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  • Lucian Freud:Psychoanalysis in Paint?
  • Ellen Handler Spitz

The Centre Pompidou in Paris has often compelled me to alter previously held artistic judgments. That fantastical mock-industrial postmodernist adventure of 1977, designed by architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, has upended my takes on such artists as Andy Warhol (retrospective, 1990), Louise Bourgeois (2008), and now Lucian Freud (2010). Perhaps there is something irresistibly transformative about exposure to so much of one artist's work in a vast enclosure of space, which both aggrandizes the art yet forces you to face it dead on. Once you are inside, nothing competes. You are perceptually whacked, emotionally battered, but also given plenty of psychic space. As a writer on art and psychoanalysis, I was drawn skeptically to the Lucian Freud show in Paris last summer partly in its valence as the work of Sigmund Freud's grandson.1 Informed moreover that Lucian Freud's canvases command some of the highest prices on the international art market today while his grandfather's star seems to be flickering, I wondered slyly whether the referent might have to change when people refer casually to Freud. Now I have both less and more doubt. The show could well be called "Psychoanalysis in Paint?" and read as a sustained nonverbal probe of the unconscious.

Concurrent with the exhibition at the Pompidou, another dazzling show was also in Paris: forty years of work in the career of Yves Saint Laurent. The crowds queuing up for these two major exhibits were indistinguishable in density and ardor. Thus, two emperors paraded before the Parisian public—one about, [End Page 441] and the other without, clothes. On first take, they might seem antithetical: Lucian Freud—fine artist, painter, draughtsman, etcher, grandson of a tendentious Viennese Jew who urged an irreducible sexuality in human affairs, proclaimer in his oversize canvases that truth resides in the uncamouflaged flesh of individual human bodies, stark naked; Yves Saint Laurent—commercial designer, master of haute couture, associate of the Dior family and its entourage, artist and artificer who, if his art concerns human bodies at all, does so solely in order to conceal, to drape, ornament, and disguise them. To adorn them with silk, velvet, moiré, plumes, suede, and chiffon. For Yves, truth lies elsewhere than the body; for him, the human body is an armature, tout court.

To each master's oeuvre, Paris accorded its rightful space. Displayed in grandeur, Yves' raiment shimmered in the marbled halls of the Petit Palais, that majestic retardataire building designed by Charles Girault for the Paris Expo of 1900. Graced with lofty painted ceilings, decorative murals, mosaic floors, gilt, and statuary, it stands near the Seine, just off the fashionable avenue of the Champs Elysées. Lucian Freud, by contrast, appeared in the vicinity of les Halles, bustling, noisy, plebian, commercial, where his disquieting canvases adorned the stark walls of the Centre Pompidou. Here, the trope of moving the building's internal structures outdoors—its complex system of pipes and vents all crisscrossing with their vertical, diagonal, and transverse directions and brightly painted according to their function—uncannily matched the flagrant undress of its current exhibition.

Shuttling between the two shows, I reflected on Genesis, chapters 3:6-7: the paradigmatic story of clothed versus naked bodies in Western culture. The first woman, having partaken of forbidden fruit that delighted her eye, gave it to her man who also ate of it and the eyes of both were opened; they saw that they were naked and they sewed fig leaves together to make themselves loincloths. Everything shifts with the onset of shame over nakedness. Emotional fallout reverberated in both art shows in Paris. Yves Saint Laurent, compliant with the Edenic decree, invents a dazzling panorama of ingenious, elaborate schemes to conceal the human body. Lucian Freud defiantly refuses to accept shame. Remorselessly, he flaunts Eden. What is covered up in Genesis is not, moreover, the entire human [End Page 442] body. It is sex, the genitals, and, in Lucian Freud's paintings, these organs impenitently protrude. Accented, foregrounded, richly pigmented, strongly brushed and clearly delineated, they dominate in many canvases, and we cannot avoid them without averting our eyes...


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