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Lucian Freud & Michael Auping

Lucian Freud in conversation with Michael Auping

Worried that I would be late for our first meeting, I arrived in front of Lucian Freud’s house forty minutes early. I walked up and down the street for thirty-eight minutes, at which point I rang his doorbell. The door opened, and the artist said with a straight face. ‘You are two minutes early.’ He was exactly right. Whatever other characteristics I had heard about Freud’s personality, and there were many, he was precise.

That precision, along with a need not to talk for the sake of talking, is reflected in the conversations that follow. Freud was never big on interviews, preferring that his paintings speak for themselves. He spent his days - almost every day in fact - painting, two sessions a day, and had little time to talk. When he did speak, however, there was an unpretentious gravity to his words.

I was struck by how Freud would take long pauses before answering a question. Not for lack of attention on his part, but because he felt there was no reasonable answer. Indeed, on a few occasions he would simply not answer a question, and without apology, so I moved on to another. The best way to get to Freud to talk was to show him an image, because he was specific in a very visual way. I took along lots of colour illustrations of his work, as well as that of Cézanne, Titian, Courbet and Chardin, among others - artists I knew, or thought I knew, that he admired. After the first interview, I returned several times, conducting a total of four interviews over a two-year period.

I noticed over the course of these interviews that Freud would subtly rephrase basic, but key, themes regarding the importance of not working from photography but from people, having them near him and interacting with him as he worked, and never being judgemental of redundancies,  but elaborations, determined echoes of the importance of these issues; always deflecting the focus from himself to his subjects.

All the interviews took place in the artist’s studio, and if this introduction can offer anything beyond Freud’s thoughtful responses, it is in establishing a context for our interviews. Freud’s house/studio is remarkably compelling place - the antithesis of the over-large contemporary art loft. Narrow, carpeted stairs with paint stains lead up to a two-room studio. Paint (and the smell of paint) is everywhere: on the floor, on the walls, on tables and on parts of chairs. You might want to take one of the many rags that are scattered about the studio and wipe down your seat before you sit.

There is an intimacy about the studio that is unlike any other I have visited. Sitting in this space, it is hard not to think about the complex, psychological nature of portraiture. After all, we generally think of art, particularly painting, as a private affair. In portraiture, of course, a collaborator is involved. In this space, that person - body and soul - would be ever present. That thought was a subtext for many of the questions I asked Freud.

From the very first time I entered Freud’s studio, there were two paintings in progress on easels: one of a female nude, and a larger one of a male nude, his friend and assistant David Dawson. We sat in front of the latter for all four interviews, and from visit to visit the painting slowly came to focus. David’s body began as a kind of centrifugal knot in the centre of the canvas. It gradually expanded outwards to the point that another canvas section was added. David’s dog Eli also found his way into the picture. The paint surface became thicker and more scumbled. As the interviews took place over two years, Dawson’s body and persona became more present. I imagine that this is how it was for Freud during the long process of making a portrait. As he painted people - acquaintances, friends and family - they became increasingly present in his life. It is hard to describe, but it is that ‘presentness’ we sense in his paintings. I have nothing but gratitude to Freud for allowing me a small insight into that process. MA 


7 May 2009


Michael Auping In your early work, you were very meticulous - not that you aren’t still, but it’s a different kind of meticulousness.


Lucian Freud In those days I didn’t work over the whole image and bring up the parts together, as I tend to do now. I would work on a part until I got it how I thought it should be and then move to another part. I didn’t go over the same area very often. I did it until I got it right.


MA The details tend to jump out at you.


LF I was visually aggressive. I would sit very close and stare. It could be uncomfortable for both of us. I was afraid that I didn’t pay very strict attention to every one of the things that attracted my eye the whole painting would fall apart. I was learning to see and I didn’t want to be lazy about it.


MA Looking at Girl with Roses [1947-8, cat.8], the hair on your wife Kitty is amazing. You must have used a very small brush.


LF Yes. I was fascinated by hair. I thought of it like fur on people.


MA Some of the heads are quite large in the early portraits.


