The critic Kenneth Tynan divided playwrights into two categories, “smooth” and “hairy,” and one could probably make a similar distinction among biographers. Smooth biographers offer clean narrative lines, well-underscored themes, and carrots, in the form of cliffhangers, to lure the reader onward. Their books are on best-seller lists. They’re good gifts for Dad.
William Feaver, the author of “The Lives of Lucian Freud” — the second volume, “Fame, 1968-2011,” is out now — exists on the opposite extreme. There’s little smoothness in him at all. His biography is hairier than a bonobo.
Feaver, a longtime art critic for The Observer in London, doesn’t provide a fixed portrait of Freud, the great realist painter, so much as he leads us into a studio filled with crusty brushes, scrapers, half-completed canvases, easels, dirty floorboards, mahlsticks and distilled turpentine, and lets us poke through the detritus as if to assemble a likeness for ourselves.
Some critics have found the jumbled, unmediated quality of these biographies to be a feature rather than a bug. I’ve tried to see it that way. Reading these talky and cluttered books is like scrolling through microfilm: There are no grand vistas, but there are neck aches and, often enough, because Freud led life up to the nostrils, fantastic “aha!” moments.
A grandson of Sigmund Freud, Lucian was born in Berlin in 1922. His father was an architect. Lucian’s family fled to England in 1933, not long after the Nazis seized power. He was born with an extra toe on his small toe, which the family, to his disappointment, had removed. He later grew a sharklike fang, he claimed, between his front teeth. That was tugged out as well.
Freud served briefly in World War II as an ordinary seaman. He became a painter, Feaver writes, because “he used to go around saying he was a painter” and “after a time he had to do something about it.” Then began a career in art and social climbing. His second wife was Caroline Blackwood, heir to the Guinness fortune.
Sitting for one of Lucian’s portraits was not so unlike sitting on Sigmund’s couch. Sessions went on for months, if not years. One difference was that Lucian’s visitants usually took off their clothes.
Lucian and his furious id would have made an interesting case study for his grandfather. The artist was amoral: violent, selfish, vindictive, lecherous. He lived like a puddle-stomping toddler. If he was not the devil, he was certainly the devil’s advocate.
Freud needed new lovers the way a diabetic needs insulin. He trolled for young women to paint and sleep with, but he hardly needed to. They came to him. He was handsome and a genius and offered, as one of his lovers put it, the lure of studio life, “champagne there on dirty floorboards.” To be painted by Freud was, increasingly, a shot at cultural permanence.
Freud painted slowly, by accretion. Feaver’s life of Freud is compiled similarly. The author, a gifted critic, knew Freud well during the last decades of his life, and they talked frequently on the telephone. It’s possible Feaver had too much access to his subject. He quotes Freud too freely, and at too great a length, on nearly every topic.
The reader nods when Freud comments, deep into Volume Two: “A lot of the things I say have got a semi-incomprehensible side.” You wish you could cover him, like a parrot, when you want him to be silent.
“Fame, 1968-2011” finds Freud finally receiving major exhibitions; the prices of his paintings soared. Feaver details Freud’s relationship with his great friend-foe Francis Bacon. They went tit-for-tat in terms of eccentricity.
Freud only rarely painted celebrities, but he did make portraits of the queen and of Kate Moss. (Feaver doesn’t mention the tattoo that Freud gave Moss: two tiny swallows at the base of her spine.) When the model Jerry Hall missed a few sittings, Freud painted her out of a portrait. He was an outlandish gambler. “Gambling must be all-out,” he said. “It must alter the balance of life.” He once paid off a debt by painting a bookie.
Freud was not a family man. He was not close to his brothers (they are barely mentioned in Volume Two), but he did paint a series of portraits of his mother, over more than a thousand four-hour sittings. Feaver calls those sessions “arguably the longest time ever spent by any mother’s painter son on any painter son’s mother.”
Family does intrude as Freud’s children, legitimate and illegitimate, begin to crawl from the woodwork. He had at least 14 offspring he acknowledged as his own. He called himself “one of the great absentee fathers of the age.” Soon there are grandchildren as well. Freud did not do much hugging, but his progeny could tap him for money.
Many got to know him by sitting for portraits. He painted his daughters naked. “They make it all right for me to paint them,” he said. “My naked daughters have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Freud had a mean word for everyone. He put the knife in white and it came out red. A typical comment in this volume, about an aunt, is: “She was very nasty really, in a small sort of way. Her expertise was opening letters. Other people’s.” If he didn’t like you, he cut you from his life like cancer. You can always tell a monster: He wears scarves indoors.
He had a mighty work ethic, and he turned out paintings until nearly the end. He lived in the imperative tense and barely slowed down. He stood in the center of his own self-importance. There wasn’t a big gap, as there is in most lives, between being carefree and being carrion.
Can one pick up Volume Two of this biography if one hasn’t read Volume One? Feaver seems to suggest the answer is no. He doesn’t always bother to reintroduce people or topics. When “Clement” suddenly appears in Volume Two, with no surname attached, will every reader know this is Clement Freud, Lucian’s estranged brother?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. There’s a sense one could skip three or four pages almost anywhere in these books and not miss anything crucial.
Everybody has an opinion about Freud’s art, and no one is wrong, exactly. I tend to align myself, as Feaver seems to, with Robert Hughes, who asserted in 1987 that Freud was “the greatest living realist painter.” He made the ordinary gravid, and sublime.
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