Here’s an art story with a questionable ending

The story began 25 years ago when a Swiss art collector who wishes to remain anonymous purchased a painting at an auction in Geneva titled 'Standing Male Nude' – a figure with his back to the viewer – believed to be Lucian Freud’s self-portrait.

You can’t see the artist’s face, but the body looks familiar from all the times he painted himself. Also, the layered brushwork with heavy, free strokes typifies his.

Then an odd series of events followed. Freud telephoned the art collector asking to buy back his painting and got turned down.

But it didn’t end there. Three days later, the painter, who died in 2011, called the collector “furious,” insisting on the buy-back.

According to The Observer, he even offered to pay double the sale price. But, again, he got turned down.

Look back in anger

Finally, Freud threatened the art collector, saying that if he didn’t sell the work back to him, he’d deny ever painting it. Disowning it would mean the painting could never go on the auction block again as a Freud painting.

In short, the art collector would be stuck with the painting and, as it turned out, he was. Even when art historians deemed the portrait to be by his hand, the denial has kept the cloud of doubt hanging over it.

So, we’re left wondering what drove Freud’s desperation to re-possess "Standing Male Nude." The collector’s conclusion, based on a private investigator's report, is that the painter was “embarrassed” because the nude is a self-portrait.

Do you buy that? I don’t.

How can a rear-view of a nude make anyone blush, least of all Freud, who was well-known for what he called “naked portraits”? The Guardian describes “his masterful depictions of other people’s naked flesh, often with brutal realism” – his own included.

"Brutal realism" was practically a trademark. He painted frontal nudes of both men and women, sometimes with legs spread-eagled for added exposure.

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Embarrassment, then, could not be the answer to why Freud wanted Standing Male Nude back so badly. But clues from the collector’s private investigator have emerged. Standing Male Nude once hung in a Geneva apartment secretly used by Francis Bacon and his gay friends that also included Freud.

Nothing to be embarrassed about

A sex act might be inferred by the figure’s posture – slightly bent away from the viewer with one arm brought forward and out of sight.

Perhaps the man is masturbating or awaiting a partner. But so what?

How could a mere inference of self-gratification or a sex act of any kind be the source of embarrassment for a man who the Daily Express called a “Lothario” in 2008 when he was 89 years old?!

Maybe the simplest answer is the better one. I’m thinking that Freud wanted the picture back for sentimental reasons in order to give it to one of his many lovers just as he once gave it to Francis Bacon. No? Too bad grandfather Sigmund Freud isn’t around for some psychoanalysis.