Wednesday, December 29, 2010


As a resource for the holiday break I packed up a stack of books to bring home with me before I left my office at the library. This new one from Thames & Hudson is called Man with a Blue Scarf : On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud by the British arts journalist Martin Gayford. The author's fellow arts journalists have, I think, reviewed the text more favorably than it deserves. All the same, the illustrations (50 color, 14 black and white) are in my opinion genuinely super – using a relatively new mass market technology that allows fine-grain color printing on the same matte paper-stock as the rest of the book. Robert Calasso's Tiepolo Pink from Knopf in 2009 was the first example of this innovation that I personally came across (and wrote about here).

Lucian Freud, now 88, still paints all day every day, scheduling separate sitters (either people or animals) in the mornings, afternoons and evenings. Gayford's book is certainly entertaining as celebrity gossip (various grand personages pop in and out of the studio and Freud reminisces engagingly about various others). It's the serious side of the book that's irritating – ponderous generalizations about the nature of art, buttressed by bland quotations from B-grade writers who are invariably identified as "the well-known author" or "the eminent critic."

Another of the excellent reproductions is this unfinished Freud portrait from 1956-57 of his lifelong friend Francis Bacon. I had never come across this work before (though it sold at a well-publicized auction in 2008 for several million pounds) and was pleased to add it my mental stock of Bacon images. Much more familiar (below) was the tiny portrait Freud made of Bacon in 1952.

This was painted on copper in Freud's early meticulous style. It had found a happy home in London's Tate Collection. Then in 1988 it was loaned for a Freud retrospective at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, where it was stolen off the museum wall (during open hours – somebody apparently just pocketed it) and has never so far resurfaced.

Above, Freud's self-portrait of the same period. His first one-man show took place in 1944, and he has gone in and out of fashion several times in the ensuing 65 years.

During all that time figure painting has been his unwavering endeavor, even during decades when the market despised it. These days, taste has firmly revolved back toward him again.