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The art speaks; Freud doesn't

The painter leaves it to his retrospective's curator to tell the stories behind the canvases.

January 12, 2003|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

London — Unlike David Hockney, Lucian Freud is inaccessible. He rarely grants interviews, and has chosen an emissary to speak for him. William Feaver is James Boswell to Freud's Samuel Johnson, Morris Engelberg to his Joe DiMaggio.

Sitting in his home office in Clapham, a less fashionable area miles from Freud's studio, Feaver is surrounded by the painter's life. His desk is strewn with upcoming projects, assorted correspondence and art catalogs. A whippet related to Freud's Pluto sleeps in the corner.

An art critic turned biographer turned curator of the Freud retrospective, Feaver seems as infatuated by the artist's scintillating private life as by his lugubrious work ethic.

With relish, he tells mundane anecdotes -- Freud, a notoriously bad driver, terrorizing London in his Bentley, or getting on the bus for the first time -- interspersed with larger-than-life stories: Jerry Hall abandoning him mid-sitting and Freud repainting her as his assistant.

"He's known everybody, thanks to the surname, initially," Feaver says. "Dali, Garbo and Judy Garland, and Orson Welles. And you name it, really. Picasso, of course. Giacometti, of course. Bergman."

In addition to name-dropping on Freud's behalf, Feaver can correct popular misunderstandings about the painter.

When the retrospective traveled to Barcelona, museum officials wanted to put on a series of concerts, suggesting as musical counterparts to the paintings either Brahms or Schubert.

"I had to tell them Johnny Cash would [fit] beautifully," Feaver says. "I think they were sort of flummoxed by that. But ... it all figures very nicely. These sort of mordant, comic, country-and-western classics are far more Lucian's style."Asked about his relationship with Freud, Feaver offers "friend." It's a mutually advantageous arrangement, and a privileged position -- of sorts. "A very, very peculiar, vicarious way of living life -- it's rather awful, in a way," he says. "It's a large chunk of my life."

Like Freud's assistant, David Dawson, Feaver devotes a major part of his life to the artist, but unlike Dawson has never been painted by him.

He would, he assures apropos of nothing, take off his clothes for Freud if asked.

Feaver may have curated the retrospective, but Freud provided strict guidelines. It is biographical, the paintings displayed strictly chronologically, taking the viewer from Freud as a teenager, "and then turning into a kind of randy 20-something-year-old, and then all the problems that result" -- children, girlfriends, ex-wives. Then there are paintings of "contacts, people he admires, people he finds fascinating for physical reasons," Feaver says. "And gradually the painting gets better at accommodating all these extra levels."

The show ends with paintings of his granddaughter, and a dog, and a self-portrait. "It's a fear of old age, and being incapable of painting anymore, which, I'm sure, preoccupies him. At the same time, he's facing up to old age with complete honesty and lack of sentimentality or pretensions."

Before the retrospective, "there was quite a lot of talk about Freud and his putrid flesh and his male gaze and misogyny, etc.," Feaver says. "If the retrospective has achieved anything, it's achieved this idea that he's actually a great painter, not some kind of Freudian case history."

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