Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

“Amazingly Aware and Amazingly Abandoned”: Lucian Freud and Leigh Bowery

artcritical is honored to present this exclusive extract from contributor Phoebe Hoban’s newly published biography, Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, published by New Harvest in their Icons series.  In our segment Hoban, renowned author of lives of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Alice Neel, charts Freud’s collaborative, creative artist-model relationship with the late Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery.  In the frankness and exuberance of Bowery’s poses Freud found a match for the intensity of his gaze and the fastidiousness of his technique.  A review of this book will follow.

Lucian Freud, Nude with Leg Up (Leigh Bowery), 1992. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC
Lucian Freud, Nude with Leg Up (Leigh Bowery), 1992. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC

In 1990, Lucian Freud found his next great subject, an over-the-top Australian performance artist named Leigh Bowery, whom Freud first met at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, where Bowery had done a week-long installation piece starring himself in an array of exotic getups a few years earlier. Wynn Evans and Cook arranged a meeting between the artist and the flamboyantly-dressed performer (sequins were a favorite motif) at Harry’s Bar, because they wanted to “get one back on Lucian …all those sequins. We thought we’d get Lucian to put that old beige paint away.”

Freud had seen Bowery around before and been impressed by his monolithic legs. A massive man capable of extraordinary physical flexibility, Bowery had the big bald head of a Buddha. Using Bowery as a model over the next four years, until his death from AIDS on December 31, 1994, Freud produced some of the most astonishing work of his career, paintings monumental in both their scale and sensibility.

Freud once said that sculpture was his first love, and he owned a copy of Rodin’s Balzac, which occupied a place of honor at the head of the Holland Park stairs, guarding the studio entrance. Bowery’s form naturally lent itself to a sculptural approach, and Freud energetically exploited the potential of both his huge figure and his ability to maintain contorted poses. The two were highly attuned to each other. As a performance artist, Bowery, who had many body piercings, was usually turned out in full regalia, from quirky clothes to jewelry. But when he first entered Freud’s studio, he simply stripped and removed all his studs, without Freud’s bidding. He wore no makeup, and he shaved himself from head to foot, to afford the artist even fuller exposure.

In the first portrait, Leigh Bowery (Seated) 1990, his figure overwhelms a red armchair. Indeed, Freud kept enlarging the canvas with new strips in order to contain him. And yet, as large as he was, Bowery had an almost dancerly grace. Even in a seemingly straightforward pose like that of Naked Man, Back View (1991–92), where only the model’s back is shown as he sits on a low ottoman, Freud managed to capture a sense of both the baroque and the Buddha-like embedded in Bowery’s presence.

Lucian Freud and Leigh Bowery imitating the poses of artist and model in Gustave Courbet's 'The Painter's Studio' 1855. Photograph by Bruce Bernard, 1992 © Estate of Bruce Bernard (Virginia Verran)
Lucian Freud and Leigh Bowery imitating the poses of artist and model in Gustave Courbet’s ‘The Painter’s Studio’ 1855. Photograph by Bruce Bernard, 1992 © Estate of Bruce Bernard (Virginia Verran)

He was inspired both by Bowery’s “wonderfully buoyant bulk” and “the quality of his mind.” Freud described Bowery, as “very aware, very relaxed, and very encouraging in the way that physical presence can be. His feelings about clothes extend to his physiognomy even, so that the way he edits his body is amazingly aware and amazingly abandoned.”

Nude with Leg Up, painted in 1992, shows Bowery reclining on the studio floorboards, amidst a sea of Freud’s painting rags, one leg improbably propped up on a green-striped mattress. For once he looks life-size rather than larger than life, since Freud has him anchor the center of the composition, which is made up of the mattress, the rags, the floorboards and the bottom of a window. In Leigh under the Skylight (1994), the model is standing on a covered table, his head poking up towards the ceiling. Although his ankles are delicately crossed, his huge body is torqued in a pose that recalls Rodin.

Freud also painted Bowery lying naked on a bed with Nicola Bateman, who worked with him and married him not long before his death. And the Bridegroom (1993) is a painterly performance piece, a theatrical composition rendered in a hushed palette that heightens the drama. A bed, heavily draped in a beige sheet, sits in front of a black folding screen. The background of the painting consists simply of brown floorboards and yellowish walls. Bowery and Bateman, both nude, lie in state on the bed, sculptures on a pedestal, their heads turned away from each other. Bateman, a thin but rounded figure, has one slender ankle draped over Bowery’s thick thigh; her long hair flows off the edge of the bed. Named after a line in an A. E. Housman poem (although Bowery wanted Freud to call it “A Fag and his Hag”), it’s a one-act tour de force. “I’ve always been interested in bringing a certain kind of drama to portraiture,” Freud said, “the kind of drama that I found in paintings of the past. If a painting doesn’t have drama, it doesn’t work; it’s just paint out of the tube.”

Nicola Bateman appears in several other paintings, including a poignant footnote to Bowery’s death, the strange piece Girl Sitting in the Attic Doorway (1995), which shows the naked Bateman perched in an alcove above a wardrobe. “As he was coming towards the end of painting…it was around that time that Leigh started to die… And I would sit up there. And I spent the whole time just thinking about Leigh…and that he’s dying right now. I think it gave me a little bit of breathing space from the situation.” When Bowery died, Freud had his body flown back to Australia.

Excerpted from “Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open” by Phoebe Hoban. ©2014 by Phoebe Hoban. Published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest April 2014. All Rights Reserved.