Arts: I was framed by Freud

A portrait of the Queen by our greatest living artist is an exciting possibility. But she won't find sitting for him easy.

My idea of portraiture," Lucian Freud told Laurence Gowing, "came from dissatisfaction with portraits that resembled people. I would wish my portraits to be of people, not like them. Not having the look of the sitter - being them." Freud does not want merely to catch a surface resemblance; he is after some deeper revelation - the truth. "There is a distinction between fact and truth," he told Robert Hughes. "Truth has a quality of revelation about it."

That is exactly how we often react to paintings by Freud. His great portrait of John Minton, for example - the face apparently about to fall apart under some unbearable emotional pressure - has often been seen as a premonition of the alcoholic disintegration and subsequent suicide of the sitter. Freud's models are never self-possessed. Their eyes stare out, are glazed with thought, downcast, wide with anxiety, blank with boredom, or closed in exhaustion - but invariably, their public personality is switched off, and the inner, vulnerable self seems to appear. "We sometimes wonder," as John Russell once wrote, "if we have any right to be there."

Freud himself acknowledges this reaction. When one of his recent models, Leigh Bowery, asked him why he thought some people found his female nudes misogynistic, he replied: "Through my intimacy with the people I portray, I may have depicted aspects of them [in a way] which people find intrusive."

But here we come across a central paradox of Freud's art. He may appear the most microscopically realist of artists, dedicated to the precise analysis of each tuck of flesh or moist surface in eyelid or groin. But the more superficial likeness of the sitter, he insists, is irrelevant to his purposes. "Since the model," he pointed out in Encounter in 1954, "is not going to be hung up next to the picture, since the picture is going to be there on its own, it is of no interest whether it is an accurate copy of the model." But what is the truth about a model if it is not what the person looks like?

The answer is in that Encounter article. The painter makes real to others his innermost feelings about all he cares for. It is not the model, precisely, that is being revealed so remorselessly, but Freud's emotions about that model. The painter's "obsession with his subject" is driven by a necessity to communicate his feelings about the subject with such intensity that those feelings become infectious. But, in Freud's case, those feelings become apparent only through exhaustive looking - a process that can last six months or a year, sometimes for eight hours a day. Expressionist or romantic emotional splurge would be easy, self-indulgence - not the true feeling. Truth emerges from "the closest observation... day and night" with a completeness "without which selection itself is not possible". Sometimes, he told Gowing, an ear has disappeared. But the selection must be from what is really there. To put in something which wasn't there, would be a "pointless lie.'

This approach explains many things about the Freudian method. The arduous nature of the process, for example, and its slowness - the painting growing imperceptibly, as one model puts it, "like a hand of a clock". It is easy to see, too, why the physical presence of the model is a necessity. A photograph - except on very rare occasions - would not do. Indeed, Freud's work, though representational, is very far from photographic. He told Leigh Bowery: "Photographic information is almost entirely to do with light. I'm more interested in what's inside their heads." But, given his announced indifference to making an "accurate copy" of the sitter, it's worth noting that Freud does get an excellent likeness. To meet a Freudian model socially gives you a slightly uncanny experience of deja vu.

We can understand why it is so essential that the artist should know the models, that they should be "people in his life" - friends, family, wives, fellow painters, lovers, children: "If you don't know them, it can only be like a travel book." It is not quite the case that he never does commissioned portraits. But even when he does - as with the Devonshire family - it seems that friendship precedes the commission.

Given the frequent closeness of Freud's relationship to his models, and the intimacy of the feelings explored, it is not surprising that he has striven to cloak his sitters in anonymity - Girl Reading, Naked Portrait, etc. The fact that he has never been "unconcerned with any of the people he paints" is enough to make him, believe it or not, almost unique among painters. It is certainly hard to think of parallels, although it is arguable that many of the greatest paintings of the past, by Rembrandt and Velazquez, for example, were of sitters who were close to the painter in some way.

It is natural that we should be interested in the testimony of the models, and in their memories of the experience. They have been through an experience as demanding as any in the annals of art, and have contributed their identities, perhaps, to some of the most significant paintings of our times.

But we should not be surprised if what some of them recall is an experience of numbing boredom, an ordeal that went on for month after month, with the painter attempting to ease the pain of tedium with entertaining conversation. The model is only the relatively passive occasion of the painting. The real object of the exercise is the creation of a work of art.

Lucian Freud, at first sight a transcriber of fact, is revealed as a 20th-century Pygmalion. At a certain stage, he once claimed, the painter realises that it is only a picture; until then he had almost dared hope that "the picture might spring to life".

A Sitter's Tale: `Paddington Interior', Harry Diamond, 1970

"LUCIAN FREUD and I were on the same scene in Soho in the 1940s. In 1950, he suggested that I sit for him. Altogether I sat for him four or five times over the following years. The first one and the last one he did of me seem to be among the best known of his paintings, but I prefer the intervening ones. The first one - Interior in Paddington - was the only one I felt slightly miffed about. People come up and say how great it is, and I say, `Yeah, but I don't really have short legs'. I suppose you could call that artistic licence.

The sittings went on for some six months on that occasion; another time it took a year - which was very demanding. We talked quite a lot, except at those times when he said, `Now don't talk, I'm concentrating,' which was fair enough. It was quite an ordeal. If someone is interested in getting your essence down on canvas, they are also drawing your essence out of you. Afterwards one felt depleted, but also invigorated. I wouldn't do it again, though."

Photographer Harry Diamond sat for Freud in the Fifties and Sixties

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone