Jekyll and Freud

Jekyll and Freud

Review: The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame, William Feaver, Bloomsbury.

In the second volume of William Feaver’s biography of British painter Lucian Freud we see a Freud ‘more serious’ about his career, well established in his ‘late’ style, more certain of his place in history rather than competing with his contemporaries, even if the more compulsive and unsavoury sides of his character remain.

Freud is something of a Jekyll and Hyde character (or ‘Jekyll and Freud’ if you like), something hinted at by the plural in Feaver’s title (‘lives’). Beyond the obvious two contrasting stylistic phases of his career, Freud was impulsive and reckless, running carelessly into traffic, racking up gambling debts, at the same time as being capable of extraordinarily focussed work, on paintings that would take months to complete. And the work itself polarised opinion – there were those for whom Freud should be included with the likes of Rembrandt, and those who simply saw modernist sensationalism, ugliness, even mediocrity.

There are the simultaneous high and seamier sides of life, the Bentley and expensive dinners juxtaposed against the squalid (a term he liked) studio, the mixing with both royalty and crooks. Eventually, by the late 1990s, his paintings were fetching million-dollar prices, but he was also losing similar amounts in betting on horses, though he said that with all the money rolling in, the thrill of the risk associated with horse racing was dulled. All this might seem irrelevant to the art, but apart from the fact that this is a biography, revelling in his larger-than-life character, it is interesting to read how his life was organised around the business of art, including the basic matter of finding suitable sitters, and how much his personality evident away from the easel was consistent with what he did on it.

Feaver is somewhat forgiving of Freud’s arrogance and selfishness. As he aged, Freud remained vindictive and cutting in his put-downs. But he also had loyalties to friends, including some surprising ones, such as a nun who ran a home for discarded horses. He would snub or persecute but was stimulating in conversation. Rowan Williams, who conducted Freud’s funeral, described him as bringing life into a room. Freud admitted to being selfish, but at least he saw the funny side. A year before he died, as he was running out of steam, Freud asked what the point of being selfish was if you could not remember what you wanted to do.

Freud put painting first, and in some ways his art was consistent with his character – unabashed, confrontational, animalistic rather than beautiful, obsessive. He said that art is a lonely business. It is also exacting. It is a myth, he said, that artists produce radical art in an anarchist frenzy, almost by accident. Great art is a patient thing – for Freud, meaning months of intense studio work (which is why Freud did not do much landscape painting, I suppose). I wonder, then, uneasily, if this selfishness was necessary for Freud, and is necessary for great art, for the sheer stretches of concentration. For the painting to be great, people had to come second, a curious thing when we think that Freud’s work is mostly of people, an act of sustained looking to try and capture not only appearances but something of an inner essence as well.

There was exactitude and realism, but not photorealism, and part of the interest in Freud’s paintings is the almost old-fashioned sense of the challenge of the long-haul battle with the sitter, wrestling with a painting until it comes out right – ‘right’ on more than one level. He was not the showy, virtuoso of, say, Hockney, full of ideas. Some of Freud’s ‘ideas’ weren’t very good. There is struggle in the work, evidenced by abandoned paintings and subjects, and finished ones that are still awkward. By the 1990s Feaver was a frequent visitor to Freud’s studio, and an attraction of his biography is that he conveys how the struggle went, rather than just analysing the finished works. Tellingly, Freud once told a group of primary school children that he didn’t ‘like’ his paintings, because of all the work involved, but he hoped other people did so. Perhaps the ridiculously high prices of his art acknowledged, in part, the effort that went into them and somehow contributed to their depth.

Feaver quotes Freud extensively and Freud, though shy about speaking in public, was good when speaking on art. While he compared prices with contemporaries, when it came to technique, he was thinking more timelessly, about Rembrandt, Corot, Constable and Titian in particular. Typically, he was forthcoming about what he did and did not like. Part of the interest in Feaver’s biography is Freud’s fearlessness in talking about art, his ability to not be deferential to the giants of art, but to be forensic about what makes great art tick.

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at


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