To combine two pieces of modern dating slang, Lucian Freud was a “bad boy” who “hated catching feelings”. This is the central insight of William Feaver’s big new biography of his youth, and one which clarifies the emotional atmosphere of his paintings.
‘Art is an escape from personality’, Freud misquotes Eliot while discussing Cézanne with Feaver. Freud had personality in bucketloads: shy, but a smooth operator; grumpy, but fluent in rough banter. He got off with enough women to produce 14 lovechildren, but only got on with blokeish men like Feaver.
Feaver, a newspaper art critic, became Freud’s best friend after interviewing him in 1973. Although he has done a bit of archival digging and a few nearest-and-dearest interviews, the real value of his huge book comes from thirty years of conversation with an unguarded and unscripted Freud. Large chunks of it should be taken with a pinch of salt. This is not because Feaver can’t be trusted to dish the dirt on his friend: he does, in damning anecdotes (provided by Freud himself) of the painter’s dealings with the opposite sex.
Beginning with his well-meaning mother, the more a woman loved Freud, the worse he treated her. He made his first wife face away after cooking dinner so she couldn’t watch him chew. On a Parisian honeymoon with his second wife, he pushed her naked into the hotel corridor and locked the door. Another time, he slammed a woman’s head onto a nightclub table to prove that he was ‘living by decision’. He described himself as ‘difficult and impossible and dodgy’. Read cover-to-cover, Feaver’s book makes that seem a pretty accurate self-assessment.
The doubt I have about the book is that, speaking for myself, blokes (especially shy ones) act up around their mates. Moronic bluster has a bonding effect: we act dumb and nasty not because we want to convince our friends that we are those things, but because doing so implies trust in their generosity and discretion. It also makes them laugh. Had Freud been a football fan, this biography would have been even longer. As such, it’s implausible that even Feaver got to know the last word about Freud’s heart.
There’s a similar quality of premeditated roughness about the paintings, which satisfy every bad-boy urge you can think of: schoolboy dirtiness, bitter machismo, admissions of sexual inferiority from losers. Many good-boy critics hate them. In the best case-for-the-prosecution yet written, Peter Schjeldahl spits that ‘every brushstroke cops a feel’.
But Freud wasn’t a monster. His misogyny consisted of occasional bursts of hissy-cat nastiness intended to keep besotted women at arm’s length. In a sad moment at the end of Feaver’s biography, Freud babbles about his shyness: ‘I can’t do courting. It makes me so nervous. I want an immediate intimate situation with a stranger I do like, but the fact that it involves sex, obviously that’s where the intimate part comes in…’ It’s the opposite intention to that of Picasso’s misogyny in life and art, which seeks to dominate women, then rip them to shreds. With Freud, you just wish he’d had the maturity and guts to ask for a bit of space.
Then again, the paintings are that bit of space. Hence the talk of an escape from personality. There’s nothing abstract or surreal or expressionist about them: no imprint of neurosis or dogma. What Freud does is paint the real-life person in front of him as well as he can without letting his own feelings get in the way. It is a very English art.
Seen in the flesh, the detail of his portraits thrills. The crucial turning-point of Freud’s career was his switch from sable to hog’s hair brushes, and with it a smouldering fullness of style hardly anticipated by line-heavy early works. Not since Velázquez painted the pope did a painter do so much with modulating tones of a single colour. At the recent RA exhibition of, expansively defined, Freud self-portraits, I marvelled at how gnarled and knitted planes of white, pink and umber capture the slant of this cheekbone, the cleft of this lip, the jut of this toe. As with Velázquez, there’s a mesmerising tension between Freud’s personal detachment and painterly attention.
The cool tenacity lands an emotional punch. Much as Eliot’s poems intimate a vast and tragic yearning through chatter about marmalade and coffee-spoons (‘the yellow soles of feet/ In the palms of both soiled hands’ are verbal Freud), so the professional discipline Freud demands from amateur sitters yields a claustrophobia of the heart: the pathos of a life not being lived as richly as it might. In confrontational late self-portraits, the same eye for detail uncovers wrinkles and sags all over. The bad boy is facing up to his sexual redundancy and the spectre of the grave.
Thank God that the escape from personality didn’t creep, as it did in late Eliot, into an escape from people. There are moments in Freud which hint at a Pop Art sensibility more comfortable with the chrome surfaces of photo culture than the crooked timber of humanity: liney book illustrations, late portraits of Kate Moss and the Queen. He liked the ‘insouciant strategy’ of Andy Warhol, in Feaver’s phrase. Freud’s yen for the ‘immediate intimate situation’ keeps him on track. In its depiction of the human-animal stagnating against the passage of time, his art strangely satisfies Baudelaire’s definition of beauty: a spark between something fleeting and something timeless.