Arnon Grunberg



On Lucian – Gaby Wood in LRB:

“Leafing through a book of Freud’s works on paper I came across a portrait of someone I knew: Freud’s daughter Esther. It was just like her. Or rather, it was and it wasn’t. It shared with many of Freud’s etched portraits a contorted nose, irregular upper lip, eyes deep-set in cross-hatched shadow and curious scratches within the cheek that looked less like contours than defacements. As an offering it was almost an insult. Yet there was an uncanniness to the resemblance, which was all the odder for having been recorded thirty years earlier, when Esther was in her late twenties. It seemed to me like a premonition of Esther as she is now. I could make no sense of the image up close; the marks defied all conventions. It was a portrait that shouldn’t add up. I fell asleep with the book in my lap, trying to work out where in the dense, rackety lines the likeness lay.”


“But, discombobulated by the coincidence, I asked her about the portrait. She said she had it at home somewhere, not on display, and had never liked it. ‘I felt my father had seen what I was trying to hide, that I was unhappy,’ she wrote to me afterwards. ‘It was that pivotal age, 27/28, when life often shifts you from one stage to another, and can be very uncomfortable. I’d developed an allergy to a medication and my skin had flared up, which had stopped my acting career, such as it was, and forced me to focus on writing, something I’d been trying to avoid doing. I’d hoped the scars of all this didn’t show, but he saw them. Which also shows how enticing it was to sit for him. Because even though I felt self-conscious about my appearance, the very act of sitting was irresistible.’”


“Caroline Blackwood, who was married to Freud in the 1950s, pointed out that he had an ability to make people and objects seem ‘more themselves, and more like themselves, than they have ever been – or likely will be’. ‘When Freud paints a sink,’ she wrote, ‘it gives off a “sinkishness” so powerful, it seems to exceed what even sinks can exude.’ She argued that Freud’s portraits were ‘prophecies rather than snapshots of the sitter as physically captured in a precise historical moment’. Bruce Bernard, who knew Freud from adolescence, also described the portraits as ‘prophetic’. ‘In the past,’ Blackwood wrote in 1993, ‘this was not so obvious because his prophecies had not yet become so dire and grim. When I used to sit for him nearly forty years ago the portraits he did of me in that period were received with an admiration that was tinged with bafflement. I myself was dismayed, others were mystified why he needed to paint a girl, who at that point still looked childish, as so distressingly old.’”


“When Freud returned to etching in 1982 it was as part of an attempt to save his mother’s life. The immediate occasion was Gowing’s monograph: in order to cover the costs of production the publisher suggested Freud make prints to accompany one hundred deluxe editions. Freud had recently sat for Frank Auerbach, who had taken up etching in 1980 and was making portrait heads out of agglomerated dashes on several superimposed plates. Freud resolved to try etching again as a result. It was the year he turned sixty. He made several prints and editioned four for the Gowing monograph, the strongest of which, a portrait of his mother, remains one of the most extraordinary portraits he produced in any medium.”


“ For years, Freud’s mother was his main daytime subject (he described himself as ‘working from my mother’). Lucie Freud sat for her son more than a thousand times before her death in 1989.”


“In particular Freud seems to have grappled with the top of Leigh Bowery’s skull in 1994 – Balakjian erased and proofed it in five permutations – and with the head of his daughter Bella in 1995. In the case of the latter, we see her face in three distinct variants, alongside two proofs with her head erased. Freud drew and painted Bella often; for this particular print she sat three times a week. In each of the three states she looks like a different person, and the size of her head relative to the rest of her body shifts too. It feels like something of a revelation to be let in on Freud’s difficulty and persistence.”


“Several months after we first spoke about her father’s work, Esther lent an etching to the Freud Museum for an exhibition and put in its place on her wall the portrait of herself she had so disliked. She found herself looking at it for the first time in many years. She recognised it as a portrait both of her past self and of the person she had been about to become. ‘With the etching, he caught a sort of melancholy, some damage and disappointment,’ she acknowledged. ‘But now I look at it, I also see that I was young, and that there was another side of myself, inside, that was going to burst through, as it did. Into a life that suited me so much more than the life I’d been living.’”

Read the article here.

This a delightful sentence: ‘In particular Freud seems to have grappled with the top of Leigh Bowery’s skull…’

And the article is an invitation to read Esther Freud’s books, or to reread them.

In 2017 I did a series of articles about nude models (women and men, the men were in the minority, but sometimes men must be in the minority.) You can read the first installment here – only in Dutch. I interviewed the model while he or she was sitting. Sometimes I became a nude model myself. A fairly pleasant experience, but the painter was not Lucian Freud.

Now back to Freud, the mother as a daytime subject, now that’s love. Or work. Or both. After the mother the daughter. Or in between. We die in installments.

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