Look harder

The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth, 1922-1968, William Feaver, Bloomsbury

How do we assess the life of an artist? How much does an artist’s personal life affect what they convey in their art? Does it matter, at least to their art, if artists keep bad company, think only of themselves, aren’t particularly nice? In the case of an artist such as Lucian Freud, could it be that a level of ruthlessness is actually required to create such intense art?

In the first of William Feaver’s two large biographical volumes, Freud is an almost comically picaresque character – morally reckless, unrepentantly self-indulgent, but in an inverted ethic, disciplined in his ‘unremitting’ self-obsession. Freud saw this as an awkward kind of honesty, emphatically telling another biographer, Martin Gayford, ‘I follow my feelings’ (in Man with a Blue Scarf, an insightful commentary on sitting for a portrait).

At school he showed a disregard for rules and learning. His father once introduced him by saying, ‘this wild animal is my son’. Freud claimed that in Paris at night he would bound across the roofs of parked cars. He fathered many children, with little commitment to them or their mothers (Feaver sardonically calls the children ‘complicating circumstances’), and said he might have been a career criminal without art.

He befriended gangsters and drunks, as well as members of the royal family. His social circle was wide and dazzling. He knew Giacometti, Picasso, Francis Bacon, George Orwell, Iris Murdoch, Ian Fleming, W H Auden, all while still a penniless up-and-comer. He got into fights, and had an upper-class disregard for money, driving a Bentley but living in dilapidated public housing. He threw away thousands gambling, saying it was not worth betting unless there was a dizzying anticipation of winning big or losing all. His friend and fellow painter Frank Auerbach said Freud couldn’t see the point of attending funerals, and described him as ‘spoilt’, ‘cruel’ even (though also ‘fun’), with his ‘own morality’.

He brought this intensity to his art. One art teacher told him to look harder, and he seemed to take this as a mantra. It’s uncomfortable to hold together an acceptance of his roguish nature and an admiration of the brilliance of his art, and admit that his often-inexcusable behaviour was related to the focus in his art. His tendency not to follow rules meant he was at the forefront of the post-war revival in Britain of the figurative tradition, and he continued to follow his own artistic feelings no matter what was fashionable in the art world.

Early on, critics lumped him with the surrealists, but that was just because of his odd choice of subject matter, often dictated by the sparseness of his surrounds. Whatever his subject was – animal, vegetable or mineral – they were all subjected to his unremitting gaze. Feaver, who with all the pages, has the luxury of not only documenting Freud’s social life at length, but also takes many pages to analyse the art, says, in case it wasn’t obvious, that Freud was never interested in abstract art, partly because abstraction tends towards the universal, whereas Freud was a painter of the particular.

In this regard, Freud was different to his friend and rival Francis Bacon, whose distorted paintings suppressed the individuality of his subjects (as well as, Freud suggested, hiding Bacon’s inadequate draughtsmanship). Freud was both lauded and criticised for the cold, obsessive detail in his painting, but there was a shocking loosening of his style in the 1960s, though with the same intensity, with Freud learning to use the fluidity of the paint to mimic texture, in particular skin.

He is largely a portrait painter, and became famous – notorious even – for his nudes, but, ironically, his are not conventional nudes – he didn’t do classical nude studies, which, traditionally, are a kind of generalisation and idealisation – anonymous bodies. Rather, Freud’s nudes are naked portraits. This can be confronting for some, but they are not pornographic or titillating, even if they show his typical disregard for decorum. They are a part of his capturing of the truth of his subjects, flaws and all, the detail making the person the individual (and the stark setting of his studio further focusses attention on that individuality). One could argue about the value of this frankness. It can seem sometimes that his honesty is a kind of brutality, a lowering of the beauty and interest of the human to corruptible flesh. But this teetering on the edge of pushing it too far is interesting, and this honesty is what is important in his art, and what links him to the great painters of the past, in whose company, surely, he can be included, even if he wasn’t very nice.

Visit by heavies

Lucian Freud

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.