When I was in Vienna last December, I went to the Lucian Freud exhibition (ending 6 January) at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Each of the 43 paintings on display was accompanied by a short narrative, all of which were compiled into a handy booklet for visitors to the exhibition.
It was my first time seeing Freud’s works and I was unfamiliar with his style. It was amazing to see these pieces up close, especially with the bold swirls of paint that come together beautifully to portray qualities such as sensuality, tranquility and melancholy that Freud had observed in his subjects. I enjoyed this retrospective very much and was quite stimulated and inspired by what I saw.
At the exit was a modest makeshift stand selling typical souvenirs (e.g. postcards, magnets, notebooks) based on some of his works, as well as some books. I bought a postcard featuring “And the Bridegroom“, which is one of my favourite pieces from the exhibition – though I don’t think I’ll be able to send it to my family in Singapore without sealing it in an envelope lest it gets confiscated!
Intrigued by Freud’s paintings and curious to know more about him, I also bought a book titled “Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud” written by art critic, Martin Gayford. A riveting and straightforward read, the book depicts Gayford’s experience of having his portrait painted by Freud, presented through a series of diary entries from 28 November 2003 to 4 July 2004.
Gayford carves a literary portrait of Freud based on those seven months, during which they had numerous candid conversations from how the latter “can’t bear Raphael” and why he thought Picasso to be malevolent, to his admiration for Titian’s Diane and Acteon and Diane and Callisto and how “no one else could photograph pleasure” the way French photographer, Jacques Henri Lartigue could.
Taking place during and after the sittings, as well as over tea and dinner, the lively dialogue between the two men went beyond the world of art.
For instance, while Freud had specific taste preferences, he acknowledged: “I can imagine that if a woman I was in love with cooked spinach with oil, I would like it like that. I would also enjoy the slight heroism of liking it although I didn’t usually enjoy it served in that way.”
Freud also talked about living in a rough middle-class neighbourhood in Paddington and his (seemingly half-hearted) attempts to forewarn one or two people about an upcoming bank robbery after been tipped off by some friends and former neighbours who were going to carry out the act.
One of my favourite anecdotes comes early on in the book (in the 28 November 2003 entry) where Freud recalled how he was taught to tie his shoelaces in a certain way in primary school and decided on the spot that he will never tie them in that way again – a reflection of his innate non-conformist attitude.
This reminds me of an incident in kindergarten when I was about four years old: One of my teachers was coaxing me to hold the pencil the ‘right’ way – I grip it like how one would with a Chinese calligraphy brush. I couldn’t do it and thought it was ridiculous that a pencil must be held only in a certain way. She eventually gave up and left me alone when I started to cry. While I don’t have the most elegant handwriting, my cursive script is legible and I write faster than most people I know. Hah.
Freud’s reluctance to follow the rules also shows in his paintings which go against the dictated ‘laws’ of art. His explanation was that “the fact that something was forbidden, or almost illegal, would make it all the more exciting.” This was quoted in page 11 of the book. I was immediately hooked and couldn’t wait to discover more about Freud!
Gayford captured their conversations, interactions as well as his observations of Freud – his psyche, the way he worked (deliberate and often rather slow) – in a respectful and attentive manner.
In some entries, Gayford contemplates one’s existence and identity, and in turn, what the painter is putting on paper: “An individual who persists through time, or merely the way a ceaselessly mutating human organism appears in a particular time and place?” There is also a discussion about how the painter’s changing moods could affect a portrait.
An interesting comment from Freud on the subject of paint:
“I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having a look of the sitter, being them. I didn’t want them to get just a likeness like a mimic, but to portray them, like an actor. As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does.”
Freud stated in an interview in 1954 that “the picture in order to move us must never merely remind us of life, but must acquire a life of its own, precisely in order to reflect life.” While I like many of his works at the exhibition, “And the Bridegroom” (below) left the strongest impression on me.
Completed in 1993, this tender portrait of Leigh Bowery shows him lying next to Nicola Bateman whom he married in 1994, following which he died of an AIDS-related illness seven months later. The title of this painting is inspired by Epithalamium, a poem by A.E. Housman (excerpt below):
He is here, Urania’s son,
Hymen come from Helicon;
God that glads the lover’s heart,
He is here to join and part.
So the groomsman quits your side
And the bridegroom seeks the bride:
Friend and comrade yield you o’er
To her that hardly loves you more.
There is an occasional dash of humour, from both Freud as well as Gayford as the latter admits to being vain, referencing Dorian Gray from time to time in mock worry. Another favourite anecdote is Freud’s plan to start work on a new piece titled “Self Portrait with No Front Teeth” after being warned by his dentist that his top incisors may have to be removed (in the end, they weren’t).
Other things I like about Man with a Blue Scarf: The diary entries are interspersed with Freud’s works and photos of him at work taken by his assistant, David Dawson, as well as images of select pieces by artists such as Titian and Goya that came up in discussions between Freud and Gayford. The book is printed on matt creamy paper, enabling one to enjoy the 63 illustrations with no reflections getting in the way.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Man with a Blue Scarf. It is witty and thought-provoking while providing a fascinating insight into Freud’s magnetic personality, his mind and working style.
I suppose, the painting of Man with a Blue Scarf has in fact resulted in two portraits – one of Martin Gayford, the other, Lucian Freud.