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.
Wednesday 24 February 1999
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
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