LF Well, I only did heads of people in the early days so I probably felt I should get the most out of them. I sometimes looked so hard at a subject that they would undergo an involuntary magnification.


MA Is that part of the psychology of portrait painting or part of wanting as a young artist to create a unique style of portrait?


LF Well, I only did heads of people in the early days so I probably felt I should get the most out of them. I sometimes looked so hard at a subject that they would undergo an involuntary magnification.


MA Is that part of the psychology of portrait painting or part of wanting as a young artist to create a unique style of portrait?


LF I don’t think style has anything to do with portrait painting. Portrait painting has to do with people; how they are, what they look like, the character of their presence in the room with you. You have to trust what you see and what you feel.


MA Is it a pretty thin line between being expressive of what you see and feel, and creating a credible likeness?


LF What is credible to you may not be to me, if you know what I mean. I never put anything into a picture that I don’t actually see when I’m painting a subject. However, I’m not trying to make a copy of the person. I’m trying to relay something of who they are as a physical and emotional presence. I want the paint to work as flesh does. If you don’t over-direct your models and you focus on their physical presence, interesting things often happen. You find that you capture something about them that neither of you knew.


MA Your wife Kitty was also a model in Girl with a White Dog [1950-1, cat.11], and she appears to be posing. What can you tell me about the early portrait?


LF I’m not sure, but I think it was the nearest thing to a nude I have done up to that point.


MA How did this pose come about? Did you ask her to reveal just one breast?


LF I didn’t direct her that specifically. It’s difficult to say how a pose comes about any portrait. It just happens. We come to an agreement. I usually ask them to hold a pose based on something I see that seems new or odd to me. It’s usually not what they think I’m looking at. I suppose you might say we exploit each other. I am allowed to make a painting based on their presence in my studio, and they are allowed to make that presence known in different ways.


MA Her skin is so milky, and the dog looks like an albino.


LF The dog was quite white, as it Kitty - two shades of white. That made it more difficult to paint, actually. Throughout the portrait, I was very attracted to the mole just above her breast. It stood out against the skin. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.


MA Strange. I didn’t really notice it until now. Do you ever use photographs to help you with details?


LF No. I find photography too abstract. I always have the model in front of me, even when I’m painting the background.


MA Let me ask you about this painting of Francis Bacon [1952]. It’s very touching, not the Bacon I think of.


LF As I did in many early portraits, I sat very close to him, face to face.


MA Like the portraits of Kitty, his hair is remarkably delineated. It’s so fine.


LF Yes, against that rather fleshy face. He had a very interesting, asymmetrical face. Everyone thought of time as a blur, but he had a very specific face. I remember wanting to bring Bacon out from behind the blur. I wanted to know him not just as an art world person, but as … I don’t know … as a friend I suppose. I have often painted people because I want to know them.


MA When you are doing a portrait of someone, I assume you get to know them well.


LF Getting to know them is part of doing the portrait. These portraits can take a very long time. A relationship always develops. It can be difficult, as well. I can be very demanding. Not everyone would want to do it. Generally, they must have some curiosity about the process. When I meet someone, the first thing I do is wonder whether they could sit for me, and whether I could be with them. It also comes down to three practical things: they need to be punctual, patient and nocturnal.


MA Quite a few of your sitters are family and friends, so you already know a lot about them.


LF They know a lot about me.


MA Does that information come into the portrait?


[Long pause]


LF I don’t try to represent what I think I know about them. I would rather learn something new. Doing a portrait is about seeing what you didn’t see before. It can be extraordinary how much you can learn from someone, and perhaps about yourself, by looking very carefully at them, without judgement. You must make judgements about the painting, but not about the subject.


MA You must sometimes be tempted to exaggerate an idiosyncrasy to make a point.


LF I react to what is there. I don’t make anything up. Having said that, there are so many things to react to in a portrait. There are so many qualities to a person - not only their features and gestures, but how their size and demeanour relate to you and the room. What I choose to select of all these qualities could be considered an exaggeration, but it isn’t. It’s my selection of qualities that I see. There is also a subtle aura that can be seen in different people. I don’t mean that in a religious or mystical sense at all. It’s a presence you can sometimes capture with paint. That’s why I have to have the model always in the room, even when I’m painting the background.


