Source: Royal Academy of Arts
For anyone interested in Freud‘s methods or what he would have been like to sit for, “Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud” by Martin Gayford is a fascinating read. It is a diary of the creation of a portrait from the point of view of the sitter, a diary of mutual observation.
This medium-sized portrait took Freud seven months to paint. And this was considered speedy for him.
I like Freud’s cheekiness and contrariness – tell him to do something and he will do the opposite. While sitting for his portrait, Andrew Parker Bowles complained that his stomach was protruding from his jacket in an unflattering way. Freud admits, “He complained a bit about it, so I thought I’d better emphasise it more”. (1)
Source: National Portrait Gallery London
The diary is littered with Freud’s observations of the essence of his portraiture. I particularly like:
“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 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.” (2)
Interestingly, Freud mostly avoided painting actors and politicians – he found it difficult to capture the essence of a person whose career was spent masking or suppressing their own identity. (3)
Portraiture as a relationship
The strongest feeling after emerging from the book is the intensity of the relationship between painter and sitter. There is frustration and curiosity on both sides as well as a mutual desire to complete the work. Gayford was quite engaged in the process and I think that comes through in the painting – his is an intense, questioning gaze. Other, less actively interested subjects of Freud’s paintings can look a little disengaged, even lost. Maybe they just wish the process would end!
The intensity of the sittings can mean that the emotional state of the sitter, or some would say, the soul, is revealed. Freud’s portrait of John Minton is a perfect example. About 5 years after this portrait was completed, “Minton … committed suicide. Photographs of him, however, reveal far less – almost none – of the inner tension and anxiety so apparent in LF’s painting”. (4)
Source: Artistic Determinisim
A comment made in this book and also in another book on Freud resonated with me, particularly as a similar sentiment was expressed in a documentary I recently watched on Margaret Olley.
It is what I am thinking of as creative freeze – the idea of being so over-awed by great art that you think to yourself, “How can I possibly be as good as that? Why would the world need anything I create?”
In the book “Freud at Work”, Freud uses this idea to explain why Bruce Bernard abandoned painting:
“I think if you are going to paint, you’ve got to use any art you see as being there entirely for you, to help you. If you “admire” it in that sense, I think maybe you’re gone” (5)
Portraiture is challenging – even for the masters!
This diary also emphasises for me that painting, even for a master, can be a lengthy and frustrating process. Not every painting works and indeed the ones that the artist thinks work may not be appreciated by the sitter.
I was surprised to read that Freud did not like to look at his work after it was finished, often turning completed paintings face to the wall. (6)
So, here are a few pieces inspired by Freud.
Working from life: An oil sketch I did of myself by looking in the mirror – it is around my 40th birthday, so I’m not looking terribly impressed:
Looking at intensity and structure: Unfinished oil sketch …
Chasing the structure: Charcoal study
The question remains, whether I have the stamina to work on a months-long portrait from life… I’m looking for a victim, so stay tuned!
(1)Martin Gayford Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, (Thames & Hudson Ltd 2010), p 107.
(2) Gayford, p. 112
(3) Gayford, p. 209.
(4) Gayford, p. 116
(5) Lucian Freud in Conversation with Sebastian Smee Freud at Work, (Jonathon Cape, London 2006), p. 30
(6) Gayford, p. 81