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Lucian Freud at the Fort Worth Modern Museum (The Blitz Weekly)

Lucian Freud’s portraits are like being at the DMV – except half of the people are naked, and unfortunately it isn’t necessarily the half you wouldn’t mind seeing naked.  Freud (grandson of Sigmund Freud) is widely hailed for creating intensely psychological portraits.  After wandering the exhibition, I found myself wondering more about what is revealed about the psychology of the artist.

D/FW rivalry notwithstanding, I think you could get even the Dallas Art glimmeratti to admit that the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth has scored the biggest art exhibition of 2012; a claim that has been turbocharged by Lucian Freud’s death less than a year ago.  This exhibition is extremely important and not just because the New York Times and the rest of the national media are slobbering about it.  According to curator Michael Auping, there is a challenge implicit in the exhibition, “I think the bottom line (for Lucian) is here’s how it works, and can you accept it? Are you OK with that?”

Almost all of the most celebrated art in the world was at one time controversial, hated even.  You don’t see that in a van Gogh or Picasso today because their moment is a part of history (and the museum gift shop) – Lucian Freud’s moment is still now.  His work will be in museums a hundred years from now, but there is only one moment and one place where this huge collection of portraits is contemporary.  To boil it down, these portraits have the power to stir shit up.  Someday a museum person will get out of their flying car to go to work and explain why these portraits were controversial when they were painted – but that isn’t the same as actually having been in this moment.

The expressions of Lucian’s models range from blank to sad.  All of the figures are idle.  The background is always of Lucian’s cramped, dirty studio. In his mature work, Freud uses a painting technique called impasto to create an ugly leprous texture with the thickly applied paint.  Even among the models he selected who are attractive find themselves disfigured on the canvass by Freud’s tainted eye.  Not even a baby’s sweetness is spared by Freud’s unforgiving “reality.”

Maybe smiling, beautiful people are more likable, but are they also more impenetrable? Does beauty hide?  It’s hard to disagree that Freud’s bleak approach is revealing.  Each of these painting is like a short story.  And for or better or worse, this exhibit of almost 90 portraits is like drinking short stories from a fire hose.  There are so many faces and so much detail; it becomes both tiring and energizing.  With so much selection, every viewer is bound to find a connection.  I was drawn to the distance in “Hotel Bedroom,” and the wilting face of “Man in the Silver Suit.”

My favorite though is “Flora with the Blue Toenails,” those toenails are a beacon of polish and beauty next to Freud’s seemingly universal dirty fingernails.  There is a shadow of a head cast on the bed. I check; it isn’t my shadow.  She is ambiguously not alone.  Suddenly, I feel uncomfortable.  Freud wasn’t about to let me enjoy that one.  Thanks, buddy. 

Lucian’s models aren’t the only characters in the exhibition; the biggest character is Lucian himself.  Lucian Freud is interesting in the way that van Gogh or Caravaggio is interesting: in a larger than life way (he had 17 known children, for starters).  There are relatable insights like when Freud switched from using a sable hair brush to paint every detail of a sitter, to a coarser hog’s hair brush.  In addition to Freud’s super-sized presence in the exhibition, there are the actual stories of the people he painted.  Sitting two days a week, three hours at a time for close to a year, the artist got to know these people – sometimes intimately (oh yeah, that is exactly what I meant).  There is a little book that accompanies the exhibition on sale for $5 that includes some of these stories.  But the much better bet is to invest the time in going to the museum’s website www.themodern.org to look for one of the regularly scheduled tours.

I was in high school when Kurt Cobain committed suicide.  I can never explain what I felt or why was an important experience to anyone.  But there are people, people I don’t even know, who experienced the same thing.  We were all in that moment.

All of us are a part of things like that.  Go.  Go, and be challenged, because contemporary art is meant to say something about your world and to speak to you.  Someday these portraits will be about Lucian Freud and museum people, but this exhibition is really about right now.

The show ends on October 28.  Don’t fool yourself if it sounds like that is an entire presidential election away from now.  Despite the uncomfortable brutality of Freud’s self-criticism turned against the world, plan on making a connection, several connections even.  And go early; so you can go back and see a set of blue toenails, in my case, which I will never forget as long as I live.  Admission is $10.  The museum is closed on Mondays and open late on Fridays.

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