Lucian Freud is currently widely acclaimed as one of the greatest painters of the last half a century or so, being perceived as an epitome of artistic idiosyncrasy, with little, if any, interest in following cultural trends, being turned into a source of greatness of some sort. He is admired for what could be called either his stubbornness or his consistency, as well as he is generating tons of petty curiosity with respect to his biography, which, presumably, would be that of a typically eccentric artist (though it strikes an attentive observer how actually uneventful, in terms of great drama and crazy gestures, his life actually was, perhaps with some predictable exceptions in his youth). Praised also for his exceptional mastery of the painterly matter, though, by more than one set of technical or stylistic criteria, this presumed mastery could actually be seriously questioned, Freud is somewhat idolized as a sort of an old master, with modernist attitudes towards the meaning and practice of art, as well as regarding the role of the artist, who yet somehow managed to thrive into the postmodernist climate of contemporary art.

This perception is not necessarily wrong, yet I’m not sure how relevant it is for comprehending the amplitude and the true obsession generated depth of his art. For the London based and London loving artist was not actually an outsider of the local art scene, no matter how dominated it might have been, at moments, by a Pop mindset or by a conceptualist / minimalist / language focused disposition. Moreover, it must be noticed that he acted in an art world, namely the British one, which was, until recently (by this understanding the last two decades or so) kind of conceptually conservative in many regards and respectful towards traditions of historically established art. To grasp this, one only needs to think, for example, about the evolution of the British enfant terrible and Freud sitter David Hockney, with the Hogarth’s interpretations from the beginnings of his career and the English landscapes painted in nature in his mature years. In such a milieu, sort of old fashioned artists’ gangs such as the Soho ones, where Freud was indisputably one of the charismatic characters, were naturally accepted entities and far from being outcast by a presumed academism of the conceptualist trends. Nothing said above, however, downplays Lucian Freud’s merits as an artist. It only proves that, far from being a strange animal in the contemporary artistic jungle, he –as others such as his fellow Bacon or even, somewhat, Kiefer– is a perfectly fitting postmodern figure, for there are artists like Freud which demonstrate that, in our contemporary era, the famous anything goes fully functions, thus allowing art that is far from being cutting edge (from a medium or a political point of view) to be appreciated, to be largely and rightfully praised.

During the last decade, his oeuvre has been the subject of several exhibitions with retrospective ambitions and aims. I have been fortunate enough to see no less than three of them and I can say, without any shadow of doubt in my mind, that the current show at the National Portrait Gallery in London is the most compelling, by far the most dense and tensed and the one that offers the most poignant image of what truly, essentially, makes Freud a mesmerizing artist. The retrospective show in 2005, concomitant with the Venice biennale of that year, was hosted by the Palazzo Correr in Piazza San Marco and was what can be coined as a prestige show: some fifty of the artist’s most famous works, comprising all genres of painting he approached. It offered a comprehensive view on his artistic production, without necessarily offering a stance regarding it. The Pompidou show in 2010 was titled L’atelier and aimed at offering a more comprehensive image of Freud via his crucial relationship to his workspace. Impressive and well documented, the Paris exhibition convincingly showed Freud as being an artist with tremendous force of energetically, so to speak, organizing his environment, one able to shape the world around in order to serve his artistic endeavours and maybe obsessions. There were the two above mentioned shows that made me believe that he was truly a great painter and an artist that was hard to look over when writing the art history of the 20th century. I also thought that his most poignant source of painterly greatness was his ability to tackle textures, human flesh included, with a forceful combination of lively realism and sensual pigment deployment. The current exhibition in London though made me understood I was wrong: his most impressive strength lies in his complicated understanding and arduous execution of portraiture.

