Sunday, 17 October 2010

A Man with a Blue Scarf…and an Enthralling Book

I’ve just finished reading Martin Gayford’s Man with a Blue Scarf. On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud. A book which is part memoir, part biography and part art history. Gayford, an established art critic, has known Freud for several years and was surprised, but also thrilled, when the artist agreed to paint a portrait of him. Over the eight months of endless sittings Gayford studied and conversed with Freud, discovering from a unique perspective the working methods and artistic beliefs of unarguably one of our greatest living painters.

Freud is notorious for taking months, sometimes years, to complete a picture. A constant niggle in Gayford’s mind is that he might suddenly abandon the portrait, an occurrence which is not unknown with Freud. The gradual development of the picture, from a simple charcoal outline to the layered and complex oil of the finished work, is a fascinating process and highlights the artist’s working practices. The exact shade of the blue scarf is agonised over; blue is a strong colour for Freud and mustn’t upset the balance of the picture. The pink shirt is repeatedly repainted. The face is reshaped and slimmed down so it resonates perfectly with the ground. Freud’s absorbing attention to his sitter, both physically and mentally, is a timely lesson to us all of the value of close study and understanding of the people and objects which surround us.

Skewbald Mare, by Lucian Freud, 2004 (Chatsworth House Trust, LFA/John Riddy)

Slowly the painting is completed. All the while, through Freud and Gayford’s lively conversations and the writer’s reflections, we learn about Freud (he doesn’t like Leonardo and Vermeer, but he greatly admires Titian and Chardin), about his work (Freud allows very little distinction between the portrait of Gayford and an oil of a Skewbald Mare done at the same time – both are portraits in the true sense of the word), about portraiture (‘What, then, is a portrait painter painting? An individual who persists through time, or merely the way a ceaselessly mutating human organism appears in a particular time and place?’) and about the artist’s place in the historical canon (Gayford places Freud firmly, alongside Francis Bacon, in the Western tradition of art, inheritor of Van Gogh and Gaugin, Picasso and Matisse, and before that El Greco and Rembrandt).

 Lucian Freud, Man with a Blue Scarf and Martin Gayford, 14 June 2004 (Photo: David Dawson)

 The reader is carried through the portrait process towards the enthralling denouement when the picture is finished and the work passes from the private studio space into the public realm. And whilst Freud has created his oil painting, Gayford has created something just as valuable – a portrait in words of a great artist.

(Man with a Blue Scarf. On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, by Martin Gayford, Thames & Hudson, London, 2010)