Radical Figures: the reinvention of figurative art in post-war Britain

Girls Head in Profile with Cap on, 1963-64

Euan Uglow, Girl’s Head in Profile with Cap On, 1963-64

The other day I spent an absorbing afternoon in Manchester Art Gallery, looking at Grayson Perry’s wonderful tapestries (The Vanity of Small Differences) and an exhibition curated by Jeremy Deller, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air in which he takes a personal look at the impact of the Industrial Revolution on British popular culture, and its persisting influence on our lives today.

But first, I spent some time viewing Radical Figures, a display that explores the pioneering role that painters such as Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and David Hockney played in the reinvention of figurative art in Britain in the post-war decades.

Francis Bacon, Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1951

Francis Bacon, Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1951

This was a period in which radical work in British art tended to be influenced by the modern art of  New York – especially abstraction and Pop Art.  But alongside such boundary-breaking painting, there was another current in art pioneered by a group of loosely associated artists who later were labelled The School of London.

These artists shared a firm belief that they could find new ways to create realist paintings and reinvent the representation of the human figure to make it relevant in the modern world. These figurative painters studied the art of the Renaissance and of Impressionism, whilst their work also had origins in pre-War British art: in the painting of Walter Sickert, David Bomberg and the realists of the Euston Road School.

By the 1970s and 1980s the work of these artists had begun to be recognised as amongst the most important British art of its time. This undeclared group included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews, Euan Uglow and the more Pop Art-associated David Hockney. As the introduction to the display puts it:

Between them they found new ways of looking intensely at the world around them; to combine in paint what they saw, with what they felt.

Head VI. Francis Bacon (1948)

Francis Bacon, Head VI, 1948

I’m no fan of Francis Bacon, but there are two arresting works here that I appreciated. There is, without doubt, intensity and feeling in Head VI, painted in 1948. It is, quite simply, a painting of a scream.

Bacon and Lucian Freud were close friends, and in 1951 Freud was invited to sit for his first portrait by Bacon. This in its itself was unusual, as Bacon usually preferred working from secondary media, such as photographs.  In fact, Freud quickly discovered this to be the case. When he returned to Bacon’s studio for a second sitting, he found that in his absence the portrait had changed completely since he had last seen it. Bacon had continued, working from memory and, at the same time, incorporating elements from a photo of Kafka leaning against a pillar which Freud noticed among the debris littering the floor of Bacon’s studio.

The 1951 portrait was one of several that Bacon made of Freud over the next decade.  Freud returned the compliment, but only made two portraits of Bacon.  The first (below) was made in 1952 and, although it looks like an etching, is actually oil paint on metal. Bought by the Tate, the painting disappeared in 1988 while on loan to a gallery in Berlin.  Freud painted another portrait in 1956-57 that, as with the earlier portrait, shows Bacon with a downward gaze. Bacon sat knee-to-knee with Freud while he worked on the portraits, and during the three months of sittings for the first work, he is said to have ‘grumbled but sat consistently’.

Francis Bacon 1952 by Lucian Freud

Francis Bacon, 1952 by Lucian Freud

There is a wonderful portrait by Lucian Freud in the exhibition – Girl with Beret, made in 1951-2.  It’s from the early period of his portraiture that is distinguished by fine brushwork and the jewel-like intensity of paintings from the Northern Renaissance which Freud studied intently in the National Gallery at this time.  Freud’s portraits usually involved over 150 hours of sitting – and some have suggested it is this which gives the sitter here such a haunted appearance.  The critic John Russell described Freud’s technique as ‘a particular kind of scrutiny which involves a long, slow stalking of the thing seen’.

Girl with Beret, Lucian Freud, 1951-2

Lucian Freud, Girl with Beret, 1951-2

Frank Auerbach – who is represented here by the urban landscape, Euston Steps and a portrait of his lover, E.O.W (Stella West) – had been taught by David Bomberg, whose influence led Auerbach to execute his work in hugely thick paint (impasto).

Frank Auerbach, Euston Steps, 1980-81

Frank Auerbach, Euston Steps, 1980-81

The portrait of E.O.W. led the critic David Sylvester to remark in 1956: ‘In this clotted heap of muck there has somehow been preserved the precious fluidity and the pliancy proper to paint’.

Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W, charcoal on paper, 1956

Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W, charcoal on paper, 1956

Euan Uglow is represented here by two paintings – Girl’s Head in Profile with Cap On (top) and The Quarry,  Pignano (1979), a nude that Catherine Lampert has described as ‘a masterpiece that circumvents the question of the relationship between artist and model’.  The explanation for the curious title is that, longing to be abroad in the summer of 1979, Uglow remembered a steep-walled quarry near Pignano outside Volterra.  He created an artificial recess that meant the model’s face was hidden from view.

The-Quarry-Pignano

Euan Uglow, The Quarry,  Pignano, 1979

Uglow’s intention was that the eyes of the viewer could wander over the woman’s forms just as a local person might stare at the boulders in the quarry.  ‘I didn’t want that psychological thing of somebody trying to look to see what kind of person it was – you are supposed to be able to roam over these hills, the green is supposed to be the trees, the blue is supposed to be sky, glittering through the trees.’

Four People Sunbathing, 1955, Michael Andrews

Michael Andrews, Four People Sunbathing, 1955

Michael Andrews spent three years studying at the Slade School of Art in London in the 1940s, where his contemporaries included Craigie Aitchison, Paula Rego and Euan Uglow.  He quickly gained a reputation as one of the most promising painters of his generation. I can’t remember where I saw it (probably at Tate Modern), but A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over, 1952 (not in this display) is a painting I have relished: it reveals the artist’s fascination with human behaviour and is typical of paintings by him which show individuals struggling to maintain their composure in trying situations: overdressed and out of place on the beach, or falling down in the street.

A Man who Suddenly Fell Over 1952 by Michael Andrews

Michael Andrews, A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over, 1952

Certainly, the figures in Four People Sunbathing, unclothed or in swimming trunks, appear awkward and ill at ease, pale townies not really enjoying the afternoon in the open air. In the dazzling light there’s an oppressive feeling on this summer afternoon which seems to have paralysed all activity.

David Hockney, Peter C, 1961

While at the Royal College of Art in the early 1960s, David Hockney had an requited crush on Peter Crutch, a fellow student. Such feelings could not be openly admitted in the context of the law and social climate of the time. Hockney has painted Peter wearing fashionable drainpipe trousers and a skinny tie. The full length portrait is painted in a child-like style with an oversized head and long, thin legs, one leg unfinished. Peter has a red heart on his jacket and the background is plain with the inscription: ‘PETER C’ in the top right-hand corner. In block capitals, the words ‘my friend’ can be seen beneath his hand, with ‘PETER’ repeated in the bottom left-hand corner. The words ‘who is the m’ trail off the right-hand side of the canvas. The piece is a tall narrow work consisting of two canvases joined together.

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Tracing the Century: arbitrary and puzzling, but with gems

Tracing the Century: arbitrary and puzzling, but with gems
Henry Moore, Pink and Green Sleepers, 1941
Henry Moore, Pink and Green Sleepers, 1941

Just before it closed, I went along to see Tracing the Century: Drawing as a Catalyst for Change at Tate Liverpool, an exhibition which aims to highlight the fundamental role of drawing as a vehicle for change in modern and contemporary artFor the average art-lover it’s a deeply puzzling assembly, not only of sketches and drawings but also paintings, sculpture and film; moreover, the curators have jarringly juxtaposed radically different artists from different perspectives and periods.

