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Lucian Freud up close

Drawn into a friendship like no other

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By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / July 31, 2011

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I must have mentioned to Lucian Freud one day that I had never eaten grouse, because he arranged a dinner at his house in Notting Hill one night for me and his granddaughter Frances Costelloe. I was 29, Frances was about 15. Lucian, who had recently finished a small portrait of the queen (so small that he used to pull the unfinished portrait out of a Camper shoe box to show me), had some grouse sent down from Chatsworth by his friend the Duchess of Devonshire.

He and David Dawson, his assistant, roasted the birds, and we all ate them, taking care to avoid the little pieces of shot. Frances talked about getting her grandfather to come and speak at her school, and about a shopping excursion she had just been taken on by Kate Moss, whom Lucian was midway through painting.

Nothing extraordinary happened. But I remember that it was a warm summer night in London, that we felt young and lucky, and that Lucian, who was an unobtrusive but sweet and considerate presence, was a big part of that.

Freud, who died on July 20 at 88, was the 20th century’s outstanding painter of the human body. Renowned above all as a portraitist, he nevertheless said he wanted to treat the head as “just another limb.’’ His subjects ranged from animals and his garden to friends, family, close acquaintances, and lovers. He painted them slowly, riskily, and with an unswerving devotion to truth-telling, both physical and emotional.

Those - and they probably make up a majority - who associate Freud with a “pitiless gaze,’’ and with morbid depictions of decaying flesh and psychic suffering, exaggerate. And they forget, I think, what a superb painter of children and babies he was, from his earliest years as a teenager right into his 80s. His portrait of Frances, which graced the cover of his 2002 Tate Britain retrospective catalog, is one of his best.

Lucian was 79 when I first got to know him. And yet I have strong memories of him skidding to the phone in his socks, or leaping up the stairs, two at a time. His urgent focus on everything he did was exemplary.

I met him because I had written a review of a show of his etchings in Sydney, and someone had been kind enough to tell me (“a friend of mine is a friend of Lucian Freud, and I thought you might like to know . . . ’’) that Lucian had read it and liked it.

Sydney is a long way from Notting Hill, and I filed the news away. But in due course I moved to London to be with my fiancée, and got a job at The Art Newspaper. In an idle moment, I found out how I might get a note to Lucian, and a few days later, I received a reply in a childish scrawl:

“I was pleased to hear from you because I wrote to you (in my head) when I read your piece on my etchings,’’ it said, and went on to invite me and my wife, Jo, to lunch.

Lucian became a close friend, someone I saw once or twice a month for several years, and spoke to on the phone whenever he chose to call, which would often be at strange hours of the night.

There were other writers whom he saw on a regular basis, most of whom he had known much longer and better: William Feaver, Martin Gayford, John Richardson, Francis Wyndham, Robert Hughes, Michael Kimmelman, the late Lawrence Gowing, the late John Russell.

Like all these people, and like the many who sat for him, I loved Lucian’s stories, which could be explosively funny and were always somehow illicit, like news about sex shared at the edge of a schoolyard. They were made strange and alluring not only by Lucian’s oblique delivery but by his eyes, which flared with intensity. Everything he said was underwritten by a delight in bursting through cant and illusions, and he relished human oddity.

When he opened the door to his terrace house, the first thing you saw was an old man tilting his head slightly, like a curious dog. His eyes would be smiling slits, delighted, warm, unaccountably shy. And then suddenly, they would bulge with what seemed like alarm, but was in fact Lucian’s defining characteristic: an alert, animal-like awareness, an uncanny responsiveness.

He would have little to say until you were well settled inside - stroking, perhaps, the slender, bony head of his aging whippet, Pluto, or flicking through one of the books or newspapers piled on the large round table. Looming over Pluto’s basket was a Rodin sculpture of a standing, naked Balzac. There were several big paintings by his close friend Frank Auerbach. There might be a spray of flowers. The room - the whole house - was filled with the rich smell of oil paint.