MA Do you talk to them while you are painting?


LF Sometimes.


MA What do you talk about?


LF Life. I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but we just talk like people talk. We don’t talk that much, just when there is a need to relax. A single sitting can take hours. It can be an exhausting process for both of us. I need that much time. It’s selfish, I suppose, but it is a very slow process.


MA There must be a kind of get-acquainted process. I assume they need to decide a position, and you can’t begin painting until that is established. How does that work? At what point do you begin painting?


LF It’s different in each case. Once they relax, most people will decide a pose quite quickly. Leigh Bowery seemed to know exactly what he wanted to do and simply assumed different positions that we could agree on.


MA Was it his choice or yours to do a nude?


LF His. At our first sitting, he had his clothes off before I could say anything.


MA You also did a portrait of the Queen [2001, fig.70] …


LF She was very generous. She cleared her calendar for a proper amount of time. We did the portrait at St James’s Palace, where we could be left alone. I remember that while we were working, men would come and mow the lawn and trim bushes near us. Then they would come the next day and do the same thing again. I finally realised that it was her security. For someone to be alone with the Queen for that amount of time is not normal .


MA Did she sit for the whole portrait?


LF Almost. At a certain point, when I was far enough along with her face, she was able to go on about her business. But I did borrow her tiara and put it on someone just about her size so I could finish the portrait. She was very kind.


9 December 2009


MA I want to start by asking what your perception of America is, since I will writing from a specifically American viewpoint.


LF I liked America when I visited. I haven’t spent much time there - I’m always painting. I used to wonder if they liked my paintings.


MA Why is that?


LF I’m not sure. America moves so quickly and I move so slowly. Perhaps that has something to do with it.


MA American art seems more conceptual or maybe more deadpan in a large, even grand way. Your work seems so visceral.


LF I hope so.


MA Can we talk about the relationship between the psychological aspects of portrait painting and craftsmanship, rendering something almost as if it were a photograph? Do those two aspects compete?


LF I don’t think so because I don’t think of painting as craftsmanship. Painting has as much to do with luck. I’m  not interested in a painting that looks like a photograph. I want my paintings to feel like people. I want the paint to feel like flesh.


MA Do you think flesh has a psychological aspect?


LF Yes, I suppose. Painting is always psychological. At least it is to me when it is going well. When it’s going poorly, it’s nothing. Of course, the process of learning to paint gets you involved with tradition, with prejudice, memory, with all sorts of things, but to have the person there in front of me, to try to understand their presence beyond clichés helps me to get around all those things. I need to be in a room with a person. I don’t want them to be passive, if you know what I mean. There has to be a living presence for my paintings to be successful.


MA Do you think the relationship between a painter and a model can ever be passive, a simple matter of posing and painting?


LF Actually, no. However, some people will tell you that it is, and I’m sure they believe it. But there is too much going on that is being communicated in subtle ways to call it a passive situation.


MA Did your grandfather Sigmund ever see your paintings?


LF Yes. Early on. He was very encouraging.


MA Do you ever interpret your work through his theories?


LF I’m not very theoretical.


MA It seems like it would be difficult to have Sigmund Freud in your background.


LF My relationship with my grandfather has never been a problem. We got on fine. Nothing unusual, really. The problem has been the relationship of other people, art critics etc., with my grandfather. Somehow I am made responsible for their relationship with him and his ideas.


MA Do you direct your sitters to strike specific pose?


LF You cannot make a person stand or sit exactly as you want or as you think you want. They will do it their own way, even if it is subtle. They are communicating with their body. I look for those things I haven’t seen before; what he did with that arm or that leg, trying to identify why it is different. Sometimes it takes me a very long time to see it, but despite my slowness I will eventually see it.


MA So your sitters find their own pose and then you begin to paint.


