In a new book, Martin Gayford recalls what it's like to be painted by Lucian Freud.
Over tea one afternoon, in 2003, Martin Gayford mentioned to his friend Lucian Freud that if Freud wanted to paint his portrait, he would be willing to sit for it. Gayford, a well-known London art critic and a frequent contributor to ARTnews, is convinced that Freud is “the real thing, a truly great painter living among us.” He expected a polite brush-off. Instead, Freud invited him to start posing the following week.
During the next year and a half, while Gayford sat for two portraits, one in oils and one etched, he observed the artist as attentively as the artist observed him. The notes he took constitute a moment-by-moment account of Freud at work and in conversation. At the same time Gayford recalls his own reactions as the portraits emerged.
The resulting book,Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, excerpted here, was published by Thames & Hudson in October. An extraordinary record of a great artist in his studio, it also describes what it feels like to be transformed into a work of art.
In the course of sitting LF sometimes puts his hand across his forehead in concentration and dismay, once transferring a jagged lightning strike of paint from his hand to his face. Often, he holds his own head with one hand to indicate the exact angle of tilt. It is an odd sensation, his giving a performance of being me. I concentrate on being alert, looking back at LF, feeling in this way I am taking part in the picture, perhaps inserting into it that alert look.
The tension of working can make LF seem very agitated at times. He gestures; he raises his arms in a movement half-triumphant, half-despairing, like an Italian taxi driver encountering a perplexing configuration of traffic. He mutters to himself. His bouts of concentration are apt to begin with an especially hard stare, followed by a deep sigh. He steps forward and back, and on occasion darts forward and springs away from the canvas, bringing his mouth down in a one-sided grimace. Sometimes he touches the picture with a brush like a person making contact with something intensely hot, or charged with electricity. The paint continues to spread across the canvas in tiny, incremental stages.
During a pause, I ask what the difficulties are, from his point of view, of painting a picture. His answer is unexpected.
‘One thing I have never got used to, is not feeling the same from one day to the next, although I try to control it as much as possible by working absolutely all the time. I just feel so different every day that it is a wonder that any of my pictures ever work out at all.
‘When I was painting a picture of my mother years ago, I was feeling sadder than I ever have before or since. I was painting the paisley patterns on the bed and I remember worrying that my sadness would get into the paisley shapes and I suppose perhaps it did. But I am just giving you an indication of my megalomania.’
I say: ‘I suppose that one actually is different from day to day. There would be different chemicals in your bloodstream and your cells would be slightly changed.’
LF responds: ‘And you will have been with different people and may wake up in a different bed, perhaps with a new person. All these kinds of things can affect you.’
The paradox of portraiture, especially this marathon variety, is that the target is always a moving one. Physiologically, and psychologically, a living being is always in a state of flux. Moods shift, energy levels go up and down, the body itself slowly ages. Since the sittings began I have been to Texas, walked in the desert and returned with a slight tan and a buoyant mood.
Outside the studio seasons slowly pass; temperatures and light levels alter. Soon it will be Christmas. As with any creative project—writing a book, for example, is the same—success is partly a matter of stamina, and also what LF likes to call ‘morale': the confidence required simply to keep going. Of course, in the case of a painting such as this one, these alterations are multiplied because two individuals are involved: painter and subject. It turns out that, from LF’s point of view, it is the potential of shifting moods to affect his creative verve that bothers him most.
‘What,’ I ask, ‘is the disadvantage of being changeable for a painter?’
There is a long pause, and a sigh of concentration as when he is trying to get a brush stroke exactly right. Then: ‘Perhaps when you have the sort of temperament that is always looking for flaws and trouble [his temperament, in other words], it might stop you from having what you always want, which is to be as audacious as possible. One has to find the courage to keep on trying.’
‘Not painting in a stale or predictable way. But I suppose if one didn’t vary from day to day one could not be what one always wants to be—exceptionally daring.’ So there’s another paradox.
I begin to feel a slight apprehension as to what this picture will look like. Will I look ugly? Will I look old? Facing up to the facts of life, such as ageing and mortality, are precisely the point of LF’s type of painting—of course, we applaud it in Rembrandt, but I’m not sure how I feel about the policy when it is applied to myself. The sitter’s vanity is a wild card in the history of portraiture, often—in fact, almost always—a factor when the subject is paying for the result. But at the same time it can be a stumbling block, making for bad, dishonest images, or at the least something the painter has to overcome.
Is it important that the picture should resemble the sitter? LF observes: ‘Likeness in a way isn’t the point, because whether or not a painting is a good likeness has nothing to do with its quality as a picture. For example, Rembrandt’s people all look alike in that they all have spiritual grandeur. You feel that he did not steer very close to the actual appearance of the sitters.’
On the other hand, LF is undeniably interested in the question. Often, he will mention that he thinks a certain picture is ‘like’, or ‘very like.’ After all, though the goal is to paint as good a picture as possible, his raw material is quirky individuality in the appearance of a certain person, animal or thing—in the case of the current painting, me.
When LF was painting Self Portrait, Reflection in 2002, his cleaning woman glanced through the studio door one day and saw it on the easel in the shadows, and told him: ‘I thought it was you.’ He was pleased and amused by this incident, which recalls anecdotes in Pliny in which the unwary try to draw painted curtains, and doves attempt to peck the grain in a still life. An ancient aim of figurative art is to convince, even deceive, the viewer.
Excerpted from Martin Gayford’s Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, ©2010 Thames & Hudson.