As with other reviewers, I agree that this is a very good book; simply as a book to read - sort of biographical, as research or insight into the work of a great artist. It is, actually, something of a double portrait, with a remarkable exposition of the thoughts and workings of Lucien Freud and the engagement of his sitter, Martin Gayford, the writer of the book. Conversations with Lucien Freud about his long life and experiences, his views on art, Life, food and the extensive list of artists he knows and has known, is interesting and instructive; the book never flags or ceases to be interesting. Underlying all of this is the subject of painted portraiture, something that is beginning to re-emerge from long obscurity during the century of modernism and post modernism and the last remaining outpost of difficult art that is done by artists. Freud, himself states that he enters every painting not knowing where it will lead, if it will be successful. In this respect, the book is the best disquisition I have read on the subject and nailing, once an for all, the idea that portraiture is about verisimimilute of likeness as about character and quality of the painting. Picasso once remarked that in a hundred years no-one will care if a portrait looked like the person - as in this case, a good painting that bears a resemblance to the sitter without being a photographic likeness. Freud's sittings take place over months or even years as the painter and sitter develop a relationship with one another that forms a sort of intimacy helping the portrait to develop and grow, if you like, into a character of its own: Freud insists that the subject is just the starting point. Anyone interested in portraiture and, indeed, Freud's work, will find this book fascinating - even "unputdownable," absolutely 5 stars.
on 23 June 2013
After reading the first third of this captivating book in one sitting in a café, I noticed, on walking out, that even in just a glimpse, I felt like I was seeing individual human faces and their expressions in new ways. Such is the sensitivity of Martin Gayford's own written portrait of Freud (for whom Gayford sat), and the eloquence of their conversations about painting and the living body as presented here.
Like Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf or Miles Davis in their own different ways, Lucian Freud seems to have possessed a personality that guarantees engaging writing from others, whatever the quality or context. As it is though, this is a beautifully written work in its own right. The rooms in which Freud painted, and the changing light and shade within these, are evoked with vivid atmosphere, yet are never overly detailed. As the seasons progress along with the painting (with some uncertain, occasionally frustrating moments in the latter's emergence discussed), the contact between the sitter and the artist develops quite movingly.
Gayford creates a compelling sense of what it was like to be in Freud's company, and, through the artist's own comments as recalled in the narrative, the book is richly, if fragmentarily, informative about an extraordinarily eventful life. Gayford appears utterly respectful and discrete. It would have been intriguing to have read more about what others might have told or asked Gayford about the enigmatic Freud, but it's a tribute to the author's integrity that the focus is entirely on the two men's own interactions.
I finished the book in a day or so, several months ago, but continue to enjoy reopening it at random. Inevitably, this is likely to be an important book for anyone interested in Freud and indeed in painting, but I can confidently imagine it being a pleasure to read for people who (like myself) have read relatively little about painting and painters.(It could make an excellent present).
on 18 January 2016
The brutality of facts
I am currently reading a book (non-fiction) called the Man with the Blue Scarf by the art critic Martin Gayford about sitting for a portrait by Lucien Freud.
Whilst the subject matter may sound like, well, reading about paint drying, it is a bit more interesting.
There is a discussion of Francis Bacon’s appraisal that Picasso’s work had a quality about it that was absent in other artists, such as Matisse’s work. In Francis Bacon’s words, this quality was “the brutality of fact”. Martin Gayford then goes on to say that he felt this quality is also in Lucien Freud’s work. However, after a bit of ping pong with another critic, the author concedes the point, and admits that, well, maybe what he was trying to say was that L Freud’s work was about the “awkwardness of Truth”.
Now, there is quite a gulf between the “brutality of fact” and the “awkwardness of truth” (the later is just a special case of the former), and that gulf puts Lucien Freud in his place. He is not in the same league as Picasso. At his best, he is very, very good, and there is depth and range to what he does, but there is no point in mislabelling him.
What is interesting here is that you get a very precise notion of Freud’s status as a painter, rather than vague sense that I must be missing something after being subjected to the imprecisions of media driven hype. All credit to the book.