So we find Cezanne sharing a wall with Klee and Richard Hamilton.  Henry Moore’s brilliant London blitz drawings are paired for some reason that escapes me with contemporary artist Matthew Monahan, while a Moore sculpture shares a space with works by Francis Bacon, Jacob Beuys and Andy Warhol.  The poster advertising the exhibition features anatomical drawings by William Orpen that were really designed as teaching aids for art students, while the show gets its name from Jasper Johns’ ‘Tracing’, part of a series in which Johns literally traced art works by Cezanne and others  leading one art critic to write that, ‘any art student ought to know that a tracing of a painting isn’t a response or an interpretation’.

The exhibition got a fairly savage review in the Independent:
There seems to be a vogue among curators at the various Tates for trying to force connections between palpably unconnected works or genres. Maybe it’s a leftover from the whole Dream/Future/Multistorey Car Park thing at the pre-new-hang Tate Modern.  Anyway, it’s time to stop.  Like a provincial restaurant, Tracing the Century‘s menu talks the talk but doesn’t dish up the goods. It starts from the unsurprising premise that drawing was a catalyst for change in the art of the past 100 years, which is certainly true, although it was also true for the century before that and pretty well every century since the caves at Lascaux. […] Irritatingly, Tracing the Century manages to be both arbitrary and over-organised at the same time – rambling vaguely from room to room while stopping to suggest implausible connections between unlike artists.
However, this is a big show, bringing together around a hundred artworks from the Tate collection, so you’d expect there to be some good stuff.  I quickly decided to just focus on the works that spoke to me – and there were many – and forget about trying to grapple with the curators’ argument.
Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire,1905-6
Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1905-6

One of the first treasures I encountered was this watercolour sketch by Cezanne of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, his favourite subject from the late 1880s until his death. Cezanne returned, day after day to sketch it from different viewpoints and in changing light conditions and this watercolour was painted from the hillside above his studio at Les Lauves just outside Aix-en-Provence. The Tate caption explains its significance:

In his landscapes, he abandoned traditional fixed-point perspective in an attempt to capture the natural movement of the eye as it roams across the vista. The viewer is led across the surface of his image through passages of carefully constructed brush-marks and subtle tones.  Emile Bernard visited Cézanne in 1904 and noted his unique approach to sketching in watercolours: ‘His method was strange, entirely different from the usual practices and of an extreme complexity. He began with the shadows and with a touch, which he covered with a second more extensive touch, then with a third, until all these tints, forming a mesh, both coloured and modelled the object.’

Paul Gauguin, Tahitians, 1891
Paul Gauguin, Tahitians, 1891

Paul Gauguin’s Tahitians is hard to date exactly owing to its unfinished state, but most probably it was made about 1891 during Gauguin’s first stay in Tahiti. In its unfinished state, though, it reveals a great deal about Gauguin’s working methods.   He began his work in Tahiti by making a number of studies in order to come to terms with his new subject-matter. Here he is sketching out his ideas, beginning with a crayon and charcoal drawing on paper, and adding in detail on the left in oil.  On 11 March 1892 Gauguin wrote to Daniel de Monfreid: ‘I work more and more but so far only studies or rather documents … If they aren’t of use to me later they will be useful to others.’

Woman Seated in the Underground 1941
Henry Moore, Woman Seated in the Underground, 1941

I’m not going to complain about an exhibition that brings to your home town three of the drawings made by Henry Moore of Londoners sheltering from the blitz in 1941 in Belsize Park underground station.  The three drawings here – Pink and Green Sleepers (top), Woman Seated in the Underground (above) and Tube Shelter Perspective (below) – began as rough drawings that Moore made in the shelter that he developed once he reached home, using a range of techniques: wax crayon, watercolour wash, pencil, inks.

Tube Shelter Perspective 1941
Henry Moore, Tube Shelter Perspective, 1941

Moore uses a variety of techniques in this series: allowing wax crayon to dispel water-based paints or inks; scratching into paint and crayon with sharp objects; smudging materials; using thick impasto and thin washes; alternating fine wispy lines with heavy contours. The effect is more sculptural in texture than traditional drawing. The rough surfaces and scratchy lines bear a strong resemblance to Moore’s sculptures of reclining figures or natural forms such as weather-worn stone.  Which perhaps explains why, as soon as you enter the next room, you are confronted with his 1938 Recumbent Figure from 1938, dominating the room.

Henry Moore - Recumbent Figure 1938

Henry Moore was 42 and teaching at Chelsea Polytechnic when the Second World War began. At first, his life carried on as normal, though he was unable to work on his sculptures due to a scarcity of materials. One evening, he was delayed on his journey home from London and came upon the scenes that would provide him with these poignant images. When he arrived at his underground station, Belsize Park, he was transfixed by the sight of the sleeping figures of Londoners sheltering on the platform and along the underground passages.  He immediately made a connection with his own art:

I had never seen so many reclining figures and even the holes out of which the trains were coming seemed to me like the holes in my sculpture… people who were obvious strangers to one another were forming intimate groups.

Moore returned several times to make discrete sketches so as to avoid intrusion on the sleepers’ privacy. The sheltering forms seemed to evoke associations between the sleepers and forms in the landscape, unconsciously supporting the wartime propaganda message that the British people were an indomitable force which would prevail against all hostilities.

Warhol, Boy with thumb in his mouth, 1956
Andy Warhol, Boy with Thumb in his Mouth, 1956

Andy Warhol may be better known for his pop art screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and his soup cans, but early in his artistic career, in the early 1950s, he produced some exquisite drawings that revealed him to be a skilled and sensitive draughtsman.  Two of these drawings are on display here – Boy with Thumb in his Mouth and Resting Boy, from 1955-56 – which employ a superb economy of line, with all unnecessary detail removed.  Warhol’s work revealed a fascination with the male body throughout his career, a fascination first evident in his early line drawings of young men from the mid to late 1950s, many of which were included in his ‘Drawings for a Boy Book’ exhibition at the Bodley Gallery, New York in 1956. The style of these drawings show similarities to the work of Henri Matisse and Jean Cocteau, both of whom employed a similar reductive linear drawing technique, and whose work Warhol admired.  There’s a delicacy and tenderness in these drawings that sets them apart from the rest of his wiork.

Warhol, Resting Boy, 1955
Andy Warhol, Resting Boy, 1955

Alongside these two drawings hangs a later one  – a portrait of David Hockney completed in 1974.  There’s a connection here, of course: Hockney played an important role in the British Pop Art movement, and he, too, is a master of the art of line drawing. The Warhol portrait is a pencil line drawing in which the features and textures of Hockney’s hair and shirt have been reduced to abstract lines and shapes. But it is less satisfying than the 1950s drawings, almost certainly being completed by the process of projecting a photograph on to a large sheet of paper, where Warhol would then draw around the areas of the image he wished to define. When the projector was switched off, the drawing remained.

Andy Warhol, David Hockney, 1974
Andy Warhol, David Hockney, 1974

Tucked away in a small side room is David Hockney’s portrait of his mother –  Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Mrs Laura Hockney, Bradford 1972 – drawn in pen in one session, without revisions.  It’s a gem.

