Geordine Greig / Breakfast with Lucian Freud / Review by Frances Spalding
Poster by Triunfo Arciniegas
Breakfast with Lucian: A Portrait of the Artist, by Geordie Greig – review
Fascinating and appalling: the most revealing account of Lucian Freud ever written
The Guardian, Wednesday 18 December 2013
Lucian Freud, in his Notting Hill home. Fascinated by Freud for more than 30 years, Greig was eventually admitted to the artist’s inner circle. Photograph: Geordie Greig
Geordie Greig's book is an unapologetic mixture of intelligent perception and high gossip. It deepens the reader's understanding of Lucian Freud, as both man and artist, but it also connives with the kind of mythology that stultifies inquiry. It is both fascinating and appalling. Freud had a reputation for being a man with no boundaries. This book likewise heeds no conventional restraints, mixes genres, seeps into questionable places, and fills gaps with cumulatively repetitive and often mawkish interviews with Freud's models, or connective passages that might have come straight out of Who's Who – were they not entirely concerned with sexual history. And yet no person interested in Freud will ignore this book. It is, overall, more revealing than anything about him yet written.
Breakfast with Lucian
by Geordie Greig
It begins benignly, in Clarke's, a light-filled upmarket restaurant, with starched white tablecloths, in Kensington Church Street. Here, for at least the last decade of his life, Freud breakfasted most days of the week. He would enter via the delicatessen next door, as breakfast is not normally served, and was usually accompanied by David Dawson, his assistant, who brought all the broadsheets and the Daily Mail, which they spread over the large circular table at the back of the room. Guests, too, might be invited, especially on Saturday mornings, when the gathering sometimes swelled to a small salon. One regular was Greig. Sometimes he brought his three children. Freud, with the sweetness of age, pretended to take cherries out of their ears, sang ditties, recited poems by Walter de la Mare or Rudyard Kipling, or drummed on the table with his spoon or fist.
It is good to be reminded of his charm. Only a few pages further on, stories about him, reported by his bookmaker friend Victor Chandler, show him behaving like a foul-mouthed drunken lout. A camp waiter irritates him with a teasing remark and he lashes out verbally and with his fists. At the River Café, he and Victor walk in next to two couples and Freud is instantly offended by the overpowering perfume worn by the two women. He shouts out: "I hate perfume. Women should smell of one thing: cunt. In fact they should invent a perfume called cunt." This story is made additionally nasty by the observation, on Chandler's part, that the two couples were north London Jewish: anyone living more than half a mile north of Hyde Park was beyond the pale in Freud's world, but he was himself Jewish, and if, as Chandler suggests, there was antisemitism behind his crass protest, it was not only "strange" but inexcusable.
But we are used to shocks and uneasiness in connection with Freud as they are the stuff of his art. His powerful paintings attract and repel, sharply dividing his audiences into those who admire or abhor. Few escape the frisson they generate in the viewer. Lawrence Gowing, in the first extensive survey of Freud's art, argued that, even when familiar, his pictures continue to shock, owing to "unpredicted discords", "unsparing involvement" or "the chill of incongruity". Gowing ventured the idea that Freud wanted painting to be found embarrassing. And he may be right. Freud famously promoted the naked portrait, in such a way as to disturb and disconcert the viewer. And perhaps nowhere more so than when he included in one of these a live rat.
Animals recur in Freud's portraits, often adding a touch of tenderness that can be lacking in the figure. He brilliantly conveys the weight and feel of a dog's paw or muzzle as it rests on limb or in lap. It is said that he took pride in his grandfather Sigmund Freud, not as the founding father of psychoanalysis, but because originally he was a skilful zoologist and the first to identify the sexual difference between male and female eels. But in Naked Man with Rat (1977-78), the animal, drugged with a sleeping pill and Veuve Clicquot, arouses no sense of mutual sympathy between it and the sitter, even though the man reclines with one hand over the rat and its tail is draped over his naked thigh, close to his genitals, fully revealed by the splayed legs. Knowing how long Freud's portraits take to paint, the sitter, Raymond Jones, asked if the rat needed to be present at the start of the portrait. Couldn't it come in later? "No," Freud replied, "because it is the whole emotional attitude that matters … If the rat were not there your mind would be working differently."
"If you don't know them," Freud once said of his sitters, a portrait "can only be like a travel book." He also claimed that it was wrong to look for resemblance in a portrait and that he wanted his own portraits to be "of" people, not "like" them.
Any possibility of a trite summary is banished by Freud's insistence on close observation over a long period of time, a method best described, in detail, by Martin Gayford in his account of sitting for Freud, Man with a Blue Scarf. Gayford was pleased to enjoy supper with Freud after the sittings but soon realised that Freud's scrutiny of him continued as they chatted.
But it is often hard to pin down the psychological matter in a Freud portrait. Greig, after seeing Naked Man with Rat as a schoolboy, sensed risk and danger, and felt he was "left in no doubt that truth could hurt". Yet any narrative is deliberately withheld; the parts remain separate, as the eye registers the sitter's raised arm and open hand, the held rat and its pointing tail, the genitals and the blank upward stare on the sitter's face. The painting achieves the "intensification of reality" that Freud sought, but it remains a travel book: its truths still trapped in mere outward appearance.
Threaded through Greig's book is the story of his obsession with Freud over 33 years. It began at the age of 17 when, thanks to the insight of an English teacher at Eton, he was taken to an exhibition of Freud's art at the gallery belonging to Anthony d'Offay, then a leading contemporary art dealer. Smitten, Greig began writing to Freud at intervals, but for years received no reply, until he was able to use his position in the world of journalism, as literary editor of the Sunday Times and then editor ofTatler, to draw a response.
He finally met Freud face to face and found himself "in Freudland". It was, he says, "all so familiar from the paintings – bare floorboards, torn sheets piled up, rickety kitchen chairs, a decadent sense of neglect". But it no doubt helped that, while living in New York, Greig had an affair with the daughter of one of Freud's two wives, Caroline Blackwood, by her second marriage. One of the games Greig plays, perhaps too often in this book, is spotting the near-incestuous connections between Freud's lovers and friends.
Owing to the commission Freud received to paint the Queen, he is linked with Van Dyck in Greig's mind. Both men, the book argues, conquered English society as the most formidable portraitists of their age. But Van Dyck set a model for aristocratic and society portraiture that impressed Joshua Reynolds and survives to this day.
Freud, on the other hand, has so far failed to convert contemporary portraitists, with their love of surface tricksiness, to the virtues of intense, obsessive scrutiny. Yet who can forget his small portrait Francis Bacon, not seen since it was stolen in 1988, or his profound record of the searing melancholy in John Minton's character? Given the conundrum of Freud, we might ask, in Thomas Mann's words: "Who shall unravel the mystery of an artist's nature and character! And who shall explain the profound instinctual fusion of discipline and licence on which it rests!"