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.

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If it’s not the best exhibition I have ever seen, it is certainly in my personal top three: the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris is a breathtaking display of artistic force and curatorial skilfulness, a monumental tribute to a truly monumental personality of the twentieth century. The show is organized by the above mentioned museum in collaboration with Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent Foundation and is placed under the patronage of Carla Bruni, France’s first lady and former fashion model who collaborated with the flamboyant and influent Parisian designer.
Some three hundred Saint Laurent models were set on display by the two curators, Florence Muller and Farid Chenoune, alongside an impressive quantity of drawings, sketches, documentary videos, comics and so on, offering a compelling and touching image of a complex, challenging and truly groundbreaking artist. The retrospective includes works dating from the late fifties (pieces of Yves Saint Laurent’s first collection from 1958, when he was working for Christian Dior) until his last elegant and somewhat melancholic creations of 2002. Thus, more then four decades of work unfold before the viewer, in such a manner that maintaining a critical stance becomes difficult, while sheer aesthetic pleasure and intellectual marvelling take over.
In presenting the artist’s fashion production, the exhibition poignantly underlines the profoundly innovative character of Yves Saint Laurent’s creation and the broad and deep understanding of society, culture and art that it is based upon. From the very beginnings of his career, the Oran born designer was pushing against the boundaries of fashion, understanding that it can be fully meaningful only when rules are left aside in order to meet, but also to forge, social demand. Deploying an acute understanding of form and colour, a feverish skill and a relentless work capacity, the French artist was the one to produce a series of significant “firsts”. Thus, the first sea jacket in 1962, the first safari suit in 1968 and, probably most notoriously, the first smoking suit in 1966 constitute some important highlights of his oeuvre. The importance of his participation in the social transformations that took place so spectacularly during the sixties and the early seventies, especially in regard to the role, the image and the self perception of women, is adequately described by a sentence used more than once in relation to the artist, which is also appropriated by the curators of the show: “Chanel gave women freedom. Yves Saint Laurent gave them power”.
Drawing is very present throughout the exhibition, in various forms. Some of his sketches were digitalized and then printed in huge sizes, covering the monumental windows of the halls at Petit Palais. Still, nothing of the freshness, the tactile quality and the astonishing simplicity of the original drawing is lost. A video showing Yves Saint Laurent at work leaves the spectator with the impression he or she’s just been watching an elegant lesson about mastering the line, in an effortless and eerily fast manner. The comics centred on the character of the naughty girl, Lulu, are another way the artist used the medium of drawing as form of expression. La vilaine Lulu is a book that was acclaimed by some as being a display of savage irony directed at various fears and clichés of the contemporary era, while others have furiously criticized it, even going so far as to denounce it as a plain manifest of Satanism.
This is not the only part of the exhibition which reveals Yves Saint Laurent potential for generating controversy. Thus, one room is dedicated to his spring 1971 collection, which was accused by many in his country and elsewhere of explicit references to the time of collaborationism in France and of romanticizing the German Nazi occupation and received more than a handful of negative reviews. Also, another room is presenting the spectator with a series of photographic nude portraits of the fashion designer realized by the photographer Jeanloup Sieff. Like other Saint Laurent “products”, the controversial images, initially conceived as part of a branding campaign, have meanwhile become classics equally for the genre of fashion photography, for that of photo portrait and that of the photographical nude.
By all means, the relation that the fashion designer has developed with other artistic media and with (modernist) art history is very well accounted for in the show. Some of his opera and theatre costumes are on view and one of the most touching section of the display is formed by screenings of movies to the production of which he contributed. In this respect, model and actress Catherine Deneuve, his long time muse, staring in Belle du jour, one of the most important Buñuel films and one of the most provocative products of European cinematography in the sixties, is both an eye stopper and a moving reminder of a great friendship which bounded two icons of contemporary culture. Following the same line of the dialogue with other artistic media, a rather small selection of fashion photographs, realized by some of the best artists ever active in this field and inspired by Yves Saint Laurent’s creations is presented at Petit Palais. The curators seem to have privileged quality over quantity and indeed, some of the photos displayed are exquisite works of art, particularly those of Helmut Newton.
But Saint Laurent’s relation to art is a much more intimate one, as convincingly proved by his collections dedicated to or inspired by the works of great artists of the twentieth century. A whole room of the retrospective show is hosting some of the most impressive examples of such creations of the French designer. Here, the refined and somewhat minimalist art of Mondrian becomes the pretext for a lavishly seductive dress; there, Picasso’s daring and trembled lines are tamed and charmed into seductively following the curves of the female body. And it seems there are no unsurpassable limits for the swirling whirlpool of his imagination: just as easy as he can move throughout art history, from using the chromatic harmonies of Robert Delaunay to reshaping the reveries of the surrealists, Yves Saint Laurent can move through (cultural) spaces. Titled Les voyages imaginaire, one section of the show brings forward examples of clothes he’s conceived taking as starting point the formal and chromatic specificities of the traditional costumes from area as diverse as Spain or Russia, the Maghreb or the Far East. The designer’s imaginary voyages are romanticist exercises in exoticism, understood in its positive, playful and truly seductive meaning.
One of the things that Saint Laurent held to be axiomatic for the world of fashion was that haute couture’ s time is over. Therefore, it was a shocking and revealing experience to view Le dernier bal, one of the last and arguably the most spectacular room in the show. Some tens of haute couture models that he produced during his entire career were displayed on mannequins placed on a monumental podium – like stage, in a large, high room. Opera music played, and while the centre of the room was occupied by the startlingly elegant, sensuously colourful dresses, one of the walls was covered by a huge print depicting a nineteenth century ball scene and another one was literally covered, top to bottom, by black and dark grey smoking suits produces by the artist. The stark contrast between sobriety and innovation on one hand, history and nostalgia meaningfully and acutely circumscribe Yves Saint Laurent’s creative personality.
Somewhat lateral from what is supposed to constitute the main itinerary within the display, Yves Saint Laurent’s work studio from the sixties was reconstituted and displayed. Viewing it is both an emotional and a startling experience. A simple wooden desk lies in front of the visitor, with rather few objects placed upon it. There are some pencils, some sketches and several blank sheets of paper, two or three art catalogues. On the wall behind the desk and the simple, even banal chair used by the designer, several shelves can be seen, on which more art books are arranged. And that’s pretty much it. Nothing is sophisticated, nothing is glamorous. It is almost as someone would try to define and construct a minimum set of tools an artist might need in order to achieve creative greatness. This simplicity is all the more uncanny and somehow moving as one remembers that the artist in question is one of the sacred monsters of the shiny, spectacular, vanity driven world of fashion.
All in all, the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at Petit Palais is a splendid epitome of one of the fundamental beliefs regarding the field of fashion design which the artist had once formulated: “I have always held above all the respect for this profession which is not entirely an art, but needs an artist in order to exist”. And, as Yves Saint Laurent proves, every now and then a great artist comes into this profession and transforms it from maybe less than art into maybe more than art, making it a world shaping, society moulding instrument, while it still remains visually enchanting.

Note: for a virtual tour of the show, check http://www.yslretrospective.com