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Portrait of Lucian Freud

12/06/2012 11:43 am ET | Updated Feb 05, 2013

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Lucian Freud, (undated photo, courtesy of Getty Images)

In November 2003, the critic Martin Gayford began sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud, which was completed in July 2004. In 2010, Gayford published his journal of the sittings as a book, Man With a Blue Scarf. The idea of an eyewitness account of a great artist at work is an appealing one; it brings to mind an account David Sylvester published of sitting for a portrait by Alberto Giacometti (which Gayford curiously fails to mention). Unfortunately, Gayford is neither as perceptive nor as well-informed as Sylvester, who was not only a great critic of modern art, but also a great interviewer of modern artists (in my opinion, the best). Sylvester had an extensive knowledge of modern artists' working methods, and could consequently place the practices of Giacometti -- an extreme experimental artist -- in sharp comparative perspective. Lacking this knowledge, Gayford's observation of Freud's method is less acute, and less valuable. Yet among Gayford's reflections, amply padded to make a book, we get glimpses of Freud's attitudes and methods that together create a composite portrait of a great experimental artist at work. Freud's death last year makes this portrait more poignant.

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Lucian Freud, Man with a Blue Scarf (2004).

Conceptual artists' concern with generalities often leads them to paint generic people, without specific identities, but this is less often the case with experimentalists, who are more often concerned with the real and the concrete. Gayford notes that in all his work Freud was a careful observer of the individual:

For LF, everything he depicts is a portrait... [H]e is aware of the individuality of absolutely everything. He has a completely un-Platonic sensibility... In his work, nothing is generalized, idealized, or generic. He insists that the most humble - and to most people, nondescript - items have their own characteristics.

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Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon(1952), Tate collection, London.

Like Giacometti, Freud suffered from the fact that a painter cannot paint what he sees, because no matter how long or carefully he studies the motif, in the moment of painting he must look at the canvas, as the image of the motif passes from vision into memory. Sylvester described Giacometti's struggle with this gap in time, and compared it to that of another great experimental painter, Cézanne. Although Gayford apparently did not discuss this problem with Freud in the course of their conversations, he did see his struggle with it:

LF looks very closely at me, making a measuring gesture, then he turns to the canvas and puts in a mark - or, just as possibly, stops at the last moment, reconsiders and observes again. Sometimes he wipes out what he has done with a piece of cotton wool or cloth. There is an interval, however short, between the observation and the act of painting, then another pause for consideration.

During that time, the original sight has passed through LF's eyes, nervous system and mind... This process is repeated hundreds, indeed thousands, of times. Thus a painted image, certainly one by LF, is different in nature from an instantaneous image such as a photograph. David Hockney puts it like this: the painting of him by LF has over a hundred hours "layered into it," and with them innumerable visual observations and thoughts.

For Freud, this long process created an opportunity, as he told Gayford that "the advantage of taking so long is that it allows me to include more than one mood, though goodness knows I don't always succeed."

In typical experimental fashion, Freud avoided planning his works, and because of his open-ended working process he usually had a number of unfinished paintings in progress in his studio. He told Gayford:

I don't like to plan in advance. I lean my pictures against the wall in here when I'm not working on them, and sometimes when I'm looking for one I really have to search. That's part of the process, too, in a way. When I'm working on a picture I don't want to be thinking about other pictures I'm doing. I usually have five or six going at a time. But when I'm working on one I just want to think it's the only picture of mine that exists.

Freud's avoidance of planning sometimes caused him to enlarge his canvas: "During the growth of a picture some constraint has become apparent. He feels a need to put more space around a foot, say, that is awkwardly jammed against the edge."

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Lucian Freud, After Cézanne (R, ca. 1999), Irish Woman on a Bed (L, 2004).

Freud didn't worry about how long it took to complete a painting: "He takes as long as the painting seems to require: always dozens of hours, sometimes hundreds." He understood he had to be patient, telling Gayford, "When one is doing something to do with quality, even a lifetime doesn't seem enough."

Freud was typically experimental in his concern for reality, telling Gayford, "I am only interested in art that is in some way concerned with truth. I could not care less whether it is abstract or what form it takes." He liked Picasso personally, and admired his art, but he disliked the conceptual artist's desire to "amaze, surprise and astonish," and his emotional dishonesty: "I have never thought that the Blue Period had anything of great quality. The pictures are absolutely full of false feeling." Like Balzac's fictional master Frenhofer, Freud wanted his portraits not merely to resemble their subjects, but to become them:

I know my idea of portraiture came from dissatisfaction with portraits that resembled people. I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having a look of the sitter, being them. ... As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does.

Freud was also typically experimental in his uncertainty as to when a painting was finished. When Gayford asked if he was pleased or sorry when a painting was completed, he answered: "I don't think that I have either response. I'm more worried in case it isn't really finished."

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Lucian Freud, Self-Portrait with a Black Eye (1978)