On the 28 November 2003 at 6.30 pm, the art critic, Martin Gayford, sat in a low leather chair and fixed a pose. He would hold this same pose at dozens of sittings over the next seven months. He had agreed to have his portrait painted by the great figurative painter, Lucian Freud (1922-2011).
Gayford kept a diary of the sittings, reflecting on the long gestation period of the painting and his deepening relationship with the artist. The intense experience of being an object of Freud’s penetrating gaze is told in a beautifully illustrated book, Man with a Blue Scarf:On sitting for a portrait with Lucian Freud.
Gayford’s vivid account is a reminder that all great art sets out to achieve just one, difficult thing: to map the ridges and contours of the human condition in as accurate a fashion as the imagination will allow. To achieve this, the artist refuses to subdue our complexities and ambiguities into a cliché or formulaic style. Abjuring sentimentality or rhetorical flourishes, serious art reveals the grandeur of the human person with a crystalline clarity.
By paying close attention to the atomic makeup of our humanity, the artist serves to increase our stature. The artist hones in on a previously ill defined aspect of our humanity and, through the lens of his imagination, brings it into focus by a true, rather than counterfeit light. An oblique, unspoken knowledge of what makes us human is thus expressed, given form and definition, and provokes in us a sense of recognition and wonder. Then, we are ready to confess, behold the man.
When we encounter art that possesses this quality of imagination, the cataracts of delusion and narcissism that distort our vision are momentarily mended. We catch, some entirely surprising, potentially transformative, truth about what it is to be human. For me, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, T.S.Eliot,among others, possess this fierce, irresistible power.
Every detail, every fastidious worm and gob of oil paint, in a Freud painting exists to guard his work from artifice and rhetorical filigree. He, like his friend, the artist, Francis Bacon, was interested only in “the brutality of fact”. Gayford writes:
LF (Lucian Freud) leans forward sometimes, shading his eyes like a sailor in search of land. His demeanour when painting is that of an explorer or hunter in some dark forest. He peers at me, holding his palette in his hand, with the brushes he is not using held between his little finger and the next, protruding like arrows in a quiver. His attitude is a combination of audacity with caution: an intense determination to get the thing exactly right.
Most human beings do not possess this determination. We are prone to live slapdash, bodge-job lives, to accept the superficial, the makeshift and prefabricated over the discipline and effort of getting the thing exactly right.
Great artists do not live in this way. They possess a highly developed self-critical awareness. They do not bear false witness. Their faith is that there is a truth to be discovered about the human person and creation. It is their vocation to look very, very hard for this truth. Their gaze is simultaneously interrogative and contemplative.
A familiar criticism of the artist is that they are fleeing reality by an aesthetic route into some arty la-la land that is divorced from reality. Freud’s work challenged that criticism. He abhorred false feeling and superficial representations of reality. His lifetime’s project was to make reality present to us through the faculty of the imagination – to see ourselves and things as they really are. Discussing his dislike of drug use with Gayford, Freud articulates this central, motivating belief:
People say such things as, “Oh, they make me see such marvellous colours”- which to my mind is a horrible idea. I don’t want to see marvellous colours. I want to see the same colours,and that is hard enough. Then they say that they are taken out of this world, but I don’t want to be out of this world, I want to be absolutely in it,all of the time.
After I had finished reading Man with a Blue Scarf, I immediately picked up a collection of Anton Chekhov short stories. I read The Lady with the Little Dog(1899),one of his finest stories. It exhibits the same qualities of honesty and true feeling that I would argue all great art must have. I want to end this post in a tangential way with a quotation from this story,one which requires no comment but is, I think, complete in itself and a good example of true feeling. In my view, Chekhov and Lucian Freud inhabit the same aesthetic order.
The Lady with the Little Dog concerns a serial adulterer, Dmitry Gurov, who treats women as his “inferior breed” – there simply to pander to his emotional and sexual needs. He sets his predatory sights on the newest woman in town, Anna Sergeyevna,and begins an affair with her. With time, however, this casual liaison turns into something more substantial. Gurov begins to fall in love with Anna and she with him. In a remarkable paragraph,alive with insight and psychological truth, Chekov writes:
He (Gurov) was leading a double life:one was undisguised, plain for all to see and known to everyone who needed to know, full of conventional truths and conventional deception, identical to the lives of his friends and acquaintances;and another which went on in secret. And by some strange, possibly fortuitous chain of circumstances, everything that was important, interesting and necessary for him, where he behaved sincerely and did not deceive himself and which was the very essence of his life – that was conducted in absolute secrecy; whereas all that was false about him, the front behind which he hid in order to conceal the truth – for instance, his work at the bank, those quarrelsat the club, his notion of an “inferior breed”, his attending anniversary celebrations with his wife – that was plain for all to see. And he judged others by himself, disbelieving what he saw, invariably assuming that everyone’s true, most interesting life was carried on under the cloak of secrecy, under the cover of night,as it were. The private, personal life of everyone is grounded in secrecy and this perhaps partly explains why civilized man fusses so neurotically over having this personal secrecy respected.
Man with a Blue Scarf:on sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud, Martin Gayford, Thames & Hudson, 2010
The Lady with the Little Dog in The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, 1896-1904,Anton Chekhov, trans. Ronald Wilks, Penguin Books