Via The Economist
Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud. By Martin Gayford. Thames & Hudson
A Patient observer of his sitters’ slumps and bulges, Lucian Freud prefers not to subject himself to scrutiny. He rarely gives interviews. But Martin Gayford, an art critic who Mr Freud transformed into the painting “Man With a Blue Scarf”, enjoyed several months of uninhibited access to the painter. His tightly framed study of the portraitist is an unexpectedly moving investigation of the artistic process.
Mr Freud is an indoor artist. Fittingly, the book is set in the large Georgian room that is one of the painter’s two studios. The space is paint-smeared because he cleans his palette knife on the walls. Mr Gayford describes it as “a nest that LF has slowly, almost accidentally, constructed through the routines of his work.”
Now aged 87, Mr Freud never takes a holiday. He is usually working on five or six paintings at the same time, always in the presence of his subject. He maintains firm distinctions between morning, afternoon and night pictures. Mr Gayford sat for his painting in the evening. In the morning Mr Freud worked on a painting of a horse; in the afternoon he painted Andrew Parker Bowles and a nude. He calls his nudes “naked portraits”. Professional models are rarely suitable because Mr Freud wants the effect of “My God, you haven’t got your clothes on!”
In an age of fast, factory-like studios, Mr Freud’s pace is deliberate and unhurried. When Mr Gayford gets up to stretch, he takes a peek at the painting. “Despite what seemed to be plenty of vigorous activity with the brush”, he writes, “little seems to have changed on the canvas. By the end of the evening two eyebrows have appeared, and a little flesh around the bridge of my nose.” Mr Freud works up small sections to near completion; the surrounding canvas remains white. “The advantage of taking so long is that it allows me to include more than one expression,” he explains.
The painter has an “omnivorous” exploratory gaze. He is searching for the awkward truth, the “weight, texture and irreducible uniqueness of what he sees.” Determined that his paintings should emanate from his sitters rather than himself, Mr Freud seeks to capture their individuality. “Quality in art is inextricably bound up with emotional honesty,” he says. At the same time, “a good likeness has nothing to do with its quality as a picture.”
Mr Gayford’s personal experience of sitting contributes a thread to the narrative. He likens posing for a portrait to a cross between “transcendental meditation and a visit to the barber’s.” When his eyes appear on the canvas, he senses that “there are now three of us in the studio.” As the work progresses, the painting becomes an alter ego and he worries about the “Dorian Gray possibility” that it will “reveal secrets—ageing, ugliness, faults—that I imagine…I am hiding from the world.” Then, the painting completed, Mr Freud says simply, “I think I’ll stop now.”