Funny, here I am back in Los Angeles on a sunny Sunday morning writing about an exhibition of paintings seen on a chilly fall day last week in Washington and the whole thing sets you thinking about London after the blitz and Berlin in the '30s when Jews were packing up and running from Hitler. There is a sense of displacement that's as old as the Diaspora and as current as Vietnamese boat people, Cambodian refugees and undocumented Latinos pouring into Los Angeles. It seems like half the world is homeless or living in some dingy rented room with a hot-plate on the floor next to the black-and-white TV they found in the alley.
The Washington exhibition features the painting of Lucian Freud, a 65-year-old naturalized British citizen born in Berlin. About 80 of his pictures are at the Hirshhorn Museum until Nov. 29. If you get to see them, you won't believe this is the first time he's had a major retrospective in the United States. But then again, when you see them it's not such a surprise. These paintings don't beg to be looked at but they look and they hang around like pieces of old chewing gum somebody stuck on your brain, uncomfortable truths imparted solemnly by your best friend.
Lucian Freud is Sigmund Freud's grandson. It's not surprising the paintings are Freudian, with their crumpled fetal nudes, but it is not useful to dwell on that idea. Art critic Robert Hughes' catalogue essay says that Freud is the world's greatest living realist painter. That could be true too, but thinking about it just gets your head into a silly ranking contest about top-seeded artists as if painting were Wimbledon. That's definitely not useful, because Freud doesn't paint like some hare-brained New York kid out to be the hot artist in the trendy gallery. He paints portraits and figure studies of people he knows intimately and they often require hundreds of sittings. It may be useful to think about the fact that Hughes comes from Australia, a country that started life as a penal colony settled not just by refugees but by exiles, convicts. No wonder Hughes identifies with Freud, but why do we?
There is a hotel near Regents Park in London--I forget the name but it has a marble lobby with bustling bellboys and a lovely restaurant--where the upstairs linoleum corridors are grimy and smell of boiled cabbage. Rooms are small and funky with weary single beds and unnaturally large refrigerators as if they were inhabited by people who don't go out for days. I surprised a cat in the hall. She was so fat that she couldn't get traction when she tried to run away. She just stood racing in place.
Lucian Freud lives in a house in Paddington and his paintings partly reflect the dreary frumpiness of the bed-sitter life that mumbles along in London behind the pillared facades and triumphal columns. It's very localized in some ways, capturing London's dishwater light and bringing to mind a raft of purposefully minor literary and autobiographical humanist artists from Stanley Spenser to Walter Sickert, Gwen John and Leon Kosuth. Sure, Freud gets more out of it and--if you insist--he paints the person that cowers behind all of our gilded super-egos, the weirdly hairless animals that we are, still dwelling in hand-made caves. He paints as if he were a bear with a magnificent fur coat wondering at the sheer oddity of such unnatural depilated creatures. He lumbers home to explain to the wife and the cubs that Goldilocks is so exquisitely frightened and so blasphemously violent because she is always afraid of being cold.
If Freud had gone on painting as he did in the '40s and '50s he would today be an artist who interests us as another of those gifted offbeat recluses like, oh, Balthus. Early portraits of his first wife and his friend Francis Bacon are superbly well-drawn. (He was thinking about Ingres but worked with the neurotic precision of the German New Realists.) People have big hurt eyes and tremulous mouths. His chef d'oeuvre of the time is "Interior in Paddington" a full-length portrait of a yellowing tropical plant and a youth in a raincoat who looks like a flasher. The pictures drip with the same '50s sentimentality that dates kitsch like the film "David and Lisa" and dogs at the edges of J. D. Salinger and the Beatniks. Somehow it just doesn't play when you paint a London Bohemian like an El Greco saint.
Luckily, Freud got tougher. He figured out that expression is in the paint more than in the pictorial devices. He began painting in a blotchy, semi-X-ray style that picks up the tones in the layers of flesh draped over our bones. He gets the white where the cheekbone pokes up against the flesh and gray-green where it loosens. Foreheads are taut and sculptural while blood blushes in loose pockets around the cheeks and lips. There's a lot of pub booze in these faces, endless dark ales consumed in the damp-cold of the evening outside the public houses in Shepards Market or Soho.
He still uses unsettling pictorial devices like the nude man holding a rat near his crotch, two women in a fetal embrace and one of them pregnant, the dozing gay couple, one old enough to be the other's father. The devices are effective evocations of anxiety, but Freud doesn't need them. "Bella" is a perfectly straight 1981 portrait of a girl dozing in a black dress. It may be the only 20th-Century portrait to really give Manet a run for his money and that's good enough.
Freud claims to just paint what is in front of him but for an intimist he certainly conjures up a passel of other artists, both visual and literary. It probably happens by accident and a good thing too. When he gets overtly arty as in "Large Interior W 11 (after Watteau)" he lapses back into lugubriousness. The 1983 painting recalled Halloween night in Georgetown. They rope off M Street and the kids wander around in costume. There was a guy dressed as a '60s hippie. What a shock that hippies were that long ago. Anyway Freud doesn't have to dress up as somebody he used to be. When he lets them, the poetics just happen. James Joyce is everywhere backed up by Ibsen, a dab of Strindberg and a chorus that includes Hals, Courbet, Munch, Giacometti and, of course, Francis Bacon.
Bacon is a great if now somewhat stylized painter. If we weary of his spectral figures it is because they are not us. They border on being hallucinatory spook-show characters we can only live with as metaphors. Some of Freud, like "John Deakin," is undetonated Bacon and the more powerful for its naturalism.
Freud's straight female nudes are extraordinary. "Rose" is a sprawling, gynecological pose that is neither clinical nor prurient. Like many of Freud's people the woman seems to be dreaming herself. It's a lusty fantasy observed with a mature and healthy obscenity. Freud sees the varicose veins, the root-white breasts lined with purple and the flesh that wraps its bones like saturated laundry. He sees that we are living corpses, repulsive piles of meat nonetheless essential because we palpitate briefly with life.
Nobody gets away with putting on airs for Freud, but everybody gets his human due. We are a bunch of mattresses oozing stuffing. We are battered shoes whose most interesting feature is the welt between the sole and the leather. The collector Baron Thyssen's good suit rumples under Freud's gaze but his tense hands and lean, world-weary face add battered elegance to his mortality. "The Big Man" is a baroque giant who looks like a coal-truck driver who became an Irish politician. Freud has written him in the act of painting. If he were a character in a novel he would have to behave as we see him, gruff, funny, shrewd and wise.
Freud is positioned to kindle admiration in an art world that seems to want to do everything but make art. It panders to critical theory by making arcane illustrations for even more obscure ideas. It struggles to become fashionable. It rarely knuckles down and paints what is front of its mind's eye.
But Freud does not simply win by default. He paints until we seem to have a presence before us. It is progressively a presence we recognize in present time. Freud paints men and women in their lost reality without much begging the question. We are absurdly pedestrian, embarrassed members of a species dangerous to ourselves and our habitat. We are unglamorous, boring and violent, but we radiate layers of profundity echoing back through the animals, plants and minerals that preceded and produced us. Freud gets that all out fairly laconically and without comment, but he does leave you feeling that it is better that we deal with ourselves candidly because that radiates more mystery and hope than all our fancy.