 David Hockney, Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Mrs Laura Hockney, Bradford 1972
David Hockney, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Mrs Laura Hockney, Bradford 1972

In this line drawing, Hockney’s mother, sitting in a wing chair, is revealed as frail-looking with a lined face. Wearing a simple dress with short sleeves and a round neck, the figure sits with her hands neatly folded on her lap and her legs crossed. The chair is positioned squarely within the frame but the figure sits upright against the chair’s right-hand corner, which gives a three-quarter view of the sitter. The face is worked with more detail than the rest of the image. The drawing is inscribed ‘Bradford, Aug 2nd, 1972’.  Laura Hockney was then 72 years old, but as her obituary in The Guardian noted, she lived to be 99 years old, ‘deceptively frail-looking during most of the artist’s years of fame, she attended receptions in a wheelchair surrounded by gossip and laughs’. She was subject of many of Hockney’s drawings, paintings and photo-collages, and had encouraged her son in his artistic ambitions when he was a schoolboy.

 Lucian Freud, Narcissus, 1948
Lucian Freud, Narcissus, 1948

Here’s another remarkable drawing: Lucian Freud’s Narcissus, from 1948.  The subject is the boy in classical mythology who fell in love with his own reflection and died of love for himself.  I think it might be a self portrait of the artist obsessed by the details of his own face reflected in the glass below him.  The drawing deploys a variety of techniques:  the texture of the thick woollen sweater is minutely detailed in lines and cross-hatching.  His hair is drawn with quick, flowing pen lines, while the details of his face are marked by pen stipple. The edge of the mirror is close to the subject’s chin, creating a stark division of figure and reflection.  The Tate caption adds: ‘The reflection is cropped above the eyes which, had they been included, would have been looking upwards at the viewer. Instead, the subject is rendered a double object, enclosed in a circularised, interior world.’

Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar Seated, 1938
Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar Seated, 1938

Dora Maar was a a stunningly beautiful, passionate and acutely intelligent young woman, a painter, photographer and reporter, who became Picasso’s lover in 1935, and remained so through the war years. She was one of his most important models during that period and, perhaps as important, a great influence on his art and politics.

Picasso and Dora Maar, photographed by Man Ray, 1937
Picasso and Dora Maar, photographed by Man Ray, 1937

Shortly after their first meeting, in the winter of 1935-36, Dora photographed Picasso in her Paris studio. Dora’s photography and the experimental techniques she employed were a source of inspiration to Picasso. He began to take photographs of her that were the catalyst for a whole series of works. Using photographs of Dora as a starting point, Picasso painted several portraits of Maar.  This preparatory sketch, using ink, gouache and oil paint,shows Dora with her hands crossed elegantly in her lap.

Grayson Perry - Aspects of Myself
Grayson Perry – Aspects of Myself

Centre piece in another room is Grayson Perry’s ceramic vase Aspects of Myself which I suppose is present here because the surface of the vase is inscribed with writing and drawings that reflect key moments in his life or which address issues of identity, class, sexuality and gender that are central to Perry’s identity and sharply satirical view of society and the art world. Aspects of Myself is an autobiographical work showing the artist in the guise of his transvestite alter-ego ‘Claire’.  In an interview with The Art Newspaper in February 2012, the interviewer observed, ‘Another unusual aspect of your work is that it incorporates a lot of content, narrative scenes and often writing’.  Grayson Perry responded:

Oh, you’ve got to have content; I think it’s cowardly to avoid content. I judged a competition the other day and among the 700 works the number of wishy-washy semi-abstract paintings I saw was incredible. It was as though they wanted to make art, but didn’t want to say anything. I hate the aimless, apparently transcendent thing in sub-Rothkos: “Oh, this is all about spirituality.” Fuck off. Why isn’t it about your mother-in-law or poverty or war?

What is your content about?

Things that have interested me all my life: religion, kinky sex, class, taste, folk art – stuff like that.

Paul Nash, Three Rooms, 1937
Paul Nash, Three Rooms, 1937

There are a couple of Paul Nash works in the exhibition; one of them is Three Rooms from 1937, a  pencil, crayon and watercolour sketch on paper. The work reflects Nash’s renewed commitment to the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. It shows three interrelated rooms invaded by the sky, a forest and the sea. The air of strangeness and the combination of disparate elements is typical of much Surrealist painting and writing, but its mysterious symbolism also recalls the work of William Blake.

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Man with a Blue Scarf: conversation, silence and time

Man with a Blue Scarf: conversation, silence and time

I’ve been reading Martin Gayford’s account of having his portrait painted by Lucian Freud – Man with a Blue Scarf.  Gayford – whose previous book, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney I described in an earlier post as one of the best books on art that I have read – has done it again, this time telling of the 40 times he sat for Lucian Freud between November 2003 and July 2004. The result was the portrait ‘Man with a Blue Scarf’ that I saw earlier this year when it was included in Lucian Freud: Portraits, the major retrospective of Freud’s life’s work as a portraitist.

For the lay reader, Gayford has an easy, accessible style, free from the obfuscations of much art world discourse.  Naturally, Gayford is interested in Freud’s method of tackling a portrait (which is highly unusual) and in what it feels like to sit for a portrait over an extended period of time.  But, like the Hockney book, this becomes a sustained reflection on the art of painting by both artist and interlocutor, a record of their conversations and the writer’s inner thought.  The book provides a unique and fascinating insight into the working habits of a great painter of the human form in all its boundless variety.

Gayford, an art critic and writer, had known Freud for several years when one afternoon, over a cup of tea, he tentatively suggested that Freud might like to paint him:

After years of writing, talking and thinking about art, I was attracted by the prospect of watching a painting grow; being on the inside of the process. Even so, when I made that modest proposal, I didn’t really expect LF to accept. Probably, I thought he would say something politely noncommittal along the lines of, ‘That’s a nice idea, perhaps one day.’ Instead, he responded by saying, ‘Could you manage an evening next week?’

This was how it began: the intense experience – ‘somewhere between transcendental meditation and a visit to the barber’s’ – of turning up at Freud’s studio, posing for several hours, and going out for a meal afterwards (one of the rituals of sitting for Freud was to be taken for a meal). What follows is a kind of journal, each entry dated, of the sessions in which the portrait grew.

There are observations of Freud’s painting technique, about what it’s like to sit for a portrait and worry whether it will turn out looking like you too much or too little – and whether Freud might decide (as he sometimes did) that the painting is going nowhere and abandon it.  What makes the book so interesting and worthwhile is that, although there were periods of silent intensity, for much of the time conversation flourished and we learn a great deal about Freud’s likes and dislikes in art (‘the awful Mona Lisa‘; Gabriel Rossetti ‘the nearest painting can get to bad breath’) and exchanges of opinion between Freud and Gayford about writers and painters.

Their conversation embraces reminiscences about the rich variety of people Freud had known: from Greta Garbo to Auden and Picasso, the Kray twins (and their even more terrifying associate Eddie the Killer who committed entirely motiveless murders: Freud thought about painting him, but decided against it after Eddie said to him, ‘You’re a strange bloke, Lu.  You never tell me where you live’).  There are plenty more entertaining anecdotes, like the one about Freud having to step in when Francis Bacon drunkenly heckled Princess Margaret while she sang, accompanied on piano by Noël Coward.

