Lucian Freud Can’t Stand Leonardo, Avoids the Races: Interview

Martin Gayford and Lucian Freud
Martin Gayford posing for Lucian Freud at his studio in London. Gayford's book, "Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud" speaks on his experience with Freud. Photographer: David Dawson/Thames and Hudson via Bloomberg

Lucian Freud has a lazy left eye, loves to eat game, and has a low opinion of Leonardo da Vinci.

Those revelations tumble out of a book about Freud -- the world’s most expensive living artist at auction -- by Martin Gayford, Bloomberg News’s chief art critic.

“Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud” looks back at the eight months Gayford spent posing. He didn’t get to keep the picture: It was sold to private collectors for an undisclosed price. A larger Freud portrait, “Bruce Bernard” (1992), sold for 7.9 million pounds ($12.5 million) at a Christie’s International sale in June 2007.

The 87-year-old Freud, a diminutive figure with a scarf knotted around his neck, made a brief appearance at the book’s London launch. He scanned the room and complimented a man on his green shirt.

The next day, I met the author at the Wolseley restaurant in Piccadilly -- where he often dined with Freud -- and began by asking why he sat for an artist known for magnifying the very features that humans work hard to conceal.

Gayford: You take your chances as to what kind of image comes out, because what he’s interested in is producing the best possible work of art.

I was pleasantly surprised by the painting in that respect. I thought it was quite an accurate and even flattering representation of me.

Nayeri: You didn’t fear that you might come out looking awful?

Gayford: I wondered: Is he going to notice certain things?

Nayeri: Like the hairs in your ears.

Gayford: Exactly.

He certainly did notice that my hair tends to be untidy, and if I turned up with it neatly combed, that would be ignored.

Chin Up

I also tried at one point keeping my chin up, because I could tell he was interested in the jowl that appeared under my chin.

Nayeri: Why are his portraits such a painstaking process?

Gayford: Artists have different speeds. There are some very fast painters. Van Gogh could paint a picture in an hour.

Lucian’s method involves a great deal of observation, a great deal of thought, and I think that’s what makes the result what it is. He has observed the subject for hundreds of hours, more than just the sittings usually.

Nayeri: Why do you think he’s a great painter?

Fresh Images

Gayford: He can do extraordinary things with paint, and is an absolute virtuoso. Although he’s a naturalistic painter -- and some would say late in the history of naturalistic painting to come along -- he produces, time and time again, images that are completely fresh. They’re not hackneyed, they’re not cliched, they’re not derived from anything.

Nayeri: Freud is a very expensive painter, which is part of the buzz around him. His “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” (1995) fetched $33.6 million at a Christie’s New York sale in May 2008. What does he think about that?

Gayford: I think he’s not displeased when one of his pictures makes a record price at auction, but you have to understand that he has been doing this since 1939, and he has been through periods when nobody was interested in his work.

Nayeri: Does he still bet on horses?

Gayford: Not anymore. He told me it wasn’t any fun anymore, because he’d become too rich. So the thrill of it probably was that he might make a loss that would be really serious.

Nayeri: I was shocked to read that he considers Leonardo da Vinci a bad painter.

Gayford: It takes some confidence to say that. Leonardo is a very different kind of painter to Freud.

Airbrushed Leonardo

Lucian likes a sense of weight and volume, and the tactile qualities of what’s being painted -- so, skin, if it’s a person. If you have that taste, you find Leonardo is soft and not substantial. All the brushstrokes are cleared away, and you get a sort of airbrushed effect.

Nayeri: Another shocker was discovering that he rates Picasso a lesser artist than Matisse.

Gayford: I think he much admires Picasso, but thinks he was out to create an effect, was a bit of a performer. He tells this wonderful story of going to visit Picasso in his Paris studio.

He said when you said goodbye to Picasso, you couldn’t resist looking up at the windows, and Picasso knew that. So one day when he looked up, Picasso was making rabbit shapes with his hands behind the blinds.

“Man With a Blue Scarf” is published by Thames & Hudson (248 pages, 18.95 pounds).

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE