Lucian Freud would have been one hundred years old this year. One of modern history’s greatest artists, Freud’s own brand of radical hyper-realism dragged figurative painting into the modern era. However, since his death in 2011, biographers have unveiled a number of stories about the artist’s private life and, more specifically, his troubling attitude towards women.
Given his position in the cultural pantheon, should Freud’s actions and attitudes affect how his artwork is perceived today? And is it ever possible to separate an artist’s conduct from the art they make? The National Gallery in London is honouring the Freud centenary with “Lucian Freud: New Perspectives“, a blockbuster exhibition of the painter’s work assembled by the gallery’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Projects, Daniel F. Herrmann.
Freud retrospectives are reliably frequent in the UK. The Tate Modern gallery staged “Lucian Freud: Real Lives” just last year. The Freud Museum in North London is currently hosting a selection of his paintings. I ask Herrmann how the new National show differs from others. “In the past 20 years, the impact and relevance of Freud’s actual paintings have sometimes almost been occluded by the attraction of his celebrity”, he says. “We want to change that. Our exhibition steps back from biography as the main mode of interpretation and tries to look critically at some of the conventional wisdom about Freud.”
Born into a rich Jewish family in Berlin in 1922, Lucian Freud’s parents fled the rise of Nazism in 1933, relocating first to Devon, then to London. One of Sigmund Freud’s three grandsons, the young Freud was precociously talented, skipping art classes to set himself up as a painter and illustrator by the age of 19. Family money, and a chunk of his grandfather’s book income, meant he could afford studio space, materials, and time. Family connections meant that he moved in London society’s upper echelons.
By the time he died in 2011, Freud had been married twice (first to sculptor Jacob Epstein’s daughter Kitty Garman, then to socialite and author Lady Caroline Blackwood), conducted numerous affairs, and fathered at least 14 children by six different women – although some estimates up the total to thirty.
Freud’s success as an artist is based, in part, on his belief that the human body must be viewed as an object that reflects the vicissitudes of life. He subjected his sitters to the utmost scrutiny. He rendered bodies unflinchingly, his acutely developed style revealing more than physical presence. He layered oil paint in swathes, blobs, and in minuscule touches to represent individuals as vulnerable and unadorned. Today, his artwork demands record-breaking prices.
Lucian Freud was a terrible father, and his womanising verged on misogyny. In his 2013 biography, “Breakfast With Lucian”, Freud confidant Geordie Greg describes how, when walking past diners in a restaurant with a friend, Freud took exception to a woman’s perfume, exclaiming loud enough for all to hear, “I hate perfume. Women should smell of one thing: c*nt. In fact, they should invent a perfume called c*nt.” Freud was in his seventies at the time.
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While teaching at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1978, Freud started an affair with one of his students. Celia Paul was 18 when they met. He was 56. Paul went on to become a successful artist in her own right, despite Freud asking her to abandon her calling and spend her life as his muse. In a 2012 interview with The Independent, Paul described their early days together, saying, “I really didn’t know anything about his womanising. I didn’t realise how predatory he was.” In her 2019 biography “Self Portrait” she wrote, of sitting as a model for Freud, “I felt exposed and hated the feeling. I cried throughout these sessions.” In his autobiography, “The Lives of Lucian Freud”, William Feaver notes that, with Freud, “to sit was to serve, more often than not in more than one capacity.”
Freud’s affair with Celia Paul wasn’t the first time he’d had an affair with a student while he was at the Slade. In 1958, he began a relationship with Suzy Boyt that resulted in five children. In 2014, Paul Freud, one of four children the painter had during another affair (this time with artist Katherine McAdam) failed in his attempt to claim a share in the £96m estate that his father left behind. Freud’s will named just two benefactors: his former solicitor Diana Rawstron and Rose Pearce, one of the children he had with Suzy Boyt.
Throughout his life, Lucian Freud exhibited the fearlessness and lack of inhibition that comes with privilege. He spent long hours painting, but he was also good fun; a poetry-reciting raconteur full of tales of late-night scrapes and celebrity hobnobbing. Like the time he went for a stroll with Greta Garbo. The night he spent in the Tottenham Court Road police cells after breaking into a West End theatre. How he persuaded Simone de Beauvoir to leave Jean-Paul Sartre drinking in the Colony Room so that he could show her around Soho. How he tattooed two swallows on Kate Moss’s back, and turned down a request from Andrew Lloyd Webber to paint his wife, Madeleine, after Webber had ”threatened” him with free tickets for his shows. How the Kray twins promised to cut off his hand over a gambling debt. The bus-stop fight with Laurie Lee. How he persuaded Jacquetta Eliot to have a child with him while she was married to the Earl of St Germans. How he fathered three children by three different women in one year (“I had a bike,” he told friends). In John Gruen’s 1991 essay collection, “28 Interviews with Contemporary Artists”, Freud told Gruen, “I have several children strewn about. But I only get the pleasure out of them. I take them out or go to see them, Basically I’m a loner. I do as I please.”
When author Julian Barnes wrote about Greig’s autobiography for The London Review of Books in 2013, he suggested that the stories about Freud’s private life in “Breakfast With Lucian” could “…harm the way we look at some of his paintings, and perhaps harm the paintings themselves.” I ask Herrmann if it’s possible to separate an artist’s attitudes to life from their artwork. “No artist’s life is completely separate from their work,” he says. “But even five hundred years after Vasari wrote his entertainingly embellished “Lives of the Artists”, we still often conflate the author with the work and too often explain the importance of a work merely through biographical anecdote instead of thinking about its wider relevance.” Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 book features biographies of more than a hundred artists working before and during the Renaissance period, with descriptions often including scraps of gossip and apocrypha.
Journalist and art critic Ashleigh Wilson is the author of “On Artists“. Published in 2019, his book examines the difficulties of separating an artist’s work from their behaviour. We discuss whether Freud’s reputation as a womaniser and absentee father should get in the way of his artwork. “If his work is to endure for future generations, it will of course owe more to the quality of his art than the colour of his character. After all, even in an age when moral judgement is shifting to a certain point of absolutism, it’s not necessary for us to admire the character of the artist in order to admire the art,” Wilson says, going on to point out that, if all well-regarded artists are held to similar high moral standards, the likes of Picasso and Mile Davis are up for inspection too.
”A bit of perspective matters: we’re not talking about Eric Gill, or Rolf Harris. But the response stands regardless. Even if we feel uncomfortable with the circumstances of a life, a greater awareness is now emerging that allows us to accept simultaneously the messy realities of humanity. Instead of an unnecessarily censorious duality – whether to ignore the life or denounce the work as a result of that life – we need to find a new middle ground where both concerns can exist side by side.” Gill died in 1940, and the diaries he left behind recorded incidents of incest and the sexual abuse of his daughters. In 2015, Harris was found guilty of indecent assault against young girls, some of whom were friends of his children.
What that middle ground is, though, is so far unclear. Julian Barnes concluded his 2013 piece by wondering if, over time, all the fuss around Lucian Freud’s conduct will have died down, saying, “Art tends, sooner or later, to float free of biography.” Fortunately, in an age committed to increasing discussions on women’s rights, coercion, and toxic masculinity, this remains untrue.
Simon Coates is a London-based freelance writer, with bylines in The New European, The National, Rock & Art and more.