In the modern era, few artists have gripped the public’s imagination with a legend of biography and cult of personality quite like Lucian Freud. Rarely is the painter invoked without at least a sideline reminder of his influential grandfather (Sigmund), usually followed by the observation that he is confirmed to have fathered fourteen children of his own (twelve illegitimate) and probably spawned many more than this (estimates from the rumor mill rise as high as forty). Then we learn of his extraordinary gambling addiction and his wildly polarized social life—running with the literary, noble, and social elites of his generation one night, consorting joyfully with the some of the grimiest characters from London’s seedy underbelly the next. When the conversation does turn toward the pictures, it normally stops first to linger on the astronomically high auction prices they began to receive in the twenty-first century, especially in the years preceding and following his death in 2011.
That all of this extra-formal bluster might distort our appreciation of Freud’s artistic achievement was already on the mind of William Feaver in 1973, when he first met the artist for an interview and led off with the assertion that he wasn’t interested in Freud’s private life—only the work itself. But this was a promise he could not ultimately keep. In the ensuing years, Feaver continued to speak with and interview the artist, and over time he warmed to Freud’s own assertion that, with his art, “everything is biographical and everything is a self-portrait.”
The initial installment of Feaver’s planned two-volume biography of Freud, The Lives of Lucian Freud: The Restless Years, 1922–1968, in which we find the above anecdote and quotation, does much to illuminate the very real ways in which biographical circumstance provoked and informed Freud’s work. On a basic level, Freud’s claim that “everything is biographical” aligns with the fact that he drew and painted the people he knew, the things he liked, in his studio and home. As such, Feaver’s account of Freud’s life as he went about meeting these people and bringing them into the sitter’s chair is useful from an art-historical perspective. In a more complicated sense, however, Freud’s recognition that “everything is a self-portrait” speaks to the more intangible and psychological elements in his work that demand sustained investigation.
“Everything is biographical and everything is a self-portrait.”
Feaver, a critic and historian who has previously published books on Frank Auerbach, John Martin, and the Ashington Group, is well positioned to take up the effort. A friend of the painter since that first meeting in 1973, Feaver conducted what he says are thousands of interviews with Freud, and these sometimes daily conversations have formed the backbone of his book. Indeed, nearly every page contains firsthand testimonial from the painter, and many pages are filled primarily with Freud’s voice. This gives the biography a lively, often very funny, and intimate character. It also allows us an in-depth look into how Freud, reticent and reluctant to discuss the work publicly while he was alive, viewed his own artistic project. The arrangement presents obvious hazards (we should approach artist statements in the spirit of Reagan’s attitude towards Soviet promises of disarmament: “Trust, but verify”), but Freud’s commentary is on the whole unpretentious—even perhaps a bit self-effacing—and Feaver’s disinterested analyses serve as useful counterpoint to the artist’s own ideas.
To be sure, Feaver wastes few opportunities to share with us some of the more lurid, intimate, and unseemly episodes and escapades that transpired outside the studio. The rapid-fire stream of vignettes, from Freud’s childhood in Berlin to his adolescence in various British art schools to his adult career in London, through two short-lived marriages and innumerable shorter-lived liaisons, is well documented by Feaver. There’s the time when Lucian, in search of a thrill at the age of eight, took to closing his eyes and running through Berlin traffic, “To test my fate. Until finally hit. I was hit by a car and thrown up in the air and as I came down I was hit again as the car stopped.” During the London Blitz, Freud the teenager was playing a different sort of Russian Roulette—“In the blackout it was almost impossible not to catch the clap”—but also pursued more conventional forms of gambling at the table and racetrack. One gallery attendant recalls an older Freud picking up a sales payment of over £4,000 (many multiples of the attendant’s salary that year) and burning it within minutes at the betting-shop next door.
But as amusing as these anecdotes might be, the true value of this biography comes from the author’s willingness to engage earnestly with Freud’s art, from the lumpish early student works to the brilliant investigations of his later career, and to dispel erroneous conceptions of this work that remain in wide circulation.
Feaver has looked closely at Freud and his art. As it happens, alongside his biography we now have the opportunity to do the same, in the form of “Lucian Freud: The Self Portraits,” an exhibition that opened recently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. If “everything is a self-portrait,” as Freud claimed, then how might we consider the many literal self-portraits that Freud made throughout his life? This exhibition, which was first on display at the Royal Academy, London, seeks to investigate just this through a collection of more than forty works of self-portraiture that span the bulk of Freud’s seven-decade career.
