The critic Kenneth Tynan divided playwrights into two categories, “smooth” and “hairy,” and one could probably make a similar distinction between biographers. Smooth biographers offer clear narrative lines, well-underlined topics, and carrots in the form of cliffhangers to draw the reader in. Her books are on bestseller lists. They are good gifts for dad.
William Feaver, the author of “The Lives of Lucian Freud” – the second volume “Fame, 1968-2011” is out – exists in the opposite extreme. There is little smoothness in it at all. His biography is hairier than a bonobo.
Feaver, a longtime art critic for The Observer in London, does not provide a solid portrait of Freud, the great realistic painter, but rather leads us into a studio full of crispy brushes, scrapers, half-finished canvases, easels, dirty floorboards, grinding sticks and distilled turpentine, and let poke our way through the detritus as if we were putting together a likeness for ourselves.
Some critics have noted that the jumbled, immediate quality of these biographies is more of a characteristic than a mistake. I tried to see it that way. Reading these chatty and overcrowded books is like scrolling through the microfilm: there aren’t great views, but there is neck pain and often enough, because Freud brought life up to his nose, fantastic “aha!” Moments.
Lucian, a grandson of Sigmund Freud, was born in Berlin in 1922. His father was an architect. Lucian’s family fled to England in 1933, not long after the Nazis took power. He was born with an extra toe on his little toe, which the family had removed to his disappointment. Later, a shark-like muzzle grew between his front teeth. That was also pulled out.
Freud briefly served as an ordinary seaman during World War II. He became a painter, writes Feaver, because “he always went around saying he was a painter” and “after a while he had to do something about it”. Then began a career in art and social climbing. His second wife was Caroline Blackwood, heir to the Guinness Fortune.
Sitting for one of Lucian’s portraits was no different than sitting on Sigmund’s couch. The meetings lasted months, if not years. One difference was that Lucian’s visitors usually undressed.
Lucian and his angry ID would have made an interesting case study for his grandfather. The artist was amoral: violent, selfish, vengeful, horny. He lived like a puddle-pounding toddler. If he wasn’t the devil, he was certainly the devil’s advocate.
Freud needed new lovers, just as a diabetic needs insulin. He trotted out for young women to paint and sleep, but he hardly needed it. They came to him. He was handsome and a genius and, as one of his lovers put it, offered the lure of studio life: “Champagne there on dirty floorboards”. Getting painted by Freud was increasingly a shot at cultural permanence.
Freud painted slowly by accretion. Feaver’s Life by Freud is put together similarly. The author, a gifted critic, knew Freud well over the last few decades of his life and they spoke frequently on the phone. It is possible that Feaver had too much access to his subject. He quotes Freud too freely and too extensively on almost every subject.
Recognition…I am gold
The reader nods when Freud comments deep in Volume 2: “Many of the things I say have a half-incomprehensible side.” They wish you could cover him like a parrot when you want him to be silent.
In “Fame, 1968-2011” Freud finally got major exhibitions. The prices of his paintings rose. Feaver describes Freud’s relationship with his great friend-enemy, Francis Bacon. They went into overdrive in terms of eccentricity.
Freud rarely painted celebrities, but he did portray the Queen and Kate Moss. (Feaver doesn’t mention the tattoo Freud gave Moss: two tiny swallows at the base of her back.) When model Jerry Hall missed a few sessions, Freud painted them from a portrait. He was an eccentric player. “Gambling has to be everything,” he said. “It has to change the balance of life.” He once paid off a debt by painting a bookie.
Freud was not a family man. He was not close to his brothers (they are barely mentioned in Volume 2), but he painted a series of portraits of his mother in over a thousand four-hour sessions. Feaver calls these sessions “arguably the longest time a mother’s painter’s son has ever spent with a painter’s mother.”
The family invades when Freud’s legitimate and illegitimate children begin to crawl off the woodwork. He had at least 14 offspring that he recognized as his own. He called himself “one of the great absent fathers of the time”. Soon there will also be grandchildren. Freud did not hug much, but his descendants could win him over for money.
Many got to know him while sitting for portraits. He painted his daughters naked. “You please me to paint them,” he said. “My naked daughters have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Freud had a common word for everyone. He put the knife in white and it came out red. A typical comment in this volume about an aunt is, “She was really very angry, in a little way. Her expertise was opening letters. Other people. “If he didn’t like you, he would cut you out of his life like cancer. You can always tell a monster: He’s wearing scarves inside.
He had a powerful work ethic and made paintings almost to the end. He lived in the imperative tense and hardly slowed down. He was at the center of his own self-importance. As in most lives, there wasn’t a huge gap between carelessness and carrion.
Can you pick up volume two of this biography if you haven’t read volume one? Feaver seems to suspect the answer is no. He doesn’t always make the effort to reintroduce people or topics. If “Clement” suddenly appears in Volume 2 with no surname, does every reader know that this is Clement Freud, Lucian’s estranged brother?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. There is a feeling that almost anywhere in these books one could skip three or four pages and not miss anything crucial.
Everyone has an opinion on Freud’s art, and nobody is exactly wrong. I tend to coordinate what Feaver seems to be with Robert Hughes, who in 1987 claimed that Freud was “the greatest realistic painter alive”. He made the usual gravid and sublime.