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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.”

Freud’s seamy adventurism is not news. How much is mythomania is hard to know. But the telling makes you mindful of what was lost when the lives of saints ceded to the lives of artists. An irrepressible toady, Gayford disinfects Freud’s affinities with museum-quality finesse: “LF has a novelist’s attitude to people; he has a voracious appetite for different varieties of behavior and character.” Just like Balzac and Dickens. And oh, the inimitable way LF rolls his r’s when he tells these stories! The Proustian sweep of his experience!

“By an act of will and daring,” gushes Gayford, “he revived the figurative tradition.” In truth, the tradition did not need reviving; it never died. It runs deeper than market fashion and will outlive assaults on it for as long as we have bodies. Twentieth-century painting was generous in artists devoted to the primacy of figuration. We can argue over approaches and names—Balthus, Stanley Spencer, William Coldstream, Philip Pearlstein, Avigdor Arikha, Euan Uglow, Antonio López García, others—but at no time was Freud the lone trooper facing down abstraction, pop art, op art, land art, performance art, and the whole avant-garde arsenal. 

What Freud revived was himself. By the late fifties his initial reception had leveled off. Always a linear artist, he began, in mid-career, to lay on paint by the pound, requiring broader, looser brush handling (“a characteristically audacious, even foolhardy thing to do”). Paint density became a trademark mannerism. Freud pumped up the frisson of his compositions with hints of morbid sexuality. Scumbled, encrusted breasts and male crotches—giblet shots—took center stage. More sensational than pictorially inventive, the shift electrified Robert Hughes. In 1987, he jump-started the artist’s current prestige by crowning him “the greatest living realist painter.” The tag stuck.

Without detracting from Freud’s gifts—which are genuine—an alert critical climate would have resisted the superlative. Euan Uglow, a decade younger and an austere, luminous practitioner of direct observation, was an equal contender for the title. Esteemed in Britain, Uglow (who died in 2000) lacked only the crucial ingredient of myth. Missing was that bohemian mystique that excites well-behaved grown-ups who wish they had overturned their porridge when they had the chance. Gayford appears to be one of them.

Time will sift the part played by Freud’s bad-boy persona—the vaunted sexual excess, reckless paternities, and lure of transgression—in generating incandescent acclaim. By and by, someone less hypnotized than Gayford will explore what Freud might owe not to Rembrandt and Titian, but to influences closer to home. Before Lucian Freud there was Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), among the most prominent and original British artists of the 20th century. Look at any of Spencer’s paintings done from life—any nude or portrait—and you recognize Freud’s origins. His figures add little to Spencer’s lead beyond the physical weight of pigment. Then, too, there was William Roberts (1895-1980), renowned in Britain between the wars and a celebrated portraitist. The planar emphasis of his portraits—the iconic 1922 painting of T. E. Lawrence, aka Aircraftman Ross, for instance—precedes Freud’s approach to depiction: pronounced, discrete facets accumulating into a likeness. Gayford ignores both near-contemporaries to acquiesce in ceremonial Old Master chat.

In sum, Man with a Blue Scarf trades on the glamour of Freud’s reputation without adding weight to the voluminous commentary that has appeared in the 20-plus years since his coronation by Hughes. Gayford has written often about Freud before this, joining Lawrence Gowing and William Feaver in making a cottage industry out of Sigmund’s grandson. 

Undeniably, Freud is a splendid technician, and a formidable draftsman. In full command of his medium he can move white lead across canvas with the ease of Devon cream. And in a symphony of tones. Freud is capable of startling grace—and as often, of arbitrary malice. After Andrew Parker Bowles complained that his stomach was too prominent, the painter emphasized it more. He admits to making another sitter “more repulsive” than the reality. His portraits range from the riveting (John Minton, 1952) to the studiously detracting (Kate Moss, 2002), as if courtesy or cruelty toward his subject were the luck of the draw. His late preference for physically grotesque models points to cruelty itself—“terrible candour” in Feaver’s exemplary gloss—as an expressive factor.

Exaggerated impasto can disfigure as readily as depict. Gayford accepts Freud’s distortions as deliberate awkwardness. Even without the cues that crystallize between the lines here, those coarsenings convey a certain spite. Something visibly sour inhabits such later canvases as the campy The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer (2005). Why this acrid parody of himself and his audience? Why now, at the height of his reputation? Gayford is not the one to ask. 

Freud endorses—tongue in cheek?—the current dictum that the real point of painting is paint. But realistic figuration is, ineluctably, about more than that. Rooted in the subsoil of the figurative tradition is a vital question: What is man? On the answer depend all claims to greatness—a concept that entails a moral dimension distinct from technical or market considerations. Though Freud acknowledges the “spiritual grandeur” of Rembrandt’s figures, it is unclear whether he approves. In Freud’s eyes, that stamp of dignity homogenizes Rembrandt’s subjects; they all look alike to him. What is clear is his sympathy with Bacon’s bleak credo: We are meat.

Man’s animality spurs the temper of Freud’s work. Dogs people his canvases in intimate equality with what he terms “animals dressed.” Or undressed. His nudes—“naked portraits”—are subordinate to his conviction that man and animal are dual aspects of the same thing. Herein lies the nihilist’s dilemma: Man-as-meat disqualifies itself from grandeur. Meat is not a moral agent; it bears no imprint of the inscrutable. The carnal pull ends in barren ash. It is not for the brute materiality of painted flesh that Rembrandt ranks among the greats. If only Gayford had pressed the point. Or any point at all.

Expect this book to be well-received. It gossips. It flatters illusions of being privy to the sacraments of art-making. It observes ritual pieties, notably the conceit that artists are necessarily exempt from common constraints.  Freud’s own estimate of Gayford’s fan worship, however, can be gauged, in part, by the difference between the fate of Man with a Blue Scarf and Portrait of James Lord. Giacometti gave his painting of Lord to the man himself. Freud, by contrast, put Gayford’s portrait up for sale with Larry Gagosian in New York.

Maureen Mullarkey, a painter who writes on art and culture, keeps a weblog at www.studiomatters.com.

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