From the very beginning, it needs to be noted that scrutinizing the face or the body of a person with the persistence, the apparent lack of empathy and the inquisitiveness which are deployed by Freud in realizing his portraits is an act of aggression. Observing the other which such intensity kind of burns down the protective layers of facial expressions, gestures and words, meant to safeguard the inner identity of the sitter, as it is perceived by him or her. This aggression does not necessarily exclude affection: it might just as well be the case that Freud was sincere when stating that he only paints people he cares about. But the sharpness of the scrutiny renders any affective stance or approach secondary, at best. In other words, he probably depicted people he cared about, but not because he cared about them and not because he wanted to show that he cared about them. He might have been sympathetic; his painting though is fierce and unbelievably cerebral. And this is far more important than the well known fact, somehow fascinating in its own right, that he was often “torturing” his sitters by authoritatively asking them to sit for tens of ours, many times exceeding one hundred hours, actually. The long hours are a necessary instrument deployed in order to get to the bottom of things, the way Freud perceived it, and nothing less was satisfactory to him.

Intense, thus, is by far the best, albeit exasperatingly imprecise, single word to describe the display at the National Portrait Gallery. The way the show itself was conceived actually helped in this respect. Not allocating a huge space to Freud’s portraits forces the viewer to take in the works as if they were somewhat crowded. It is the organizers merit that they understood how something that would be a mistake in an overwhelming majority of cases could actually strengthen this particular show. Surrounded by all the faces and all the bodies, not having the normal resting intervals while moving from piece to piece made the paintings uncannily present, it even made somehow the artist eerily present. It appeared as if someone had opened a box with some family and friends’ photos and made the gigantic effort of obliquely translate a life, as seen through the photos, into a painterly saga, sometimes using some surrealist filtering in the process.

And still, each painting was mesmerizing in its own right. I will not speak of any of them in detail. I find it pointless, as no short list could actually be meaningfully drafted and this is no monographic work. I’ll just notice how most of the faces in Freud’s paintings tend to linger in the back of your mind. It happens with the rather unsophisticated portraits of the mid – forties, where the eyes of seemingly gracious and innocent women stare into the void revealing a more turbulent inner life than meets the eye and an almost abstract unhappiness (see Girls with Roses, for example). It happens just as well with some of the latest male portraits, in which one sees, if carefully scrutinizing the surface, how strong, accomplished men, winners in more ways than one, just cannot shake some sort of fundamental, inherent vulnerability (see Man in a Blue Scarf or David Hockney). The same power to haunt is to be found in his most famous works (see his 1985 self – portrait) and in those less discussed and acclaimed (such as the superbly discreet Girl with Beret), as, again and again, one gets the impression that, if the whole intellectual world knows that there is no such thing as the one and only reality, no one told Lucian Freud, the painter who keeps trying to depict nothing less than people as they really are. Some capital issue of human relationships is forcefully revealed in almost all of his paintings in the exhibition. I have hardly ever seen a more crushingly sharp image of sentimental and familial estrangement than his 1954 Hotel Bedroom or glimpsed more comprehensively at the tensely complex relation between a man and his mother than when gazing at The Painter’s Mother Resting I (a painting that confronts the viewer with someone who irradiates power all the more forcefully as she is depicted as being frail).

Many of the previous remarks fit his nude paintings, too and the inclusion of a large number of nudes in the portrait show in London is more than justifiable. It is actually crucial for shedding light on an utmost important aspect of his work, namely that in his obsessive strive for describing individuals he somehow treats nudes as portraits. Perhaps nowhere is this more plainly visible than in his painterly descriptions of Leigh Bowery, a bizarrely tragic figure of nineties hip, London’s Australian apostle of (extreme) cool.

Thus, Leigh Bowery (Seated) from 1990 and Nude with Leg Up (Leigh Bowery) from 1992 are likely to be two of Freud best ever several works. The sitter’s massive, overweight body is given a painterly attention fit for royalty, so to speak. However, the textile textures and that of the floor are also painted by a Freud at his best. And still, all you see in the end, staring the works insistently, is a man called Leigh Bowery. His massive body is not a subject for meditation about proportions; it is not simply a pretext for masterfully painting flesh, with or without transforming it into a memento mori or an instance of joie de vivre. Respectfully, yet mercilessly, Freud simply paints Bowery: a rich character, which is not a hero in any way, who’s big and, yes, fat body doesn’t make him either utterly powerful or utterly frail. Lucian Freud painted someone who is not afraid of his gentle inner demons not because he can dominate them, but because he has learned that being afraid of what you cannot defeat is downright stupid. This indeed difficult to attain and somewhat painful simplicity of describing a human being is to be found again and again in his nude representations. They always possess a touching banality which renders both their sexuality and their sensuousness frighteningly futile and their humble humanity uncannily plain.

