LUCIAN FREUD, THE PAINTER grandson of Sigmund Freud, was said in his youth to have almost no natural ability to draw. In spite of that, Freud managed to develop a unique sensibility in rendering the human form. Many critics rank him as one of the great figurative artists of our time. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art agrees, and has just opened "Lucian Freud: Recent Work" (on view through March 13). If Freud's career amounts to less than absolute greatness, the 60 paintings in the Met show are still an intense, almost garish summation of what the tensions of 20th-century life have wrought upon the human body.
Born in Berlin in 1922, the middle son of Sigmund Freud's youngest son, Ernst, was brought to London in 1933. He was naturalized six years later. After brief service in the merchant marine in 1941, Freud commenced the standard English artistic life: studio digs in a grubby district (Paddington) and slightly scandalous work (writer Kennedy Fraser calls it painting "titled ladies in the buff"). He drank, gambled heavily and fraternized with aristocrats. He also married twice: Kitty Garman (daughter of sculptor Jacob Epstein) in 1948, and Lady Caroline Blackwood in 1952. He divorced both, but fathered at least eight children in and out of marriage--two of whom, Rose Boyt and Esther Freud, grew up to write semiautobiographical novels ("Sexual Intercourse" and "Hideous Kinky," respectively).
Although Freud's mature paintings are more straightforward than those of Francis Bacon (with whom he had a falling-out before Bacon died), he's the most shocking artist of a group (including Bacon and R. B. Kitaj) often called the "School of London." Freud tilts the floor plane of his compositions, almost as if there's an unseen giant in the background heaving up the floorboards. He dumps his models on an old bed or near piles of studio rags, often poses them with legs splayed, genitals exposed, and articulates their vacant expressions, blue-veined forearms and knobby joints with a relentless impasto. He employs a white-gone-yellow-with-age palette that could have been used to illustrate Miss Havisham's abandonment at the altar in "Great Expectations." A Met wall label declares, "Seemingly beaten by time and abuse, flesh has become landscape."
The particular epidermal vista referred to, in "Naked Man, Back View" (1991-92), belongs to Leigh Bowery, a big fat Australian performance artist Freud saw at work in 1988, who has posed for several paintings--sometimes with his metal cheek studs in, sometimes out. Although Freud's work over the last decade has departed from modest size, his encrusted 1990-91 "Self Portrait" is only a foot square--still plenty big enough for Freud to take the nervous, existential buzz in Giacometti's self-portrait line drawings and convert it into solid, meaty paint.
Where Freud falls short is on the grandest Plane, compared with artists such as Manet. The French painter's brushstroke evokes the rare grace of genius, while Freud's conveys mostly arduous labor at the easel. In the show's catalog, Catherine Lampert (director of London's Whitechapel Gallery, where the show originated) writes that during the last five years the "threat of a flagging ability to paint or weakened mental powers now makes [Freud] work harder." What Freud seems to work hardest against is that bothersome stiffness in his drawing that makes him overcake his paint on difficult-to-render parts of the body, and makes him insist that all his pictures be exhibited under glass--in order (one might guess) to mitigate the bumps in the pigment. But bumps--on skin, from life, in the mind and soul--form the core of Freud's art, and the complexion of our contemporary lives. Freud may not tell a beautiful truth, but it's truth nevertheless.