Another example of what the book delivers shows Lucien Freud with the boot on his foot. Apparently, he hated Raphael. He wasn’t sure which way a Raphael painting should be hung. By which he meant that Raphael’s figures look weightless. Quite the opposite to Freud’s figures, that are definitely bound to this Earth by its gravity. Freud was looking for substance in his art, something beyond style and fashion and even skill and so he was quite entitled to have a go at Raphael.
On the other hand, Freud’s search for substance is what makes him modern. Raphael, in his time, was also modern, so in that sense the criticism is less justified. There is also another issue: Raphael died young, unlike Freud, whose best work is from his later life.
But what really engaged me was the Francis Bacon quote, that I had never come across before. The brutality of fact. I love that phrase, it nails Picasso like nothing else can. It says that Picasso was Picasso because he had a grasp of the problems that Reality poses than the rest of the pack.
There are many definitions of art, but the one that does it for me is this: Art is what cannot be expressed in any other way. This points to Art being something that is beyond language, style, fashion and convention, but it also points to the problem that humans have with Reality: the closest we can get to reality is by means of representations, but our representations can only ever be approximations. There is a brutality to facts, the building blocks of Reality, in that they are beyond our control and our grasp, and this is, indeed, an awkward truth. All we know of reality is data, information. But data and information are, by themselves, meaningless. Meaning only arises out of our interpretations of reality. To have meaning, we have to interpret facts, and so meaning is an entirely subjective thing: it varies according to the interpretation. Reality, by contrast, is nothing if not objective. The only objective interpretation is science. Logic and maths “prove” what can and can’t be, within the limitations of its reach.
For everything else, beyond the reach of science, we are left with un-rigorous interpretations. These include “faith”-based interpretations, such as religion and ideologies, which are nothing if not subjective. If they are shared, the faithful feel good about themselves, because their beliefs are validated by the others who share the same faith and believe the same interpretations. Everyone else is mad and bad, brainwashed and gullible, or whatever is necessary to disqualify the “other” unbeliever. The whole and sole purposes of these exercises is to define the evil “other” and to deny and repel objective reality.
And then there is art. Real art is not a mere interpretation. If it was, it would not be so interesting. But real art is, even for abstract art, an approximation to those things that simply can’t be said any other way, to those areas of Reality that are always beyond our grasp. The difference with religion is that it does not purport to be True and it does not define “otherness”. It also makes no effort to deny objective Reality. Art just is what it is. Take it or leave it. Said like that, it sounds more like a form of love, a love of something that is forever beyond our grasp:
And someone who engaged with the brutality of this fact, this cold, objective reality, was always going to be Picasso.
Of course, that is just my interpretation of this book. Just my opinion. But I do think that it is a book worth reading.
on 12 June 2016
I first heard of this book when it was mentioned by Julian Barnes in his Keeping an Eye Open. Anything which Mr. Barnes recommends highly, as he does in his book, seems worthy of investigation to me. Art is not an area I know too much about, far less portraiture, but having read this, I feel my appreciation of the art has increased enormously. Through the chat and author's reflections across the 7-month period of sitting, a great deal of ground is covered: about Lucien Freud's life; about art and artists; about life in general. I've since bought more copies of the book as presents for friends.
on 6 April 2012
I ordered this on a bit of a whim after seeing the book in the Royal Academy gift shop (after seeing the Hockney exhibition - another of Martin Gayford's favourite artists), based solely on the lovely cover. It has completely engaged me for the last two days solid - the true definition of 'un-put-down-able' if ever a book was. Gayford's writing is beautiful and easy to read, offering an engaging and often humorous insight into Freud's work, methods and personality, with some fascinating conversations about the history of art and other great artists thrown in for good measure. There was not a paragraph wasted, with each insight revealing another of Freud's quirks, or thoughts, or a piece of art history that only an historian like Gayford could put forward. I learnt a lot, smiled often, laughed out loud on occasion and fell in love with Freud all over again. Highly recommended!