Entering the exhibition, we are greeted by the three-quarter-length Man with Feather (1943), a dream-like night scene in which a young Freud in black jacket and tie awkwardly pinches a preciously rendered white feather. Behind him is a series of inexplicable leaf-shaped, iceberg-like objects strewn along the ground; behind those we find a strange yellow-brick house in which a man and a black bird appear in respective window sills. Though Freud’s paint-handling is clumsy and tentative, the picture maintains an icy detachment and enthusiasm for detail that holds our attention.
Concentration, of course, is the crucial element of Freud’s art that extends through his entire oeuvre.
Critics often describe early works such as Man with Feather as Surrealist, owing in large part to their absurdist assemblies of strange, unrelated motifs. Other self-portraits from this period include various playful stagings, such as a 1949 drawing that casts the artist as Actaeon, replete with furry face, pointy ears, and five-point antlers. But if these Kafka-esque compositions evoke then-trendy ideas about “probing the unconscious,” Freud soon saw through the superficiality of Surrealist aesthetics. As Feaver writes, “Surrealism, Lucian discovered, generally meant Dalí or Breton rather than Picasso, and that, he thought, was reason enough for not getting involved.” Freud’s repudiation recalls Sigmund Freud’s own disavowal of the Surrealists: “I may have been inclined to have regarded the surrealists, who have apparently adopted me as their patron saint, as complete fools.” Crucially, automatism never seems to have informed Freud’s practice at any stage. Freud’s aim was in fact quite the opposite of the automatic painters, who sought to unlock the unconscious by blocking out intellectual impetus and embracing chance and accident. As Freud wrote in 1953, “My object in painting pictures is to try and move the senses by giving an intensification of reality.” For Freud, this required both extreme concentration and an exceptional level of painterly and pictorial control. Not for nothing did the critic Herbert Read name Freud in this period, with only a sprinkle of sarcasm, the “Ingres of Existentialism.”
As the years went by, Freud continued to develop his eye and hand, leading to more naturalistic works that yet retained an eerie sense of the uncanny. In Boston is an important work from this first mature period: Hotel Bedroom, which was included among Freud’s works at the 1954 Venice Biennale, where he represented Great Britain alongside Francis Bacon and Ben Nicholson. In the potent and mostly inscrutable drama, Freud leers at the viewer over his second wife (Lady Caroline Blackwood, the oldest child of the fourth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava and an heiress to the Guinness beer fortune), who lies in bed, clothed, under the sheets, hand to face, with a vacant stare up at the ceiling.
Two years later, an uncompleted Self-Portrait from circa 1956 shows us how Freud began slowly building his pictures from the inside out, painting the bridge of his nose, then his sinuses, then his eyes, then their sockets and his cheekbones, feeling his brush around each nook of flesh and curvature of form as he went. Though the paint is still thin, it is imbued with a vitality of touch absent in the more linearly fixed earlier works. The result is a pictorial experience that surpasses ordinary looking in its sheer intensity. We can’t know for sure why Freud didn’t complete the work, but in Feaver’s biography we find a telling admission: “Painting myself is more difficult than painting people, I’ve found. The psychological element is more difficult. Increasingly so.”
Freud’s extraordinarily tight draftsmanship and his attention to the smallest detail won him early acclaim and patronage in London’s art world. But despite this success, by the late 1950s he was increasingly dissatisfied with a method that he found limiting, and soon he began painting with a loaded brush and gestural hand. The artist’s admiration for the expressive vitality of the paint-handling of his close friend Francis Bacon has led many to cast Freud’s later work as neo-Expressionist. Feaver’s biography, without discounting the possibility of Bacon’s influence, does much to complicate this understanding. In an illuminating few pages, Feaver positions Cézanne as the more important influence on Freud’s development: “To Freud, Cézanne was the painter who, above all, made expression (as distinct from skittering ‘Expressionism’) the very stuff of concentration.” Concentration, of course, is the crucial element of Freud’s art that extends through his entire oeuvre.
