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Culture in France

Lucian Freud in the (painted) flesh

Audio 04:05
Lucian Freud
By: Brent Gregston
8 min

Paris is paying tribute to Britain's Lucian Freud after largely ignoring his work for decades. An exhibition at the Centre Pompidou has brought many works out of private collections for the first time in years, including some of his most famous and infamous nudes and self-portraits.

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Freud, grandson of of the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund, is the world's best-known portrait artist.

Lucian Freud

His subjects have included the Queen of England and a very pregnant Kate Moss, as well as friends and family, criminals, plants, animals and litter. Now 88 and still painting, Freud lives in seclusion in London but agreed to work with curators from the Pompidou Centre to put together a retrospective that takes up almost 1000 square metres.

Paris is now seeking a "new encounter" with Lucian Freud, says Pompidou centre president, Alain Seban. An encounter that has provoked “malaise, fascination, repulsion, and subjection,” according to the French daily Le Figaro, which advises "sensitive souls" to abstain from going.

Freud is the world's most expensive living artist, after Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich paid 34 million US dollars (25 million euros) in 2008 for the exhibition's life-size portrait, Sleeping benefits supervisor – a nude painting of Freud's overweight friend, Big Sue, who worked at a job centre by day and posed for him at night. His Self-portrait with a black eye (the result of a brawl with a cab driver), which is also in the exhibition, recently sold for 4.4 million US dollars (3.3 million euros).

Lucian Freud

Born in Berlin to architect Ernst Freud, Sigmund's youngest son, and his wife Lucie, Freud moved to Britain with his parents when he was 11-years-old. In 1939, he became a British citizen. His earliest work, for the most part not represented in the exhibition, shows the influence of German artists like Otto Dix, George Grosz and Egon Schiele.

The Pompidou exhibition, Lucian Freud: L'Atelier (the studio), is not chronological. Rather it is organised around the theme of the studio, the enclosed space in which Freud, who never works from photographs, is confined with his subjects for months on end, demanding that they pose for 100 hours or more.

"I work from the people that interest me, and that I care about and think about, in rooms that I live in and know. I use the people to invent my pictures with, and I can work more freely when they are there," Freud has said.

There are 50 large-format paintings, together with a number of prints and drawings, as well as photographs of the artist’s London studio.

"The theme refers to Freud's private space as an artist, where his work, his relationship with his models evolves," explains the show's curator, Cécile Debray.

Freud's art is at its most massive and brutal in the show's fourth gallery with its oversize portraits of Big Sue and Leigh Bowery. It’s a merciless contemplation of human beings as big, fleshy mammals.

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Lucian Freud

“I'm only interested in my sitters as animals," Freud once said. “I want paint to work as flesh.”

Some French arbiters of taste are simply outraged.

"To paint like Freud," writes Le Monde critic Philippe Dagen, "you must find a model that has one or several anatomical peculiarities – obesity, pendulant breasts, knock-knees or being massively hung. Undress him or her and place the sitter on an unmade bed or a broken down couch in a position that fully exposes these physical attributes. Throw in a sleeping dog or a withered plant."

"It's not good painting," argues Marc Lenot, an art collector who blogs for Le Monde. While deploring Freud's "decadent academicism," he confesses to a morbid fascination: "I keep coming back for more ... lingering before these monstrous nudes ... without understanding why, I cannot tear myself away."

Other critics are kinder.

Freud's work "will endure for centuries", predicts Jonathan Jones of Britain's Guardian.

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