I’ve been roaming the National Portrait Gallery’s rooms, after finishing a first, long, tiring and intense tour, in one last attempt to find joy or happiness, in any shape or form, being irradiated by Freud’s models. I can sincerely say I couldn’t find any. Still, his portraits are not elegiac renderings of pitiful human beings, or, with maybe a few notable exceptions, manifestations of an existentialist type of nausea. It’s just that, after looking at them stubbornly for a while (for the intensity of the gaze deployed in order to paint them requires equally passionate scrutiny from the viewer, in order to grasp more than meets the eye at a hasty glance) you come to the unsettling understanding of the fact that, for Freud, some essence of the human condition can actually be circumscribed by painting. Call it a hubristic obsession; however, it lies at the core of his art. Nevertheless, this presumed essence consists in a sheer banality that doesn’t exonerate one from striving to be special, nor from suffering because of not actually being important, ontologically speaking.

Lucian Freud did not, as was often dully said and did not try to revolutionize the genre of portraiture (rather, as argued above, he used nudes in an unusual way). He just made portraits in one of the best possible ways, not unlike Velasquez. Like the Spaniard, he approaches his models fiercely and with the cold, yet benevolent eye of a strange aristocrat. Again like Velasquez, he succeeds in forcing the viewer to tantalize between the temptations of getting deeply acquainted with the depicted person and of taking delight in the refined, perverse beauty of the paint. Thus, Freud asserts his belonging to that species of rare, fascinating painters that resemble the best illusionists, namely those who do not even allow you to understand that magic is about to occur until it is already too late to try wrapping your mind around it.

