Monday’s Muse: Leigh Bowery’s ’90s Nudes

Lucian Freud first laid eyes on Leigh Bowery in 1988 during one of Bowery’s performances at Anthony D’Offay Gallery. Bowery had been granted a week-long residency at the gallery, and each day he would dress in extravagant and overwrought costumes to perform a series of gymnastic movements behind a two-way mirror. Visitors would gather on one side of the mirror and watch Bowery for hours each day. For one visitor, Lucian Freud, his performances made such a profound impression that Freud felt compelled to seek out mutual friends and arrange a meeting.

David Dawson Freud Bowery

Early works by Freud bear the marks of influences ranging from German Expressionists to Surrealists. In the 1960s, Freud began to discover the style for which he is famous. He set aside his more delicate sable brushes in favor of coarser hog’s-hair alternatives for broader strokes. He began painting thick layers of color designed to accentuate both the tone and texture of flesh. His models were more and more stripped down until he began to focus exclusively on nudes. As his models wore less he inversely increased the size of his canvases and muted his backgrounds. Freud would often clean his brushes between strokes to ensure a purity of color and to increase the visual variation of passages of flesh. He finally brought his love of sculpture to bear by pushing his artwork until it became seething masses of flesh stretched impossibly across monumental canvases.

To Beauty by Otto Dix vs Boy Smoking by Lucian Freud

Otto Dix, To Beauty, 1922; Lucian Freud, Boy Smoking, 1951

Paul Delvaux, Break of Day, 1937; Lucian Freud, Hotel Bedroom, 1954

Amusingly, Freud’s friends agreed to arrange a meeting between the pair in the hopes that Bowery’s bejeweled, glittering, and often sequined aspect might “get Lucian to put that old beige paint away.” Yet Freud’s first portrait of Bowery, Leigh Bowery (Seated), 1990, is devoid of any of Bowery’s famed glamour. Bowery arrived for his first sitting wearing no makeup. He entered the studio, removed his piercings, and stripped naked to reveal he had also shaved his entire body from head to toe. Freud had given Bowery no express directions in advance of his arrival, and it was this simple sequence of actions that cemented their relationship.

Leigh Bowery Seated and Leigh under the Skylight by Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud, Leigh Bowery Seated, 1990; Leigh under the Skylight, 1994

The painting is overwhelming: the combination of Bowery’s hulking frame with the physical limitations of the original canvas forced Freud to actually extend the paintings dimensions through a series of patchwork strips. Freud’s brushwork lets Bowery dominate the center of the work for more than his compositional placement: his flesh takes on a thick, oozing, viscous quality, and the distorted perspective adds a sense of almost drunken, swaying movement to the piece. Yet Bowery still manages to communicate a sense of poise. It may be in his level gaze, or in the slight dancer’s point to his foot, or even in the form of his hand. What remains so fascinating about this piece is the fine balance Bowery and Freud struck between the spilling curves and oozing flesh and their simultaneous control by both artist and muse.

From the start it was clear that the pair would continue to work together, and Freud went on to paint many portraits of Bowery forever inspired by his “buoyant bulk.” The most notable of these works may be Leigh under the Skylight, (1994). The work presents Bowery standing with his ankles crossed and his body slightly turned. Tension runs through his legs, which Freud was particularly fixated upon, and he seems to tower over both painter and viewer in a way which few, if any, of Freud’s other subjects can. Freud preferred painting his subjects supine, seated or reclining, and generally at or below his sightline. Yet, in Leigh under the Skylight he presents Bowery more like Atlas or some other Titan. It is the last painting for which Bowery posed before he passed away from AIDS later the same year.

2021 /ART/ D&F Magazine

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