LUCIAN FREUD: Rebel with a Cause

Marina Vaizey

Magazine issue: 
#4 2011 (33)

Ritualistic, spontaneous, improvisatory, disciplined, anarchic, unfashionable, indifferent, insatiable, obsessed, risk-taking yet curiously wedded to routines: Lucian Freud’s life (19222011) was a mass of self-imposed contradictions, while his art was almost alarmingly focused, intense and unremitting, and the product of unvarying determination. He never, from his hallucinatory early drawings, prints and paintings on a relatively small scale to the paintings of his last decades, with rich thick impasto, and occasionally crowded with figures, deviated from his obsession not only with the observed world, but his observed world. The exhibition “Lucian Freud Portraits”, running at London’s National Portrait Gallery until May 2012, collects more than 100 works from museums and private collections — the first major show since the artist died on 20 July 2011, but in which he was involved until his death. It will perhaps be the culmination of his lifetime’s preoccupation with private faces in public places, and public faces in private places — for many of those he painted were never identified by name.

The art is mesmerizingly autobiographical: he painted his surroundings, the people he knew, scores of models paid relatively little or posing for free, but who entered into his undeviating daily patterns, a social life devised to maximise working time: walking the invariable dog, dining daily at the few grand London restaurants that he favoured. A London guessing-game was identifying his changing circle of models, his serial devotions. In the latter part of his life, he had assiduous studio assistants, finally the devoted David Dawson, painter and photographer (who is depicted in the late “ Eli and David”, from 2005-06, with one of the artist’s whippets). And from the 1970s on, Freud had major international exhibitions of his art, and major critical monographs: among the art critics and historians who published substantial works were Robert Hughes, perhaps the best Anglophone art critic of his period, Professor Sir Lawrence Gowing, Catherine Lampert, the Pulitzer Prize winning Sebastian Smee, Bruce Bernard, and Martin Gayford.

Freud was a creature of habit. He lived in the same part of West London most of his life, with several houses in Paddington, Kensington and Holland Park, the studio his home as he moved among them.

With his surname, he was bound to attract attention, often for the wrong reasons. In his youth he was said to be very handsome, his wiry figure and intently melancholy look drawing admirers at first glance (“Man with a Feather (Self-portrait)”, 1943). His behaviour was anarchic — he could not bear authority which he flouted all his life, never playing by the rules. It seemed he was as attracted to animals as models as much as people; he was attached to his dogs who often feature next to his human models; a pet rat was also immortalised in paint, and he was particularly fond of horses — a rider early on, an addictive gambler for much of his life. (Freud was passionate about gambling until he had so much money that the risk was severely diminished; it was the sense of losing it all that he relished).

But Freud’s most obvious deviation was to paint and draw and etch all his life from the life, a representational artist when abstraction, installation, and even ephemeral performance became all the avant-garde rage. No “Duchampian” he, but an adept with pen, pencil, etching needle, and oil paint.

It is not given to every unconventional lover and gambler, to be awarded the Order of Merit, an honour given only to 24 living people at any one time, and in the personal gift of the Queen. It is almost via various liaisons and friendships with an extraordinary range of acquaintances, from pick-ups and gamblers, bookies and minor criminals, to the aristocracy of the great and the good, that he sidled obliquely into the limelight, occupying a special niche in the establishment, and certainly at the apex of the “artocracy”.

Freud’s father Ernest, Sigmund Freud’s youngest son, was a successful architect, living in Berlin: the family had sufficient resources — and foresight — to emigrate to England in 1933 when Freud was 11. He was to speak English all his life with a slight accent; he could at times be the devastatingly courteous even chivalric gentleman, and at times devastatingly rude. Would he greet you or look through you? Many of his friendships were indeed life-long; but there was often an element of uncertainty, adding a little frisson, a sense of thin ice, that was an underlying component of any Freudian relationship. After months, even years, of sitting, the process might end, the painting(s) finished, and several subjects have said it was like being cast out of the garden of Eden. No one was ever bored during the long attachment, not only because of mutual conversation but because of being part of the creation, overhearing the painter’s exhortations and comments to himself. He valued his privacy, however, adding to the myth; if you talked too much about what was going on without his tacit permission you were indeed pushed or shoved into the outer darkness. Writers who worked with Freud on publishing projects had co-operation withdrawn for reasons that were not necessarily clear. A certain Freudian opacity kept his circle on their toes.

