Lucian Freud’s Naked Truth

The Kunsthistorisches Museum is hosting a must-see exhibit: Sigmund’s grandson’s paintings drip with personality, as exposed but honest depictions of more than what people are

Top Stories | Catherine M. Hooker | November 2013

The poster causes double-takes all over town. It shows a painting with two figures lying naked together.

Their faces and bodies are twisted away from one another, the man lies confidently like someone who has been satisfied, and the woman is curled up, on the edge of the bed.

My first impression was the uneasy feeling of a one-night stand. I would learn more about this painting, but at first, it left me with a sense of isolation, which lingered as I continued on my way. 

The image is the brainchild of Lucian Freud, the London-based grandson of Sigmund, the "Doctor of Dreams".

It is a central work in the current exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum – the first ever in Austria dedicated to the artist who died in 2011.

On display through 6 January 2014, most of the paintings were lent from private collections and represent a career spanning seven decades.

This is a unique opportunity to see Freud’s best work in the venue that houses Titian, and Dürer, two of his major influences.


In the doctor’s shadow

On a grey Friday morning in October, curator Jasper Sharp gave a public tour of the exhibition.

In his introduction, he addressed the elephant in the room: Why did Lucian Freud never show in Austria?

The reasons may have been political: Born to a Jewish family in Berlin, he was forced to flee to London in 1933.

Lucian lost four aunts in concentration camps during the war. Others assume a dislike of the city, casting a shadow of Sigmund Freud over the name, but Sharp thinks it was more an issue of personal preferences for how his work should be presented.

When he met with the artist three years ago, Freud agreed to show 44 of his best works. The condition was that they stand alone, in a separate space, away from the old masters.

Lucian Freund was always fiercely independent: "My mother said my first word was ‘alleine’" he explained in an interview. "I always liked being on my own."

His independence spread to his artistic persona, resisting categorization, "too contemporary for the historical museum and too historical for the contemporary museum," as Sharp put it.

A famous quote by Freud explains: "I paint people, not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be."

His portraits reflect this honesty and in-depth involvement with the moment, avoiding artistic trend.

In the 2012 documentary Lucian Freud- Painted Life he said, "My work is autobiographical, it is an attempt at a record." These personal records were often self-portraits.

Walking into the exhibition space, we were confronted with Freud’s face in the painting Reflection with Two Children (Self-Portrait) staring imperiously down at us, over the heads of the other guests.

Visually, his work is brutally personal, such as his double portrait, Large Interior, London W.9, of his mother and his lover, Lady Jaquetta Eliot.

Although he painted them at different times, he juxtaposed them in the same room, his mother quietly staring beyond the canvas, and his lover, naked, lying on a bed.


A way of "testing things"

Freud used self-portraits as a way of "testing things, and measuring the passing of time," Sharp explained.

Freud’s friend Francis Bacon encouraged him to change the types of brushes he used, as well as to stand up while painting, turning his immaculate draftsmanship into a more tactile expression of the form through large and aggressive brushstrokes.

One particularly fascinating self-portrait was an unfinished work, painted around 1956 while Freud’s style was shifting. This piece shows his meticulous technique of painting outwards from the middle of a canvas.

His hard eyes and forehead are complete, and he has begun the tips of his fingers, emerging spread on his right cheek, on the verge of pulling himself off the canvas.

His treatment of women is striking. They are unflatteringly naked, pallid, with bulging skin, in awkward poses and depicted from a superior perspective.

One of his most famous works, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, depicts an immense woman draped over couch, viewed from above. Sharp addressed Freud’s reputation of brutality and unkindness to his subjects.

"This is a big cliché," Sharp said. As testimony to this, many women, friends, lovers, even his daughters, sat for him.

One painting in particular, Esther, shows a young teenager, awkwardly posed, still getting used to her body. For Esther Freud, his daughter, this was an opportunity to spend time with her father in his element, and she did not hesitate to sit for him.

In Painted Life she explained "I understood that he’s not trying to depict an image of me, he’s painting who I am."

Already controversial in the 1980’s, Freud’s use of his children as nude models remains an uncomfortable reality to this day. Freud’s response to the outcry was sanguine: "My naked daughters have nothing to be ashamed of."

In the final room of his works – there it was. The arresting painting, And The Bridegroom, of the couple I saw on the street, is huge – two metres by two metres – and a beautiful study of skin tone, shading, composition and anatomy.

The models, Leigh Bowery and Nicola Bateman were engaged at the time of the painting.  With his solid, unquestioning presence in the image, the knowledge that Bowery would die of Aids only seven months after their marriage caught me off guard.

I sat with the painting for a while. The honesty and ruthlessness in Freud’s portrayal of his subjects confirms he was an astute observer of the human condition. The woman’s foot rests lightly on the man’s thigh, and in that small, trusting gesture the feeling of isolation I had felt at first glance began to dissipate.


Through January 2014


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