Though this comparison of Freud to the Provençal master might seem specious at first glance, it bears unpacking. Like Cézanne, Freud worked incredibly slowly, often spending many minutes just looking at his subject before mixing a color and applying a single brushstroke. For both, modeling sessions could run for hours on end, and paintings frequently required hundreds of sittings that spanned months and even years. We might consider this manner of slow optical accretion to have something to do with T. S. Eliot’s idea that the artist “is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.” The ultimate goal, for Freud and for Cézanne, was to break through the wall of intellectually presumptive “realities” that descend to cliché when manifested in paint. In Eliotan terms, it is the attempt to “escape from personality” (a concept Freud cites favorably, quoted by Feaver) that is antithetical to Expressionism and its aesthetic relations.
Of course, “attempt” is key here. Freud’s maniacal desire to exert painterly control over his pictures led often to just the sorts of mannerist cliché that the whole process is designed to eschew. To my eye, this was especially the case in the 1960s, when Freud was still learning just what he could do with the loaded brush. These “loopy” paintings, of which there are a number of examples in Boston, show Freud spreading paint at his most Bacon-esque, but without the intensity of focus that would give his later work more enduring power.
By the 1980s, however, Freud was nearing the height of his abilities. An iconic self-portrait from 1985, a “night painting” in which the artificial interior light of his London studio rakes dramatically over his aging features and bare shoulders, obliterates the works hanging nearby on their shared gallery wall. Normally on view at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the painting shows the sixty-three-year-old Freud’s obsessive quest to exert maniacal control over contour, color, and light—a King Lear of the brush.
Other works from this period and after include two large paintings that do not involve mirrors: Two Irishmen in W-11 (1984–85) and Flora with Blue Toenails (2000–01). In the first, of an adult man standing behind his seated father, we find “self-portraiture” only in the sense that Freud includes in the composition two small self-portraits on canvas leaning against his studio wall. In the latter painting, Freud’s presence is suggested by ominous shadow, which looms over the naked woman awkwardly splayed out on a bed—a paraphrase of Picasso’s 1953 The Shadow, from the Musée Picasso, Paris. These two anomalous works are also some of the best in the exhibition, and they begin to suggest that self-portraiture, for Freud, is more expansive than we might initially think.
A number of important self-portraits are missed in Boston. Not included is Freud’s last major contribution to the genre, The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer (2004–05), one of his stranger self-portraits, showing, as the title suggests, a naked model, sitting on the ground, hugging Freud’s leg tight as he depicts the two of them alone in his studio. And then there’s perhaps Freud’s most shocking self-portrait: Painter Working, Reflection, from 1993, of an entirely naked septuagenarian Freud, save for a pair of unlaced studio boots, holding his palette in one hand and palette knife aloft in the other. The work was included in the Royal Academy’s presentation but did not travel to Boston.
The absence of these two late classics, however, is offset by the magisterial half-length Self-Portrait, Reflection of 2002 (Private collection), the last fully developed work included in the exhibition. In it, Freud presents himself wearing an olive-green jacket and a loose gray cravat, backed up against a paint-encrusted studio wall. Documentary photographs by Freud’s assistant, David Dawson, show us how Freud took to wiping excess paint from his brush onto the studio walls as he worked, creating over time an environment that blurred the lines between painting and place. In the 2002 self-portrait, Freud’s densely worked visage is subsumed in the chaotic smears of oil that dance around and behind his head. To my mind, Freud made some of his greatest works in his eighth decade; here we find an artist standing bravely against the onward march of time, carving himself out of the same paint that has overtaken his life. The portrait’s grim but determined countenance recalls a passage from an essay Freud wrote a half-century earlier for the July 1954 issue of Encounter magazine—an incandescent depiction of the impossible promise and inevitable disappointment that frames every act of painting:
A moment of complete happiness never occurs in the creation of a work of art. The promise of it is felt in the act of creation but disappears towards the completion of the work. For it is then that the painter realizes that it is only a picture that he is painting. Until then he had almost dared to hope that the picture might spring to life. Were it not for this, the perfect picture might be painted, on the completion of which the painter could retire. It is this great insufficiency that drives him on.
“Lucian Freud: The Self Portraits” may not answer all our questions about the relationship between this fascinating artist and his often unsettling work. But it’s a welcome opportunity to ponder the same in front of unusually powerful pictures. Together, the exhibition and William Feaver’s new biography offer as penetrating a look into the man behind the mirror as we’ve had to date.
1 The Lives of Lucian Freud: The Restless Years, 1922–1968, by William Feaver; Knopf, 704 pages, $40.
2 “Lucian Freud: The Self Portraits” opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on March 1 and remains on view through May 25, 2020. The exhibition was previously on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from October 27, 2019 through January 26, 2020.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 8, on page 52
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