This is the first entry in Gayford’s journal, dated 28 November 2003, 6.30 pm:

Lucian Freud indicates a low leather chair and I sit down.  “Does that pose seem reasonably natural?” he asks, “I try to impose my ideas on my sitters as little as possible”. It’s a cold late autumn day and, I am wearing a tweed jacket and a royal blue scarf. Perhaps, I suggest I could keep the scarf on for the picture.

LF agrees, but on certain points it soon turns out his will is law. I had thought that perhaps I could read while sitting, and had brought a book along with me, but no. “I don’t think I’m going to allow you to do that. I already see other possibilities.” He must have registered them almost instantly.

At this point LF makes chalk marks on the floor boards around the legs of the chair so that each time I come to the studio, we can replace it in precisely the same position with reference to the overhead light and his easel. Behind, he positions a battered black folding screen: the backdrop to my head.

Then he searches around for a suitably-sized canvas amongst the various ones leaning against the studio wall. The first he finds is discarded as it has a dent, which he says would sooner or later cause the paint to flake off. Then LF fishes another out of the corner and sets to work immediately, drawing in charcoal.

So it begins. This is how hour after hour will be spent, stretching for months into the future. Sitting in a pool of light in the dark studio, I start to muse and observe.

I have long been convinced that Freud is the real thing: a truly great painter living among us. When one afternoon over tea I – very tentatively – mentioned to him that if he wanted to paint me I would be able to find the time to sit, my motive was partly the standard one of portrait sitters: an assertion of my own existence. For various reasons, I was feeling rather down and being painted by Freud seemed a good way to push back against circumstances.

The other reason was a curiosity to see how it was done. After years of writing, talking and thinking about art, I was attracted by the prospect of watching a painting grow; being on the inside of the process. Even so, when I made that modest proposal, I didn’t really expect him to accept. Probably, I thought, Freud would say something politely non-committal on the lines of “That’s a nice idea, perhaps one day”. Instead, he responded by saying, “Could you manage an evening next week?”

I had known him for quite some time before that day, getting on for a decade. We had talked for many hours as friends, and as artist and critic. I had eaten innumerable meals in his company; together we had visited exhibitions and listened to jazz concerts. Dozens of times I had visited his studios, to look at recently finished pictures and work in progress. This, however, was different. This time, I was not looking at the picture, but being it – or at least its starting-point.

Gayford observes closely how Freud works: the way he has of seeming to dance as he works, muttering to himself, moving towards the application of a stroke of paint, and then pulling back like a horse rearing at his own looming shadow.   He notes how Freud doesn’t,begin the portrait with an outline of the face. He begins where he begins, almost randomly, with a little dab of detail on the canvas. Then, little by little, it widens out, but not in any predictable way. Gayford is fascinating by this modus operandi: it’s as if Freud is making it up as he goes along.

Freud has no clearer idea than Gayford whether the sittings will continue for weeks, months or a year. ‘Each painting,’ he says, ‘is an exploration into unknown territory’.  Gayford sometimes notices with alarm how his portrait seems to stand still, or even go backwards, while at other times it evolves quickly, changing in min­ute, subtle ways:

For several sittings the portrait has not seemed to change very much, although it has been constantly strengthening and adjusting.  At the end of the last session my mouth suddenly appeared, if only as a thin red line.  This was an indication that Lucian was ready to move down from the frontier – roughly across my face from my upper lip – at which work had halted a couple of weeks before, like an army held up in its advance.

Now , at last, things do move onwards.  My whole mouth appears and, to my surprise, seems almost to be smiling – a very unusual expression for a Freud sitter.  This image, as it gradually appears, is becoming a sort of alter ego.  It is also a revelation of how LF sees me, or to be more precise, what possibilities he sees in me to make a picture.

Gayford muses whether human identity can ever be fixed in a single image. In the end, his portrait  is a kind of synthesis of his myriad facial expressions, as well as – to his dismay – of more obvious signs of ageing, every muscular twitch or centimetre of sagging flesh scrutinised, remembered and re-created in paint by the sharp-eyed Freud.

Even in the short-term, painting is always a matter of memory.  LF looks very closely at me, making a measuring gesture, then he turns to the canvas and puts in a mark – or, just as possibly, stops at the last moment, reconsiders and observes   again.  Sometimes he wipes out what he has done with a piece of cotton wool or cloth. There is an interval, however short, between the observation and the act of painting, then another pause for consideration. During that time, the  original sight has been passed through LF’s eyes, nervous system and mind, then he has contemplated in relation to all  the other notations he has made. This process is repeated hundreds, indeed thousands, of times. Thus a painted image, certainly one by LF, is different in nature from an instantaneous image such as a photograph. David Hockney puts it like this: the painting of him by LF has over a hundred hours ‘layered into it’ and with them innumerable visual sensations and thoughts.

David and Eli (work in progress), 2003

I once devoted a post to Lucian Freud’s portraits of dogs, so I was interested to read about the discussions that took place between Gayford and Freud on the subject of animals. In one entry, Gayford observes:

LF has a conception of life that embraces the human and the animal as aspects of the same thing.  ‘When I’m painting people in clothes I’m always thinking very much of naked people, or animals dressed.’  Some of his most memorable pictures are of people and animals – generally their owners – together: Girl With a White Dog (1950-51), Guy and Speck (1980-81).  In Double Portrait (1985-6) paws and hands, whippet legs and forearms, doggy and female noses are juxtaposed in an intimate mesh, giving a powerful sense of shared existence.

While Freud was painting Gayford’s portrait, in another studio he was also working on a painting of his assistant David Dawson lying naked on a bed with his dog Eli.  They have several conversations about animals, and Gayford notes that, while Freud is extremely interested in animals, ‘it would not be quite accurate to call him an animal lover’.  It’s more a question of Freud having strong reactions to distinct animal personalities (just as he had to humans).

For horses he has a deep affinity, but cats, for example he finds irritating.  ‘I don’t like their chichi affected air of independence, nor the way that they come and sit on your lap with an air of “Now you may stroke me”.’

Dogs he has often depicted, and owned.  The late Pluto was a sitter for a number of works over the years, both paintings and etchings, with and without human companions.  Now Eli, David Dawson’s dog – a relation of Pluto’s – is an equally frequent model.

A year before the sittings, Freud had painted small picture depicting the patch of his back garden where Pluto is buried – a few leaves, the little wooden grave marker that David Dawson painted Pluto’s name on: ‘I was rather excited by that painting because it’s almost of absolutely nothing, so how the actual paint went down has just never been as important.’

Pluto’s Grave, 2003

During a conversation about human ageing, Gayford recalls the etching which Freud made of Pluto when the dog was old, arthritic, losing its sight and close to death. Freud added a hand, almost disembodied like the hand of God in medieval art, because he felt the creature needed company.

Pluto Aged Twelve, 2000

The book will be especially valued for Gayford’s fascinating observations of the way that Freud went about his craft.  So, for instance, on 3 December 2003 he writes:

LF has worked standing up since a moment in Paris in the 1950s, before which he always sat down.  This makes his  working procedure, which may involve three sittings a day and as much as ten hours’ work, quite an arduous one for a man of very nearly eighty-one (his birthday is in five days’ time, on the eighth). LF makes green tea and we talk for a while, then we go upstairs to the studio and the sitting begins.

