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  • Writer's pictureBrian Keeler

Portraying life- homage to Lucian Freud

The Man with the Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, Martin Gayford. Thames & Hudson (October 2010)

A Book Review by Brian Keeler

Above- "Gentleman with a Ruby Ring" 30" x 24" Oil on canvas painted from life by Brian Keeler. The model is Matt Peterson of Ithaca, NY. This portrait was painted from life at the Titus Gallery in Ithaca in 2010.

Martin Gayford is an art historian and author of several books on well-known artists, such as one on John Constable and another about Vincent Van Gogh. In this book, he brings to life the process of sitting for a portrait by a painter whom many consider to be the greatest living artist. That is quite a billing, but Freud is highly respected by critics and artists alike, primarily for the humanity he reveals, something akin to Rembrandt’s depth. He also has a juicy, tactile paint quality similar to Rembrandt’s thick impasto passages that we painters enjoy. However, his work is frequently off-putting to the squeamish, who recoil from seeing the underbelly of life expressed, or who are uncomfortable in viewing people portrayed in unpicturesque ways.

In regards to the thick impasto build up of paint in Freud’s paintings, now this is something that us painters usually enjoy immensely. We like to see the process and act of painting and we get this in spades with Freud. When first viewing the paintings however they seemed more like pentimenti, or cover-ups of mistakes. Endless reworking in otherwords. But still, enjoying paint application and its visual beauty for its own merits and intrinsic visual appeal is what paint quality is all about rather than the polished illusion of the reality depicted.

Gayford tells his story as he sits for an oil portrait that takes months to complete. His intimate account reveals so many of the inner workings, feelings, perceptions, insecurities and encounters with his own vanity and ego. Needless to say, the process tries his patience to the utmost. But I know of no other narrative that reveals so many of the issues of portraiture both from the model’s point of view as well as the artist’s. For this and other reasons, the book is really a must-read for artists and for the layman—it offers innumerable insights into the creative mind of an accomplished painter.

Although the grandson of the famous founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, Lucian Freud’s status as a painter would be established even without being a scion of that family. Artists, me included, may find Freud’s aesthetic and preferences sometimes challenging, but they are certainly unique, as they are revealed through casual conversations with the author, who then shares them with us.

Freud shuns or mistrusts any impulse of his own that leads him to admire or emulate other artists. This attitude helps to distill his personal vision and, as he indicates, fosters emotionally honest conceptions and adherence to his own truth. Still, as painters, we find ourselves comparing our proclivities to his and don’t always measure up or find how we differ.

For example, I love looking at art and often find myself inspired by great works in museums; I’m sure countless others are as well—otherwise, museums would not have visitors! Furthermore, artists throughout history have used other artistic expressions as a resource for their own creations. Additionally, for Lucian Freud, the aspect of extreme privilege, which he has earned through hard work and talent, is his financial security based on the astronomical prices his work fetches. This point affords the integrities that those of us in the trenches of the marketplace, as it were, may not always find as easy to implement.

Lucian Freud’s life and career have spanned the better part of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st as well. This longevity has enabled him to brush shoulders with many luminaries of the world of art, theatre, and politics—Queen Elizabeth, Picasso, Francis Bacon and the historian Kenneth Clark. In regards to Clark, Freud tells an amusing story of how Clark disowned him after Freud began to develop his mature style. Clark supposedly told Freud that he had purposely negated and suppressed anything of value in his early work. Freud also has another story of how he had a small part in a movie, playing the part of an artist, where the director rebuked him for not knowing how to hold a brush or look like he was painting. Anecdotes like these keep the book rolling along.

For painters of portraits, figure painters, models and anyone interested in the fine arts this book will offer plenty to reflect on and inspire them perhaps. As I am one of these painters involved in similar issues and tasks, Gayford's book was a wonderful read offering an abundance of relevancies.

To see video of the process of portrait painting from life, where I am painting an oil portrait from life in my studio in Ithaca, NY - click on this link:

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