Anatomy of a Sitting: Lucian Freud Paints A Portrait
Martin Gayford’s Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud
What does a portrait depict? In directing his inevitably subjective perception to his choice of subject, and bringing to bear upon it the idiosyncrasies of his powers of visual description, the portraitist reveals as much of himself as he does of the sitter, and often more. Richard Avedon summarizes this paradox: “Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me. My concern is… the human predicament; only what I consider the human predicament may simply be my own.” [Quoted in Peter Weiermair, Americans: The Social Landscape from 1940 Until 2006. Bologna: Damiani Publishers, 2006.]
A recent book suggests a more complex answer, that the subject of a portraitist working at the highest level of the genre is neither himself nor the flesh and bone before him but a complex and evolving matrix of relationships, a tissue of observation, expectation, and ego that proceeds from the painter’s perception but rapidly outpaces it. Art critic Martin Gayford is as sure a guide as one could wish for through the psychological labyrinth of the sitting, and in Man With a Blue Scarf he describes a nuanced exchange between intellects and imaginations that unfolds over time and is captured in paint.
In requiring little but relaxed alertness and the following of very simple instructions, “the experience of posing seems somewhere between transcendental meditation and a visit to the barber’s,” according to Gayford. Or that is how it seemed to him at the outset of the seven-month period during which he sat for Lucian Freud and which resulted in the oil-on-linen “Man with a Blue Scarf.” By the fortieth and final sitting, on July 4, 2004, his view had deepened considerably. His verbal portrait of Freud, based on notes he kept of their conversations; his private thoughts; and his observations of the painter at work, emerges as inexorably as does Freud’s likeness of him. It is a pleasure to read for the insights Gayford provides into this painter’s method and temperament, and for the light and playful touch with which he probes the conceptual core of portraiture, the nature of the self.
Gayford is forthright in his profound admiration of Freud’s work, asserting that Freud and his friend Francis Bacon are to British painting of the twentieth century what Turner and Constable are to that of the nineteenth. But he is not fawning: artist and model have been close acquaintances for years. His voice is droll, his humor unlabored, his diction precise but relaxed, focused but desultory—quite like the conversations he and Freud pursued during those many sittings. The book is a gem of pacing; wandering from the narrative thread long enough to outline a subtopic, flesh out a characterization, frame a paradox, or provide historical context to an observation, his account repeatedly snaps back to a description of the experience of being scrutinized by this particular painter, in this particular leather chair, in this room in this house in London.
Of course, Gayford scrutinizes right back. He reports that Freud, full of nervous energy, murmurs to himself and moves around a lot while at the easel. (Small and nimble, fond of horses, the young Freud seriously considered a career as a jockey.) He works extremely slowly, beginning in this case (after an initial roughing-out of the composition in charcoal) with a dab of paint in the middle of the forehead and working methodically across and down the face. He contemplates each brush stroke, assiduously covering the canvas inch by inch. Then, sometimes, he wipes out and repaints.
Often but not always, he talks — about old friends, chance encounters, memorable meals. We learn which painters he likes (van Gogh, Chardin, Goya, Ingres), dislikes (Raphael, Vermeer, Leonardo), and loathes (Dante Gabriel Rosetti: “the nearest painting can get to bad breath”). He prefers Matisse’s emotional authenticity to Picasso’s pictorial derring-do. He greatly trusts his instincts and often makes impulsive decisions—including whom to ask to sit for a portrait. Thus sitting for Freud is “a pleasure, an ordeal, and also a worry,” as Gayford is dogged by trepidation that his will be among the many portraits that have foundered when the interpersonal chemistry went wrong. (The book’s dust jacket is the spoiler, with a reproduction of the finished painting: a mound of black hair, gray at the temples; heavy eyebrows; a severe, somewhat elongated nose; and—a rarity in Freud’s oeuvre—a faint smile.)
The book’s best-known precursor in the tiny genre of sitters’ memoirs is A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord, published in 1965. Lord, a New Yorker visiting the great Swiss artist in his Paris studio, looks on helplessly as Giacometti, apparently angst-ridden and miserable, obliterates successive attempts to convey the essence of his sitter. Respectful of Giacometti’s obsession with failure as a method, Lord also wants the painting done and craftily intervenes in the nick of time. Mirroring Freud’s steady, workmanlike approach, Gayford’s book is devoid of such high drama, of crisis and catharsis. It hums along with a calmer but no less compelling consideration of the problematics of painting, and of being painted.
Puzzled by his own misplaced but understandable sense of propriety toward the bit of linen that bears his likeness, Gayford experiences pangs of existential anxiety. A brief mention of lunching with the California collectors who own the picture subtly underscores the idea that the activity of portraiture is itself an exchange between interested parties in which the sitter barters his time and his face to appear in a place in which time itself stands still.
The writer ultimately concludes that this particular portrait depicts a period of mutual, concentrated observation. It is an index of an interaction, testifying to a prolonged exchange of close attention symbolized, perhaps, by the “gimlet eye” Gayford fancies his friend has given his nuanced and now-permanent facial expression.
Martin Gayford, Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud. (London/New York: Thames & Hudson, 2010. 248 pages; ISBN 0500238758 $40)