(A young Lucian Freud, who died in 2011.)


It is more than just good fortune that the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is the only American venue for the Lucian Freud retrospective.

It is also poetic justice.

For Freud, certainly Britain’s greatest living realist painter and perhaps the best in the world, often makes viewers uncomfortable with his portraits. His palette is restrained, perhaps somber. His subjects — even his own mother — can look forlorn and melancholy, seemingly stripped of dreams, ambitions or illusions.

And their flesh — quite often unguardedly naked, splayed even — betrays the wrinkles and splotches, the flabbiness and fat of physical imperfection. His subjects look burdened by their self-awareness.

Or, at least, that’s how someone raised on the dream factory’s vision of beauty — a vision Los Angeles certainly has had a key role in manufacturing — might see it. As a result, says art historian William Feaver, who organized this show for the Tate Britain, Freud’s work often is criticized as depressing and his subjects’ ample flesh called “putrid.”

Indeed, some of this show’s most dramatic work, such as “Leigh Bowery (Seated)” and “Benefits Supervisor Resting,” are large canvases of quite large people, often the artist’s friends and family. They are not pretty people — or pictures — by conventional standards.

“That’s because people have been totally brainwashed by advertising over the last 100 years,” Feaver says. “In advertising, everybody smiles. On TV, everybody smiles. In real life, nobody smiles much. You can’t keep it up – and you look inane if you go on smiling. And you can’t sit for someone if you go on smiling.

“It’s a cliche that everybody’s beautiful, but it’s true. You have to go on looking at them and study them  — use your brain to make them more interesting. When Freud paints a very large woman or man who would be obese by our standards, there’s something magnificent and operatic. It’s a product of fantastic concentration.

“I think he’s got a poet’s honesty. He just looks at things like all poets do – without preconception, as if it’s for first time. And gradually he’s gotten better and better at looking at a body.”

In short, Freud searches for the truth in his subjects; he doesn’t flatter or glamorize them.

This retrospective is the largest to date from throughout Freud’s long and still-active career, with 103 oil paintings plus watercolors, drawings and etchings. The preponderance of the work consists of portraits, but the occasional still life or cityscape proves Freud a man with a keen eye for all aspects of his environment.

It’s tempting to say the search for an interior truth comes genetically to Freud. After all, he is the grandson of Sigmund Freud. His father Ernst, an architect, was the youngest son of the pioneering psychoanalyst.

Yet Freud had only a slight relationship with his grandfather – geographic distance and historical events wouldn’t allow it. Born in Berlin in 1922, Lucian and his family emigrated to England in 1933, escaping the Nazis. He became a naturalized British subject in 1939. (His grandfather didn’t escape Vienna for England until 1938; he died in 1939.)

Lucian was already drawing by the time he arrived in England. After studying drawing and painting at school and serving a stint in the British Merchant Navy in World War II, he had his first solo exhibition in 1944.

This exhibition includes examples of his early work – accomplished realism with just enough sense of drama to give the work a contemporary sensibility. The intense, large-eyed gaze of his subjects, for example, has a slightly frightening effect.

Feaver makes a persuasive case that Freud’s work is always autobiographical — and not just because he sometimes paints self-portraits, nude (1993’s “Painter Working, Reflection”) or clothed (the new “Self Portrait, Reflection,” in which the veins seem ready to burst out of his hand). He doesn’t accept commissions and only paints from life using models.

“He can’t work from anything but what’s in front of him, and he only paints what interests him,” Feaver says. “Everything else follows from that. And he paints people that are prepared to sit for him and are, to his mind, people with a bit of an inner life that interests him. They can sit still for a long time without looking like dummies.”

This well-organized, uncluttered show reveals how Freud began to find his great strength – his patience to stay working on a single painting as if painstakingly exploring a rugged, uncharted shore – in the early 1950s. His large 1951 oil painting, “Interior at Paddington,” features a young man in a creased olive trench coat, holding a cigarette and looking away from us, standing behind a large potted plant. Remarkably, both seem equally mysterious and inscrutable, yet compelling.

To like Freud’s work is to be intrigued by the mysteries inherent in his subjects. With time and age, he has gotten better at conveying those mysteries. The 1988-89 “Standing by the Rags” shows how he can imbue a female nude portrait with a sense of movement. And his new “David Hockney” portrait, while a relatively small work, shows that age hasn’t rendered Freud any less unsentimental in depicting subjects.

As good a painter as Freud is, and as heralded as he is in Britain, his work still is relatively unfamiliar to the American public. (However, he’s much in demand among American collectors.) True, he’s not user-friendly; his work isn’t superficially complimentary.

But also, he and other heralded post-war British painters like the late Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach (there are Freud portraits of both in the show), worked outside the fame and celebrity of art-related American popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

Freud isn’t an abstract expressionist like Jackson Pollock or a pop artist like Andy Warhol. He never declared painting dead. Rather, he’s kept working steadily at portraiture and realism.

“We’re incredibly conventional about believing that there’s a progression to contemporary art,” Feaver says. “But all the great figures are oddballs, and they don’t fit into any progression. Great artists, like great poets, always stand on their own two feet with a few acolytes and friends to admire them. It takes a generation for them to start fitting in.”


Where: The Museum of Contemporary Art at California Plaza, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.

When: Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Thursday through May 25. Closed Mondays.

Tickets: $8 adults, $5 students, 12 and under free. Call (213) 621-2766 or visit

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