Lucian Freud died last summer just as the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the National Gallery in London were in the final stages of preparing his retrospective.
The reclusive British artist had approved of the interviews made over a three-year period by Michael Auping, the Modern's chief curator. This surprised everyone, as Freud hated being interviewed. He had helped select the paintings that were going to be in the show and, more importantly, had assisted in securing the loans. Then, as if his work were done, and without any warning, he passed away.
Overnight, the value of the exhibit hit a stratospheric high; Freud's paintings were worth considerably more the day after July 20, 2011, than the day before.
British publications waxed lengthy in obituaries about his 88 years and just as many loves. Freud was a celebrity in England, so he got the Page 1 treatment. His exes came forward, as did a number of his children; he had 14 recognized offspring and it was suggested that there were dozens more.
Some had lovely things to say; others were quite angry about his lack of parenting skills or interest. So, along with the sorrow were the snipers.
Since the exhibition opened in London in February and now in Fort Worth, the Freud noise has reached a higher decibel with stories about his relationships and reviews of his talent. It will never be louder than now, and in time, his personal story will be subsumed by the artistic legacy.
From here on out, says Auping, Freud is in the hands of the historians.
This exhibit, "Lucian Freud: Portraits," on view until Oct. 28, is the first honing of the forevermore.
In Britain, Freud is referred to as the 20th century's greatest portrait painter. That generous descriptor doesn't stretch quite as far as Texas, as there are a number of American portrait painters who could challenge Freud. But most would allow that the adjective "great" is not hyperbole.
Freud was a great portraitist, and he is known primarily for his nudes. He didn't paint flattering, circumspect, modest nude people. He painted his friends and family spread-eagle naked in the kind of poses that demand plain brown wrappers when displayed on retail-store shelves.
This is where American painters and Freud differ. Americans who paint nudes -- Tom Wesselmann, Mel Ramos, Philip Pearlstein and John Currin -- prefer a slick gloss that replicates the perfection of cosmetic surgery and Photoshop. Freud liked the worn and wrinkled viscidities of life lived.
His nudes are blatantly stripped of tease and sexual suggestion. There is nothing titillating. The posers are devoid of allure and bare of camouflage. No one leaves Freud's studio on canvas looking pretty. If anything, the portraits are harsh, as if painted under the most unflattering fluorescent light. His young people look old, but it is a haggardness they grow into.
He was as uncomplimentary to himself as he was to them; it was only fair, he said. The self-portraits, and there are many, are just as unflinchingly cruel.
"When I look at a body, it gives me choice of what to put in a painting, what will suit me and what won't," he said about his less-than-flattering style. "There is a distinction between fact and truth. Truth has an element of revelation about it. If something is true, it does more than strike one as merely being so."
There are about 90 pieces in the exhibit that opens Sunday, mostly paintings and a few etchings that span his output from the 1940s to the last canvas he was painting when he died. There is a lot of skin on display. Freud loved to paint skin -- he felt he was painting the whole animal when he painted people denuded of their costumes -- and these are the most interesting paintings here and out in the world.
Freud tried to explain the difference between nudes and nude portraits: "I want paint to work as flesh. I know my idea of portraiture came from dissatisfaction with portraits that resembled people. I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having to look at the sitter, being them. As far as I am concerned, the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as the flesh does."
His Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, a full-body portrait of the overstuffed 300-plus-pound Sue Tilley asleep on a saggy rolled-arm sofa, is the most expensive painting by a living artist ever sold at auction (Russian collector Roman Abramovich paid $33.6 million for it in 2008).
Freud found the texture of Tilley's skin to be quite fascinating. As the skin stretches to accommodate her weight, the rolls of flesh sag in harmony with that of the old sofa, each looking like gravity will eventually pull them to the floor in lumpish puddles of fat and fiber. It was in the exhibit in London but did not travel to Texas; several other paintings of Tilley did.
Freud was equally enchanted by the physical presence of entertainer Leigh Bowery, a performance artist who died young from AIDS-related illnesses. Freud painted Bowery a number of times, and in those paintings, Bowery never looks ill -- just voluptuously large and, in one instance, so much more attractive than his emaciated wife, who lies next to him looking so skeletal that she is the one who seems closest to death.
Freud's subjects are often lying down, on an old iron bed or on the floor of his studio. He was known to take an average of nine months to finish a portrait, and in some cases, years. His sitters had to find a pose that they could sustain for hours. It was a commitment of time and patience that not everyone could endure.
His subjects were often friends, wives, girlfriends, studio assistants, bookies, gangsters, other artists and his children, although a painting's title will never divulge the true relationship.
He had two children with his first wife, Kitty, and the others with assorted girlfriends; 1961 was a banner year for Freud's randy ways -- he had three daughters born to different mothers. But he was a breeder, not a father, and his neglected offspring found that the only way to bond with their absentee parent was to seek him out in his studio.
Children who wanted a relationship reached out to him, shed their clothes and became his models.
Bundle all that up with his lineage as the grandson of legendary psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and the result is some foot locker-size baggage.
