The Hermit of Holland Park
The story, as reported, went something like this:
When Lucian Freud’s relationship
with his former nude model and muse Emily Bearn
was on the rocks,
he paid a late-night visit
to the £500,000 house in West London
that he was assumed
to have bought for her.
“Lucian came striding down the pavement
looking very angry,”
a neighbor recalled.
“Emily wouldn’t let him in
and he started kicking the door and shouting.
He was making a lot of noise.”
There is nothing so remarkable
about that story of parting lovers,
apart from one aspect:
Bearn was 29
and Freud was 80.
Hence my introduction to Lucian Freud, not as the celebrated painter the world over known as a reclusive creator of the world’s most expensive painting by a living artist, or the man frequently described as Britain’s greatest living painter, although not by those who were outraged at his notorious “five o’clock shadow” portrait of the Queen, but as this irascible octogenarian and late-night lothario making a nuisance of himself running through the streets of London.
Moreover, I had contributed in my own small way to enlarging his fame by posting an account of his exhibit “Stripped Bare” held at the Modern in 2007 and deemed as one of the praiseworthy exhibits of the season.
What was it exactly that brought this complicated artist back into my psyche? While I certainly appreciated his mastery of the human form, I hadn’t made a point of delving into his life until the other night when I was reading this enchanting little book entitled “My Judy Garland Life“ written by an unknown writer and first time author, Susie Boyt. As I was reading her lilting prose describing her obsession with the fabled songstress, she casually mentioned her great grandfather, the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, and, in turn, her father, the illustrious painter, Lucian.
What a remarkable, but somewhat troubling family, I thought as her accounts of her father deemed him absent, distant, rarely there in the telling of her warmly scripted tale of unrestrained devotion and childish ardor to one of the greatest entertainers of the twentieth century.
As I quickly learned it was no small wonder her famous father failed to make patriarchal appearances. You see, Mr. Freud is rumored to have 40 children (an exaggeration we are told) to a number of different, and only too willing, paramours, yet there is no dispute on his legendary appetite for much younger women and at a spry 88, one might suspect they are all younger
Lucien Freud, Reflection (self portrait), 1985
Yet, like most celebrated for their genius, the gossipy mystique can be tiresome. Oddly enough, something similar developed around Balthus, another reclusive painter of the old school who, like Freud, developed an aristocratic persona. He, too, had the best possible taste and a secretive erotic air. And yet in the case of these two painters, there is also something telling about the fascination with their lives, for the work of both appears steeped in hidden narratives.
“The achievement of the strenuously lionized British realist painter Lucian Freud,” writes Roberta Smith, “has not so much been to break new ground as to dig incessantly deeper into the old. By doing so he has intensified our understanding of figurative painting’s familiar landmarks to the point of discomfort.”
A brief tutorial
Freud’s early paintings like The Painter’s Room (1944) above are often associated with surrealism, depicting people, plants and animals in unusual juxtapositions. These works are usually painted with relatively thin paint, but from the 1950s he began to paint portraits, often nudes, to the almost complete exclusion of everything else, employing a thicker impasto. With this technique he would often clean his brush after each stroke.
It is well known that Freud has a conception of life that embraces the human and the animal as two aspects of the same thing. Some of his most memorable pictures are of people and animals – generally their owners – together. Girl with a White Dog, for example.
Girl with a white dog, 1951 – 1952, Tate Gallery. The subject is Freud’s first wife, Kitty (Kathleen) Garman, the daughter of sculptor Jacob Epstein and Kathleen Garman.
In the wonderful Double Portrait (1985-86) paws and hands, whippet legs and forearms, the dog’s and the woman’s noses are juxtaposed in an intimate, rhyming mesh. All of those paintings have a powerful sense of shared existence at least as close as his all-human couples.
Freud’s subjects are often the people in his life; friends, family, fellow painters, lovers, children. To quote the artist: “The subject matter is autobiographical, it’s all to do with hope and memory and sensuality and involvement, really.”
Painted in 1992 and sold for $11.4 million by Christie’s New York in November 2007, presents Freud’s daughter Isobel Boyt in her husband’s arms, sprawled on a grim bed, appearing to be asleep.
Two of Lucian Freud’s daughters: London fashion designer Bella and Writer Esther.
‘Bruce Bernard’ is another painting sold by the Christie’s London in June 2007 for $15.5 million. Bernard was the picture editor of the Sunday Times magazine from 1972 to 1980 and later became the visual arts editor of the Saturday Independent Magazine.
Friends with Freud since 1942, Bernard declined to sit for his portrait for many years and only changed his mind upon hearing that Freud’s “working speed had appreciably increased.”
Francis Bacon would say
that he felt
he was giving art
what he thought
it previously lacked.
it’s what Yeats called
with what’s difficult.
I’m only trying
what I can’t do.”
“Those who dislike his art
see his oeuvre
as the meat locker
of a misogynist.
They are wrong.”
“Best known for his fierce depiction of the flesh, he seems to strip his nudes physically and psychically, presenting them in awkward poses and an unforgiving light. Sometimes, they sprawl about with animals or are enormously fat. Those who dislike Freud’s art consider his oeuvre the meat locker of a misogynist. They are wrong. The nudes have an unpeeled power that’s like nothing else in art. But there is indeed something harsh about the contract he establishes in such pictures between artist and subject. Freud seems to have all the power—and asserts it. His compositions are elegant, his subjects ungainly. His brush dances, their bodies lie supine. His surface glows, their flesh decays. His eye is spirited, theirs appears defeated. He lords it over the nudes.”
Review, NY Times Magazine, 2004
In a future post, a few thoughts on muses, particularly those of Lucien Freud’s, and his most celebrated painting of one that sold for an astonishing $33.6 million in 2008, setting a world record for sale value of a painting by a living artist.
One of EA’s readers thoughtfully took the time to trace the poem ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’ by Yeats that Freud cited above. My thanks to jane at thenearnessofdistance.blogspot.com.
The Fascination of What’s Difficult
The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not holy blood
Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road-metal. My curse on plays
That have to be set up in fifty ways,
On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,
Theatre business, management of men.
I swear before the dawn comes round again
I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.