Freud's nudes unveil more than the psyche

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

September 30, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

LONDON -- London's latest, and somewhat unlikely, sexy cultural hero is the 70-year-old grandson of Sigmund Freud -- the realist painter of people, Lucian Freud.

His show of recent portraits and mostly naked figures at the Whitechapel Art Gallery is the hottest ticket in town. Mr. Freud is not quite as big a draw as Madonna, but he's had better reviews. And he's showing a lot more full frontal nudity.

Depending on the critic's enthusiasm, he's called "the best living British painter," "the greatest living realist painter," "one of the great portrait painters of all time."

Mr. Freud paints human flesh, including his own. His nudes are acutely and disturbingly naked, often implying a strong personal relationship with his models.

An unnerved reviewer says the Whitechapel show "resembles nothing so much as a gigantic butcher's shop." Which is unfair: Mr. Freud's nudes are certainly raw and ruddy, but they pulse with life.

One writer denies that the paintings reflect any eroticism; another says that the works are "filled with the promise of impolite sex."

Mr. Freud has had a close circle of models: family, friends, wives and lovers, even his bookmaker, "The Big Man," a knobby, bullet-headed man painted fully clothed.

His favorite model lately is an enormous, bald, performance artist named Leigh Bowery, who is a gay female impersonator. Mr. Freud has painted him in five huge canvases that confront the viewer with great wads of pink, palpitating flesh.

In his own self-portrait, "Painter Working: Reflection," painted this year and called a work in progress, Mr. Freud appears totally naked except for what look like unlaced hiking boots.

He confronts his own image like a nude gladiator, aging but undefeated, his palette knife upraised like a sword, his palette a shield.

Many here have remarked on what one critic calls "a late flowering of skill and insight" in a painter of "rare ambition, who at an age when most would be entirely set in their ways, is still engaged in a restless hunt for excellence."

Mr. Freud's restless hunt for excellence apparently expresses itself in other ways. Londoners, who delight in gossiping about one another, have been as nearly enthralled with his private life as his art.

He's an aloof and elusive personality, with intense, craggy features. His self-portrait shows him to be in good shape for a man of seventy, if the artist's eye shuns self-deception.

He's said to have a penchant for gambling -- hence the bookmaker -- and to love fast cars and to have a reputation as a rake.

"Is this man the greatest lover in Britain?" asks the headline in the Daily Mail, a racy tabloid.

Mr. Freud has attracted some of the most beautiful women in British society, asserts the author, Anne Barrowclough, despite his being an unconventional, ungallant suitor.

His name is directly linked to at least seven woman, two of whom he married. Many more have reputedly been "possessed" with him. He's fathered many children, the Daily Mail reports -- very, very many, according to other sources.

He apparently acknowledges nine, including two by his first wife, Kitty Epstein, the daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein.

He painted haunting pictures of his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, who later married the American poet Robert Lowell.

"Probably we never got over one another," says Lady Caroline. "You can see love in the way he painted me."

Mr. Freud has remained unmarried since their divorce in 1957.

One can only wonder how Grandpop Sigmund would have analyzed all of this. Lucian Freud says his grandfather did encourage him to become a painter.

He is a genuinely popular artist, drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers at his shows here, and similar numbers in Paris, Berlin and at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, where 146,000 came to see his last American show in 1988.

The show stays at the Whitechapel until Nov. 21, then moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it will open Dec. 16 for a three-month run.

The Metropolitan has bought one of the Leigh Bowery paintings, back view of the model seated on a low white stool.

Missing from the Met will be the oil called self-descriptively "Parts of Leigh Bowery."

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