When Pontius Pilate led Jesus before the throng demanding his crucifixion -- gaunt, brow bloodied by a crown of thorns, his body scourged -- Pilate mocked the implausible claims about the Son of God and King of the Jews by announcing Ecce homo: Behold the man. The broken wreck arrayed before them was the picture of human suffering and mortality.
Ecce homo was a favorite subject of European Baroque artists. It is also just about the only subject painted by British artist Lucian Freud over the past 60 years -- minus the specific Christian text, of course, given the secular modern age that swept the Baroque era aside.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art, where a Freud retrospective (his third) organized by London’s Tate Britain opened Sunday, all but a handful of more than 100 paintings and 18 works on paper are visual essays on the fascination and inevitable failure of the flesh. Freud is typically described as a portraitist and a painter of nudes, but Ecce homo is what he’s up to. Behold the man -- and woman -- his pictures say, again and again.
He’s also routinely described -- not least by the marketing machinery around this show -- as Britain’s greatest living figurative painter. That’s rather like saying MOCA is the greatest museum of contemporary art in America; it may be true, but given the limited competition its meaning is circumscribed. Freud is in reality a fine painter with a very narrow repertoire -- and a tendency to manipulate the audience to dubious effect.
Among British artists he’s most closely an heir to Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), the eccentric genius whose painted nudes are wracked with sexual tension while simultaneously asserting the purity of love. Freud’s art is rarely so complex, but sometimes it does have the capacity to beguile.
Born in Berlin in 1922, son of an architect and grandson of Sigmund Freud, he immigrated to England with his family when he was just 10. He studied at several local art schools and later taught at the Slade School of Fine Art. The modern cult of personality being what it is, Freud’s repetitiveness as an artist is often framed as a fascinating psychological obsession.
The show’s earliest painting -- it shows a rickety wooden crate of green apples, oddly set against a landscape in Wales -- was made when he was 17. In the incongruity of the juxtaposition, Cezanne meets Surrealism. By contrast, the most recent work is a small, just-finished portrait head of fellow painter David Hockney, with every trace of Hockney’s famous British schoolboy look erased by the weathering and wisdom of age.
The gently Surrealist tendency of the youthful painting hung on in Freud’s work for nearly 20 years -- well into the 1950s, long after Surrealism had grown stale. But the deliberate quotation of art historical motifs, subtly or with directness, has remained a constant inhis career.
From 1947-48, a bug-eyed seated girl clutching a single thorny blossom creates a surreal Madonna of the roses. A rare and lovely little 1964 still life of cyclamens on a sink or ledge assumes the aspect of a famous Caravaggio. A 1993 self-portrait shows the artist, naked save for an unlaced pair of floppy shoes, wielding palette knife and palette like some ravaged mythological hero with pathetic sword and shield -- Mercury, perhaps, the messenger-god of eloquence and commerce as a ramshackle lunatic.
Stylistically, Freud’s career cleaves in two. Before 1958 or so, the surfaces of his paintings are dry, tight, even crabbed. An acute realism plays well as contrast to the slight, suggestive Surrealism of the work, as in the strange picture of a seated man parting a beaded curtain to present his small daughter to our scrutiny. When the odd juxtapositions in subject matter begin to leach away, the brushwork becomes looser and more fluid. Eventually thinness is juxtaposed with lumpy, clotted applications, and the handling of paint itself becomes strange -- sometimes impressively so.
Freud almost always paints with a relatively small brush. In “The Painter’s Mother Resting” (1976), the rear wall is composed of thousands of tiny parallel strokes. When the plane of the wall changes, the direction of the strokes does too. The background bristles with nervous anxiety, more felt than seen. Meanwhile, the obvious tedium of making all those repetitive marks seems more painstaking even than the scores of individually painted paisley designs on the reclining woman’s ugly dress.
“Interior in Paddington” (1951) shows how mannered Freud’s theme of Ecce homo can be. A man with unusually short legs stands on a rumpled red carpet by a window, wearing a rumpled brown ensemble -- shoes, pants, sweater, shirt, raincoat and glasses. Even the index and middle fingers of his right hand are brown, stained from tobacco. He’s paired with a tall, dried-out potted palm, its size and wilted color echoing his. In the diffused light of a gray day, these two exotic, dislocated creatures seem to stare each other down.
“Interior in Paddington” also demonstrates the enclosed, finally claustrophobic world that Freud’s art inhabits. His paintings are almost uniformly about life lived inside the studio. Things get ingrown and mannered there. The red carpet looks to be rumpled mostly in order to create a ripple of visual interest across the bottom of thepicture; it reads as affectation.
Later, in the copious nudes, the pretense takes the form of eccentric posing. Dozing faces are mashed against hands and distorted. Arms and legs are bent like pinwheels, flung up over mattresses and the like.
Three-quarters of the way through the show, a shift occurs -- and it’s not necessarily advantageous. Most of Freud’s works are domestically scaled, and their cloistered subjects benefit from the impression of compressed intimacy. Suddenly, by the mid-1980s, the canvases get big -- as much as 8 feet tall. In the wake of the period’s burgeoning international hubbub over Neo-Expressionist painting, with its widespread return of figurative imagery, Freud’s work becomes museum size. It’s as if he’s claiming territory, or the art is being stage managed.
Some of the paintings sustain the new scale, but others look foolish. The corniest is the big portrait of corpulent performance artist Leigh Bowery, enthroned in all his sagging naked splendor in a red velvet chair.
The canvas has been enlarged, with a wide, crudely seamed strip of canvas added along the bottom and a narrow one stitched along the side. The strips were plainly inserted to shift the portrait’s focal point: They elevate Bowery in the composition, so that now his genitals poke your eye-level gaze.
Behold the man.
In addition to the repetitive subject matter, Freud also has an outsized affection for the color brown. Raw umber, sepia, burnt sienna, brindle, tawny, rust -- there is more brown in this show than at a UPS convention. It’s shot through with flecks of pink, green, blue and gold, but the self-conscious reference to a varnished, Old Master palette gets to be a bit much.
Freud’s good, but not that good. Manipulation of a viewer is what every great artist accomplishes, but it’s got to be achieved with care. Maneuvers such as the one in the Bowery portrait or the sudden late-career inflation of canvas size break an essential bond of trust. You can go a certain distance with an artist like Freud, but not all the way.
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: Closed Mondays
Ends: May 25
Price: $8 adults; $5 students and seniors; under 12 free
Contact: (213) 626-6222