Lucian Freud is surely one of the great contemporary painters. At 88 years old, the Pompidou Centre in Paris is currently hosting its second retrospective of Freud’s work. Only three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending that exhibition, and I was not disappointed.
This was the first time that I had seen Freud’s work in person, and what struck me (and surprised me) most was the intensity and complexity of detail in his paintings. Before the entrance to the exhibition, a video was playing that showed Freud’s studio, and some interaction between him and a model. The video also included pieces of an interview with Freud. Something Freud said stood out to me:
When I make a painting, I paint as if it is the only painting I am working on. Or, further, I paint as if it is the only painting that I have ever made. Or, even further still, I paint as if it is the only painting that anyone ever has made.
I was initially bewildered by the remarkable hubris of such a statement. But as I walked through the exhibition, I realized that Freud’s words point towards the remarkable intensity and concentration that his paintings require. His images are exercises in careful perception.
Freud is best known for his nudes draped over furniture and tangled sheets, treated purely as objects of flesh. But I was surprised by the remarkable sense of fullness: the feeling that these fleshy figures and sparse interiors might somehow spill over their frames or pull me inside. Many of his interiors are painted with a distorted perspective that offer our eyes more than is normally available to them. The sense of depth that he is able to create, especially in his interiors with windows, is visually stunning. His paintings revel in a world that is full of things to be seen, and they offer a visual plenitude that surpasses ordinary visual experience. His typical strategy of building layers of heavy impasto so that his paintings actually begin to occupy ‘our’ space only reinforces the theme that, in Freud’s paintings, what we see is more than enough.
This sense that reality is bursting at the seams is found in many of Freud’s figure paintings and interiors, but in his paintings of plants I found the theme to be most convincingly and compellingly conveyed. His ability to depict the intricate structure of a plant with his trademark gestural style is truly breathtaking. It is easier with his plant imagery, as opposed to his nudes, to see how they are the result of careful, loving perception. One has the feeling, when looking at Freud’s paintings, that there is so much more in the world than meets the eye, that the world is there to be explored, dug into, and trudged through, and that our patience might be rewarded with discovery.
Freud’s work is not a glamorization of the world. Each painting is an unflinching look at reality. But in the midst of imperfection and darkness, we find evidences of the sacramental. The world is not simply enough, it is more than enough, and Freud’s work brings this to us in a tactile, concrete way.
Freud’s retrospective remains in the Pompidou until July 19, 2010.