LF It’s not quite that simple. There is a process. When you first start a painting, a sitter will often feel they need to act, and they will try to pose. If someone is really posed, it’s not that interesting, too much like acting. There is something stiff and artificial. If I then try to direct, they will also become a bit rigid. So I try to let them move around a bit to get through certain obvious positions. Also, because they will have to hold the position for many hours over many weeks, they have to be comfortable.


MA Do you move around when you are doing a portrait, move around in the room, back and forth between the sitter and your easel?


LF Yes. In the beginning, I often sat very close, and we were both very still. Then, when I loosened up my brush stroke, I think that was when I started to move around more. I find now if I take too fixed a position, I lose the person, if you know what I mean. The painting will begin to flatten. I feel a need to see as much of the subject as I can, sometimes from different angles. A portrait isn’t just a flat image. It is a person. It needs to have dimension.


MA And how do you give a portrait dimension?


LF Well, you do it with paint, I don’t mean to facetious.


MA I know what you mean, and your paintings have a remarkably strong material presence. The skin of your figures is palpable.


LF I like skin. It’s so unpredictable.


MA It seems to me that the way you use colour to portray skin is very distinctive. You used a lot of colour, but you also use a lot of white.  


LF That’s true. I remix my colours for almost every brush stroke. I don’t want a single colour to dominate. I don’t use colour symbolically. I use it to give life to the figure.


MA Given your interest in skin, it’s logical that you would do a lot of nudes.


LF I think the nudes have to do with making a larger, more complete portrait. It’s a more specific portrait, I can simply see more of the person. Anyone can put on different clothes. The naked body is somewhat more permanent, more factual.


MA Is it more difficult to paint a nude? It seems there wouldn’t be any easy passages covered by broad areas of cloth.


LF All portraits are difficult for me. But a nude presents different challenges. When someone is naked, there is in effect nothing to be hidden. You are stripped of your costume, as it were. Not everyone wants to be that honest about themselves. That means I feel an obligation to be equally honest in how I represent their honesty. It’s a matter of responsibility. I’m not trying to be a philosopher. I’m more of a realist. I’m just trying to see and understand the people that make up my life. I think of my painting as a continuous group portrait.


MA I would think that it is more difficult to do a nude of a member of your family.


LF Why?


MA I’m just thinking that there would be more emotional baggage, that it would be more complicated psychologically.


LF I suppose you could say it is easier because they are more available to me.


MA In terms of painting girlfriends or wives or painting nudes in general, do you find that erotic feelings become involved?


LF Of a sort, yes. It’s inescapable. It’s not something that you should deny. I think it becomes more erotic if you try not to allow it to be erotic. Don’t you? If you are not particularly religious or prudish or shy, eroticism is a part of ordinary life.


MA I have known a couple of people in America who have been a little taken aback by the nude of your daughter.


LF That’s the painting of Rose [1978-9, fig, 36], yes, one of my daughters.


MA I think that kind of intimacy with a family member would be difficult for some Americans. It’s a kind of taboo.


LF I’m not sure I understand your question.


MA Well, I think that some might say the images implies a sexual connotation.


LF I see. That is different than intimacy, I think. Painting my daughter was a way of being with her. She chose to sit in the nude, and she found a pose that allowed her to relax. She was always in this state of just waking up. I always felt it was a strong painting, whether it is because it is of my daughter I don’t know. When I become immersed in the process of painting someone, I can lose their relationship to me and just see them as beings, as animals. I’m interested in them as animals in the natural sense, if you know what I mean.


MA I do. Like one living thing among other living things, animals, people - on one level they are the same. Quite a few animals show up in your pictures alongside people.


LF. Yes. I quite like the comparisons that arise.


MA And you have done a number of single portraits of horses.


LF I’m very fond of horses. I came to England when I was nine or ten. I couldn’t speak English. I went to a school that had a farm. I was a loner, and spent a number of my nights with the horses. I would put a blanket over the both of us. If a horse was ill, I used to sleep with it.


MA That’s a nice place to end.

8 December 2010


MA This painting of David [Dawson, 2011, cat.114] that you have been working on for the past year or so - it seems bigger than when I was last here.