Consistently, though, he was absolutely adamant about the seriousness of sitting for a portrait, and irritated by anybody who took the commitment to model lightheartedly; you had to be on time, with no messing about, and willing to stand or sit in the grimy paint-filled studio for months, even years of appointments. Payment could be in the form of those marvellous restaurant dinners. The spectrum was wide, and the lovers legion. Freud worked obsessively and pleased himself. And he worked day and night. Hardly anyone had his phone number — he could phone you, but would only talk if the recipient of his call answered. The patterns of his behaviour, on the one hand working obsessively all day and all night, on the other dining regularly with his companions in a highly-controlled social life, added to the myth, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Freud’s lovers were legion, some broken-hearted, but all knew the rules, however much they may have hoped they might be the exception. Students, the young, the old, the married, the separated, the single, all the permutations — the grand, the not so grand. It was almost an indoor sport in the London art world, people guessing how many children Freud had fathered or acknowledged. There were two daughters with his first wife, the mesmerising Kitty Garman, daughter of Jacob Epstein, the staggeringly-gifted and rumbustious sculptor of masterpieces — but the number of children Lucian Freud himself acknowledged was variable, and his support for many capricious or non-existent. He is reported to have revealed that he did acknowledge over 40 progeny; the negotiations for who could be invited to the private views of his museum exhibitions could be arduous.

To many if not most of his children, he gave at least a painting, now worth a small or even large fortune, and to some he is said to have given property. But he had little to do with the majority of his offspring, although he was close to a few, and never had a settled, conventional family life. Paradoxically, he had a strong maternal attachment himself. Freud was to paint and etch in the 1980s a marvellously tender and dignified series of portraits of his widowed mother, lying on a bed in his studio, a grey-haired woman looking to English eyes quite central European (“The Painter's Mother Resting”, 1982-1984); he said it was to help his mother’s depression, and provide occupation and purpose for her, a closeness for them both. He was to depict her in death. Freud himself was famously unafraid himself of dying, and said of his friend Francis Bacon that his art was injured by his fear of death. The family was certainly complex. Lucian’s older brother Clement was to become a public bon viveur, a Liberal Member of Parliament, also perhaps a womaniser, a witty radio broadcaster: they were not on speaking terms.

Fascinating inconsistencies and contradictions married to an underlying consistency and tenacious determination are apparent in his subject matter. His early work occasionally exhibited a surreal touch: “The Painter’s Room” (1945) is enlivened by a zebra’s head. There is an eerie hallucinatory quality about the paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, and he was precocious: only in his late twenties, he was commissioned to contribute a painting to the 1951 Festival of Britain, the strange “Interior in Paddington”, with its huge potted plant by the window matching its presence to the raincoated, smoking bespectacled young man, the East End photographer Harry Diamond.

By the 1960s the prints which depended on clever compelling use of line — wide-eyed young women clutching flowers, lying in bed — began to give way to etchings with elaborate and intense concatenations of lines describing with a kind of awesome fidelity the carapace of skin in which we are all encased. As he changed brushes, adopting a hog’s bristle which could be loaded with fat paint, the smooth almost veneerlike quality of the early paintings was supplanted by an impasto, swirls of paint which were to become richer and more encrusted over the decades. The studios, ordinary domestic rooms in terraced West London houses were uniformly unpretentious — kept overwhelmingly warm for the models who were typically naked — bore the souvenirs of the wiped brushes, smear ing the paint on their walls, Freudian paintings in themselves.

Rarely did he paint commissioned portraits. Freud’s subjects included a late and tiny portrait of the Queen, markedly unsuccessful, an old lady painted unsparingly, even cruelly; an astringent contradiction, of course, to the usual anodyne and flattering images which have proliferated over the decades. They probably talked about horses, but she does not look amused. Aristocrats of varying ranks appear, from Dukes and Duchesses on down, as well as the aristocracy of celebrity: a heavily pregnant super model Jerry Hall, the super model Kate Moss.

But he started with his own: Kitty Garman, his first wife, is the subject (“Girl with a White Dog”, 1950-1951) of some of Freud’s most captivating and hypnotically-compelling early masterpieces where line mattered as much as colour, and colour was vividly transparent, the surface as smooth as Dutch 17th century painting, or the Frenchman he admired so intensely and copied, Chardin. Freud looked attentively at the great masters and indeed had had an extensive apprenticeship, studying briefly at the Central School, and then intermittently for several years with the charismatic Cedric Morris in the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, in Suffolk. At one point the school burnt down — legend has it that it was accidentally set alight by Freud. There were three months in the merchant marine, in 1941, and friendships with the painter John Craxton with whom he spent some time on the Greek island of Paxos. From the same period there is a haunting portrait of another friend, the suicidal painter John Minton.

These early portraits are tender, of his first lovers and friends, and responsive to a lurking nervousness or even neurosis on the part of the sitters, but nothing like the ferocious swirl of paint and intensity of the portrayal of the flesh that was to characterise the last four decades of his art when he painted not the nude, but the naked.

