One-Minute Book Reviews

October 25, 2010

‘Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud’ — Art Critic Martin Gayford Sees Himself on Canvas

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:55 am
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A British critic’s diary having his portrait painted

Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud. By Martin Gayford. With 64 illustrations. Thames & Hudson, 256 pp., $40.

By Janice Harayda

Edgar Degas once lamented the injustice of having his paintings judged by art critics who had never earned their living with a brush and palette. “What a fate!” he said. “To be handed over to writers!”

Fewer painters might complain if they had interpreters as intelligent and forbearing as the British art critic Martin Gayford. Between November 2003 and April 2005, Gayford spent about 250 hours posing for an oil painting and an etching by Lucian Freud, whose ego appears to rival the late Norman Mailer’s. The experience fell “somewhere between transcendental meditation and a visit to the barber’s,” at least if your barber knew Garbo and Picasso and after trimming your sideburns, wanted to have champagne and caviar with you at a high-toned London bistro.

Gayford appears to have relished the sittings even as they became an endurance test. Freud sat him in front of a black screen for the Man With a Blue Scarf and made him keep posing after the head was finished and only the space around it remained to be filled it.  He told Gayford: “The picture is absolutely about what your head is doing to that screen.” Freud drove himself as he did his sitter. In his early 80s, he was still painting standing up, working 10 hours a day, on five or six portraits at a time.

As the months wore on, Gayford kept the tedium at bay in part by drawing Freud into conversations on painting and other subjects. Should a picture resemble the sitter? “Likeness in a way isn’t the point, because whether or not a painting is a good likeness has nothing to do with its quality as a picture,” Freud replied. “For example, Rembrandt’s people all look alike in that they all have spiritual grandeur. You feel he did not steer very close to the actual appearance of the sitters.” If strict verisimilitude doesn’t matter, what does? Gayford quotes a comment Freud made decades earlier: “the picture, in order to move us, must never merely remind us of life, but must acquire life, a life of its own, precisely in order to reflect life.”

Man With a Blue Scarf takes the form of a graceful diary that says as much about being painted as about the painter. Gayford knew that a sense of mortality pervades Freud’s work: “Even images of the young and healthy are full of a sense of the soft vulnerability of flesh, its potential to sag and wither.” And his sittings might have turned in to a Dorian Gray tale, the story of a man horrified to see his sins emerge in his portrait. He needn’t have worried. Gayford liked the painting and sees in it the intensity of his interest in the process: “It’s me looking at him looking at me.”

Gayford shows a Boswellian refusal to troll for flaws in his subject’s work or character, and his book tends to reinforce Robert Hughes’s argument that Freud is the greatest living realist painter. But Man With a Blue Scarf, if flattering, isn’t hagiography. Gayford holds his fire elegantly, and his ability to do so appears heroic, not sycophantic, given that if he had not, we would clearly not have the first book-length account of sitting for a major artist since James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait in 1965. Art history would be richer if every great painter did a portrait of a critic who wrote about the experience.

Many questions linger about the making of this memoir. To what degree is the book authorized? Did Freud see the manuscript and request changes? How did Gayford reconstruct conversations that took place when he couldn’t have been holding a notebook? Whether or not the answers ever emerge, Man With a Blue Scarf is a fascinating study in the “remorselessly intimate” process of being painted. During the sittings, Gayford spent more time with Freud than with anyone except his wife and children. “I’m not sure whether it is filling a hole in my life,” he admits, “but it is enthralling.” For all the cabin fever that the sittings must have involved, Gayford makes you see why the process was thrilling.

Best line: No. 1: “It is an aspect of good pictures that it is impossible to memorize them. No matter how well you know them, they always seem different when you see them again …” No. 2: “The paradox of portraiture, especially this marathon variety, is that the target is always a moving one. Physiologically, and psychologically, a living being is always in a state of flux. Moods shift, energy levels go up and down, the body itself slowly ages.”

Worst line: Freud says Picasso was “no more than 5’ or 5’ 1’” and that much of his attitude toward life was affected by his being small. But Picasso’s height is often given as 5’4”, and Gayford doesn’t explain why he quotes a different figure. You don’t know whether he agrees with Freud or doesn’t want to correct him.

Caveat lector: The review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: October 2010

About the author: Gayford, the art critic for Bloomberg News in Europe, was the art critic for the Spectator and Sunday Telegraph. He talks about posing for Freud in an Acoustiguide recording used with a Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Man With a Blue Scarf and the etching made soon afterward, Portrait Head.

Furthermore: Lucian Freud is the grandson of Sigmund Freud. Robert Hughes wrote the text for Lucian Freud: Paintings which provides useful background for Man With a Blue Scarf.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the book columnist for Glamour. You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 29, 2010

The Value of Painting in an Age of Movies and Television — Quote of the Day / Robert Hughes’s ‘Lucian Freud’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:46 pm
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What value does painting have in an age of visual media that can reach many more people? Robert Hughes responds in his Lucian Freud: Paintings (Thames & Hudson, 2003), an excellent companion to Martin Gayford’s Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, which Thames & Hudson will publish in October:

“Painting is a sublime instrument of dissatisfaction, of dissent from any kind of visual orthodoxy and received idea, not excluding those of late modernist mannerism. No work of art can ever be experienced at first hand by as many people as a network news broadcast or the commercials that grout it. That does not matter. It never has. What does count is the energy and persistence with which painting can embrace not ‘empty value’ but lived experience of the world; give that experience stable form, measure and structure; and so release it, transformed, into one mind at a time, viewer by viewer, so that it can work as (among other things) a critique of the more ‘ideological’ and generalized claims of the mass media. There is no great work of art, abstract or figurative (and especially none figurative) without an empirical core, a sense that the mind is working on raw material that exists in the world at large, in some degree beyond mere invention. Painting is, one might say, exactly what mass visual media are not: a way of specific engagement, not general seduction.”

May 21, 2010

An Art Critic Poses for a Portrait by Lucian Freud / Quote of the Day From ‘Man With a Blue Scarf’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:03 am
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Next week booksellers will converge on New York for the trade show BookExpo America, where publishers roll out their summer and fall titles. One of the most noteworthy of the forthcoming books about art is Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud(Thames & Hudson, October 2010). Beginning in late 2003, the art critic Martin Gayford spent seven months posing for Lucian Freud, whom some regard as the greatest living realist. Gayford sat for two portraits and describes the experience in Man With a Blue Scarf. Here is an excerpt:

“The experience of posing seems somewhere between transcendental meditation and a visit to the barber’s. There is a rather pleasant feeling of concentrating and being alert, but no other need to do anything at all except respond to certain requests. ‘Would you mind moving your head just a little?’, ‘Could you move the scarf just an inch? As it is, it looks a little bit “dressed”.’At moments sitting seems almost an embarrassingly physical affair: an enterprise that concerns the model’s skin, muscles, flesh and also, I suppose – if there is such a thing – self.”

This excerpt comes from an advance reading copy of Man with a Blue Scarf. Some material in the finished book may differ.

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