Julia Bagguley reflects on the life and work of Lucian Freud in light of the current Royal Academy exhibition of his self portraits.
‘You ask why I’m fascinated by the human figure? As a human animal, I am interested in some of my fellow animals: in their minds and bodies.’
‘The painter’s obsession with his subject is all that he needs to drive him to work.’
Once upon a time I shared an office with a colleague – we will call her Sophie. Her portrait had been painted by Lucian Freud; she was very discreet and I didn’t know about her involvement with the artist until her portrait was included in a retrospective of his work, earlier in the present century.
When I saw the finished portrait I thought it didn’t look like Sophie at all. Another colleague, wiser than me, explained that the portrait was how Freud observed Sophie, not how I saw her. In Freud’s words ‘I paint what I see, not what you want me to see’. In my own personal development as an art historian this was a ‘Damascene’ moment; to have the opportunity of seeing a picture of a face I knew well, as seen by an internationally renowned artist was a rare experience.
Lucian Michael Freud, (1922–2011), had an extraordinary and eventful life. Born in Berlin, he was the son of middle-European Jewish parents. His father, Ernst, was the fourth child of the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, the man who changed all our lives. Ernst and his young family left Germany in 1933, escaping the rise of Nazism and finding shelter in St John’s Wood. Lucian Freud became a British subject in 1939.
With this back story and the ineluctable burden of his distinctive name it’s no surprise that the rest of his life defied convention. He did not prosper in the English educational system having attended Dartington Hall School in Totnes and, later, Bryanston School for a year before being expelled because of disruptive behaviour. Then he drifted through the Central School of Art, finally settling at the East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting, at that time run by the artist Cedric Morris. Morris’ painting style was primitive and he provided his pupils with a liberating influence and confidence to paint and draw just the way they felt, however eccentric – which was just, at that time, what Freud needed.
On his return to London, Freud discovered and frequented “low” and “high life”. Observing Freud’s afternoons in Soho’s betting shops and basement dives followed by evenings to the west with the rich and distinguished, the Spectator columnist, Jeffrey Bernard, commented ‘He has cracked the nut of how to conduct a double life’.
Apart from short sojourns in Paris, Freud stayed ‘North of the Park’. He established studios in Paddington, Holland Park and Notting Hill where he was to spend the rest of his life living and working. He painted exclusively in his studios only making an exception when he painted a small portrait of Her Majesty The Queen in 2002; security dictated he worked on the painting at St. James’s Palace.
In July 1983 the diarist, Kennth Rose, dined with Freud:
‘Apparently [Lucian] is a compulsive gambler who loses literally tens of thousands of pounds a year. His lawyer pleads with him: “I wish that whenever you sell a picture, you would send me half to put away for you.” But Freud does not want any money in the bank. He tells me that he lives “like a snake – one large meal a day, if that”.’
Being a creature of habit, he breakfasted regularly at Sally Clarke’s restaurant in Kensington Church Street or dined at the Wolsely in Piccadilly where I once encountered him at the next table – small, refined and wearing an exquisitely tailored linen suit – he was clearly a regular and didn’t mind being recognised.
Portraiture – Lucian and his peers
There is a long tradition of European artists painting self-portraits. These include Albrecht Dürer, (1471-1528) who used his portraits to enhance sales of his exquisite silver-point engravings with their distinctive ‘AD’ signature.
Most distinguished, and much admired by Freud, is the magisterial sequence of Rembrandt van Rijn’s (1606-1669) self-portraits – painted, sketched and etched to promote and refine his skills and to fill time when he lacked commissions. Rembrandt produced self-portraits of the highest quality during all the key periods of his life. He persevered and experimented with different emotions, expressions and styles, unashamed at depicting his state of mind at certain high and low moments. From youth to old age he demonstrated the changes in his technique and the risks that he was willing to take both in life and art. Three of these portraits – wonderful examples – are on display in the current exhibition Rembrandt’s Light at Dulwich Picture Gallery, curated by the Director, Jennifer Scott.
More recently, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) painted his own portrait at least 43 times between 1886 and 1889, poignantly depicting the progress of his complex mental health over a very short period of time.
Lucian at Burlington House
Which brings us to the exhibition Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly, the title of which is misleading. The exhibition includes not only self-portraits but paintings of friends, acquaintances and family. However, it does document his changing styles and skills developed throughout his long life.