LF It is. I added another section of canvas. The figure was too confined. It needed more room.


MA It seems a lot of the time you like a certain compression to the figures. You frame the figure very carefully, creating a kind of tension.


LF That’s true, but in this case don’t you think the figure feels more full? I do think the space around the figure is part of the figure. I often find myself wondering what the boundaries of a body are.


MA That issue of space and figure seem particularly apparent in your self-portraits. Here is an image of the self-portrait Interior with Hand-Mirror [(Self-Portrait), 1967, cat.33]. Your face is compressed inside this hand-mirror, which is balanced on its handle near a window.


LF Yes. There is almost a double space in that self-portrait - the space of the mirror and the space framed by the window. It is a little more complicated. I began the self-portraits the same way I began the other portraits, with just the head. I used the hand-mirror because it was easy to work with, but also because I wanted to make it clear that I was looking in a mirror. It put me in the distance, as it were, almost in the background.


MA In a way, the same is true of this other self-portrait, Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening [(Self-Portrait), 1967-8, cat.36].


LF Quite.


MA Why would you be looking from behind a plant?


LF I was very interested in the plant, but I didn’t want to do a still life. So I put myself in and made it a portrait.


MA Why do you have your hand to your ear as if you are listening for something? The whole thing looks very mysterious.


LF I wanted to be doing something rather than simply stand and stare. It was a way to create little drama. It’s a challenge to create action in painting without exaggerating movement, which could seem trite. So I thought this small gesture of lifting my hand to my ear would suggest a kind of action in the room.


MA Talking about movement, some of your subjects sit very still and some seem to be expressing quite a lot of movement or action. How do you decide - this idea of the action or the pose - and how much is required?


LF Every painting and every sitter is different. Some people are naturally more active and more physical in a performative way. I don’t think the people who just sit are less interesting. They have a different kind of presence, a different weight and countenance. Also, a certain kind of movement is inevitable, a vibration, if you will. Stillness in painting is an illusion just as movement in a painting is an illusion. There is always a lot going on when you are painting a living person. One of the difficult think about portrait painting is that you must ask people to stay still, but they can’t, at least not completely. People are always in movement, even when they are asleep. Their breathing is movement. When you are looking very carefully, you see it and sense it. It isn’t as though you try to capture it. It just comes through in the painting. This is one of the reasons why painting is different from a photograph.


MA Photographs are static.


LF Yes, you could say that.


MA Let me return to the subject of your self-portraits. You don’t seem to want to flatter yourself.


LF I paint what I see.


MA This Portrait with a Black Eye, 1978 …


LF I thought it was interesting to paint damaged skin.


MA It must be difficult to paint yourself and not smooth things over. We usually see what we want to see.


LF Quite. I use different mirrors, and I try to see myself in unexpected ways, the person I can’t or don’t want to see in my mind. I try to paint what is actually there. I feel a certain obligation to do the self-portraits. It keeps me honest. It helps me to appreciate what I put my models through. It also helps me to see other people better.


MA You have also done a number of portraits of your mother, which seems like it might be even harder than painting yourself.


LF There came a time that I could be with her, and I thought that I should do so. Doing her portrait allowed me to be with her. I suppose I felt I needed her to forgive me. I tried to be unavailable to her when I was young. She was very intelligent and highly observant. I felt oppressed by her because she was very instinctive and I’ve always been very secretive. It was hard to keep things from her. The idea of her knowing what I was doing or thinking bothered me a great deal. So it was a strained relationship. When my father died she tried to kill herself. She had given up. So to answer my question, ‘Was it difficult’, I would say no.  I actually felt I could finally be with her because she lost interest in me.


MA When you painted her, did you tend to see yourself in her?


LF I tried not to. I tried to see her as a separate person.


MA About how many paintings do you make a year?


LF Not many. I never have, even when my paintings were selling well and yet I was poor and needed the money. I used to gamble - horses, card. I lost what money I had. I still painted very slowly.


MA I read that. But now all of your paintings sell and you have a lot of money. But you still paint at the same slow pace.


