A fresh approach to Lucian Freud’s art

It is eight years since Tate’s landmark retrospective canonised Lucian Freud as the world’s most important living painter. Ranging from depictions of his first wife Kitty as the nervous, lonely “Girl with a White Dog” to the grim tour de force of a self-portrait at nearly 80, Tate’s survey distilled the classic view of Freud as unrivalled interpreter of human flesh and the human psyche in paint. His famous statement, “Everything is autobiographical and everything is a portrait, even if it’s a chair”, was quoted at the start, defining an understanding of his work that has been amplified in major shows since, at Venice in 2005 and the Wallace Collection in 2006.

Freud is a protean, towering figure who invites many different readings, but it takes – mais bien sûr – a French museum to challenge this approach. To do so, the Pompidou’s new Lucian Freud: L’Atelier groups together 50 paintings from all periods and genres – portraits, landscapes, still lifes – that reference the artist’s studio.

It opens with a surrealist joke, “The Painter’s Room” of 1944, when 22-year-old Freud, unable to find a model, depicted a large red and yellow stuffed zebra’s head jutting into a studio already distinguished by its battered sofa and tangled rubber plant. It closes with the funny, ironic and psychologically claustrophobic “The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer” (2004-2005), where the ageing artist pauses from his work to glance down at the young, naked woman embracing his leg. Resting on the chair are suggestively phallic brushes; on the easel a half-finished canvas offers a mirror image of the scene, as if all were repeated to infinity within the painting.

This game of multiple perspectives dares to be ridiculous, even self-indulgent, as well as politically incorrect in its trumpeting of male ego and female subservience. Freud pulls it off, not just as a witty composition but also through the gravitas of paint. The heaps of crumpled rags in silver-grey-white tonalities, the stained ceiling, the bare floorboards: anyone familiar with Freud’s work knows these motifs, for they constitute the only reality he admits into the self-contained world of his pictures. The textural pleasure of the densely worked and scraped surface draws attention to itself as just that – painting as material presence. Or, as Freud says: “I want paint to work as flesh. As far as I am concerned the paint is the person.”

Portraits emphasise representational likeness; studio pictures turn on the creative process. The argument of this show is subtly to redirect us from English empiricism – Freud as great realist – to place the artist instead in a more European tradition that sees a painting first and foremost as an artificial construction, accepting that any realism is conditional. Spaciously installed in a non-chronological order centred on key areas, this exhibition brilliantly explores how Freud ceaselessly interrogates pictorial possibilities.

Original, ambitious works from the 1960s-1970s, when his tightly drawn, thinly painted early style was evolving into something looser and freer, effectively establish the tension between distance and intimacy – the theme of “Interior/Exterior” in the first gallery. In “Large Interior, Paddington”, his seven-year-old daughter Isobel, her curled, awkward body heavy with the noon-day sleep of childhood, lies almost crushed beneath a plant whose leaves turn away from her towards the light flooding in from the window.

Filtering the same cool London light and sharing the high-angled viewpoint, “Wasteground with Houses, Paddington” depicts a rubbish-strewn yard where old mattresses and carpets, evoked in extraordinary detail, suggest an unlikely, besieged interior, enclosed by fences, brick walls, and shrubs.

As Freud’s compositions become more idiosyncratic, the closed spaces of the picture are disconcertingly emphasised. In “Two Irishmen in W11” (1984-1985), we are discomfortingly thrust into the presence of this depressive, possibly drunken pair partly by our contrasting remoteness from what is almost a separate painting happening outside their window: a meticulous landscape of London’s tower blocks, Victorian terraces, compressed gardens.

The bizarre “Large Interior, Notting Hill” (1998) juxtaposes two figures who remain isolated in different spaces within one room: in the foreground a clothed man engrossed in a book; at a window behind, almost as distant as the figures on the other side of the pane and suffused in the same white light as them, a naked man – substituted at a late stage for a female model – suckles a baby.

No more original, defiant stagings exist in Freud’s oeuvre than those in his self-portraits, magnificently assembled in the second room here. “Reflection with Two Children (Self-Portrait)” is peculiarly menacing: disrupting spatial representation by placing a mirror on the floor, providing a short-cut to the ceiling, Freud depicts himself as a monster, dominant, inquisitive, overhanging the picture space. The flat grey ground wanly illuminated by a light bulb and the massive, blurred protagonist recall Francis Bacon, but a counterpoint is doubly Freudian – in paint and psychology: outside the mirror system are tiny likenesses of the artist’s children, Ali and Rose. Are they utterly insignificant to him, or does he know that a child perceives an adult as a looming giant?

“Interior with Plant, Listening”, where Freud is glimpsed, eyes closed, cupping his ear, behind a spiky plant, is another dislocation: a painting about listening is a painting about what cannot be seen, what is unrepresentable. By contrast “Painter Working, Reflection” – the artist naked apart from heavy, laceless boots, wielding a palette knife like a sword in confrontation with his own reflection – is the show’s most heroic-pathetic work.

“You’ve got to try to present yourself as another person. I have to do what I feel like without being an expressionist,” Freud says. He has never looked less expressionist than here. A section on his variations on French paintings – intense scrutinies of the power play between boy and governess in “After Chardin”, comically gauche repositioning of the players in Cézanne’s Naples brothel in “After Cézanne” – speak of a troubled engagement with art history. They lead into the grandly theatrical late compositions that conclude this exhibition, some whimsically contrived such as “Sunny Morning – Eight Legs” – naked man and whippet sprawled on a bed, with another pair of legs emerging from under it – others featuring freakish models: the statuesque “Leigh under the Skylight”, “Naked Man, Back View”, mimicking Cézanne again.

In all, the atelier is the site of a drama between charade and veracity, fiction and reality, which harks back to the painter-and-model studio pictures of Titian and Velázquez, Courbet, Matisse, Picasso: the peaks of a western tradition where Freud now incontrovertibly takes his place.

‘Lucian Freud: L’Atelier’, Centre Pompidou, Paris, to July 19. www.centrepompidou.fr

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