Looking at these likenesses dispassionately they appear uncompromising, but that is consistent with all his portraits. The faces are expressionless and seem in repose, and one wonders if he is resisting giving anything away. But he offers no excuses:
‘With self-portraits likeness becomes a different thing because in portraits you try to paint the person in front of you, whereas in self-portraits you’ve got to paint yourself as another person … I have to do what I feel like without being an expressionist.’
‘It’s about myself and my surroundings … I work from the people that interest me and that I care about and think about in rooms that I live in and know’.
Freud’s choices of who to paint were private caprices and were never explained. Still, he painted each sitter with dignity and respect. He was neither political nor social but merely interested in the possibilities afforded by each subject’s specific presence. As he says, getting to this point meant avoiding, at all costs, expressionism; he remained true to the figurative, painting a face and body as he found it, actively engaged but with no emotional gymnastics.
Many of the likenesses on display are in rough (in sketchbooks or as commissioned illustrations) and only about a dozen of his painted self-portraits are finished. Most portraits of the artist are only partial, cropped, shrivelled, or otherwise obscured views. They do, nevertheless, give an indication of his working methods, starting with the head and leaving a charcoal outline or empty canvas, still inviting completion. Freud was known to take a long time to complete a work and photographs of him working in his studio show the space littered with unfinished canvases, both of himself and other subjects.
Curatorial licence at the RA
Two of the finished portraits Painter Working, Reflection (1993) and Freddy Standing (2000-1) are, poignantly, portraits of Freud, a father then in his 70’s, and his, then, 29 year old son Freddie. It would be easy to start trying to unravel this unintended diptych but it is unavoidable to ignore their similar gaze and posture. They are large canvases, hung together in the final gallery – a brilliant and exciting curatorial conceit – unlikely to be displayed together again in the near future.
Painter Working, Reflection was 16 years in the making and is clearly a rite of passage. The result is a deeply human painting, challenging and fragile. The artist stripped of dignity stares at what he sees reflected in a mirror. Here is the human condition, honest and without sentiment.
Little is known of the creation of Freddy Standing but, to speculate, could it be Freud harking back to his youth, indeed painting his younger self-portrait with the benefit of hindsight?
Freud’s style changed over the years – from the meticulous, smooth and detailed to strong painterly impasto – which brings us to the themes of his self-portraiture in the Royal Academy exhibition, curated by his friend and amanuensis, David Dawson. Freud had drawn obsessively since childhood and he was left handed, which was not unusual among artists (Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Picasso were all left handed). His precociousness was recognised very early; a 1930 drawing was included in an exhibition of children’s pictures at Peggy Guggenheim’s short-lived but ground breaking London gallery at 30 Cork Street in 1938.
That was probably Freud’s only flirtation with abstraction and expressionism. He continued drawing and painting all his creative life, and, like all great artists, his style evolved while steadfastly remaining purely figurative. The confidence gained during his East Anglian years had made him recognise the need for deep concentration together with ‘a fastening of his gaze’, skills which remained with him for the rest of his professional life.
Look at his early, meticulously detailed drawings to see his own version of stiffness and awkwardness developing a deliberate effect of style; these remain in his first widely known and appreciated works. His first major self-portrait Man with a Feather (1943) is the largest and most ambitious work of these early years and continues this technique in oil paint – flat and sharply defined.
During the 1950’s Freud’s style and technique changed significantly – most likely influenced by his contemporary peers Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Frank Auerbach (b.1931). He stopped working with small sable brushes changing to coarser hog-hair ones and made a dramatic decision to work while standing. Previously he had worked sitting down, painting with the canvas or a board on his knees.
He later changed the texture and type of paint he used leading to subtle tones and tints, eschewing the strong primary colours of the past. His paintings no longer attempted the flat narratives of Man with a Feather and Hotel Bedroom; the consequence was a painterly style with stronger strokes. Flesh, fabric and even backgrounds were built up on the canvas in thick, undulating layers of oil paint – muted browns, greens, reds, greys and white. In order to experiment with differing and unexpected angles, he employed his own unique form of perspective using mirrors – never photographs – to dictate the space in which to place the portrait.