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 ofold 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.

These rags are another element in the arrangement of the studio. They lie around in piles in the corners of the room. In a couple of paintings of a decade and a half ago, two nudes of the same model entitled Standing by the Rags (1988-89) and Lying by the Rags (1989-90), they are an important part of the visual architecture, billowing like the clouds in a scene of saints in heaven by Titian or Veronese, but real. When LF lived in Paddington, at one point he lodged above a  rag-and-bone shop, ‘and I discovered the rags were of great use to me’. They’ve been part of his equipment, and the  furnishings ofhis studios, ever since.

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. […]  The effect of the paint-smeared interior is very much like certain kinds ofabstract 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.

Outside the studio, up and down the stairs, little patches and speckles of stray pigment also proliferate 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. ‘Sometimes someone goes to the bathroomupstairs, and I quite like the way they leave traces.’

There is a great deal more in this fascinating and entertaining book.  The index includes an entry, which may be unique in the history of indexing, for ‘eggs, personalities of’, that refers back to a conversation about a still-life by Freud of some eggs. Freud said that painting it he ‘discovered that on close examination each showed distinct personal traits’.

On 4 July 2004 Man With a Blue Scarf is finished and Gayford writes that it is, in part

A painting of my own fascination with the whole process of being painted.  I see that intensity of interest in the picture.  It’s me looking at him looking at me. […] There are many elements caught in this image: time, passing moods, feelings.  It’s a record of all those hours of conversation, and of just silently being together in this room.

But it’s not quite over: ‘After a gap of a month, and a holiday, we began all over again on an etching.  But it was not the same …’

Portrait Head, as the etching came to be called, turned out to be a very different kind of portrait revealing Gayford contemplative and tense, whereas the painting ‘was a social portrait – me looking outwards, engaged with my surroundings’.

In July 2011, six years after the final sitting and two years since Gayford wrote the final words of this book, Lucian Freud died. For this 2012 paperback edition, Gayford adds an Afterword which includes this eulogy for the artist:

His had been an epic life, full of achievement. I shall miss him – his wit, his presence, his intelligence – tremendously. But because he was an artist, and an extraordinary one, quite a lot of his thought and his feelings survive, embedded in his paintings. I continue to think about them, and particularly – of course – the two he made of me.

Martin Gayford’s portrait was one of those exhibited earlier this year in the National Portrait Gallery’s tremendous show, Lucian Freud: Portraits.  It was displayed next to the portrait of Andrew Parker Bowles titled The Brigadier, which Freud had just finished when he began Gayford’s portrait,  and opposite Freud’s portrait of David Hockney, whose conversations with Gayford are recorded in his book A Bigger Message.

See also

Lucian Freud Portraits: Painted Life

Lucian Freud Portraits: Painted Life

The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone
Bob Dylan

It was to be his last painting. As always, in his inimitable style, after a cursory charcoal sketch he went straight to paint, working from the centre of the canvas outwards.  It was a double portrait, another of the many that he had painted of his assistant David Dawson and his whippet Eli.  By the early summer he had finished the man and was working on the dog.  He continued to work on the dog until he was too frail to carry on.  When he died in July the canvas was still on his easel, unfinished.

Portrait of the Hound (unfinished), 2011
Portrait of the Hound (unfinished), 2011

The encounter with  ‘Portrait of the Hound’, the last painting in Lucian Freud: Portraits, the major retrospective of the artist’s life’s work as a portraitist, is an emotional moment.  To see those final brushstrokes giving form to the dog before they fade out to white was, for me, an intensely moving experience.

Before he died at the age of 88 last summer, Lucian Freud was working closely with the National Portrait Gallery planning the shape of this exhibition that comprises 130 paintings, drawings and etchings, and was not intended to be a memorial.  Still, that is what it has become.  It’s beautifully presented in pristine, spacious rooms with no caption clutter (everyone receives a little handbook with all the info – other galleries please note).

Two days before seeing the exhibition we had watched Randall Wright’s superb documentary Lucian Freud: Painted Life on BBC 2 that  included the only video ever made of Freud painting – which just happened to be that final day at work on ‘Portrait of the Hound’.  The sequence provided an extraordinary insight into the physicality of his technique:  the intense concentration, the muttering and the scraping of paint hardening on the palette, flinging away gobs of the stuff to splatter on the wall that looked as if Pollock had passed by.

The film went on to explore Freud’s remarkable life and work through frank recollections by friends and family members of a man who lived by his own rule and kept his private life as mysterious as possible, and who was totally uninterested in what others might feel about his behaviour or remarks.

All my patience has gone into my work, leaving none for my life.

There was ‘a disturbing intensity’ in the man and his work – and it was present right from the start.  Arriving in England with his parents, refugees from Berlin fleeing Nazi persecution, Lucian and his brothers were sent to Dartington Hall, the liberal boarding school in Devon, where he found nothing to interest him in the classroom.  Instead he single-mindedly pursued his intense love of art and of animals, especially horses, spending his whole time painting, looking after horses, and sleeping with them in the stables. Later moved to the more disciplined Bryanston, he made little academic progress, and was eventually expelled.

Lucian Freud and horse by David Dawson
Lucian Freud and horse by David Dawson

Lucian loved the horses – as was evinced by a startling anecdote recounted in the film by the man who became Freud’s dealer from the 1980s, William Acquavella.  After agreeing that Acquavella would represent his interests worldwide, Freud asked just one thing of the dealer: ‘I have a gambling debt: would you take care of it for me?’  Acquavella  says ‘sure, no problem’.  So he met with the bookie and said he’d like tp pay off the debt’.  The bookie says, ‘that’s wonderful, Bill; it’s £2.7 million’.

Randall Wright’s film profiled a complex man who dedicated his life to his art and who always sought to transmute paint into a vibrant living representation of humanity.  As Laura Cummings expresses it in her review of the exhibition, ‘the naked animal, unidealised and depicted with extreme concentration on physical essence: that long ago came to look like Freud’s grand contribution to 20th-century painting’.  Or, as Freud himself pithily put it:

I am inclined to think of ‘humans’…if they’re dressed, as animals dressed up.

The paintings here demonstrate the unrelenting observational intensity of his work. The exhibition spans seven decades
and is arranged broadly chronologically, beginning with his early explorations of the portrait. Freud was almost totally preoccupied with the human face and figure. Family, friends and lovers were his subjects, but sitters were also drawn from all walks of life – from the aristocracy to the criminal underworld – though he rarely took on commissions. He also produced, as the decades passed, a succession of self-portraits that rival those of Rembrandt for the intensity and honesty of their gaze.

Man With A Feather (Self Portrait) 1943
Man With A Feather (Self Portrait) 1943

‘Man With A Feather’ is the earliest self-portrait in the exhibition.  In this surreal painting, Freud depicts himself
holding a feather. On the ground behind him there are several mysterious shapes, and in the background we see shadowy figures of a beaked bird and a man wearing a hat. Freud did not reveal what they represented.

In contrast, ‘Self-Portrait, Reflection’, the most recent self portrait in the exhibition, is a quiet, reflective painting of the artist as an old man. Freud wears a jacket, but no shirt. He clutches at his scarf as though it is a noose around his neck. What is remarkable is the way he has depicted his head using impasto, building up the layers of pigment until he seems to disappear into the paint-encrusted wall behind him.

