Art Essays

Man With a Blue Scarf

Published September 1, 2010

Man With a Blue Scarf
On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud
By Martin Gayford
In 1980 James Lord published a slender book called A Giacometti Portrait. It detailed his experience of sitting for a portrait by Alberto Giacometti, whose biography he would write five years later. The book struck a chord with readers who were fascinated by the insights it provided into the creative process, as the artist’s doubts and anxieties were laid bare.
Thirty years on, the British art writer, Martin Gayford, has made another contribution to this sub-genre, in a book-length account of having his portrait painted by Lucian Freud. Gayford’s style is less precious than the fastidious Lord, and he covers a lot more territory in the seven months it takes Freud to complete the painting. Perhaps he had little else to think about while he sat for hour after hour, week and week, watching the picture progress by millimetres.
James Lord, who died last year, was a kind of sophisticated groupie who wished only to spend his life in the company of great artists. Lord was gay, immaculate in his grooming and his manners, and retained an air of New York aristocracy during the many years he lived on Rue de Beaux-Arts in Paris. Martin Gayford is a less exotic proposition: a hardworking art critic and journalist who resides with wife and child in Cambridge.
It is no surprise that Gayford is a more diffident writer than Lord. Whenever he allows us an insight into his private life, as the narrative demands, it is completely uninteresting. Where Lord could be arch and precious, Gayford is a dutiful Everyman charting the slow progress of the portrait, recording Freud’s anecdotes and opinions, adding the occasional modest reflection. Where Lord could be irritating, Gayford is inoffensive.
The result is a book that never really takes off, although it is consistently interesting because of the extraordinary personality of Lucian Freud. The elderly painter gives us his opinions on everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to Damien Hirst. He tells stories about Francis Bacon, Greta Garbo, George Orwell, Matisse, Picasso, and others he has encountered over the past sixty years, including various gangsters and hoodlums from London’s East End.
Freud was born in Berlin in 1922, and is the grandson of Sigmund Freud. He came to England with his family in 1933 to escape the rise of Nazism, and has never been viewed as anything but a British artist. In his early days he led a Bohemian existence on the fringes of the art world, and was virtually ignored from the 1960s-70s as his style of expressive realism fell out of fashion. This doesn’t seem to have worried him at all. By continuing to follow his predilections, Freud eventually found himself back in vogue. By the mid-1980s he was acclaimed as a master, and became the only dedicated Realist loved by the international art world. He was given one museum exhibition after another and his prices began to soar.
In 2001 his group portrait, After Cézanne, was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia for $7.4 million – a record price for an Australian public gallery at the time. An awkward painting, it was a controversial choice, then and today. In retrospect, as many have said, it might have been better if the NGA had acquired one of Freud’s portraits of the obese Australian performance artist, Leigh Bowery.
When he hasn’t been painting, it seems that Freud has been procreating. The British tabloids claim he has forty illegitimate children, although his real tally is probably somewhere in the twenties.
It takes a degree of courage to pose for Freud, even if – like Gayford – you get to keep your clothes on. He is the very antithesis of a flatterer: a ruthless recorder of jowls, wrinkles, blemishes, bulges and other imperfections. This has not prevented super models such as Jerry Hall or Kate Moss undressing for him, but he is just as happy to paint anonymous shop assistants and waitresses.
Freud’s great love affair is with the flesh, in all its incarnations. One of his pet hates is the camera, which “provides a great deal of information about the fall of light, but not about anything else.” It’s easy to sympathise with this view when one considers the endless procession of dull pictures painted from photographs that dominate the dreaded Archibald Prize.
The camera is popular because few artists, and even fewer sitters, can afford to spend months on a single portrait. The artist has to be able to sell his work for a high price, and the subject must want to sit so badly that he or she will make sacrifices. By preference, all Freud’s subjects are amateurs. “The last thing I want to do is paint a model,” he says.
Gayford copes stoically with Freud’s fierce scrutiny of every detail of his appearance. He finds his enthusiasm waxing and waning depending on his mood or his level of fatigue. He occasionally feels as if his pride or vanity is about to be given a beating. What he doesn’t do is increase the suspense as the painting grinds towards a conclusion. A portrait by Freud is not like a race to the finish line – it is a slow, inexorable process. The ending is understated and surprisingly satisfactory to both artist and subject.
The work now hangs in a private home in the United States, bought by collectors who wanted “a Freud”, even if it was only a portrait of an obscure English art critic. By reading this book they will be able to feel that the man on their wall is not a complete stranger.
Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, September 2010
On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud
By Martin Gayford
Thames and Hudson
Hardcover; RRP: $49.95; 247 pp.