It was of course extraordinary for a young art critic to find himself in this situation, and to be listening, sometime after midnight - with a glass of wine and a bowl of fresh walnuts on the kitchen countertop - to Lucian unburdening himself, confiding irrational preferences for lovers no longer in his orbit, expressing impatience with this or that acquaintance, or simply worrying, with gentle self-mockery, about his age, his health, his body.

I was a young critic, to be sure, but in Lucian’s presence one very much wanted to be something else. So I never took notes, either at the time or afterward. I felt that if I did, the experience would have veered sharply away from what I wanted it to be. (I was, as Augie March says in Saul Bellow’s great novel, “at an exaggerating age.’’)

Over time, Lucian invited me to record an interview with him, and to write essays to go with four books on his work. But these requests often came through intermediaries, and he rarely spoke with me about them. I found the assignments grueling.

When, after four years in London, my wife became pregnant and we decided to return to Sydney, the hardest part was leaving behind Lucian and his world. We were a very peripheral part of that world. But it had made our time in London “stir with prospects,’’ in William James’s phrase. And so I can’t forget the extreme delicacy with which he asked, shortly before our departure, “Is there anything I can do to get you to stay?’’

In the event, I saw him more than I had anticipated after that. Mark Holborn, an editor at Jonathan Cape, had the idea of publishing a book of photographs of Lucian and his studio taken by Dawson and the late Bruce Bernard. I was invited to conduct an extended interview, which we called “A Late Night Conversation with Lucian Freud,’’ to go with it. This, too, had its difficulties, and involved two flights back to London from Sydney. But it was exciting to have him speak unguardedly - and on the record - about his grandfather Sigmund, his friendship with Francis Bacon, his abandoned portrait of Ingmar Bergman, his gambling past, his favorite artists, and so on. (There are sharper published interviews, by the way, with Feaver, Leigh Bowery, and Martin Gayford.)

Lucian painted, and etched, every day, morning and night, 365 days a year. He depended upon an intricate routine of appointments, and he hated people being late, let alone failing to turn up.

But he was, paradoxically, at permanent war with the whole idea of habit: “The only reason I do anything is impulse,’’ he would say.

If it sounds anarchic, even selfish, it was both. It was certainly not an attitude conducive to family life. But it made him great company: You really never knew what was going to come out of his mouth, or - if he was at the wheel of his old Rolls-Royce - which side of the road he might suddenly claim for himself.

Lucian had many children by various wives and lovers, and was not, by his own admission, the most attentive father early on in their lives. Still, he became close with many of them as they got older, and was more than a little proud of their achievements, in fiction, poetry, fashion design, journalism, painting, and dance.

In his painting, just as in his daily life, he did everything he could to avoid repeating himself or forming habits. Fellow artists applauded his audacity. “Whenever his way of working threatens to become a style,’’ wrote Auerbach, on the occasion of Lucian’s Tate retrospective, “he puts it aside like a blunted pencil and finds a procedure more suited to his needs. He has no safety net of manner.’’

Lucian himself once said that he would like “to do a picture that makes all my other pictures look like fakes by somebody who doesn’t understand just how good a painter I actually was.’’

The formulation was typical: amusing, oblique, self-parodying - and keenly ambitious.

Lucian’s face has been recorded, not just by painter friends such as Auerbach, Bacon, and David Hockney, but by a remarkable roll call of photographers, including Cecil Beaton, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Irving Penn, Bruce Bernard, and, not least, Dawson.

An excellent painter himself, Dawson knew Lucian probably better than anyone. He devoted two decades of his life to assisting Lucian, modeling for him, being his friend and close confidante, and toward the end, simply getting him through the day.

Lucian promoted himself, only half-jokingly, as a “biologist.’’ He admired Degas’s statements about wanting to observe women through a keyhole, and as if they were “cats licking themselves.’’ But Lucian did not have Degas’s cold, superior eye, and certainly did not peer through keyholes. He was very much in the room with his models, male and female, and painted, if anything, as if he were the animal - a hypersensitive canine, a bird of prey nervously shifting from foot to foot, a skittish foal.

