STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Human figures painted in the last 60 years are not pretty pictures, at least not the ones on view starting this Saturday at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. The exhibition "Paint Made Flesh" is full of people who are fat, unkempt, intense, even sliced in cubes. The 33 artists include Picasso, Alice Neel, Eric Fischl, and Francis Bacon. To find the value of those images, we've called our artist of the airwaves, NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg.
SUSAN STAMBERG: On the pages of fashion magazines, in movies and on TV, the nude body is air brushed, powdered, polished to perfection. On the walls of the Phillips Collection, you see a different story.
Mr. LUCIAN FREUD (Painter): Every blot and imperfection, every scar, every bulging area of fat.
STAMBERG: And you really see flesh that you don't want to see.
Mr. FREUD: Yet there's something compelling about it, isn't it?
STAMBERG: British painter Lucian Freud lets you really look at his "Naked Man, Back View" - look so hard that after a while, it's hard to look away. The man is grotesque, massive, fleshy, in all his naked un-glory.
Mark Scala of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville curated this show. Scala says Freud paints the total person.
Mr. MARK SCALA (Frist Center for the Visual Arts; Curator, "Paint Made Flesh"): He was truly interested in humanity, in the things that show that the subject had actually lived a life. And he thought that that was much more beautiful, and much more interesting, and much more honest than portraying something that was an ideal.
STAMBERG: All the works in this show "Paint Made Flesh" were done after World War II, and pretty much all of them are about post-war tensions: vulnerability, anxiety. So the voluptuousness of a nude by Goya, the delicious pinkness of a breast by Renoir - all that sublime perfection is missing from these works. Again, curator Mark Scala.
Mr. SCALA: That sort of idea was considered impossible after the Holocaust, after World War II, when the whole society seemed to be broken. And how does the artist use the body to represent a society in any other way than to represent the body as something that is dissolving, something that's fragmented, something that may not be reparable?
STAMBERG: And so Lucian Freud's "Naked Man, Back View," painted in 1991, shows what's going on behind the skin - what our times have done to him and to us.
Phillips curator Renee Maurer says that's one theme of this show.
Ms. RENEE MAURER (Phillips Curator): The topography of time. It's really how we change and how life changes us. We become this map of all our experiences.
STAMBERG: A 1999 canvas by American painter John Currin is a kind of map-in-progress. It's called "The Hobo." Now, in the mind's eye, a hobo is...
Ms. MAUER: Downtrodden, not happy, in patched clothing.
Ms. MAUER: Dirty, bearded and male.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MAUER: That's true.
STAMBERG: Not Currin's hobo. She's young and gorgeous - tangles of blond curls, see-through blouse, see-through thong. If she were hitchhiking, there'd be a pileup. The only hobo-ish thing about this cutie is the forked walking stick she's leaning on - a stick that more humbled hobos hung their sacks upon.
Renee Mauer says that when Currin painted his hobo, the funny, ironic artist was pondering television.
Ms. MAUER: Currin thought about creating a miniseries that would incorporate beautiful people that were sort of down and out.
STAMBERG: Desperate Hobos, maybe?
The women in British painter Jenny Saville's works wear the scars of social expectations. "Hyphen" shows two sisters, one resting her head on the other's shoulder, in extreme close-up. They are like chubby, nuzzling cherubs, except there's an unsettling quality to them.
Mr. SCALA: Yeah, these are cherubs gone wrong, I guess.
STAMBERG: Saville puts deep, blood-red dabs around the girls' pillowy lips. They look battered. The two heads fill the huge 12x9 foot canvas, so you can see just how Saville painted them.
Mr. SCALA: The brush strokes seem to be applied almost with a violence, with a vigor and with a sharpness that contradicts any sense of sweetness.
STAMBERG: Artist Jenny Saville is painting the marks cruel social expectation make on women. Saville puts plastic surgery in that category.
Mr. SCALA: Doing research for her work in the 1990s, she spent some time in a plastic surgeon's office and was very surprised to hear that the plastic surgeons thought of themselves as Michelangelos of the flesh.
STAMBERG: Sculpting notions of perfection directly onto their clients. The canvases at the Phillips offer different notions about aesthetics.
Mr. SCALA: There's nothing that says that these paintings are not beautiful. It's just a question of how we define beautiful.
STAMBERG: New definitions on view until September 13 at the Phillips Collection.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
INSKEEP: And you can see some of the painted flesh on display at npr.org.