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A life of Freudian slips

The painter Lucian Freud was reckless everywhere, except in front of a canvas.

This is a tremendous read. Anyone interested in British art needs it. It is also a profoundly odd, unusual book, jumping, crammed and staccato, as if the author is driving us through his story with one foot on the accelerator pedal and the other on the brake. There are unexpected turns – indeed, handbrake turns –­­ on almost every page, and a bewildering crowd of characters. But this is an intentional, inevitable part of William Feaver’s project.

Lucian Freud (non-coincidentally, a terrible driver) never wanted a biography published in his lifetime. Reading this, one sees why. But he spent many hours talking to Feaver who, from the 1970s onwards, accumulated a vast hoard of taped conversations. These form the backbone of his narrative. Thus, it comes close to a “curated autobiography”, with the painter’s voice and attitudes throbbing away throughout it.

Away from the canvas, Freud lived a life of spasmodic, instinctual, often reckless actions. Money came into his hands. He almost immediately chucked it away on horses. He saw women. He pursued them like a hunting dog. The consequences, whether children, abortions or collateral misery, passed him by. In its prose, this book – spanning 1922-1968, the first part in a two-volume work – mimics the swirling, hectic, barely considered nature of Freud’s life.

Below that there is a conventional structured story which Feaver tells fairly and lucidly: from the Berlin boyhood of wealthy Jews living under the Nazis, to rackety displacement to England and liberal boarding schools, followed by art college, brief wartime service in the Merchant Navy, travels through Europe after the war, and the long progress as Freud becomes a painter, his reputation more or less secure by the time the story ends in his mid-forties. Everywhere, always, “bad behaviour”.

So, what is the relationship between an extraordinary life and the extraordinary art? If you are a moralist, turn your back now. For those who knew him well, Freud could be a charismatic and lovable man. On the page, however, he comes across as thoroughly dislikeable – a callous, rude and egotistical predator. Had he been born just a little later, he would have been shredded by the #MeToo movement. Grabbing and manhandling women; beating up rivals; spurning and insulting those closest to him, above all his mother; apparently enjoying the gratuitous humiliation of others. It’s a grim story.

Aged ten, Lucian and his family left their home in Berlin in September 1933 for England, after one relative had been badly beaten up by brownshirts. The family had sent money in advance, so arrived by no means destitute. Lucian’s father, the architect Ernst Freud, hid extra money in the leg of a circular table he was importing; the family’s first apartment was just off Piccadilly. Lucian’s grandfather Sigmund Freud did not get out of Austria until 1938. But long before he established himself in Hampstead, he was hugely famous in Britain; and the Freud surname was important throughout Lucian’s life, giving him an odd glamour as an adolescent, and encouraging facile analysis of his life and art.

Sexually, Freud was barely controllable. Perhaps there was something in the family – paedophile allegations were made after his death about Clement, the brother he feuded with all his life. Breaking taboos, he would later paint his young teenage daughters naked. Were these not sexual, merely reflecting Freud’s interest in the unadorned human animal? Perhaps; yet his paintings of splayed, white, flung-down girls, with the artist’s gaze hawklike from above, are hard to look at. As this book makes clear, he wasn’t a good man to be married to.

He had countless partners; many love affairs, often beginning when he asked young women to pose; and two wives – Kitty Epstein, daughter of the sculptor Jacob; and Lady Caroline Blackwood, from the Guinness family (both sets of in-laws deeply distrusted Lucian). Fourteen children have been identified, though rumour has put the number much, much higher and it’s probable that he himself had only a vague idea of exactly how many offspring he produced.

Despite all that, he was clearly profoundly romantic and affected, particularly by his brief marriage to Caroline Blackwood. Unusually, she walked out on him, the rejection hurting him deeply. (It’s interesting that this reader, at least, punched the air reading of Freud ransacking London and Rome, desperately searching for her.) And it’s also fair to say that many women loved him for his vulnerabilities. These were real: the outsider migrant boy who never quite felt at home in Britain. Clement recalled that when they were at school in Dartington, “being insufficiently fluent in English to counter insults, he went for people: hit them, wrestled them to the ground, gave and got black eyes and bloody noses and I, who loved him a lot and had no other friends, stood on the perimeter of the fight crowd and cried…”

In some respects, Lucian Freud carried on giving and getting black eyes for the rest of his life. One friend later caught his mix of aggression and vulnerability: “He had another, equally disconcerting habit of glaring at you, and then looking swiftly down in sudden shyness. There were signs of greatness in him, and I wish that I had been as brave as he at the age of 23.”

Freud was determined to avoid hypocrisy and to live by instinct – as he wished. He was very censorious of those who lived otherwise. The epithet “disgusting” appears often in his description of others. Throughout his life, he seems to have had more fellow feeling with animals – horses, hawks and dogs – than people. This bright, alien gaze is key to his originality as an artist. He looks at our human flesh and vulnerability without overmuch pity, certainly no sentimentality, as if he comes from another planet.

Freud’s postwar London was a very different place. Shabbier by far than Paris, it was more violent, drunken, divided and in most respects more immoral than contemporary London. Paddington, where Freud based himself, was a no-go badlands kind of place. Soho was wild: there’s quite a story about Francis Bacon sucking off a comatose workman in front of the mildly surprised patrons of one drinking den. Freud himself was both a social astronaut and deep-sea diver, moving from the companionship of young thugs and thieves to the preening art world, and super-rich aristocratic and royal circles. Sometimes he was worrying about getting a tiara properly adjusted in a painting; at others, he armed himself with a Luger pistol to take out the rats, and was very nearly badly injured by the Kray brothers.

But below all of this, the real drama is always about the developing art. A beady, relentless gaze and a meticulous craft was there almost from the start. He always worked ferociously hard. Freud could have gone in so many different directions. The roads not taken include a potentially highly commercial Van Eyck-like modern northern realism; becoming the late star of English surrealism; and even a potentially lucrative career as a high society portraitist, a 20th century Van Dyck.

Instead, influenced by his friendship with the brilliant, paint-obsessed Francis Bacon, and driven to take a new direction after the collapse of his marriage to Caroline Blackwood, he started to layer and handle paint in an entirely new way.

It was a massive risk. Feaver, so sensitive about the painting, describes the new turn thus: “Working the paint, he tried a marbling touch, pressing the flesh, as it were, to establish the terrain of a complexion… He inched in effect towards greater freedom of application, a greater give.” From this came the glorious buttery slabs and manipulated slews of paint in the later work. Many of the critics hated the new direction, one describing a portrait of the time as transforming “the head into a soggy mass, like wet bread”.

Almost everything Freud later achieved came from this brave and solitary moment of internal drama. To read this book is to be reminded, also, about the surrounding pleased-with-itself weakness of the art world in Britain with which Freud had to cope. There were so many anaemic post-Romantics and dull surrealists beckoning on every side. By the time this book concludes, the full force of American abstract expressionism had not yet really hit these shores, and Freud and Bacon stood almost alone as two pinnacles of serious painting.

Much more so than France, the story of British art has been one of uneasy solitaries, rather than movements. Few have been as uneasy as Lucian Freud. His art remains so. Quite why, is revealed by this extraordinary book. 

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

The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth
William Feaver
Bloomsbury, 620pp, £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 20 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control