“If you find yourself in London, don’t miss the Hockney exhibition at the Tate.”
Of course I didn’t.
Yet the book I picked up at the Tate Shop was not Hockney’s exhibition catalogue, no; it was journalist Geordie Greig’s Breakfast with Lucian, a well-written study of another very important C20 British artist, Lucian Freud. It kept me the best of companies on my flight back to Greece and proved a great insight into Freud’s life.
“I like starting out with the face”
Sigmund Freud’s grandson and namesake was born in Berlin in 1922. His family moved to England, to St. John’s Wood, to escape the rise of Nazism. It is said that Princess Maria Bonaparte herself – a close friend of Sigmund and wife of Prince George of Greece – intervened personally so that the Freud family be naturalised as British citizens as summarily as possible, just a week before World War Two commenced. As it turns out, they were saved from certain death. Seventy years later, Lucian Freud would paint Queen Elizabeth’s portrait (pictured below) and confess he felt as if repaying a family debt to the British royal family.
The young Lucian went to a series of private schools and universities, exhibiting the gamut of unconventional attitudes that help build the myth of so many an artist, being suspended or expelled a series of times.
His aptitude to painting was easily detectible early on. He remembers his own mother pestering him to give her drawing lessons, when he was only four years old. This sort of pressure almost put him of drawing and, as he himself admits, was indicative of their relationship: her father-in-law would have a grand time explaining her giving him her own name – Lucy – in psychoanalytic terms. Later on, Lucian would paint almost three hundred portraits of the woman (pictured below) who showered him with such tremendous, pushy attention at every single opportunity. Only Rembrandt has painted more portraits of his own mother. “Had my father shown equal enthusiasm towards my painting as my mother, I would have probably ended up as someone else. A jockey, most likely.”
Lucian was very fond of animals, especially horses. The book contains a sketch drawn by Freud himself on the author’s son’s iPad, during one of their meetings. It’s the head of a horse (pictured left). Lucian is said to have inherited two things from his grandfather, Sigmund: the ability to extract emotions from other people’s subconscious; and his love of animals. He’s admitted to admiring his grandfather more as a zoologist than a psychoanalyst. Important biographers find that Sigmund had an enormous influence on his grandson: Lucian’s models are always relaxed, on a bed or a couch, as one would imagine Sigmund Freud’s patients had once been. And all these hours spend sitting for their painter friend… that would have unearthed all sorts of subconscious emotions, experiences, thoughts, and phobias, which Lucian then captured on the canvas. He used to say: “I like starting out with the face. Then I work on the body, only to return to the face, having covered a significant distance that would allow me to see details that had originally escaped me.”
His two marriages and his acknowledged paternity of fourteen children (informally, the number is as high as forty) suggest that his artistic ambitions were matched by a heightened sex drive, which he could not always put a break on (he drove a Bentley, by the way). The photographs in Greig’s book show an attractive young man that could charm the socks off anyone, a fact corroborated by the number and kinds of women who ended up in his bed. He didn’t go unnoticed by the legendary Greta Garbo, either. She must have spotted him behind those haughty dark sunglasses, and they started a brief affair when she was forty and he, thirty. “Apart from paying for everything – which was very handy for me at the time – she was a delightful human being”, Freud has said about her. Garbo, on the other hand, in a moment of despair, asked him once: “Why can’t you be normal, like everyone else? I like you so much!”. His immediate answer was: “I am normal! Every Thursday.”
One of his first love affairs was with Lorna Garman-Wishart. Then, he had an affair with Caroline Blackwood (pictured below). Both women were older than him, affluent, and had nothing to do with the conservatism of the British upper classes. To get a feeling of what the spirit of the age – and of their group of friends – was like, Greig asked Freud whether he thought Caroline and Picasso hitting off after being introduced to each other by Freud himself. Lucian replied: “The truth is, after I introduced them at some do or another, they disappeared for more than three hours. I think that’s enough time for something to happen. I never asked.” His relationship with Caroline was of the obsessive sort. She was the one tormenting him, mostly: her unfaithfulness, their bad timing, her intrusive mother who deeply disliked him (not even as David Hockney’s subject), led the relationship to a quagmire that would later repeat itself throughout Lucian’s life. “Having a sexual impulse and satisfying it with someone you’ve just met is entirely different from consciously deciding to stay with someone who makes you feel like shit. That’s what obsession is about. Every time I got obsessed with someone, I would gauge the magnitude of my despair from my incapacity to work. When very desperate, I was completely unable to work. Maybe that’s what being in love is like.”
Geordie Greig dedicates a couple of pages on Freud’s relationship to the Greek sculptor, Takis. They used to hang out together, often in the company of Francis Bacon, and would swap dozens of lovers over the years. Greig calls them “serial seducers” and, through an interview he had with Takis at a Hilton suite in Athens, he reveals that their relationship was also sexual – “in an epicurean manner”, as Takis pointed out.
Yet the one woman he loved the most, and for sixty consecutive years, was Jane Willoughby. She’d help him out whenever he needed help, and she forgave him everything. They never married, nor had they ever a relationship bound by strict rules: Jane knew not to suffocate Lucian with rules that would only drive him to yet another “adulterous” affair. She decided to take the road less travelled. They had a long-distance relationship, she never got married, nor did she have any children. Greig thinks it was her love for Lucian that prevented her from doing so.
The Kate Moss tattoo
Kate Moss (picture below) once expressed her desire to sit for Lucian Freud in a magazine interview. When Freud read that interview, he jumped on the chance to meet her. He liked this gamin-like girl he had once met by chance. Kate became his sitter, even if her habit of being late infuriated him. His painting of her now adorns a collector’s home somewhere in South America. Their relationship didn’t last long. What did last, was the homemade tattoo he inked on her body in a taxi cab. It shows two little swallows.
Freud would often torment his sitters. He was harsh and demanding, almost sadistic at times. He made them stay still for hours, for days and even months on end. Not even David Hockney was spared the ordeal: he posed for Freud in the summer of 2002, and he’d sit for his friend for four straight hours every day. Hockney was 65 at the time; Freud, 79.
“He would look at me for hours. He would look at my face. He’d come close and look at details, again and again. His eyes were piercing, his personality was piercing. It was impossible to go to sleep when he was around,” said Hockney about his experience as a sitter for Freud. When the time came to reciprocate, Hockney used just two afternoons to finish the job. On the first one, Freud started falling asleep after a while. When he realised that Hockney was still painting him, he revved up: he couldn’t bare appear indolent. Not when he sat, not ever.
The girls on the canvas
Kate Winslet fans will recall the film Hideous Kinky, where a young Hippy mother travels to Morocco with her two daughters in search for truth and happiness. This is the story of Bernadine Coverley, with whom Lucian had two daughters, Bella (pictured below) and Esther. The movie is about Bernadine’s need to escape from Lucian, as she could never have had a stable relationship with him. Freud painted over a dozen paintings of his two daughters, sometimes naked, sometimes not. Like most of his other children, they too had a special relationship with him: he was an unpredictable force, capable of the best and worst of advices, of the best and worst of reactions. When he was asked whether he felt any guilt as a father, he emphatically replied no. His conscience never bothered him. The only thing he knew how to do well was to paint. He painted all the way until his death in 2011. That’s how he showed his love.
The London-to-Athens flight time is around 3 and a half hours. Closing the book, I entertained the thought that some people are simply born to steal the limelight, even after they are dead. I might have visited David Hockney’s exhibition, but dedicated 1600 words to Lucian Freud!
Geordie Greig, Breakfast with Lucian: A Portrait of the Artist
Jonathan Cape, 2013