Back in Venice 50 years on, Freud and his friends triumph

Previously unseen works by Lucian Freud have gone on show in Venice, to coincide with this year's biennale.

More than half a century after he was chosen, along with Ben Nicholson and Francis Bacon, to represent Britain at the prestigious international art exhibition, the 82-year-old artist is back in the city with a major new exhibition of his works at the Museo Correr in St Mark's Square.

One of the highlights is an unfinished and hitherto unseen portrait of Francis Bacon whose whereabouts Freud only recently disclosed to William Feaver, his close friend and biographer who has curated the Venice show, saying that the work was "awful". Feaver disagreed.

The Queen has lent the small portrait of herself which Freud produced for her as a gift. It has never been seen outside the Royal Collection in Britain.

Feaver said that he had selected the works to show the range of the artist's work, from interiors to the less well known outdoor paintings such as Factory in North London 1972, which has not been seen in public since it was painted, and a variety of portraits and nudes.

"He's much more varied than people think. People always say they're miserable, sad, but I think the spirit here is one of great intensity and animation."

The exhibition, which has been co-organised by the British Council, is smaller than the Tate Britain retrospective three years ago, but is one of his biggest shows, with nearly 100 works in 12 rooms representing 50 years of the artist's work. It is Freud's first exhibition in Venice since 1954.

Back then, Freud was described in the official catalogue as "coolly eccentric, ruthlessly observing".

Douglas Cooper, who reviewed the biennale show in The Burlington Magazine, dismissed the works as "affected rather than truthful".

Feaver said yesterday: "He was sort of an also-ran. He was this meticulous painter regarded as rather freakish, almost perverse."

Paintings such as Girl with White Dog and Girl with Roses were seen as accomplished but out of step with the times. Yet both are highly regarded today and appear in the new exhibition, as does a still-life of bananas painted at Ian Fleming's Goldeneye estate in Jamaica when Fleming was writing Casino Royale, and a portrait of John Minton, a stylish illustrator of the period.

Feaver said that even when Freud was approaching the age of 70 he was little rated outside the UK, which is why 90 per cent of his works are in private hands, not institutions.

Flavia Fossa Margutti, spokeswoman for the Museo Correr, said that 15 years ago Freud showed in Rome and Milan to little success. But now the critical buzz is rather different. Marco Vallora, critic for La Stampa newspaper, said that the works showed how blind the organisers of today's biennale were in championing installations and abstract art to the detriment of fine painting.

Benedetto Marcucci, a critic who was formerly head of information for the Italian ministry of culture, was even more scathing about the contrast between what he saw as a master and many other artists on show in Venice this summer. "It is so different to see a fantastic artist like Lucian Freud. When you compare him with the work in the biennale, it's embarrassing," he said at the Freud preview yesterday.

The exhibition opens to the public today and runs until 30 October.

¿ There was disappointment for the British camp in Venice yesterday when the French artist Annette Messager beat Gilbert and George to take the prestigious Golden Lion prize.

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