He had been a passionate horse lover from boyhood. “My life was devoted to them,’’ he said of his earliest years in England. He loved birds and dogs, too, and of course, he was fascinated by the animal aspect in humans.

I remember the curious way he stared at my 1-year-old, Tom, when, toward the end of a restaurant lunch, Tom began clawing at my face. Likewise, coming out into Trafalgar Square after going through a Velázquez exhibition at the National Gallery, I watched him stop and stare for several minutes at a man covered in pigeons.

Lucian had a reputation - in part, to be sure, because of the unsettling force of his art - for misanthropy. But he was in fact one of the most sensitive and instinctively considerate men I have known.

No doubt he had to be to get his sitters to agree to stick with him over the months and sometimes years it took to finish his paintings. But you can’t fake such qualities over the long haul. His sitters wanted to keep coming back. Some liked the prestige. Some liked the regular outings to fancy restaurants. Some were grateful to receive money. But above all, they wanted to be with him.

“To be with him in his company is like sticking your finger in an electric socket and being wired up to the national grid for half an hour,’’ said Louise Liddell, a framer who posed for one of his greatest naked portraits.

“Lucian,’’ admitted Richardson, “is a bit addictive.’’

Richardson, who met Lucian when they were both teenagers, wasn’t the only one to find the young Freud so compelling. Of Lucian’s youth in the 1930s and ’40s, Gowing wrote: “People recognized his force immediately: fly, perceptive, lithe, and with a hint of menace.’’

“A firefly in the fog of a drab and exhausted postwar London, Lucian’s astonishing intelligence flared and illuminated this melancholy period,’’ wrote his friend Anne Dunn.

Lucian, it cannot be said enough, was in love with paint, and with its ability to be worked in ways that could virtually incarnate his sitters. His heroes in art - Rembrandt, Titian, Velázquez, Hals, Watteau, Chardin, Corot, Constable, Ingres, Courbet, Cézanne, Matisse - were similarly inflamed by paint’s potential to arrive at something beyond mere likeness, something immediate, visceral, intimate.

He wasn’t interested in likenesses, or family resemblances. (“Some people are only alive to images of others from a family point of view,’’ he wryly noted. “They say, ‘Oh yes. But isn’t that so-and-so’s cousin?’ ’’) Rather, he wanted to capture what he described as “the feeling of individuality, the intensity of the regard, and the focus on the specific.’’

His series of naked portraits from the mid-’70s onward show women, and several men, reclining, often with exposed genitals, on couches or beds in poses that suggest complete psychological abandon. Lucian put everything into these pictures, which are really unprecedented in the history of art. He captured both the sensuous bloom and the heavy dissipation that are part and parcel of occupying a body over months and years. He painted skin rashes, moles, networks of blue-green veins, sagging breasts, blotchy faces.

And yet there is no note of revulsion or disgust. In almost every case, the models seem comfortable and relaxed, even - touchingly - asleep. Hughes put it most succinctly: These pictures, he said, “bypass decorum while fiercely preserving respect.’’

It is true that Lucian guarded his privacy fiercely. But he was by no means a recluse. He was powerfully attracted to all kinds of company, from young children to old men, from monarchs and morticians to industrialists, benefits supervisors, bookmakers, poets, and performance artists. But he liked to keep them all, as much as possible, separate.

That was what made the dinner at Locanda Locatelli, a favorite restaurant near Marble Arch, on the night of the opening of his Tate retrospective so extraordinary. The restaurant was filled with former models and friends, some of whom had not seen him for many years.

I came to the restaurant from the Tate with my wife and a young and beautiful woman who was fighting cancer and had been sitting for Lucian for several months. She had asked me to take a photograph of her in front of her portrait. I had been told she was dying. But she was in fact the epitome of what people mean when they say “full of life,’’ and, that night, she seemed incandescently happy. Being among all these people, one got a sense that each one of them, by having known Lucian, had experienced something completely unlike anything else in their lives.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.