In 1987, Lucian Freud was given a retrospective at Paris's Centre Pompidou. And then he was gone. Despite his popularity in salerooms, the painter went missing from France's contemporary art scene for 23 years. Perhaps it was a fortuitous leave of absence: Painting was "dead" and Freud's classical technique and ruthless depictions of flesh were nowhere to be seen.


WORKING AT NIGHT, 2005. COURTESY CENTRE GEORGE POMPIDOU


Today, the 88-year-old Freud is back with a solo show that sprawls across the top floor of same museum. Lucian Freud: L'Atelier is based on the theme of the painter's studio, which curator Cécile Debray posits as the crucial one for his body of work, and comprises some 50 large paintings produced from the 1940s to today. The blockbusters are accounted for, among them Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), which sold at Christie's for $33 million in 2008 and depicts what its tile suggests with stunning gravity, texture and recess; and The painter surprised by a naked admirer (1995), again literal in its title but mysterious and sympathetic in the relationship between painter and model. There are supplemented by drawings and photographs of his now-famous London studio.

Debray talks to Art in America about mapping the symbolism of Freud's studio:


ALICE PFEIFFER: Lucian Freud has been virtually absent from France since his last show at the Centre Pompidou-despite becoming a superstar of the auction house. Why is that? And why bring him back now?

CECILE DEBRAY: I'm not sure this is specific to France. Indeed, he is very famous in England, and with the success of the sales, Freud began to be very well known and written about. But if you walk around European and American museums, you don't see his work. It was time to show Freud differently: not as a retrospective with a closed narrative, but as a punch, a very tight selection with essentially only masterpieces, to give a few reading keys, based around the theme of the point of view of the painter behind his easel, facing the live model. This is a position he isn't going to leave. He still works that way, and it is precisely this that made contemporary art ill at ease with him: it is a very traditional position, but he upholds it so absolutely that it becomes radical. Since the 1940s, he has pushed further and further his exercise of observating a live model.

PFEIFFER: The show is split up into four categories. Can you explain how you chose to break down 70 years of painting?

DEBRAY: It is a journey in four very open-ended chapters. This wasn't about locking him in a single reading via the essential position of the studio. The first part consists of what he calls "large interiors," these big, ambitious paintings he made from the late 60s until 2000, featuring gardens from the window of his studio. He is usually very obsessive about nudes, but nature is an important and diverse metaphor for the biological cycle.

PFEIFFER: How do these relate to the works from the second portion, devoted to self-portraiture?

DEBRAY: Each self-portriat is made using a mirror, which is a way of still working with a live model. He tries to reconciliate the position of the model, which is typically one of passivity, and the active position of the painter, in the body of one person. It has often been said that Freud's self-portraits are aggressive, but I don't agree. But they do possess a form of tension that finds its peak in his self-portraits.

PFEIFFER: How do you treat the subject of space?

DEBRAY: In the third portion of the exhibition I look to demonstrate how, still working in his studio, Freud begins to use classical painting: exterior references open his obsessive, claustrophobic universe. He first does that with a small painting by Watteau, the famous After Watteau (1981–83), and later After Cézanne (1999–2000). Instead of working from a reproduction, he asks live models to recreate the painting: once again, there is the obligatory passage through the work studio. This is a very postmodern citation: he captures a mime game between the models, picks up all its artificialness, clumsiness, and amateur-ness.

PFEIFFER: So in your terms, space for Freud is both quite social and quite solitary?

DEBRAY: Well, we should look at the fourth seciton of the show, which consists of the more theatrical, grandiose paintings of the 90s, which are today his strength and his success. The arrival of Leigh Bowery marks a departure from the familiar model. He uses someone quasi professional. There, with his slight perversity, he asks the transvestite performer to take everything off-cheek piercings, even-to disarm him completely. Yet because Bowery is a dancer and a professional, he resists Freud and he doesn't just lie there. He poses.

PFEIFFER: Before meeting Bowery and Big Sue, Freud painted much less fleshy people, and primarily people connected to him personally. Does the entry of these two characters mark the end of an era in his work?

DEBRAY: Freud doesn't stop painting the earlier types; his painting of his assistant, David Dawson, for example, is recent. But he now paints his models in a much more monumental context. When he paints Dawson, he adds organics element to the painting—legs poking out from under the bed—that gives an impression of catching the middle of a story.

PFEIFFER: You mentioned resistance from the world of contemporary art earlier. What has changed today? Have we gone full circle, is there a rebirth, an interest in classical painting?

DEBRAY: I think that we have moved on from a progressive model of history where painting must be dead in order to be critical. There is a possibility of doing everything all at once, even if it's one thing.

PFEIFFER: Was Lucian happy with the result?

DEBRAY: He was a benevolent accompaniment throughout the process of curating; he helped me get the pieces, and was quite courteous and delicate about it. He is very pleased to be celebrated in France, which is a country that counts in terms of pictorial references. He went there in 1946 and never forgot his meeting with Giacometti, so it was greatly significant for him to be here again.


LUCIAN FREUD L'ATELIER IS ON VIEW THROUGH JULY 19 AT THE CENTRE GEORGES POMPIDOU, PARIS. IMAGE: LEIGH UNDER THE SHYLIGHT, 1994. COURTESY CENTRE GEORGE POMPIDOU.