Born in Romania, in 1959, Belu – Simion Fainaru is, so to speak, a living argument supporting the idea that contemporary art and artists can only be international. Living, working and teaching in Israel and Belgium, present in iconic international artistic events such as the Documenta or the Venice and the Havana Biennale, having solo shows hosted by prestigious institutions such as the S.M.A.K. in Gent, Fainaru is also currently the driving force, as well as the artistic director and curator of the Mediterranean Biennale of Contemporary Art in Israel. In more ways than one, he is an excellent example of a cultural producer who can meaningfully use specific cultural ideas, a particular spiritual mindset and tradition, as well his personal biographical background to reach very different audiences and to respond to diverse expectations, which are yet far from being levelled by the globalization processes.
After exhibiting together with Victor Man, in 2007, at Plan B gallery in Cluj (in a far from poignant show called More or less in the same place or another), the artist came back this year for a solo show at the same gallery, titled Nothingness – the Poetics of the Void. Opened at the end of February 2012, the exhibition was intelligently pairing remarkable clarity and coherence with less obvious conceptual complexity, was charmingly juxtaposing a sort of optimistic humour and an almost spiritual seriousness, and was concomitantly joggling with visual mojo and intellectual rigour. Thus, Fainaru’s truly impressive recent show confronts the viewer with a mature artist, who fully masters the tools of his (very personal) trade, yet remains remarkably inquisitive, dismissing both laziness, in all possible forms and bravado as if they were, to use a sharp, yet problematic syntagm, artistic sins.
The void and the nothingness appear to gain, somewhat paradoxically, positive value in Belu – Simion Fainaru’s apprehension. For what is worth, he is not the first proposing such a comprehension. Used recurrently throughout mankind’s spiritual history to define the indefinable, deployed to denote an absolute, incomprehensible reality or entity, the concepts of void, emptiness and so on have represented, for many religious thinkers or philosophers not the equivalent of non – existence, but, on the contrary, that of ultimate levels of being and of knowledge. Fainaru’s approach of the concepts of void and nothingness, which are, in fact, alluding to one and the same semantic realm, somehow paroxysmically highlighted by the use of both words in the seemingly categorical title of the exhibition, is rooted in such intellectual endeavours. Contemporary Jewish philosopher and Kabbalah researcher Moshe Idel shares and studied, mostly within texts composing the mystical Judaic tradition, some similar ideas about the nature of reality and deity. As he is a long time interlocutor and, I dare to presume, intellectual sparring partner of the artist, the Romanian born thinker has, in this respect, a considerable influence upon the artist’s conceptual and even spiritual world, which the latter admits without hesitation. Nevertheless, making an art that is not simply figurative, but, in a way, downright concrete and still embed in it references to the poetics of absence is, if taken seriously, a formidable task. Embarking on such a daring endeavour is precisely what Fainaru often does, most times with truly admirable and also even gently touching artistic results.
Think, for example, at his A Penny for Nothing interactive sculpture, featured in the exhibition at Plan B. A rather big, predictably white freezer has been filled with water and awaits the viewer, who is given the following instructions: “Count your pennies and throw one penny in the freezer: one penny for your hunger, one penny for your thirst, one penny for nothing”. To turn a common freezer in a fountain of wishes is a kind of ironic critique of consumerism, but this semantic layer is so secondary in Fainaru’s art work. What is more important is the ritual that is being instituted, as the instructions are precise as religious prescriptions. The religious or spiritual formalism is here alluded to, yet the artist is not necessarily criticizing it, not really trying to deconstruct it as void, stiff or meaningless, as has been done countless times before, to the point that the practice had became somewhat fashionable, not only in the artistic realm, but also in theological or pseudo – theological writing and predication. Hunger and thirst are both powerful and common metaphors of spiritual needs; however, the coronation of the ritual envisages their surpassing and accessing a sort of comprehension, or at least acknowledgement of superior nothingness. Then, after such reflections, one sobers up and realises that it’s still just a freezer, filled with water, into which contemporary art spectators tend to throw small coins, many of them smirking or smiling with presumably superior understanding while doing so. One realises, too, that it is in this very tension and in this very sharp, yet subtle humour that art somehow resides.
There is a strong connexion to be detected, in many of Fainaru’s works, with the concept and the practices of magic. Transformation is one of the key features of magic, one could rightfully say its fundamental purpose and it always envisages objects or substances with strong symbolic power. Transformation leads to the occurrence of a new reality, i. e. a new symbolic order. Something of this dialectics can be detected, for example, in such a work like Fears and Tears, the artist’s performance at the opening, when he placed one dollar bills into a toaster. Three domains of reality, which are in many ways profoundly antagonistic, yet often intertwined, are tensely brought together, as the dollar bill symbolically and uncannily becomes a loaf of bread: that of capital (where money are transubstantiated into power), that of religious beliefs (where matter is transubstantiated into spirit) and that of family life (where small rituals are transubstantiated into harmony).
