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.
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.