MAN WITH A BLUE SCARF: ON SITTING FOR A PORTRAIT BY LUCIAN FREUD
By Martin Gayford
Thames & Hudson, $40, 248 pages, illus.
Do not be put off by the rather ponderous title of this book or by the author’s distinguished resume as curator and critic. Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg news and
also has held that position at Britain’s Spectator magazine and Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
“Man With a Blue Scarf” undoubtedly will prove to be indispensable source material for students and biographers of Lucian Freud, generally acknowledged to be the finest British portrait painter of his time. But for the general reader it offers a range of delights, served up with panache in an easy, accessible manner.
When Mr. Gayford mentioned - “over tea - very tentatively” that he would be interested in having his portrait painted by Freud, he didn’t really think it would come to pass. He is frank about his motivation being mixed: on the one hand, simple desire to be painted, on the other a forensic opportunity to observe and study this superlative artist’s methodology.
“After years of writing, talking and thinking about art, I was attracted by the prospect of watching a painting grow; being on the inside of the process. Even so, when I made that modest proposal, I didn’t really expect LF to accept. Probably, I thought he would say something politely noncommittal along the lines of, ‘That’s a nice idea, perhaps one day.’ Instead, he responded by saying, ‘Could you manage an evening next week?’ “
And so began the intense experience of posing for many days over several months, an education in how a portrait is done and a surprising immersion in this artist’s life.
Mr. Gayford should not have had any reason to anticipate prevarication, for Freud’s reputation for directness is legendary. And for other, more disquieting qualities. Over a long career, he acquired a reputation for ferocity, a quality expressed on some of his canvases but also in a life chronicled in print from tabloids to biographies. This grandson of Sigmund Freud seems to have known a lot about aggression and expressing it, as anyone who has read an account of his marriage to Lady Caroline Blackwood will know.
But in “Man With a Blue Scarf,” the octogenarian artist comes across not only as a consummate professional but as a man of some charm and a figure capable of attracting sympathy and affection from sitter and reader alike.
Although Mr. Gayford had known Freud for many years professionally and socially, posing for him was a totally different experience: “somewhere between transcendental meditation and a visit to the barber’s.” Conversation flourished, but there also were periods of silent intensity, when it was apparent what a punctilious craftsman this portraitist is.
“At moments sitting seems an almost embarrassingly physical affair: an enterprise that concerns the model’s skin, muscles, flesh and also, I suppose - if there is such a thing - self.”
Of course, that’s what the conversation is really for, and the excursions to restaurants, all about the artist getting to see - and eventually to realize - that elusive self. So if the eponymous blue scarf has to be just right, it’s even more important for its wearer to be visible to Freud, all the way down to his essence. As he wrote in an article in the 1950s, “The subject must be kept under closest observation: if this is done, day and night, the subject - he, she, or it - will eventually reveal the ALL.”
Inevitably, we also get beneath the artist’s skin as well, to see what he is really like, what makes him tick as well as how he draws and paints. Freud’s willingness to talk freely, to reveal himself through anecdote and aphorism, through memory and speculation, is key to all this. A recollection from his grade school days in 1920s Germany shows just how crucial an ingrained antinomianism in his personality is to his artistic philosophy.
“Freud was taught how to do up his shoes in a certain manner. ‘So,’ he remembered eight decades later, ‘I immediately thought I’ll never tie them THAT way again.’ It was an entirely characteristic reaction. To be told he must do something, he has admitted, is enough to make him want to do something different. His unwillingness to follow the rules laid down has extended from fastening footwear to flouting the alleged dictats of art history. … LF said: ‘I would have thought that the fact that something was forbidden, or almost illegal, would make it all the more exciting.’ “
Such a philosophy may well have engendered the anti-social behavior patterns that made him sometimes dangerous to know outside the studio, but clearly, when working with palette and canvas, the discipline and fierce talent and dedication that were equally integral to him could lead him in very fruitful directions, as this book, in its way as masterly a portrait as its ostensible subject, makes clear.