widower of the novelist Angela Carter, who died in 1992 and was the mother of the boy crouching in the foreground. This isn't working-class London, it's literary London. Obviously, there's more to the painting than immediately meets the eye.

 

"It looks very awkward to start with, and then you start following it round and working it out, it's very subtle," Feaver said. "As family portraits go, it's a brilliant account of how people feel about each other. I don't think you have to know anything about the background really. I think the odd thing is it could be a Frans Hals group portrait, where you don't know who the people are, yet you can guess at how they feel about each other and what stage of life each one's at. I don't want to go on about life and death too much, because I think the pictures are very lively, but they do give you more to think about as you go on. And then if you get the taste for finding out who the people are, that helps a bit."

After looking at the paintings for a while, and mentioning how depressed many of the people in them looked, I said to Feaver: "Freud must like Auden's lines, 'Private faces in public places/Are wiser and nicer/Than public faces in private places.'"

"Oh, Lucian's always quoting Auden," Feaver replied. "He knew him quite well."

"Really?" I said, surprised.

"Lucian knows everyone, has met everyone. People say he's a recluse, but it's completely untrue. He sees a lot of people. These are very social portraits. They're not coming out of a desire to humiliate or depress. They're just as you look at people in real life. You're not smiling all the time. I think they're really the way we are."

Feaver was right about that. After talking to him, I rode the subway home and studied the faces around me. Few of them were white, and none of them were members of the English aristocracy or habitués of London's arty Soho district, but that made no difference at all. Downcast, melancholy, lost in thought — almost everyone looked like a Lucian Freud.

 

AT THE TATE BRITAIN, WHERE THE FREUD RETROspective started out before going on to Barcelona, the atmosphere was "electric" Feaver said, as thousands of Brits shuffled silently from painting to painting, gazing reverentially on the masterworks of one of their own. But when I dropped by MOCA on a rainy Thursday afternoon (when admission to the museum is free) there was plenty of conversation going on in the galleries, and the atmosphere was almost pleasantly boisterous. Being a weekday, there were plenty of retirees, the majority of them women with fierce profiles and formidable helmets of gray hair. Though a sign had been posted at the entrance warning people that the show might not be appropriate for children, at least one man could be seen walking his young son through the galleries, and a mother showed off her red-headed baby to an appreciative stranger.

Standing in front of the last painting in the show — a self-portrait, only recently completed — a docent was wrapping up his tour of the exhibition by comparing Freud's work, if I heard him right, to that of the abstract expressionists. Like them, Freud just likes to paint, he said. The difference being, he "just happens to have, kind of like, a subject matter."

And so he does. What's more, people were reveling in it. Within minutes, another docent tour had begun, starting from the end of the exhibition and working backward. "What's the first thing you notice about this portrait of David Hockney?" the new docent, who sported a pierced eyebrow, asked the assembled oldsters. "He looks old!" came the reply. A few rooms over, a woman pointed to the painting of the horse next to the George Dyer portrait. "This is lovely," she said. "It's almost as nice as the dog." "Yeah, the dog was amazing," her friend answered.

The many paintings of Freud's mother were a particular source of interest and conversation. ("At least he didn't ask her to take her clothes off," someone joked.) Two retirees were going from painting to painting, just looking at the hands, which they then compared to their own as if competing to see who had more age spots. One of them, a stout, ebullient woman, suddenly turned to me. "Do you think Freud is sex-obsessed?" she asked. "I don't think he's sex-obsessed, but my friend does. Maybe it's because he's a Freud and he felt he had to live up to his name." Then she raised her arms like someone who's just scored a touchdown and said: "I am a Freud!"

"Well, he claims never to have read Sigmund Freud," I said.

 

"Bullshit!" she snapped. "I don't believe that for a minute. He read him!"

Not all the commentary was so gossipy. "The light source is suggested by the varnish on the floor," a professorial type murmured to his companions as they gathered in front of a large nude. Elsewhere, two young men in short sleeves and a woman with long black hair moved slowly from painting to painting, remarking on perspective and brush strokes and techniques; but they didn't seem particularly interested in the character of the individual models, let alone the horses and dogs. No one, to my amazement, spent more than a few seconds in front of the fantastic etching of Freud's lawyer, Lord Goodman — "Adviser to Harold Wilson's government, Mr. Fix-It, Mr. Everybody, Mr. Behind-the-Scenes," as Feaver described him to me — surely one of the great contemporary portraits of a powerful, influential man.

Personally, I rather enjoyed the low-brow, gossipy approach. As Feaver would say, you don't need to know that the perfectly respectable-looking man in the eerie, gorgeously painted double portrait, A Man and His Daughter 1963-4, was actually a safecracker — I think that's what he said — but there's no denying the added interest the information brings, even if it ultimately reinforces Feaver's point: The painting is so good that categories like "safecracker" (or shopkeeper or librarian or prison warden) simply melt away in the sheer tenderness and beauty of the brush strokes.

As the afternoon wore on, the galleries gradually emptied out. Single figures stood motionless in front of portraits of single figures. The docents were gone, the guards looked more relaxed. Not surprisingly, most of them liked the show. Watching over the Sam Durant exhibition, one of them told me, was "enough to give you a migraine."

For a few minutes, I wandered through the rest of the museum. In a room dedicated to "Recent European Paintings," which included a banal work by Chris Ofili, the artist who enraged Rudy Giuliani by exhibiting a painting of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung, a man in a fedora said to the woman with him, "These things are like nothing compared to Freud."

"Oh, it's a whole different world," she answered.


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