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Sitting Pretty

What’s so good about Lucian Freud?

Oct 4, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 03 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
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Man with a Blue Scarf

Sitting Pretty

‘The Painter Surprised By a Naked Admirer,’ 2005

Photo Credit: AP, National Portrait Gallery

On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud
by Martin Gayford
Thames & Hudson, 256 pp., $40

Art critics have been sitting for their portraits since Diderot, grandaddy of modern criticism, modeled for Fragonard. Under 18th-century Prussian rigor, aesthetics hardened into a discipline. Critics arose as arbiters and exegetes. The benefits of painting them rose, too. Johann Winckelmann, pioneer of art historical methodology, posed for Anton Mengs; Immanuel Kant, for lesser lights. John Ruskin held his stance for John Millais. Émile Zola sat for Manet; Baudelaire, for Courbet; Apollinaire, for Vlaminck. Historic pairings differ from contemporary ones in that earlier writers’ claims to eminence rested on their writing, their ideas. Today’s critic stakes his immortality on his subject’s celebrity. Or aptitude for it. 

Enter Martin Gayford, critic, and author of The Yellow House, a lively sketch of Van Gogh and Gauguin together in Arles, and Constable in Love. Both prove Gayford a deft biographer of the well-known and documented dead. But something happens in company with the living. Man with a Blue Scarf is the diary of seven months spent, at the author’s own request, as Lucian Freud’s model. The result is oddly redolent of Facebook: Gayford wants you to know that Freud agreed to “friend” him, and he cannot quite get over it. 

The title echoes Man in a Blue Shirt, Freud’s 1965 portrait of Francis Bacon’s lover, George Dyer. A double homage, that—both to Freud and to his much-touted friendship with Francis Bacon, a gambling and drinking partner and votary of misrule. It is the opening fawn in this glory-by-association venture. Protocols were set in 1965 by James Lord, a gifted hanger-on who played Boswell (painted by Joshua Reynolds) to the postwar Parisian art crowd. Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait was a slim, ingratiating journal of the writer’s 18 days as Giacometti’s invited model. His conversations showcased the artist’s anxieties, those hesitations and oscillations that made his art as much acts of erasure as of painting.

Gayford supplies the obligatory angst, but it is largely his own: “What if he loses interest in me as a subject, as he did in the horse he decided not to paint?” It is hard to press creative agony out of an artist whose presumption of his own amplitude permits him to regard the history of art as an accompaniment to himself. Gayford sanctions Freud’s admitted megalomania as “necessary for an artist who intends to add something new to a tradition already 5,000 years old.” The book stretches Lord’s spare formula—a mix of chronicle, autobiography, and opinion—with the sort of patter you can follow on Twitter: “LF has a mysterious visitor coming at seven.” LF is going to Kate Moss’s birthday party. LF loves his bath. LF can tell time to the minute without a watch. MG met Damien Hirst who ran into LF. .  .  . LF drinks a carrot juice smoothie. 

Commonplaces, in dial-tone prose, keep the copy going: “A person’s energy levels are just one of numerous pieces of information that can be detected from looking at the face.” Pupils dilate when we see something interesting. Painting takes stamina. Eyebrows are useful for signaling expression. There is no accounting for taste. 

Sitter’s vanity encourages the polite pretense that portraiture is a collaborative affair. (“My eyebrows, in fact, are distinctive.”) And as befits a memoir,  names drop at the speed of crashing china. The men come and go, talking over “dinner of mackerel, prawns, and a salad made from an ornate fungus.” Amid the chat, Freud looms as a consummate egoist, all swagger and epic self-regard. Gayford stands agog: “It takes a bold spirit to dismiss Raphael and Leonardo.” The artist’s every gesture is spiked with drama: “His demeanor when painting is that of an explorer or hunter in some dark forest.” The forest, it turns out, is you and me: “I have long been convinced that Lucian Freud is the real thing: a truly great painter living among us.” Living among us. The phrase suggests a demigod gone slumming, a role the painter carries off with relish. 

Freud reflects amiably on his Paddington days when he was on file with the cops. Quite a few friends were crooks and psychopaths. Freud liked homosexual gangster Ronnie Kray because he “said interesting things, although he was, as everyone knows, a sadistic murderer.” Along came the Lumley brothers, whose acquaintance he made as they were breaking into his studio—in striking imitation of Bacon’s reported introduction to Dyer. Is Freud pulling legs when he lets drop that another thuggy chap became an art dealer? Gayford does not blink. He simply smiles on Freud’s “quest for humanity in all its guises.”

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