Reflection (Self-Portrait), 2002
Reflection (Self-Portrait), 2002
Girl with a Kitten 1947
Girl with a Kitten 1947

In ‘Girl with a White Dog’,1950-1, Kitty sits on a bare mattress, pressed up against the wall with a grey blanket for a backdrop. Her exposed breast is echoed in the form of the English bull terrier’s muzzle in her lap. The couple separated not long after the painting was completed.

Girl with a White Dog, 1950-1
Girl with a White Dog, 1950-1

In the next room are two portraits of Freud’s second wife, Caroline Blackwood, which offer a profound study in psychological contrast. ‘Girl in Bed’ was painted after they eloped to Paris and were living at the Hôtel la Louisiane. Loving and gentle, it conveys Blackwood’s wide-eyed innocence, in stark contrast with the haunting, oppressive composition of his double portrait ‘Hotel Bedroom’, painted just two years later. The artist and his wife are in the same room but they appear to be entirely separate from each other.

Girl In Bed, 1952
Girl In Bed, 1952

‘Hotel Bedroom’ was the last painting Freud made sitting down at the easel. In the mid-1950s his style began to change: he began to move towards a more vigorous approach, influenced by his decision to begin painting standing up and to use coarse, hog’s hair brushes.

When I stood up I never sat down again’ ‘When I stood up I never sat down again.

Hotel Bedroom, 1954
Hotel Bedroom, 1954

One portrait representative of the shift in Freud’s style – as well as Freud’s ability to probe beneath the skin to reveal the interior being – is the portrait of George Dyer, Francis Bacon’s lover, made in 1965. Dyer looks down, a troubled expression on his face. While Bacon’s paintings depicted him as a turbulent character, Freud shows him to be a more vulnerable man. He paints his harelip and his broken nose. The redness of his exposed chest is made more intense by the blueness of his shirt. Dyer committed suicide in 1971.

Man in a Blue Shirt, 1965
Man in a Blue Shirt, 1965

I was struck, too, by ‘A Man and his Daughter’,  a painting of a man with livid scars on his face, but also a tender depiction of the close relationship between a father and daughter. They are painted as though they are one body, the girl with a long golden plait tied with a pure white bow, and her unblemished skin contrasting with that of her father. The man lived in a flat beneath Freud in the run-down part of Paddington where he had lived since the 1940s.

A Man and his Daughter, 1963-4
A Man and his Daughter, 1963-4

A little further on is a self-portrait that it also a wonderful portrait of a plant (Freud did those, occasionally, too, sometimes as a feature of the room in which a human portrait was painted, sometimes glimpsed through a window).  A spider plant dominates the foreground in ‘Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-portrait)’. Behind it, a mirror reflects the painter, his hand cupping his ear. Naked, he appears to be an extension of the leaf.

Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-Portrait), 1968
Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-Portrait), 1968

In the 1960s and 1970s, Freud continued to explore complex compositions like this, at the same time drawing back from the head to reveal the whole body, sometimes, as in the 1970 portrait of Harry Diamond, placed in the context of the artist’s studio and living space. Seen from a high viewpoint, light falls over the sitter making him look uncomfortable, as though he is unwillingly exposed to our scrutiny. He seems out of place, seated and fully dressed, with a bath and basin behind him, evidence that Freud was living and working in the same space. Freud had been a friend of Harry Diamond, a photographer and Soho habitué, since the 1950s. This is one of three portraits he made of him. Diamond found the experience of sitting for Freud diminishing, saying: ‘If someone is interested in getting your essence down on canvas, they are also drawing your essence out of you …’.  Although Freud said, of his portraits in general:

I work from people that interest me and that  I care about, in rooms that I live in and know.

Paddington Interior, Harry Diamond, 1970
Paddington Interior, Harry Diamond, 1970

It’s in this period that Freud’s brushstrokes become increasingly forceful, and the volume of paint on the canvas increases, so that it seems to almost shape the contours of skin or hair . In the portrait of the artist Frank Auerbach, his powerful forehead dominates the canvas. The two men had been friends since the mid-1950s, were great admirers of each other’s work and saw each other frequently. It was at the time he made this portrait that Freud began to use Cremnitz white, a dry lead-based pigment with a stiff consistency that goes some way to replicating the texture of flesh (later, as the EU was about to impose a ban, Freud bought up nearly all the UK’s stock). Auerbach once said of Freud’s work, ‘the subject is raw, not cooked to be more digestible as art …’, which sums it up pretty well.

Frank Auerbach, 1975-6
Frank Auerbach, 1975-6

The TV documentary explored Freud’s relationship with his mother, one that was fraught with tension and difficulties. Yet the portraits that Freud painted of his mother, Lucie, in the 1970s are among his most tender. They form a series that are in the long tradition of artists’ portraits of their mothers from Rembrandt to Van Gogh and on to Hockney. They are intensely moving paintings and a sensitive study of old age.

The Painter's Mother, 1972
The Painter’s Mother, 1972
The Painter's Mother Reading, 1975
The Painter’s Mother Reading, 1975

Following the death of  her husband Ernst in 1970, Lucie’s grief  brought on a deep depression and her previously overpowering interest in Lucian diminished. Freud now found it was possible for her to sit for him. Over a period of seven years, by painting her, Freud was able, as Hockney put in the TV film, to be with his mother without actually saying anything.

The Painter's Mother Resting, 1976
The Painter’s Mother Resting, 1976

The only time he did not paint her alone was in ‘Large Interior, W9’, a double portrait in which two women appear oblivious to each other’s presence (they were painted separately and never met during sittings).  They are opposites: youth and age; clothed and naked.  The nude – Freud’s lover Jacquetta Eliot – is strangely enlarged in relation to the small bed and to the shrunken, oblivious figure of his mother, painted with affection and dignity.  With the pestle and mortar underneath her chair, this is a strange and unsettling painting.

Large Interior, London W9. 1973
Large Interior, London W9. 1973

In 1977, Freud moved to a more spacious studio in west London, where he installed a skylight to provide stronger light. Enjoying the freedom to paint on a larger scale, he made three ambitious works, opening out the composition to reveal the surroundings in which the subjects sit and the cityscape beyond the room. ‘Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau)’ was the most complex composition Freud had attempted. He gathered together people who were close to him to create a
group portrait based on Jean-Antoine Watteau’s, ‘Pierrot Contente’ (1712).

Large Interior W11 (after Watteau), 1983
Large Interior W11 (after Watteau), 1983

Freud said that this painting was ambitious, ‘because it is large, and because I had to gather family’.  The family here consists of his daughter Bella, his lover Celia Paul, his ex-lover Suzy Boyt, and her son Kai – the only one of her five children who was not Freud’s – cast as the modern Pierrot.  ‘He’s the subject, not Suzy, not Bella, certainly not Celia’, said Freud. ‘I’m the connection. The link is me’.

‘Two Irishmen in W11’ combines a portrait of a father and son with two small, unfinished self-portraits against the studio wall, and a portrait of west London seen through the window.

