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'It's me looking at him looking at me': there is more than one way to achieve a likeness, as Martin Gayford describes in this vivid account of sitting to Lucian Freud for two portraits, one painted and one etched. Both are currently on show in the Freud exhibition at the Museo Correr, Venice.

This summer in Venice I met myself twice. Of course, I was expecting that to happen. As had long been planned, two portraits of me--an oil entitled Man with a Blue Scarf (2003-2004; Fig. 2) and an etching, Portrait Head (2005; Fig. 1)--were included in the Lucian Freud exhibition that is currently at the Museo Correr. But although I knew I would be there, it still came as a surprise.


It is an insufficiently remarked aspect of good pictures that it is impossible to memorise them. No matter how well you know them, they always seem different when you see them again (this point has been made to me by two apparently very different artists, Luc Tuymans and Richard Serra). As John Carey is at pains to argue in his new book What Good are the Arts?, a certain work of art may produce quite different feelings in different people; in fact, it evokes altered responses in the same person at differing times (its ability to carry doing that is one of the qualities that makes art good). I thought I knew these images as well as anyone could, except their creator. I watched them grow week by week, touch by touch. And yet I found that somehow, when I saw them again, they looked new.

The fact that they were on public display was another complication. Lucian wrote, many years ago, some words that suggest that an exact likeness is not and cannot be the point of portraiture: 'The artist who tries to serve nature is only an executive artist. And, since the model he so faithfully copies is not going to be hung up next to the picture, since the picture is going to be there on its own, it is of no interest whether it is an accurate copy of the model.' Generally, that's true. But during the private view in Venice, I was there for quite some time in the room where William Feaver--the curator--had hung the etching and the oil (in company with the Queen, David Hockney and Andrew Parker-Bowles).

I compared the two images myself, and listened to other people's comments. There were many compliments for Man with a Blue Scarf, which I scarcely deserved, since I had done nothing more than sit there while it was being painted. There were also quite different reactions. 'It's quite a hot, romantic portrait,' said a prominent dealer--which was gratifying. On the other hand, a painter friend remarked that it reminded him of Gericault's portraits of the mad--'Those staring eyes'--which was less.

The etching was less commented on--'It's harder to get into', said the director of a national museum. In William Feaver's view it shows I have 'a dark side'. Portrait Head 2005 is, I think, in a straightforward way, less like me: the face elongated and crumpled as if I had been subject to torsion by the violent forces in the air that seem to swirl around my head. But I accept them both as aspects of me. There are, as Lucian hints, many ways of being a portrait.

Thus Freud's self portraits all look very different, but are clearly all him--though it may be a long time before you happen to see him in the mood, at the angle, and in the light that were the basis for a certain picture. He makes a conscious effort, in fact, to make them as unlike each other as possible in format, and in every other way.

It was the same with the two pictures of me. It was planned that the etching should follow the painting. Indeed, Freud had an idea that he would start a drawing for the new work at the final session for Man with a Blue Scarf. No sooner had the final brush stroke gone on, than he would pick up the chalk and start the new work. In the event, we ran out of time. But the etching began a few weeks later. Right from the first sitting, however, he announced that it would be 'very different'. And so it turned out to be: optically, technically and in feeling.

Looking at the two images now, I can see that--from my own point of view--they respond to changed moods and circumstances. Man with a Blue Scarf is in part, I think, a painting of my own fascination with the whole process of being painted. The sittings, although a marathon--around 130 hours from November to July--were invariably fascinating to me; and I see that intensity of interest in the picture. It's me looking at him looking at me.

Often Freud's sitters seem either to drop into a reverie--a state that his assistant David Dawson has described as when people are most themselves--or actually doze. Small Portrait 2001 (Fig. 4) and the beautiful Woman with Eyes Closed 2002 (Fig. 3) illustrate those two states. I, as an art critic and historian, was perhaps unusual in being absorbed from beginning to end by what was going on.


It was furthermore a night picture. This is an iron distinction in Lucian's work, though not one that is always noted by critics. Although at the end we had a few daytime sittings, they were always by artificial light with shutters closed. It is crucial for him that the light source should be constant for any given picture. It this case it was a pool of electric illumination, cast by a powerful lamp hanging from the ceiling about half way between us. He stood at the easel and looked down on me, sitting in a chair.

These arrangements, once set up, must remain in place until the picture is finished. They become part of one's life. And, also, one is aware of other set-ups for other pictures going on in the studio. Their sitters become invisible companions. When Man with a Blue Scarf began, the full-length portrait of Andrew Parker-Bowles (The Brigadier, 2003-2004) was slowly moving to a conclusion. It was always there, wheeled out of the way, as was the comfortable armchair in which he posed (too comfortable, according to Parker-Bowles, as he tended to nod off). This was a morning painting, done by daylight.

In the spring, a new night painting began, Naked Portrait 2004. I never met the sitter, as she was posing on the nights I was not. But I heard about her, as she doubtless did about me. Lucian is inclined to keep the people in his life separate, partly through a wise aversion to the tricky and potentially embarrassing process of introducing diverse friends to each other. But, as he is utterly taken up with every detail of the people he is painting--while he is painting them--he talks a good deal about them. 'Ah, I've heard a lot about you', said Andrew Parker-Bowles, slightly unnervingly, when we finally met.

