The brilliance and brutality of Lucian Freud

Freud could be selfish, amoral and cruel. But he lived and painted with feverish intensity. 

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In the early 1970s, Lucian Freud’s most important model was Jacquetta Eliot, then the wife of the Earl of St Germans. She and the painter were conducting a passionate affair. Freud wanted a child with her and encouraged her to stop using contraception. In 1971, Freddy Eliot was duly born. But few of Freud’s affairs lasted very long. All Jacquetta asked for was that he write her a letter for the future, telling the baby that he had been wanted. He did so. And then, William Feaver tells us early in this book, “after their break-up he asked for it back”.

What? One theme in this remarkable biography, based on hundreds of hours of conversation between Feaver and Freud, is the painter’s dawning realisation that, even as he opens himself up, he absolutely doesn’t want his biography to be written after all… at least not until he is safely dead. He angrily warns off other writers and protects his privacy as if living in a barbed wire fortress. Well, one can see why.

Freud, born in Berlin in 1922, but who only died nine years ago, already seems a figure from distant history. Certainly a very great painter, he swirls and hectors through these busy pages, his pockets stuffed with wads of fresh banknotes, seducing, feuding and entertaining in the gaps between his ferociously hard studio life, like a figure imagined by Marcel Proust or Anthony Powell.

Another great painter, and fellow refugee (born in Berlin in 1931), Frank Auerbach, said of him: “Like everybody else, I suspect, I was struck by the fact that he was more nervous and alive than other people; later I discovered that he was also more simple, generous and (in his own way) honest than most.” Others also found him electrifying. Sitters, including his children, adored his company. Inside the tent, in his gang, there was warmth, love and gales of laughter.

There is a much darker side to his life, too. The relentless womanising, including with vulnerable people far, far younger than him; the children so numerous they were hard to keep track of; the brutal break-ups, vicious feuds and spasms of verbal cruelty that made Freud, for many people, an impossibly sulphurous figure, a coldly brilliant predator smoking with menace. Observing him at the Jewish wedding in London of the painter RB Kitaj, the poet Stephen Spender whispered to Feaver: “I can’t stand being in the same place with Lucian. He is an evil man.”

How is a biographer and a friend supposed to bridge this impossible gap of perception? Freud’s doctor, Michael Gormley, perhaps comes nearest to a balanced picture when he described him as “one of those wonderful people who owned his self. His selfishness. He had an addictive personality. Addictive people love intensity; it’s the nature of the personality, ruling everything…”

This intensity makes him a glorious subject for biography. In this second volume, taking the story from 1968 to 2011, Feaver lacks the jaw-dropping Hogarthian quality of the early life, with its cast of gangsters, stoned aristocrats and Soho bacchanals. These, by contrast, are the decades dominated by grand exhibitions in London, Paris and New York, feuds with collectors and galleries, friendships with the (very) rich and famous, from Kate Moss to Arnold Goodman, and the steady succession of masterworks emerging from his various studios.

You wouldn’t have thought that any of this could possibly be as interesting as the hungry years. Yet Feaver has written a second great page-turner, one of the finest art biographies I know. Part of that comes about because of the artist’s authentic voice, meticulously recorded in all those conversations. By the time the book closes, you hear Freud ringing inside your head, with his sibilant Germanic accent, his subtlety, anxiety and humour. Asked about how it feels when an old picture sells for £1m, he responds: “I can only say that it feels like hearing that an overbearing great-aunt I had no contact with has been eaten by cannibals.”

Yet, behind the jokes there is often tragedy. The background tone is black, even with aunts. Discussing his lack of enthusiasm for showing in Vienna, Freud explains: “My great-aunts, when the Nazis put them into the concentration camp, were in their sixties. One went to the head of the camp and said, ‘We aren’t ordinary persons that have been roped in, because we are half-sisters of a very great man [Sigmund Freud]. Could you put us to death right away?’ So they did. It’s not secret. My father told me that…” If Freud was a strange one, who lived always at full throttle and had a horror of wasting the gift of life, you can see why.