Kitty Garman, part of Epstein’s complex family — did Freud take it as a model? — was brown-haired and greeneyed, and married Freud in 1948; their union was dissolved in 1952. The second wife — married in 1953, divorced 1957, this marriage childless — was grand in another way, Caroline Blackwood, a Guinness heiress who was to go on to marry the American poet Robert Lowell. Blond and blue-eyed, she was depicted continually, with tender affectionate appraisal and scrutiny (“Girl in Bed”, 1952).

During this time Freud moved among Bohemian London, a close friend of Francis Bacon (of whom he painted an amazing wide-eyed portrait, stolen and still not returned from a major exhibition in Berlin), and an even closer friend of another German child emigre, the painter Frank Auerbach, who was equally obsessive in his subject matter (“Frank Auerbach”, 1975-1976). In Auerbach’s case, too, portraits, again and again of the same handful of committed sitters from a much narrower social milieu than Freud’s, dominated, as did the Camden Town landscape surrounding Auerbach’s studio. All three, Bacon the autodidact, Auerbach and Freud shared an extensive and passionate knowledge of art history, and copied both overtly and covertly the masters they admired. Bacon’s emotional portraits were from the imagination, even if based on the real; he drew from Velazquez and Van Gogh in compelling series. Auerbach drew for continual visual practice from the art of the National Gallery. Each of these London artists were outsiders: Bacon Anglo-Irish, Freud and Auerbach German Jews who had come to London in the 1930s as refugees. Freud acknowledges Hals and Van Gogh as masters: of colour and the brush. As all intelligent artists do, and acknowledge — by their heroes shall we know them — each has worked from the art of others. Freud used and transformed a painting by Watteau in an amazing life-size group portrait of unacknowledged relationships of lovers and children, “Large Interior W11 (after Watteau)” (1981-1983).

In the 1990s Freud had two astonishing “people-mountain” sitters which brought celebrity, even notoriety, to them, and record prices in the auction rooms. The benefits supervisor, Sue Tilley, appears in many a painting: she is a huge sprawling figure, and after Freud’s death spoke most affectionately of her sojourn as his model (“Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, 1995). Leigh Bowery, an Australian transvestite and performance artist, posed for gigantic paintings of his formidable presence (“Leigh Bowery (Seated)”, 1990). Bowery, described by Freud as fastidious and highly intelligent, regarded his sittings, or rather standings, for Freud as his own private university. Freud painted “the great and the good” (“The Brigadier”, 2003-2004), the establishment (drawn to mountainous flesh, he portrayed Lord Goodman, another “man-mountain”, a lawyer to that inner core of politicians and others who ran the country), and also those at the opposite end of the social spectrum (“Two Irishmen in W11”, 1984-1985).

His models, except for the Queen, came to Freud’s various studios: a grimy bed, rumpled sheets and rags, an old chair, paint-smeared walls, and bare wooden boards. The only creatures who were always totally relaxed were his nervy, sinew- thin whippets. Over the decades, other artists and writers were pressed into service, like the exceptional critic Martin Gay- ford who wrote “Man with A Blue Scarf” about several years of sitting for Freud, resulting in both portraits and etchings. Gayford always had to wear the same clothes for the more than weekly sessions, including a pink- and white-striped shirt, the stripes disappearing in the finished portrait. The clothes were props too, for tonal values, not necessarily for accurate photographic reproduction.

Does the biography matter? Unusually, this is something Freud has in common with Picasso, another art giant of the 20th century, and a famous (or infamous) lover, whose personal life critics and historians agree informs his art. Oddly perhaps, Freud admired Picasso, but thought Matisse the greatest artist of the 20th century. And for both Matisse and Picasso, the biography too is all, inseparable from the imagery. But Picasso reworked myth; Matisse abstracted. And Freud only worked from the life. He wanted to see his subjects both night and day, and said that thus would be revealed the all, without which selection was not possible. He is an unremitting scrutineer of himself, a relentless self-portraitist (from the middle years, “Reflection with Two Children”, 1965). Perhaps the most affecting is his unflinching depiction of his naked aged body, wearing only a pair of unlaced walking boots (“Painter Working, Reflection”, 1993).

For Freud there was never a hint that all flesh is grass. In his claustrophobic London studios, flesh is meat, yet the colours are at times iridescent, reminiscent of crushed coffee cream chocolates, enlivened occasionally by hints of raspberry and strawberry jam, candied violets, a dash of surprising blue to point up the terracotta, oranges, pale creams and pallid whites of skin.

These are often private parts in public places, breaking taboos. At times it seems he has shown us things we would rather not see. In all cases it is the human condition; we never forget that here the reporter, the creative artist, is in the powerful position, the selector, the arranger. But it is the pulsation of life, from the jungle of the garden, the nervy pose of the resting whippet, the baby, the child, the lover, the grandee, that carries all before it.





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