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No Safety Net of Manners

Lucian Freud photographed by Clifford Coffin in 1947.

Lucian Freud’s three-panel portrait by the late British painter, Francis Bacon, was recently sold at Christie’s auction house for $142.4 million—more than any one contemporary painting since World War II. Bacon’s claustrophobically lonely triptych of Freud, legs crossed suspended in a cage-like structure, had a luscious, obscenely smeared, offhand quality that somehow managed to be animal and human, both repellent and fascinating, all at once.

That observation obtains for the works of the painter Lucian Freud himself, remarkably revealed in Geordie Greig’s biography of Freud, Breakfast with Lucian, an inside look at the force of nature that was Britain’s most profoundly dedicated modern painter.

Breakfast with Lucian: The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain’s Great Modern Painter

by Geordie Grieg

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2013

Both intensely private and publically mysterious, Freud lived, in the phrase of the time, “on the razor’s edge.” His life and art beget inquiry.

Greig’s interlocutory visits to a London cafe, Clarke’s, for breakfast with his subject provide an intimate picture of the artist and the man, who strode across Britain’s 20th-century cultural landscape quixotically pursuing his painting art in uncompromising terms.

Lucian Freud was the grandson of Sigmund Freud, and very much a living study of his grandfather’s theories of psychosexual analysis. Twice married and the father of at least a dozen children, his relationships with men and women especially became the subject of tabloid gossip well into his 80s. Greig’s engrossing biography recounts in detail the artist holding forth on love affairs, his commanding need to gamble, and disquisitions on Velazquez, Courbet, and Cezanne.

The artist’s friends, lovers, and several of Freud’s children as well gather their recollections in a deeply personal memoir of a life Greig likens to “Keith Richards crossed with Picasso…risk-taking, libidinous, bold and threatening.”

As a child, Freud was relocated with his Jewish family from Berlin and Continental Europe’s onslaught of Nazi ideology to grow up in pre- and post-World War II London on the margins of Britain’s social register, his grandfather’s fame preceding him, gradually entering into the spiraling inner circles of London society. The layers of his carnal relationships over the course of 60 years at times tends to nearly overwhelm the narrative where his art practice is concerned—an evolution from academically formal, caricature-like, surreally exaggerated portraits to finely observed intimate evocations of form and flesh.

Accounts of endless portrait sittings, the bohemian decadent squalor of his studio, the reveries of a revolving series of other men’s wives and nubile art students over the decades are further amplified chapter by chapter. Lucian Freud worked at his art in hermetically sealed privacy, or in the cloistered company of titled society women, moving in the shadows of fashionable May Fair, Knightsbridge, and St. John’s Woods like an elegant wraith, shabby-chic in paint-flecked gray cashmere coat, butcher’s pants, and laceless worker’s boots. Long the society butterfly, he was no less familiar with the 1960s gangster’s world of London’s Soho, the bookmaking Kray Brothers as well as racing touts and jockeys—the career he said he’d have pursued if portrait work hadn’t worked out for him.

His former wives and lovers seem no more judgemental for all his storied infidelity—his seeming inability to sustain constancy except in the fervent dedication to his painting. His longtime friend and fellow painter Frank Auerbach was for Freud the sole judge of his work—all others risked loss of his company in rivalries, jealousies, competition, even violence. He seemed to move through his days in a priapic ballet…painting and the act of sex were interchangeable, the physical manifestation of his life expressed through paint. His solace was the bath. Like some feral Caligula, he would often bathe three times a day. Though his clothes were caked with paint, his hands were always “scrupulously clean.”

Many of his illustrated works have about them a dominant heterosexual dynamic in scenes of primarily nude figures, genitals explicitly revealed in vulnerable poses, captive like caged animals. His models speak of posing as an excruciating experience over weeks and even months of scrutinizing observation. Freud maintained a clinical distance from his subject, cold-eyed and unsentimental, working to paint flesh as mass and volume not idealized by niceties of omission, that might at first give the work a dehumanizing austerity. It was the longer look that rewarded the viewer with the compelling other-realness of the figure living in paint. Outside the social hierarchy, his models could be casual acquaintances—whenever he found someone he liked, he folded them into his peripatetic schedule painting day and night. As he told Greig, “My subject matter is entirely autobiographical, using the people I like and that interest me to make my pictures.”

These breakfast sessions, based on private conversations, nonetheless read like talk show interviews from the heyday of David Susskind and Dick Cavett—shocking in Freud’s sense of immodesty, his quick wit and cutting sarcasm. Governed by his obsessions, immoderately pursued whether women or his art, Lucian Freud was never restrained or diverted by propriety and broke every rule that did not suit his fancy. The names were hidden but the paintings picture those with whom he slept and spent time. He liked the saying of William Blake’s: “The truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.”

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