THE ``sitters'' who come to an artist's studio to be painted turn into the raw material of his vision. They may, as they are reported to do in the London studio of Lucian Freud, choose their own poses. But they are still his marionettes. The studio becomes for them a kind of stage setting.
For Freud, as for many artists, the studio becomes the theater of his mind. This space, in its public intimacy, is his world and vision. Here, like Velasquez or Courbet (who both made memorable paintings of their studios), the artist holds court. Outsiders entering this world become insiders, the artist's subject as well as his admirers or critics. What the artist sees, arranges, witnesses, and scrutinizes within his studio become his art.
Though variously willing or compliant, those who allow Freud to paint them - often with an extreme degree of exposure and a poignant sense of physical vulnerability - are subjected to a kind of victimization. They are painted with an apparent compulsion (and gusto) no less imperative than Goya's when he drew or etched his allegories depicting the victims of war, imprisonment, or inquisition.
Freud's popularity is considerable, as milling and enthusiastic crowds bear witness at the latest exhibition of his recent work at the Whitechapel Art Gallery here. This German-born artist, a grandson of Sigmund Freud, has been a British subject since World War II. Because he has become so well known, he can only paint with the awareness that whatever he completes will be seen widely and publicly. This show has been planned for four years. So the paintings are a conscious performance. What saves them, however, from superficial theatricality is the forceful conviction and the striking lack of evasion with which they are painted.
FREUD'S work does not fit labels. It is the apparent realism of his painting that makes them potent. The romantic, primitive excitement of expressionism is not really Freud's manner because that can be escapist, and Freud is a direct, confrontational painter. But his realism is not remotely that of the photograph or any sort of flat, dry reproduction of the world's appearance.
In fact he is concerned with tangibility quite as much as the purely visual: His paint is thick, weighty, rough, and at times coarse as gravel, modeling his subjects into paintings more akin to sculpture. The extraordinary identification of paint with skin, with flesh, acts like an attack on the acceptable euphemisms with which we like to clothe our bodies. But so vigorous and unsparing is Freud's brush that even his clothed models seem unprotected from his hard gaze.
It is difficult to know, also, whether this painter is modern or old-fashioned. Although his work has as much in common with Rembrandt as with De Kooning, its daring belongs to the modernity of the 20th century quite as much as to the traditional anguish and suffering explored by some of the Old Masters. The young Rembrandt had a particular fascination with cruelty in melodramatic narrative paintings. But in the past, artists were usually provided with a context for such exploration of the sufferings of the flesh - in depictions of the crucifixion, for instance. They were even required by patronage to paint such subjects.
But if Freud's achievement is a kind of awful realism, his paintings and etchings nevertheless exude an air of unreality. However ferociously he endeavors to hold onto the anatomies of his models, emphasizing and exaggerating their imperfections, there remains something impossible about the attempt. Their physicality, as if it could be isolated from them as people, taken too far, becomes mere meat.
The majority of his models look away from him. Their eyes are either shut, or unconscious in their boredom, or lowered and glancing sideways. Sometimes their eyes are covered by arms thrown across them. It is as if they can't quite bear to look at him while he is fixing on them such unscrupulous investigation. When they do stare back at him the effect is startling and the resulting painting can be astounding.
However relaxed Freud's models may be, their situations are still contrived. Since he does not use professional models, their very nakedness, even in a studio setup, is at least an embarrassment against convention. Though Freud is known to generally paint only people he knows well (there are exceptions), the studio setting in which he paints them is hardly one of cozy domesticity. Chairs and beds are basic props, the floor is bare boards, the walls plain, and such paraphernalia of the studio as canvases against the wall or a heap of rags become part of the paintings.
In the last decade, this artist has concentrated on naked flesh with ever-intensifying dramatization. ``Heavy with materiality'' is how the critic Robert Hughes describes the figures in one of Freud's paintings. It applies to all of them. Certainly Freud is no painter of beauty for its own mellifluous sake. He does not make of the nude, female or male, a thing of classic grace or sensuous delight. He seems little concerned with fine art. This honest approach is praiseworthy within its own terms: This is figurative painting without pretense or disguise, the body stripped bare.
If, however, his paintings of people were solely paintings of flesh and not portraits of people, they would lack the compelling tension and confusion of feeling that makes some of them very sensational (and theatrical) art indeed.
* ``Lucian Freud: Recent Work'' continues at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, through Nov. 21. The exhibit then travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it will be displayed Dec. 16 through March 15, 1994, and to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, April 6 through June 13, 1994.