We went to the Freud exhibition years ago at the Met in New York. The paintings that I remember now seem impossibly large; every "naked portrait" (Freud's term) stretched out before the viewer as if it were a landscape: a wrinkled forehead, a rolled tummy, a pale, dimpled bottom, huge as landmarks. Here is a link to an intimate photograph taken by Bruce Bernard of Freud with his very best subject, Leigh Bowery: http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=4983539 Freud made Bowery's majesty come through the work (there is a wonderful film, "The Legend of Leigh Bowery," available to rent -- no-one else you know will ever inhabit this contemporary-Renaissance-man-of the-moment-party-guest world, ever). Freud was, by all accounts, a really good friend.
Many of the non-Bowery works by Freud were somber, depressing studies of men and women, the models contemplative, but depressed. It was as if the artist captured them through a keyhole. We aren't supposed to see strangers so closely; it's rather like seeing someone all alone, on the street in front of you, burst into tears. Portraits promise proximity in that way. It's difficult to know what to do. (My recollection of the pictures is that even the plants are portrayed as dying). These "naked portraits" succeed in breaking the spell of the "male gaze." I suspect that is a large part of the point.
My husband says that it isn't what the works show us, exactly; it isn't about the subject, he insists. It's about the paint. And that paint is as thickly applied as it is in a skyline by Constable. It's wonderful, tactile, and I suspect that this may be why it is so disturbing to see roomsful of Freud. I'd like to see them again, however; it strikes me that there is much I missed years ago... there is a beauty to this man's seeing the ungainliness in people and setting it down, forever. There are hints that I may have missed some playful artistic references, too. Look at the background of this detail from a 2002 self-portrait, printed in yesterday's New York Times; isn't it a Jackson Pollock?