Friends and subjects
His early portraits of wives -- Kitty Garman in Girl in a Dark Jacket, and Lady Caroline Blackwood, a Guinness beer heiress, in Girl in Bed and Hotel Bedroom -- are from his years when he painted people as flat, two-dimensional, large-eyed aliens. He used a tiny sable brush and carefully recorded each eyelash and stray hair, but in their exactness, they were more surreal than real.
These paintings are small and framed. Most of his paintings are in distressed gold frames. To see gold-framed portraits on the walls of the Modern is quite odd. Eventually, Freud found a way to paint that would take him to larger and more museum-size proportions -- but still in gold frames.
In the late '50s, Freud came under the influence of Britain's better 20th-century painter, Francis Bacon, who encouraged Freud to use bigger brushes and looser brush work, and to concentrate on making each stroke count.
It was good advice but resulted in a painting method that was agonizingly slow. Freud would mix paint on his wooden palette, carefully. He allowed only one color per stroke. He would carefully mix another color and then apply it the same way.
He worked so long on his canvases that the paint would begin to dry and as he worked over the surface again and again, the dry areas would lift up like scabs, and so the sitter's skin would start to look irritated.
When Freud's palette became overloaded with paint, he would wipe it on the walls or use rags that he would then throw on the floor. His studio was a mess; paint covered all the surfaces -- furniture, walls and floor. He used recycled hotel linens as rags, and as they were used and pitched aside, they grew into mountains of oily refuse and often appeared in his paintings -- as did an old iron bedstead with a lumpy mattress, a saggy sofa and two odd chairs. One upholstered and the other not, both look uncomfortable -- or perhaps it is just the sitter's expression, having had to sit in them for months. Freud never bothered to upgrade his props as his fortunes improved.
He made no apologies for his miserly ways. "My work is purely autobiographical," he says. "It is about myself and my surroundings. I work from people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I know."
His gaze was merciless. There is a small self-portrait of Freud painted in profile with a single beady-eyed stare. He looks like a raptor -- hawk-nosed, squinty-eyed, ready to pounce. It must be what his sitters describe as his relentless stare. He would move very close to his models, stare at them, circle them, stare some more, apply a single dab of paint to the canvas, then stare some more.
Among his subjects were other artists. David Hockney agreed to a portrait and then regretted it immediately. "He was slow. Very slow. I worked it out that I sat for him for 120 hours," Hockney told Vanity Fair magazine.
"And because he took a long, long time, we talked a lot: about our lives, people we knew in common, bitchy artist gossip. He wanted you to talk so he could watch how your face moved. He had these incredible eyes that sort of pierced into you, and I could tell when he was working on a specific part of my face, my left cheek or something, because those eyes would be peering in: peering and piercing."
Freud explained the evolution of working methods to Auping: "I often sat very close, and we were both very still. Then, when I loosened up my brush stroke, I think that was when I started to move around more. I find now if I take too fixed a position, I lose the person, if you know what I mean. The painting will begin to flatten. I feel a need to see as much of the subject as I can, sometimes from different angles. A portrait isn't just a flat image. It is a person. It needs to have dimension."
The starting point
Usually it is the relationship with his sitter that results in a portrait; occasionally, it is a preconceived idea.
Freud wanted to paint a military portrait -- a popular theme in portraits past, what with all those glittering medals, plumed hats, regal bearing and such -- and his good friend Andrew Parker Bowles (former husband to Camilla, who is now the wife of Prince Charles) agreed to sit for The Brigadier.
He had been a commander of the Household Cavalry. The commission came with a resplendent black uniform with gold-trimmed cuffs and stiff stand-up collar, a wide red stripe down the black pants leg, medals across the chest, and a long, close-fitting tunic jacket that, 20 years post-service, could no longer be buttoned.
For his sitting, Parker Bowles left it open, and his stomach spills out over his waistband. He looks sadly aware of the poor figure he now cuts. Brits have pointed to this painting as the perfect summation of the decline of the British Empire. Parker Bowles has heard this and responds, "Well, so be it." That shrug of indifference fuels the flames of the anti-royals even more.
Freud's second marriage opened doors in the classist society that he had not been privy to, so that his circle of sitters included the titled and his bookie, to whom he owed millions in gambling debts.
Oddly, as his portraits were completed, they were bought not by the models but by strangers. As his reputation grew, his patron circle became smaller and smaller as his prices became steeper and steeper.
As these portraits are not lovely to look at, it's difficult to imagine their attraction to a private collector, especially one without an ancestral portrait gallery. A Freud stuck in the timeline of great-great-granddads on the dining room wall would no doubt be a controversial statement, so there is that appeal, but for a multimillion-dollar price tag, the joke would wear thin.
Museums are keen on collecting them, but the prices for Freuds are outstripping their resources. It will be interesting to see on whose walls his paintings will land.
This will be one of the few great retrospectives of Freud's work ever mounted. Now that he is gone, and the value on his paintings is so high, it will be difficult and outrageously expensive to mount another exhibition of this scale.
The art world recognizes this; the Modern has been fielding calls for weeks from out-of-town Freud freaks who want to see the exhibit. These people are crossing multiple state lines to see this show. All we have to do is saunter by the Modern.
Don't pass up the opportunity. It's one of those significant occasions on the exhibition calendar -- the summer Freud came to Fort Worth.
Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113