Staring down like an imperious giant from the façade of the Pompidou Centre, Lucian Freud's blown-up face prepares us for his mesmerising show inside.
The Parisians find him irresistible, judging by the queue waiting to enter. And no wonder: from the instant we walk in, Freud's obsessive, studio-bound world surrounds us with naked figures sprawled on rudimentary beds, well-worn armchairs, battered sofas and bare floorboards.
Wherever we turn, the sheer tenacity of Freud's gaze will not let us go. Now 88, he shows no sign of retiring from his long-term commitment to "work from the people that interest me ... in rooms that I live in and know". But there is nothing predictable about the paintings he produces. In the very first image that we encounter, the outsize head of a zebra thrusts through his studio window. Unaccountably, the animal is swathed in brilliant red and yellow stripes. Although Freud painted this bizarre apparition as long ago as 1944, he has produced even more outlandish visions since. In a startling canvas with the deceptively mundane title Large Interior, Notting Hill, an elderly man dominates the foreground, absorbed in a book. Yet behind him, a naked man stares down, open-mouthed, as he suckles a baby at his breast. Originally, a female nude posed for Freud in the same position, and we do not know why he made this extraordinary gender switch. But his grandfather Sigmund would undoubtedly have been fascinated, and other exhibits intensify our involvement with the psyche of an artist who stresses that "my work is purely autobiographical".
Take the large 1997 painting called Sunny Morning – Eight Legs. Although daylight can dimly be discerned behind a window-blind, the naked man on a bed looks cold and stunned as he cradles a sleeping dog. Then we realise, with a shock, that two more male legs jut out beneath the bed. Are they hiding from the other man, or seducing him? Maybe they belong to someone so drunk that he rolled under the bed in stupefaction. Or to a corpse.
For all the solid, tactile presence of Freud's figures, he makes us increasingly aware of their mortality, as well. His earlier work is far more detailed, tight and precise than the recent paintings, where the brushwork grows looser and more conscious of imminent dissolution. However substantial his models may appear, they often look vulnerable. The amply built Leigh Bowery, the Australian performance artist who posed in the early 1990s for some of Freud's most monumental paintings, appears in one of them to have fallen from the bed and crashed down on a heap of rags. Part of his right leg, painted with exceptional vitality, still lies on the mattress. The erotic allure of his pose is clear, but he seems dejected and helpless as well. In this respect, Freud's work now looks eerily prophetic: Bowery died of Aids-related illness, aged 33, only two years after this picture was painted.
Unsmiling, meditative and exposing themselves to the artist's scrutiny for long, repetitive sessions, these models had plenty of time to brood on human frailty. Freud subjects himself to the same uncompromised inspection, too. The most memorable of these self-portraits is Painter Working, Reflection. Naked except for a pair of unstrapped boots, the 71-year-old artist stands before us on the hard floorboards. Although a bed awaits behind him, Freud appears determined to work on through the night. His left thumb presses down fiercely on a paint-bestrewn palette, while his right hand clasps a palette knife in the air. He looks tired, haunted and utterly alone. But his stubborn, unstinting resilience cannot be doubted.
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