Friday, February 4, 2011

On Sitting for a Portrait

Having recently read the new Alice Neel biography, I guess I am in the portrait painting phase of my current reading list, to which I have recently added Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud. The man with the blue scarf is Martin Gayford, an art writer and critic who has published several art-related books. He sat for two portraits by Lucian Freud, one in oil and one etched, during a year and a half period in 2003 and 2004, amounting to about 250 hours. He kept a diary during that time and based this book on it.

The two portraits of Gayford painted by Lucian Freud, painting left and etching right

The book was recommended to me by new friend David Clark who said he enjoyed reading it. I liked it too although it proceeds at a very slow pace, matching the speed at which the portraits are painted by Freud.

Freud some years ago with Leigh Bowery, probably his most famous model

Of course I had been aware of Freud's work previously because he is such a well-known British realist painter, but I knew nothing else about him. He is the grandson of Sigmund Freud, was born in Germany in 1922 and emigrated to England with his parents and siblings in 1933 to escape persecution by the Nazis. He studied painting at several schools in England and became known as one of the "School of London" figurative painters in the 1970s. The group also included Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Ronald Kitaj, and several others. Freud's early style was painted thinly and somewhat surrealistically, but beginning in the late 1950s he changed by becoming much less graphic and more painterly - or at least more about the paint than the drawing. He paints now with a heavy impasto and brushmarks that form a sculptural surface on his oil portraits.

Lucian Freud self portrait 1985

As Gayford describes it, Freud paints one stroke at a time, painstakingly like you wouldn't believe. His portrait sittings go on for hundreds of hours. Sometimes, even after investing an incredible number of hours in the painting, he will abandon it. Gayford is always fearful that his portrait will be one of the unfortunate ones that doesn't make the cut for some reason.

LF self portrait 2002 (note the wall behind him)

Freud may paint for three sittings a day, for as long as ten hours a day - all the time standing up and/or dancing and darting around in front of the canvas - and he is a man in his eighties. The description of his beginning to paint the portrait after the charcoal sketch has gone on the canvas is most unusual.

"This is the first moment when paint will actually go on the canvas. There is, it emerges, a preliminary ritual when LF is using pigment. First, he rummages around and finds a palette, thickly encrusted with worms and gouts of dried pigment. Then he spends a considerable amount of time carefully cleaning a zone at the bottom left near the thumbhole. There follows more casting around for suitable brushes and tubes of paint that lie around in mounds on a portable trolley and on top of a cupboard near the wall. From the pile of old ragged sheets in the corner of the studio he selects a clean section, tears off a square and tucks it into his waistband, like a very informal butcher or baker."

LF working on another painting - note the rag tucked into his belt

But this description of the way LF keeps his materials is nothing compared to how he cleans his brushes. (I'm reminded of Pam Farrell making a new year's resolution last year to be kinder to her brushes. LF would have had a lot of room for improvement in that department.)

"The rag-apron is used for wiping brushes and occasionally the palette knife. The larger palette scrapings are wiped on the walls, where they radiate in areas, and on the doorframe. Blobs of pigment have been trodden into the floor and telephone numbers and cryptic words scribbled on the plaster. 'Buddleia', reads one. Two tall chairs, covered in a splatter of paint, do duty as extra trolleys on which LF stores a jumble of tubes. Often he carefully, though precariously, balances his palette on the back of one of these when he leaves the room."

"The effect of the paint-smeared interior is very much like certain kinds of abstract painting, or--changing the metaphor--a nest which LF has slowly, almost accidentally, constructed through the routines of his work. The walls themselves, apart from the starbursts and crusting of vigorously trowelled paint, are washed in a neutral brown....It is a strange effect in this otherwise perfect mid-eighteenth-century house; one that LF accepts, I presume, because it humanizes--personalizes--the spaces."

This part so interesting to me because I like learning about artists' studios and studio practices but it's also like learning about somebody's bad housekeeping. I have to say that not since art school have I seen someone cleaning their brushes on the walls. But, hey...

Oil portrait completed

Gayford's sessions of sitting for the oil portrait began on November 23, 2003 and concluded on July 4th 2004. He keeps a nearly day-by-day record of all the emotions that the sessions evoked and all the conversations that he had with LF during the sittings and afterwards at dinner, but in the end Gayford does think that the portrait looks like him--not that that really matters. He agrees with Gaugin that "Pictures and writings are portraits of their authors." So the portrait is more about LF than about Gayford.

Sitting for the etching

The painting went to New York to be sold after completion and both pieces were included in a show of LF's work in Venice that coincided with the Bienniale. Gayford met the owners of the oil portrait who came to the opening in Venice. Gayford mentions that his "face now played a part in their lives, hanging on the stairs in their house in California."  And here, he makes one of the best descriptions I've read of how viewers interact with paintings:

"It is an aspect of good pictures that it is impossible to memorize them. No matter how well you know them, they always seem different when you see them again (this point has been made to me by apparently very different artists, including Luc Tuymans and Richard Serra, as well as LF). Also, a certain work of art may produce quite different feelings in different people; in fact, it evokes altered responses in the same person at differing times. Indeed, its ability to carry on doing that is one of the qualities that makes a work of art good. I thought I knew these images as well as anyone could, except their creator. I had watched them grow, week by week, touch by touch. And yet I found that somehow, when I saw them again, they looked new."


Terry Jarrard-Dimond said...

Thank you for the interesting review of this excellent painter. I had the pleasure of seeing a substantial exhibition of Freud's work this past summer at the Pompidou Center. It was fabulous. The figures are powerful and agressive and yet it was all about the paint.

Wendy Rodrigue Magnus said...

This is great, Nancy. I saw a retrospective of Lucien Freud's portraits in Venice in 2005 and dragged my husband back three times, amazed by those same changes that you quote from Gayford.

Here's another book for you, the story of an artist, his subject, and a famous portrait --- 'Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madam X' by Deborah Davis, 2003

Nancy Natale said...

Terry, I'm glad you saw his paintings in person. I have never seen them in the flesh but they do look fabulous. Apparently his extreme concentration does pay off.

Wendy, I was going to tie in your blog post about Sargent to this post, but I ran out of steam. I'll have to add the book to my list. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, such an intense artist!

Chloe Iverson said...

these painting are really look like it was real.. amazing..

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Indrani said...


Marianne Simonin said...

And sadly Lucien Freud passed away last night... I really admired him.. thanks for your interesting review.