The paint surfaces underwent similar drastic development. On the three later portraits, Painter Working, Reflection, Freddy Standing and Self-portrait, Reflection, the paint lies heavily on the faces and bodies in an almost sculptural quality; thick, scratched, scumbled impasto built layer after layer, using all three at once. Illustration does not do the paintings justice – to understand the impact they need to be seen up close, in all their three dimensional rawness.
Relationships – careless and reckless
The theme that runs through Freud’s life and work are his relationships. He had lovers and children too numerous to count. In her recently published memoir Self-Portrait, the artist Celia Paul paints a vivid portrait of her relationship with Freud. At the age of 18 she was his student at the Slade School of Fine Art; he was then 55. They became lovers almost immediately and maintained a one-sided relationship for a decade with a complicated intimacy lasting until his death in 2011. Paul was the mother of Freud’s son, Freddie, to whom he showed occasional and detached affection but, as we have seen, painted with great sensitivity. She had no say in the relationship and through emotional highs and lows experienced his uncompromising magnetism and her despair. Paul observes:
‘one of the main challenges I have faced as a woman artist is the conflict I feel about caring for someone, yet remaining dedicated to my art in an undivided way. I think that generally men find it much easier to be selfish.’
However, there was light at the end of the tunnel; eventually she found the strength to end her relationship with him. The final break found her ‘feeling more powerful and confident since becoming a mother’, giving her new found strength and courage and enabling her to consolidate her own style and reputation.
This is neither the place for a detailed study of Freud’s personality nor how it manifested in his work. What can be observed is a lack of generosity in his emotional life which is reflected in his paintings. He certainly maintained his personal and professional life in a ‘divided way’: on and on he worked telling his biographer, William Feaver ‘I don’t want to retire. I want to paint myself to death.’
If Freud were were active today he would definitely be a justifiable target of the #MeToo movement. But would he have been a lesser or even greater artist as a result? This is far, far too difficult a ‘what if?’ to ponder.
Self-portraits – not just a solo “selfie”
Self-portraiture doesn’t necessarily require just a single figure. Art historians have struggled to define several different versions of the genre. Put as simply as possible, these include:
- Self-portraits such as Painter Working, Reflection, are ‘separate or natural’ where artists are depicted working in their studios and/or alone.
- ‘insertable’ self-portraits, where artists include their own portrait into, for example, a group of characters related to some history or religious subject. Early Italian Renaissance artists regularly inserted their portraits into paintings – Leonardo was known to have included his portrait in his early paintings as did Boticelli and Piero della Francesca.
- ‘prestigious or symbolic’ self-portraits, where an artist depicts himself in the guise of an historical or religious hero. Titian’s Allegory of Prudence in the National Gallery depicts the artist, his son and a cousin as Past, Present and Future. A copy of the painting which, after restoration, revealed additional figures, is the subject of the drama A Question of Attribution by Alan Bennett.
- the ‘group portrait’ where the artist is depicted with groups such as members of a family or other real persons – Jan van Eyck portrayed himself in a convex mirror in The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) and Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázque includes his portrait working at his canvas in his magisterial work of the Spanish Royal Family Las Meninas (1656). Freud achieves a similar effect when he includes a self-portrait in his early painting Hotel Bedroom (1954), which is thought to be a portrait of the breakdown of his marriage. He hovers in the background against the shadow of a Parisian window while his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, in bed in the foreground, stares up to the ceiling, lost in thought.
- Self-portraits where the artist doesn’t appear in the picture at all! The best examples are still-lifes, where the paintings depict contents of cabinets of curiosities showing wealth and achievement. Also there are ‘conversation pieces’ – first found in the C18th – informal portrayals of a group often engaged in gentle activity. Typically the group are members of a family or friends. Freud’s painting ‘Large Interior W11 (after Watteau)’, (1981-83) is a C20th version of a conversation piece focussed around his children and their – different – mothers. Only Freud is missing from this self-portrait.
Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits will be shown at the Royal Academy until 26th January 2020 and then at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA from 1st March to 25th May 20202. Click here for more information and to book tickets for the Royal Academy show.
Rembrandt’s Light at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 2 February 2020. Click here for more information or to book tickets.
Celia Paul’s memoir, Self Portrait, is published by Jonathan Cape and available to purchase online and in all good bookshops.
Her exhibition, Celia Paul, will be held at the Victoria Miro Gallery from the 13th November to 20th December. Click here for more information.