You’re the One for Me, Fatty

Lucian Freud: Homage to Lucian Freud
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Through December 31, 2011

You are pretty sure you have a handle on things; a bead on the situation, so to speak. You know the speed that light travels (299,792,458 meters per second). This is of some help. You know, more or less, where you are: what universe, what planet, what continent, what street, what room number. You are focused on reading this. That will keep your mind occupied for well over one minute. Your body, however, is operating on another level altogether. Several, as a matter of fact. At the same time. None of which you are really concerned with right now. Your brain tells your heart to beat, your blood is oxygenated. You are digesting. Producing and accruing shit and piss. You are sweating. At some point you realize that you have unconsciously become wet.

Few artists have managed to capture the gross beauty that is the human. Lucian Freud (December 8, 1922–July 20, 2011) was one of them. His was not an art of our higher aspirations or perceptions of our selves, but a candid depiction of our animal existences.At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, seventeen of Freud’s works sketch a selection of his studies of the human in its pure corporeal state. The oil paintings, sixteen from anonymous private collections, were originally to exhibit as British Paintings After World War II, but at Freud’s passing last month, the museum quietly installed the paintings and renamed the exhibit Homage to Lucian Freud.

Naked Man, Back View (1991–92) is the Met's seminal Freud, a rear-view nude of the performance artist Leigh Bowery crushing a small stool. Pound for pound, it is fair to say that no artist has described as much human topography as Freud. We can imagine the inevitable artist bio pic, with Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs) as Freud. "Have you seen my puppy? Get in the fucking van . . . Wait. Wait. Are you a size 14?"

Freud's lolling, academically inclined nudes of fat queens, corpulent business tycoons, hefty slags, and his own daughters provided enough frisson of modern psychology to cover for the fact that his true obsessions lay in the flesh; it keeps them still from being sucked into the dustbin of aesthetic oblivion.

Unlike his fellow assimilated-British painter friends Bacon, Auerbach, and Kossoff, Freud made his way as a young man from cosmopolitan Berlin to urban London. His early work belied his interest in the purely physical, with a nod to the elder (Grandfather Sigmund) Freud, dabbling as it did in minor surrealist themes and Northern European Renaissance-styled portraits (Girl with White Dog). Largely, though, Freud owes much of his fame to the cult of personality that surrounds him -- rake (alleged father of twenty-six children), gambler (extravagant, yet bad), epicure, etc. -- more than to great talent. As William Rubin noted of Barnett Newman, his career turned on his ability to be urbane and irresponsible without spreading malice. Céline wrote, though not of Freud, but it applies:

"There wasn’t much to be said for me, but my manners were all right, and I was self-effacing; deference came easy to me, I lived in constant fear of not being on time, but took good care never to get ahead of anybody. In short, I had delicacy..."

Delicacy may not be the first word that jumps to mind when viewing Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, but it comes close to explaining how Freud managed to navigate a 50-odd-year career. The eleventh-century monk Ælfric wrote that art should be created "pro Gloria Dei," which we might stretch to mean "for a greater end than our visual delectation." For a work of art to be a Work of Art it must rise above the mere visual grammar and syntax of paint and become a Painting. Lofty, yes, but who are we, after all, to debate an eleventh-century monk?

Well, here we are, at once awkward and exhilarated. Yes, you say -- even as you roll your eyes at the banality of the situation. Here we are. - Bradley Rubenstein

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is at 1000 Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.


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