David Dawson rose to fame as the world’s most prominent artist’s assistant. He saw Lucian Freud virtually every day for two decades.
Now Dawson and I are musing on life after our friend, who died in July 2011. Dawson is stepping out of his master’s shadow to hold an exhibition of his own work.
We agree that Freud had the power not just to make you laugh when he said something funny, but also to carry on laughing for the rest of your life. (Martin Amis, I recall, said something similar about his father Kingsley.)
It is not so much that since Freud died we continue to chuckle at things he said, though he could be very funny. Freud said things that make you think for the rest of your life.
How about this, for example, on interior design: “In the end, nothing goes with anything. It’s your taste that puts things together.” Or this, on a fellow painter (who shall remain anonymous): “He has a quality that only the very best people and the very worst have: He’s absolutely shameless.”
From 1992 onward, Dawson organized the practical details of Freud’s life, sitting for seven pictures, taking a series of magnificent photographs of Freud at work, and usually ending the day by eating dinner with the painter at the Wolseley.
For the final two years of Freud’s life, Dawson posed naked virtually every morning on a mattress with his pet, a whippet named Eli, for the painter’s last unfinished picture, “Portrait of the Hound 2011.”
Though Dawson, born 1960, is a painter by training -- he was at the Royal College of Art at the same time as Tracey Emin -- this schedule left limited time for him to work on his own pictures.
Even posthumously, Freud’s career makes demands.
Dawson was co-curator of the retrospective last year at the National Portrait Gallery in London and in Fort Worth, Texas. Another big Freud show opens at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, on Oct. 8.
An exhibition of Dawson’s own pictures has opened at Marlborough Contemporary, London W1. The first thing to say about his work is it doesn’t look much like the art of Lucian Freud.
“One thing I learned from Lucian is that you have to find your own language,” he says. “Maybe it was a bit difficult for me to do that while Lucian was still around, because my job was to make sure he was functioning.”
Freud was above all a painter of people. Lucian, as Dawson put it, “was fascinated by people, and enjoyed the company of certain individuals.” Conversely, he fled the presence of others whom he labeled “ghastly.”
An art dealer recalls that one day Freud told him he liked his gallery, the reason being nothing to do with the work on show, but “because it has two exits.”
Dawson’s work, in contrast, turns out to be almost entirely based on landscape. The work in the exhibition comes from three locations, one of them a farm in Montgomeryshire, a quiet rural area of Wales. Of these hills, Dawson says, “No one’s ever painted this part of the world before. I feel it’s mine.”
There are also pictures of Kensal Rise, an almost equally unknown part of northwest London (artistically speaking), and New York viewed from a terrace above Central Park. The canvases are large, his brushwork bold and free.
If you had to guess an influence, it might be Willem de Kooning, but certainly not Freud. For Dawson, he reflects, “this feels like the beginning of something.”
“David Dawson: London, Wales, New York” is at Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albemarle Street, W1S 4BY until Oct. 5. Information: +44-20-7629-5161 or http://www.marlboroughfineart.com
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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