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.

Michelangelos on Rothkos

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon and the Masters (Fontanka Publications)

This catalogue from a recent show at the University of East Anglia focusses on Francis Bacon’s process of creating paintings, particularly in regards to the inspiration he gleaned from old masters (it might be a bit of a stretch to describe Picasso as an ‘old master’. Nevertheless…). Bacon may have a reputation as a formidable twentieth century artist, but in many ways, like Lucian Freud, his art partook of the conventions of the history of Western art, if one thinks of the overriding theme of portraiture in his work, the creation of triptychs, as well as the obvious references to older paintings (of Velazquez, Van Gogh).

Going beyond this, Paul Joannides, one of the writers of the essays in the book, describes Bacon’s portraiture as similar to, and inspired by, ancient sculpture, including the way in which Bacon ‘mounted’ portraits on tables and the like within the canvasses. I think also that the serenity of the backdrops, in contrast to the smudgy, grainy brushwork of the figures, act as a form of framing within the frame. Some of his pictures look like blurred and distorted Michelangelos on Rothkos. There is also something here of the religious icon painting tradition, where the background itself is more than a background and becomes part of the frame. At times Bacon’s figures are framed by the blank canvas, and in a similar fashion the Fauves would leave bits of blank canvas showing through, as a contrast to their intense and deliberately overemphasised colours.

The figures in Bacon’s paintings are not conventionally beautiful and are more often than not rather disquieting, but, like Freud, he is not out to shock for shock’s sake. His paintings say something about the human body, and the fact that the figures in his crucifixion paintings are like slaughterhouse carcasses rather than Greek statuary (as they are in many Western depictions of the crucifixion) makes this point well, as well as making a certain amount of sense considering that crucifixion was a gruesome rather than noble way to die – the intention was to completely strip the victim of humanity. Bacon had a fascination for deterioration in the human body, and the tragedy in this, and this catalogue makes a link between the messiness of the human body and the (famous) messiness of Bacon’s studio. The detailed documenting of Bacon’s studio detritus may seem part of the modern conceit regarding the importance of modern artists, part of the hagiography of modern artists, that assumes any piece of ephemera is of interest to the general public, but this catalogue suggests that, in this particular case, understanding Bacon’s studio helps us understand Bacon’s influences, not just through the pictures of artworks and photos of friends piled there, but because the state of their preservation (or lack thereof) was a key to Bacon’s interpretation of them in the paintings.