LF Yes. But I don’t gamble any more. It’s not that much fun gambling when you’re rich. It’s more fun when you’re broke, if you know what I mean.


MA Yes. On that note, let’s stop for now.


27 January 2011


MA I’d like to talk about this studio. It has a very intimate feeling about it. You can almost sense an erotic or emotional energy.


LF You can? Good.


MA It’s the bed, the privacy of the place. It’s small. It’s like we are in an attic where secrets are hidden.


LF I think of it as rather large. I’ve worked in much smaller spaces.


MA It has almost a mise-en-scéne quality about it. It’s like an intimate scene from a play is about to take place. I imagine people would be inspired to act out here.


LF Yes. Sometimes they do.


MA Do you think of this space as a kind of stage set?


LF Not literally, no. It has some old furniture that I have used for years. It has evolved over the years to accommodate different types of portrait. I try to make people feel comfortable.


MA I guess what I was thinking was that this space sets the stage, as it were, for a drama - not a narrative, but a drama - to take place between you and your sitter.


LF Yes, I think that is true. I have always been interested in bringing a certain kind of drama to portraiture, the kind of drama that I have found in paintings of the past. If a painting doesn’t have drama, it doesn’t work. It is just paint out of a tube.


MA What past painters have you most admired?  


LF I don’t think we have the time. [Long pause] The Titian painting that just came down from Scotland [Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9] - I saw it recently, have you? It’s very moving. There is something about the elbows and the knees in that painting that makes me think about composition.


MA You have spent a lot of time in the galleries of the National Gallery, I know.


LF I have a night pass. I can go through by myself, quietly. I’m very fortunate.


MA Do you get ideas walking through museums?


LF Artists have always been inspired by earlier artists, and even the best have borrowed from their predecessors, but usually you don’t know it. It’s usually the small, less obvious things that attract an artist’s eye - where a hand or an arm moves in an unusual way. Great paintings make you wonder how the body communicates. You wonder if the body could or would actually do that, don’t you think?


MA You have titled a painting Large Interior, W II (after Watteau) [1981-3, cat. 62].


LF Yes. The original Watteau painting is Pierrot Content, in the Thysseen Collection.


MA How closely does you painting resemble the Watteau?


LF I’m not sure, but I don’t remake an artist’s painting, even if I admire it. That wouldn’t benefit either artist. The Watteau made me think about doing a family portrait. It was ambitious, partly because it is quite large, and also because I had to gather family.


MA Did you choreograph them?


LF Well, the Watteau painting helped me think about how a group of figures could be brought together as a composition. Of course, it never works out quite how you thought it would. You are dealing with living people, not still-life elements. They have their own ideas about how they should relate to each other. They choreographed themselves as themselves, you might say.


MA It must be more difficult to paint multi-figure portraits.


LF It is.  That’s why you don’t see as many of them.


MA You also did this painting After Cézanne [2000, cat.98]. What inspired that?


[Very long pause]


MA What do you think of when you think of a Cézanne?


LF The illusion of simplicity. He can make complex things seem very understandable.


MA Your painting After Cézanne has a certain amount of theatre to it. The people in the picture seem very demonstrative - the male looks away angry, it seems; a chair is turned over; the large figure coming in with tea, it suggests a narrative. Is there a narrative?


LF Not a specific narrative. It’s more of a dynamic between figures. The composition developed over time. I rather liked the tension with each figure making a simple gesture. It works as a painting, I think, and it suggests different psychological readings. It became very alive when I extended the canvas and added the standing figure moving in.


MA Do you think portraiture is a kind of static theatre?


[Long pause]


LF I hope it is not theatre in a contrived way. But I think I know what you mean. It is a kind of unconscious theatre. In an ancient world, painting and theatre would probably be considered very close.


MA I told someone that we were doing an exhibition of your portraits and they said, ‘But Lucian Freud isn’t a portrait painter. He is a painter of people.’


LF I rather thought that portrait painting was the painting of people. I don’t know what portrait painting would be if it weren’t about people.


MA Should we go to lunch on that?

Published with the permission of the author

© Michael Auping