Two Irishmen in W11. 1984-85
Two Irishmen in W11. 1984-85

Celia Paul, who was Lucian Freud’s pupil, mistress, and model during the 1980s, appears in several paintings in the exhibition. In ‘Painter and Model’ from 1986-7, she is the artist – as in real life, but without a canvas and easel. It’s an allegory of painting with the traditional roles reversed.  In the act of painting a male nude, the female artist’s naked foot suggestively squeezes a tube of paint.

Painter and Model, 1987
Painter and Model, 1987

In 1990, Freud met the Australian performance artist, Leigh Bowery and invited him to sit. Bowery chose to sit for Freud naked, without the trappings of the outrageous costumes and body piercings for which he was known. Freud said of Bowery, ‘he was a remarkable model because he was so intelligent, instinctive and inventive, also amazingly perverse and abandoned’.  Despite his size, Leigh Bowery was delicate and supple. Freud had always shunned working with professional models, but as a performer, Bowery was able to invent and sustain demanding poses.

Leigh Bowery (Seated) 1990
Leigh Bowery (Seated) 1990

‘And the Bridegroom’ (the title taken from the poem ‘Epithalamium’ by A.E. Housman) is a relaxed and moving portrait of Bowery with his wife,  Nicola. For four years Bowery was Freud’s most consistent model and the two men developed a close relationship. Unknown to  the artist, Bowery was gravely ill with AIDS.

And the Bridegroom, 1993
And the Bridegroom, 1993

It was Leigh Bowery who introduced Freud to Sue Tilley, a clubbing friend known as ‘Big Sue’.  Painting her was a continuation of Freud’s fascination with flesh, although he talked about not wanting to over indulge his ‘predilection towards people of unusual or strange proportions’.  ‘Benefits supervisor’ came to be one of Freud’s best known paintings (and, at $33.6 million the most expensive). As the exhibition guide puts it:

Sue Tilley lies languidly on the sofa in a bohemian artist’s  studio, far removed from her day job as a civil servant working for the Department of Social Security. Freud was initially fascinated by her size, however as time passed her proportions became more ordinary to him. Freud’s portraits of Tilley are a celebration of flesh and as feminine as Manet’s Olympia or the Rokeby Venus by Velázquez, although far less idealised.

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995
Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995

Freud used hotel linen as rags to clean his brushes and palette knives, and thepiles of rags appear in several paintings. They came to suggest the landscape of the studio, and provided a compositional device. In ‘Standing by the Rags’ we can almost feel the weight of the woman’s body against the tangled pile of rags. Her over-sized feet root her to the ground. Beneath the mounds of soft linen, a makeshift structure supports the pose.

Standing By the Rags', 1988-89
Standing By the Rags’, 1988-89

The last rooms of the exhibition review the last twenty years of Freud’s life and include paintings of his assistant, David Dawson, members of his family and a series of intensely observed heads and figure paintings, some seen here for the
first time.  Freud in his eighties was as energetic as ever and painted every day, making rigorous demands on his sitters. David Hockney calculated that this portrait took 130 hours to complete. Early each morning he would walk from his house in Kensington to Freud’s studio in Holland Park, where he would sit until about midday. While Freud paused to mix paints the two men would talk: their subjects ranged from painting to gossip about mutual friends and acquaintances. When Hockney asked his friend to return the favour, and pose for a portrait, Freud sat for two and a half hours.

David Hockney, 2002
David Hockney, 2002

In many of his human portraits, Freud included a dog, often one of his beloved whippets, painted in the same style as his paints his human models, and afforded the same importance in the composition. My favourite example is Double Portrait  of  1985 (not in this exhibition). I love way that human and animal limbs entwine and echo each other.

Lucian Freud: Double Portrait 1985-1986
Lucian Freud: Double Portrait 1985-1986

Freud’s constant model and companion in his final years was the painter, David Dawson, his assistant since 1990. Freud’s recurrent theme of the complicity between the human and the animal is evident in the paintings of  Dawson with the whippets, Pluto and Eli (see Lucian Freud: Dogged Portraitist).  If any painting reveals the playfulness in Freud’s work, it is ‘Sunny Morning – Eight Legs’, a portrait of David Dawson and Freud’s whippet Pluto. Dawson lies with his arm wrapped affectionately round the dog. Human and animal are intertwined. It was as he was working on the painting that Freud realised there was something missing from the composition. He decided to incorporate a mirror image of Dawson’s
legs coming out from underneath the bed.

Sunny Morning-Eight Legs, 1997
Sunny Morning-Eight Legs, 1997

Dawson is an excellent photographer, too, and there is a small display of some of his images of the artist at work.

Freud painting Hockney by David Dawson
Freud painting Hockney by David Dawson
Lucian Freud Working at Night by David Dawson
Lucian Freud Working at Night by David Dawson
In the Stable by David Dawson
In the Stable by David Dawson

For the last four years of his life Freud worked on ‘Portrait of the Hound’, an affectionate double portrait of Dawson and Eli that forms the moving conclusion to this exhibition.  Dog and man are painted as equals; their bodies share the same rhythms. Unfinished at the artist’s death, the last brush strokes he made created Eli’s ear, alert and listening.

Freud's last painting, with Eli by David Dawson
Freud’s last painting, with Eli by David Dawson

See also

Two paintings, one near-forgotten Liverpool artist

Walking back from a hospital appointment this morning, I called in at the University’s Victoria Gallery to take another look at two of my favourite paintings currently out of storage and on display.  One is Lucian Freud’s portrait of Harry Diamond, Paddington Interior, painted in 1970, and the other, facing it on the adjacent wall, is Morning Interior by Dick Young, painted in 1957.

It’s fitting, I think, that these two paintings should be displayed within sight of each other: they are both fine, expressive works that have skilfully manipulated perspective to represent the context and the inner state of mind of the sitter.  One is by an artist who is recognised as perhaps the most important and influential artist of his generation; the other is by a Liverpool painter whose work is now largely forgotten.

Lucian Freud’s Paddington Interior, Harry Diamond (1970), is the most important 20th century painting in the University collection. Purchased in 1970 for £1,800, it has been extensively loaned around the world – I wonder if it will travel to the National Portrait Gallery for the big exhibition of Freud portraits, opening next month? Freud has played tricks with perspective here, foreshortening the view to squeeze the room furnishings into the top corners of the canvas and place the sitter dead centre.  It’s a portrait that sizzles with tension; everything about Diamond’s awkward posture – his clenched fists, and the sense that he is about to leap to his feet and storm out of the room – suggesting something strained in the relationship between sitter and artist.

Freud later recalled that Diamond was aggrieved at his earlier 1951 portrait of the photographer that’s in the Walker Art Gallery (the one with the cactus):  ‘He said I made his legs too short. The whole thing was that his legs were too short. He was aggressive as he had a bad time being brought up in the East End and being persecuted’.

Richard Young deserves a major retrospective.  He was born in Walton, Liverpool in 1921, the  the youngest son of Henry (an electrician) and Nelly Young. The family moved to London and then Newcastle where Richard became an apprentice ship’s electrician.  By 1945, Young had started painting, and attended classes and weekend schools with occasional distinguished visiting tutors.  When his father died in 1953, Richard returned with his mother to Walton, and soon became an established figure on the Liverpool arts scene, known to everyone as Dick.  By the late 1950s he was gaining recognition, with his first exhibition at the Liverpool Academy in 1955, followed two years later by having Morning Interior selected for the first John Moores exhibition.

