I have been reading again Martin Gayford’s book Man with a Blue Scarf, which is an insight into the process of sitting for his Lucian Freud portrait – interesting not because it is especially illuminating about sitting for a portrait per se, but because it tells us a lot about Lucian Freud, a rather frightening figure, whose paintings I tend to admire, though I can also see the deficiencies pointed out by someone such as Julian Barnes in his review of the book for the London Review of Books, and now recently published in his book of art writings Keeping an Eye Open.
Gayford is far more sympathetic, portraying a painter who is intensely interested in the sitter. Barnes suggests that Freud’s only interest was the paintings themselves (therefore appearing interested in the subject). Gayford does note Freud’s darker side, in particular his contrariness, a tendency that becomes in Barnes’ handling psychopathic. Gayford notes Freud’s deliberate awkwardness, his interest in the banal as subject matter, his unconventionality in choosing a (more or less) realistic style when everyone else was doing wilder, more abstract things. Gayford also suggests that the monumental change in Freud’s style from exactitude to loose and wide brushstrokes was not simply to confound the critics but because of long-sightedness, though one assumes the contrariness probably was the main propulsion for the move.
Julian Barnes is not particularly fond of Freud’s paintings, but mainly because he sees elements of Freud’s belligerent personality in the paintings themselves, describing frightened looking sitters (contrary to Gayford’s description). He is also right to criticise the lame jokes, the hubris, the lack of personality in the portraits. Gayford suggests Freud had an intense interest in everything he painted. According to Barnes, the portraits, especially the nude ones (tellingly, Freud called them ‘naked portraits’ rather than nudes as he hated succumbing to artistic convention – even if at times he did succumb), suggest an interest in the play of light and not the light within. But more than this, Barnes describes a rather nasty individual. Thankfully for Barnes Freud is dead, otherwise Barnes, like one of Freud’s unauthorised biographers, might have had a visit by heavies in the middle of the night.
But then, we can admire – like, even – artists’ work even if we would want to keep our distance from the artists themselves. In Frued’s work’s case, it is the pale English precision of the early work, and in the late work, the alchemic nature of his brushstrokes, which remain obvious swipes of paint while also evoking the surfaces of the things represented, including, most of all, human skin.