Part of that intensity is displayed through his unusual attitude to money. During the first part of this volume, even as he is creating his greatest paintings, Freud is still being sneered at by the London critics and earning far less than his one-time friend and rival Francis Bacon. He loses huge amounts betting. For many years he was banned from racecourses after a feud about Northern Irish banknotes. When money does come in, he often hands it straight to somebody who is in need, or who has simply asked. Similarly, he expects to borrow whenever he needs to and likes to keep a fat stash of banknotes always close to hand. Once he does become very rich, gambling loses its appeal (because he can afford to lose), and the sitters/girlfriends receive more and more extravagant presents. It is, in short, a thoroughly un-bourgeois attitude to wealth.

The same cannot, sadly, be said for the cast list. As characters, his dealers and collectors are inevitably duller than the street urchins and wide boys of the earlier volume. The most remarkable characters here are the famous sitters, Leigh Bowery and “Big Sue” Tilley, the benefits supervisor. But what gives this book its rocket fuel is Feaver’s close attention to the work itself. The paintings are the real characters. We feel and understand that the making of a major one is itself a dramatic, even theatrical, episode – the centre of the life.

The most thrilling example is probably the making of his 1981-83 masterwork, Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau), with his friends and children squeezed on to an iron bed in a scabrous, peeling studio, a tap running to one side. The psychological tensions and the physical difficulties of making this entirely successful painting are brilliantly described – the changes of direction, the rubbings-out, the sheer intellectual effort.

In other cases, the studio dramas can be high comedy. In 1998, Freud was working on another large interior. One sitter, Francis Wyndham, is reading a book in the foreground, while the other, Jerry Hall, then married to Mick Jagger, is seen breastfeeding her new baby in the sunlit background. The assumption was that Jagger would buy the final painting. Unfortunately, to Freud’s fury, Hall proved unreliable: she kept failing to turn up for the sittings. A battle of wills began. Who was the more important, the supermodel or the artist? Gleefully, Freud resolved this by simply painting her out and substituting David Dawson, his studio assistant and amanuensis, suckling Hall’s child with his male breast. Freud dropped Hall a note, casually explaining, “You’ve turned into a man”, and told Feaver: “With the baby, David looked more like a mother.” According to Freud’s dealer at the time, “Jagger went crazy”, though the painting was immediately sold. Jerry Hall morosely summed up: “He scratched me out.”

Always, for Freud, the point was the living reality of the sitter. Irish bookmakers, English grandees or squirming grandchildren, it didn’t really matter: the purpose was not to make a “new Freud”, but to make them real, alive, themselves. As he worked, he was constantly aware of the great traditions at his back – prowling about the Titians, Courbets and Ingres portraits he adored; in a painting of a garden, setting himself up against Millais or Ruskin for detailed accounts of changing foliage; taking on Tissot for the grand, swanky portrait of Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles, or Stubbs in horse painting; referring openly back to early Cézanne. Like Manet, he was acutely aware that a nude is only a body, mere neutral flesh, but becomes properly dangerous only when paired with, or primed by, at least one clothed figure. Movingly, as his mind deteriorates shortly before death, paintings are the last memories that still seem sharp and resonant to him.

Which leaves us with the largest question of all, and the hardest. Just how good was he? Clearly, he remade the oil portrait for modern times, and was able to use paint in a new way. For me, at least, some of the later paintings are just too much theatre, too much striving for effect. But right at the end of this astonishing book, Feaver quotes himself in an obituary from the time, saying Freud’s work “sits obstinately across the path of those lesser painters who get by on less”. That is well put. Always, that astounding attention, digging into the reality of human lives. Always, that intensity and extremism of technique. In the closing pages, Freud himself is quoted: “The whole mystery of art is why good things are good.” He can hardly be called a good man; but his good things were about as good as it gets.

Andrew Marr’s books include “A Short Book About Painting” (Quadrille)

The Lives of Lucian Freud, Vol 2: Fame
William Feaver
Bloomsbury, 517pp, £35

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article appears in the 09 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid

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