Lucian Freud is considered Britain's greatest living figurative painter and a consummate portraitist, primarily of nudes. But he has also been criticized, as Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight points out, for his merciless depiction of the frailty of the human condition.
Whatever you may make of the excruciating detail with which the German-born painter has executed his subjects over his nearly 60-year career, the very fact that he has had that long to develop his technique and vision makes this 110 painting retrospective fascinating.
As curator William Feaver says, "Very few artists get that sort of time to develop." He points to some of history's great artists, such as Van Gogh, who died at age 38. Mr. Feaver notes that few have lived as long or been as relentless in the pursuit of a single stylistic vision.
Freud began and still pursues his career in what the curator calls a dogged attempt to render what he sees, honestly and unsentimentally. This collection of works gives viewers ample opportunity to explore the progress of an artist who remained devoted to the exploration of figurative work, despite coming of age during the most tumultuous and explosive decades in art history.
"He never felt the need to keep step with other art movements," says Feaver.
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) plays the sole American host (through May 25) to this show, which originated at London's Tate Museum.
British actor Julian Sands, son-in-law of Caroline Blackwood - Freud's second wife and occasional painter's model - observed at the celebrity preview that the California museum has given the painting a kind of light and space that the Tate did not. The museum is indeed spacious and airy, which allows the paintings to be even more carefully observed than perhaps most viewers are ready to handle.
Freud's work, as most critics and collectors agree, is unsettling to say the least. It's impossible to look at the paintings of the artist's mother without sensing the depression surrounding the woman. Feaver points out that the artist began painting his mother in the years after his father's death, a period during which she was often deeply sad.
Observing the forensic intensity of detail, especially in the mature works, one is tempted to suggest that this grandson of Sigmund, the father of modern psychology, has inherited at least the proclivity for peering deep beneath the skin of his subjects.
But as Feaver says, the painter himself abhors any kind of symbolism. "He is extremely practical and likes to put things in the painting that serve a purpose," he says. Hence, the set of legs that peek out from beneath the bed upon which a subject lies are simply legs, not metaphors for anything else, says Feaver.
It may seem like some sort of 20th-century oxymoron to say that anyone with the last name of Freud is interested strictly in surface appearances, but says Feaver, that was and still is the case with the painter, who still lives and works in Britain.
The images in the paintings themselves have a very limited range. They are largely full canvas figures, many nudes of recurring subjects. Most of the sitters are, in fact, related in some way, whether by blood or close friendship.
Yet, despite the different subject, the portraits have a similar feel to them, as if he is actually painting himself, over and over. Not surprisingly, this reflects Freud's own attitude toward his work. The phrases, "Everything is a portrait" and "Everything is autobiographical," greet visitors on a wall leading into the exhibition.
There are many reminders in the paintings themselves that he is held in high regard, certainly among other artists. A portrait of the painter David Hockney, for which the Los Angeles-based British artist sat for more than 120 hours, hangs prominently in the final room of the show. But whether the show converts everyone into fans of the Freud oeuvre or warms up to images that many find disturbing is not the point, says Feaver, Freud's biographer as well as curator.
"This is an accounting of his entire, long working life," he says. "The detail and precision of the work make us look at ourselves and our lives differently."