The British artist pushed his life and art to the limitby Robert Douglas-Fairhurst / August 28, 2020 / Leave a comment
Towards the end of his life, Lucian Freud attended the 80th birthday party of a friend, where a little girl was told not to touch him. “I’m not an object,” he protested. Perhaps she’d mistaken him for one of his portraits, because over the previous decades no artist had been better at manipulating canvas and paint to give the illusion of real human bodies, stilled lives. Everything about a self-portrait like Reflection (1985), from its intent pink-rimmed eyes to the shiny patch on its forehead, makes it look as if it is not a painting but a person, who is on the verge of leaning out of the frame to touch the viewer—though whether to kiss them or headbutt them it is hard to say.
All portraits are more than simple objects. A portrait is the representation of one body that has been created by the touch of another; it is a silent duet, a stationary pas de deux. That is why, in Freud’s view, not everyone was a suitable subject to be painted by him. It is also why, according to William Feaver in the superb second volume of this eye-opening biography, Freud’s quest for people to be persuaded or seduced into sitting for him never ceased. Actually there usually wasn’t much sitting involved once Freud had managed to get you into his studio. Most models were expected to remove their clothes and splay themselves on a bed or a pile of rags, often holding uncomfortable poses for hours at a time. And if they were young and female Freud didn’t restrict himself to touching up their portraits. Sometimes he would come close and fondle their bones and muscles like “a trainer in a racing stable running a hand idly over brisket and withers.” At other times he went further still. “To sit was to serve, more often than not in more than one capacity,” Feaver writes, evenly.
Some models failed to return once they realised that, although Freud was fascinated by their bodies, their own names would never appear in any catalogue or gallery; they were merely a way for the portrait to achieve…