Morning Interior is a portrait of the artist as a young man in a striped dressing gown enjoying a contemplative fag after Sunday breakfast, with his mother, Nelly, lying on the sofa, and a young woman reading the papers behind him.

The Victoria Gallery caption reads:

Young’s paintings are generally centred around the home, whether interiors or views from windows.  This work is at base level a self-portrait, the artist shown relaxing with a cigarette, wearing a stripey dressing gown.  To the left is a detailed still-life of a breakfast table.  In the background are further figures, one seated reading a paper, the other lying on a sofa.  Young has manipulated the viewing point of the picture, skilfully joining together various elements of the room to create a complete image.

You can read more about Dick Young, and see galleries of his paintings, on my blog, Dick Young: Legendary Liverpool denizen and artist.

See also

British Masters: A New Jerusalem

The final episode last night of  the BBC 4 series British Masters, presented by James Fox.  He must have been in the studio this weekend re-editing his voiceover since the programme –  about postwar British painting – was bookended by his assessment of the work of Lucian Freud, referred to in the past tense.  That was sadly appropriate, but as for the rest – Fox hadn’t lost his penchance, seen in parts one and two, for hyperbole and conservatism.  ‘Today’, he intoned, ‘our great British painting tradition is in peril’.

Lucian Freud, Girl with a Kitten, 1947

The argument that Fox presented was this: in the decades after the horror of the Holocaust, when many had lost their faith in humanity, British artists turned to the great British figurative painting tradition to address the question, what does it mean to be human?  He argued that in early portraits such as Girl with a Kitten, 1947 (above), Lucian Freud ‘articulated the anxiety of his age’.  Despite the circumstances of Freud’s relocation from Berlin to London in the 1930s, I  suspect this painting has more to say about his first marriage to Kitty Garman (the woman portrayed) than wider existential concerns.

Similarly, Fox suggested that Francis Bacon ‘stared deep into his own soul to explore the human capacity for evil’. But here, too, it’s arguable that Bacon’s paintings express more about a sense of loss and guilt arising from the relationship with George Dyer, his most important and constant companion and model, who committed suicide in 1971, just two days before the opening of Bacon’s major exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Graham Sutherland Thorn Tree (1945)
Graham Sutherland Thorn Tree (1945)

Much more convincing was the section on Graham Sutherland’s ‘thorn tree’ paintings made in Pembrokeshire in the immediate post-war period.  Sutherland experimented relentlessly with the motif of thorn trees, bushes and thorn heads (above), explaining:

About my thorn pictures: I had been thinking of the Crucifixion (I was about to attempt this subject), and my mind was preoccupied by the idea of thorns, and wounds made by thorns. In the country I began to notice thorn bushes and the structure of thorns, which pierced the air in all directions, their points establishing limits of aerial space. I made some drawings and in doing so a strange change took place. While preserving their normal life in space, the thorns rearranged themselves and became something else – a sort of paraphrase of the Crucifixion and the Crucified Head – the cruelty.

He began a series of ‘Thorn Head’ paintings in 1945 (below), initially inspired by the commission to paint a Crucifixion and by photographs of concentration camp victims from the recently ended Second World War.The thorns became a metaphor – for torture, the concentration camps, military hardware – for a ‘cruel and broken world in which nature and man was doomed to destroy itself’.

Graham Sutherland, Thorn Head, 1949
Graham Sutherland, Thorn Head, 1949

In his studies for the Crucifixion, commissioned in 1945 for the church of St. Matthew in Northampton (below), Sutherland became intrigued by the notion of Christ’s crown of thorns and began to incorporate the natural forms he encountered along the Pembrokeshire coast, abstracting them to give his work a surrealist appearance. His artistic inclinations lay more in the spiritual aspects of nature rather than religion but when he was commissioned to paint a crucifixion for St Matthews church in Northampton he drew deeply on the emotions he experienced viewing the photographs of concentration camp victims that had recently been published. These images became the inspiration for a painting that was critically hailed as defining the human condition in the immediate post-war era: ‘Belsen, Hiroshima, Nagasaki – all the world’s suffering condensed and distilled into one suffering body’ in Fox’s words.

Graham Sutherland: The Crucifixion,1946 St Matthew’s, Northampton
Graham Sutherland: The Crucifixion,1946 St Matthew’s, Northampton

Fox linked this postwar mood of anxiety and pessimism to the critique of consumerism and its invasion of the seclusion of the home and domestic life in Richard Hamilton’s Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (below) before moving rapidly on to assert that  ‘as national pessimism gave way to a new optimism, David Hockney dared to suggest Paradise might be available to us all’.

Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?
Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?

In Hockney’s bright and colourful California paintings, such as A Bigger Splash (1967, below), Fox saw British art moving on from despair to optimism.

David Hockney, A Bigger Splash

Yet, in the early 1970s, just as the world finally began to recognise the genius of Britain’s painterly tradition, Fox claimed, young artists at home turned against it.  And here, once again, Fox chose a dramatic event to support his thesis, implying that the artist Keith Vaughan took his own life as a consequence of the growing marginalisation of figurative painting such as his.  But was that the case?  Vaughan maintained extensive journals which reveal a gay man troubled by his sexuality.  He was diagnosed with cancer in 1975 and committed suicide in 1977, recording his last moments in his journal as the drugs overdose took effect: Fox let the camera linger as Vaughan’s spidery writing slid off the page.

Keith Vaughan, Landscape with Two Bathers (The Diver), 1954
Keith Vaughan, Landscape with Two Bathers (The Diver), 1954

With glimpses of Tracey Emin’s unkempt bed and Damien Hirst’s preserved animals, Fox drew his conclusion that the great British tradition of painting is today in peril, as interest and money gravitates towards other artistic forms.  But, is this to overstate the case?  As Marina Vaizey has remarked at the ArtsDesk:

Painting, and representational painting, in spite of all the theories and all the varied media that have absorbed artists in the pre- and postwar periods, has never gone away, even if we are in thrall to light bulbs going on and off, exploded sheds, inside-out houses: the art world now has room for everything. But Lucian Freud, although he would have abhorred the notion that in any way he was a crusader, almost single-handedly kept the whole idea of the significance of painting the world as one person saw it alive and at the centre of things.

But Hockney is still painting  (after a brief foray into photo-collage), while Lucian Freud persisted until last week. There are painters painting in Britain – if not always in the metropolis.  The tradition continues in the work of Kurt Jackson, Mary Newcomb, Peter Doig, John Knapp-Fisher, David Inshaw and George Shaw. There’ll always be painters.

Peter Doig,, Blotter, 1993
Peter Doig,, Blotter, 1993
John Knapp-Fisher: Cresswell Street, Tenby 1998
Mary Newcomb, Court Fields
Mary Newcomb, Court Fields
David Inshaw, The Badminton Game, 1972
David Inshaw, The Badminton Game, 1972
George Shaw, The Time Machine 2010

Lucian Freud: dogged portraitist

Lucian Freud: dogged portraitist

What can I add to the mountain of words that are being written about Lucian Freud, whose death at the age of 88 has been announced?  He was, arguably, the most important British post-Second World War painter. He has became famous not only for his individual style of painting, which developed over the years into that distinctive slathered impasto, but also for his masterful and deeply personal interpretation of the nude and the representation of the human face and body. Continue reading “Lucian Freud: dogged portraitist”