Fainaru’s artistically induced / endowed magic is far from being a mockery of magic practices and beliefs, as he does not assume the position of the fake, tongue – in – cheek, postmodernist – like trickster. At the same time, though, his artistic endeavours are not as spiritually charged as to claim the actual ability to trigger transubstantiations of some sort, at least not with the seriousness assumed by artists such as an emphatically theatrical Nitsch or a utopian Beuys. The result of this, one could say, ontological and axiological indecision, is an inherent semantic tension, which provide his works with the ability to concomitantly be wittily attractive and imprecisely disquieting. Think, for example, of an installation like Black Milk, composed of a rather large number of white ceramic pieces of tableware, arranged in a rectangular shape on the gallery’s floor and filled with a translucent, black liquid. More than one kind of ritual and more than one type of liturgical discourse could come to one’s mind in front of the work, while the visual play carried out by the shiny white and the shiny black surfaces possesses a definitely hypnotic quality. Still, one can finally find out that the mysterious black liquid is nothing less trivial than spent engine oil; thus, the commonplace realm of the technological abruptly interferes with any spiritual references and awkwardly, almost shyly downplays metaphysical implications.
As forcefully proven by the solo show at Plan B, Belu – Simion Fainaru’s art, when deployed with full impetus, can hardly be confined to the clearly delineated borders of the gallery’s “white cube”. The main reason for this is that, leaving magic and rituals aside, he is the kind of artist who strongly needs to physically alter the environment in which he “performs”, to somehow inscribe his passage into it. Thus, he often marks the broader spatial context of the exhibitions with items that force the occurrence of a somewhat disguised, yet refined poetics. In the specific case of the Nothingness – the Poetics of the Void show, for example, before entering the courtyard of the Paintbrushes Factory, in which the actual gallery and thus, presumably, the exhibition are situated, one is met by a traffic light. The green light has the text “money” written on it, while the red light reads “no money”. Placed high above the entrance gate, Fainaru’s traffic light half playfully awakens the superstitious alter ego most of us possess, whether we like or not, whether we admit it or not. At the same time, the work obliquely performs a critique of the contemporary art system, suggesting that it matters if you enter the space of contemporary art with or without money, seeking money or not. Instead of furiously and pointlessly blubbing about the unfairness of the capitalist (art) market, as so many artists do, in, unfortunately, often dull manners, he brings a bit of lyricism, a touch of sharp irony and the shadow of a wise and indulgent smile into the discussion.
Lyricism, in its plain, but not corny form, reaches its peak within the show with the installation that took over a whole wall of the floor in the Factory where Plan B is situated, titled Monument for Nothingness. Small holes were drilled into the wall, at even intervals, disposed on several rows and a bouquet of roses is placed at the end of the corridor. Again, the prescribed mode d’emploi is disarmingly simple: “Take a rose petal. Think of a wish. And insert the petal into the wall”. No promises are made, no guarantees are granted that the wish will be fulfilled; one can only secretly hope for it, just as one bluntly, irrepressibly and so humanly hopes that the good predictions of the stupid morning horoscope. The visual effect on the viewer of the white wall dotted by the fresh red rose petals is fascinating; at the same time, as the first petals slowly decay and some fresh are added (increasingly rare, as the period of the exhibition nears its end) the wall becomes a saddening vanitas. Nevertheless, one must not overlook that understanding that vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas is a classic first step, in several traditions of thinking, in elevating one’s consciousness to a superior level of understanding the fundamental void of the world. And thus, true hope rises out of evanesced wishes: the petals were anyway far too beautiful to actually be able to kill all hope.
One more issue which needs discussing when it comes to the exhibition in Cluj, but also to Fainaru’s art in general is that of travelling, in the broader and complex meaning of the word. The artist has been in the fairly awkward position, as he left Romania, to emigrate from his country of birth to, literally, his fatherland. Being at the same time a native and an immigrant is a paradoxical status, one that he often explored in his artistic endeavours, as it might actually be the position of the truly irreducible stranger. His life and career could support such an assertion: he was the young and a bit strange immigrant accepted rather late by the Israeli art world, he works and teaches in Belgium as a Jewish artist from abroad and he is more or less a foreigner when he revisits the place where he was actually born.
From this position, he naturally tunes in to certain types of nostalgia related to geographical and mental maps of belonging. The assumed stranger’s identity, but that of the stranger who is at home almost everywhere, is referred to in such works as Another Time, the abat – jour lamp hanging from Plan B gallery’s ceiling that reads Belongs nowhere and to another time, sentence which seems to function as a sort of identitary mantra for the artist: he uses it, sometimes in slightly varying forms, again and again as he speaks of himself or his art. The same topic of belonging is epitomized in Jerusalem in the pocket, a white shirt’s sleeve provided with a pocket filled with earth from the holly city. The fundamental Jewish feeling of religious belonging is brought into discussion, as well as the binary semantics stemming from a Romanticist ideology, which was able to generate aggressive nationalisms, on one hand and sincere, sentimental, maybe even pathetic emotional attachments to “special” places, on the other hand.
Finally, it should be said that Belu – Simion Fainaru, a stranger or not, is a true traveller: he does not go to places to see them, but to somehow take them in, to capture their spirit, with glamour and dust, with the memories of bloodshed and the hopefulness of weddings. I strongly believe that this one of the crucial features of his personality which allows Fainaru, the artist, to be a genuine, first hand teacher.

For photos of the show, go to http://www.plan-b.ro/index.php?/expo/belu-simion-fainaru/.