The model for Naked Portrait 2004 (Fig. 5) posed for a long, long time. The picture was still going on when my etching was half done, late in the autumn. At that late point the furry, golden brown curtain appeared that can be seen hanging in the top right. This textile, carefully chosen because its naffness was just right somehow for the painting, also began to pose. For a while, it was forbidden to walk anywhere near it in case a current of air disturbed the folds, which were hanging perfectly.


By that time, the model had been lying in the same position on her white bedcover for so long that, poignantly, she had created a little hollow and a slightly grey patch of fabric. And also, her head--the first part of her to appear--had changed completely. Lucian sometimes paints the head of a new model first as a way of getting acquainted, then redoes it when he know the person better. It was, I suspect, partly the sheer, unhurried length of time it took that made this one of Lucian's most rich and living nudes. It is a better picture than the Kate Moss Naked Portrait that was recently auctioned, perhaps for just that reason. The fact that the supermodel was pregnant imposed an artificial deadline which wasn't present in this case.

The etching Portrait Head of me was an afternoon picture. That in itself altered the emotional temperature. The afternoon is a quiet time while the evening has hints of excitement: both of us were a little tired, running down towards that late afternoon dip when Lucian takes a rest. We talked less. In place of a glass of vintage claret, the normal refreshment was green tea at around four. I was engulfed in a bout of intense work, which perhaps the etching registered. Certainly, I look more anxious and tense. Lucian too was in a new phase of his life.

The etching started with a chalk drawing that Lucian carefully rubbed out at the end of the first sitting. It reappeared next time as an almost cubist version of my features, with an oblong block of hair sticking out of the side of my head. And with that Lucian was pleased--'I think I've accidentally done a good drawing'. Then he sharpened his etching-needle and started scratching. He carried on while summer turned to autumn, then winter and back to spring.

I sat on a high stool so that our heads were approximately level with each other, facing a large open window. Lucian stood contre jour, looking quite like his image of himself half a century ago in Hotel Bedroom 1954 (Fig. 6), an instance of my point about the self portraits. (The experience of the etching made it even clearer to me how an artist's studio is a theatre of light).


Just as entrepreneurs may be immediately aware of the financial aspects of a person or situation in a way that the rest of us are not, painters may be attuned to light. Lucian has pronounced tastes in the matter. 'My climatic ideal,' he explained one day, 'is Dublin weather. I like quickly changing circumstances--it's sunny for ten minutes, here comes a cloud. For me, a blue sky all day every day would be utterly horrible. For working I like a north light that is cold and clear and constant. High light cloud suits me well. When I read that the studio in Van Gogh's Yellow House faced south I thought, he really was mad.' The electric bulb had the advantage of being absolutely constant--though Lucian was concerned about whether or not the door to an adjoining room was open, and the light on in there because that would slightly alter the play of shadow and reflected light. But the natural light was constantly changing, and--in mid-winter--in short supply. It became a staple topic. 'This light is lovely!' he would say enthusiastically. Then, ten minutes later, a cloud would cover the sun or dusk would start to fall. He became a dark shape against the window; and he started to have trouble in seeing me.

By December or January the sittings had got very short. I was working every morning on a book, and could not get to the studio before one-thirty or two. Not long after three o'clock the light would start to fade. On one very dark day, we only managed about half an hour. Lucian carried on as long as he could--as the completion of a work grows near his urge to carry it forward becomes intense--but he finally gave up, announcing 'I feel I'm pretending'. On one of those dismal days, I suggested turning on a lamp, angled toward the wall on the other side of the room--just enough I thought--to bring up the ambient level so he could see the plate. We tried it, but it wasn't satisfactory. It made, he complained, the bright lines on the plate shine in a distracting way.

The subtlety of the fall of light, and of the final product was a constant concern. At first, it seemed that it didn't much matter what I wore, since the etching was obviously not in colour and included little but my face. But after a while he asked me to put on a certain soft, light grey shirt every time. 'It will make it much more subtle.' The nuances of modelling which he was trying to find would have been blocked by a check, or a stripe or even a stronger grey.

The process of etching is of course finer work than the painting, a mass of intricate lines. There is one crucial different as far as Freud is concerned. To etch he wears glasses; to paint he does not. Like most people past their mid forties, he uses spectacles to read and write. But he decided long ago that he would not use them for painting. As a result, he admits, 'In a way, I can't see what I'm doing. It's more like aiming'. All the time he is moving in close to the canvas to put on a stroke, then moving back to consider the effect of what he had done. So, while at work he is not only always on his feet, but always bobbing to and fro.

In response to the fact that Lucian is now in his eighties, a couple of working stools appeared in the studio while the etching was in progress. But, predictably, after lowering himself on to them for a minute or two, Lucian popped up again and these pieces of furniture became what every flat surface in his studios rapidly becomes: a place for storing paints, brushes and other pieces of equipment. To see the effect, take a look at the stool in The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer (Fig. 7).


An etching is a bit of a gamble, a fact that may attract Lucian who used to like a bet. It is hard to tell what the result will be like, for several reasons. One is that the image on the plate is both reversed and negative. What we looked at for month after month from July to April, was shiny lines on a black surface. Even Lucian was not sure what it would look like when it was printed; I had no idea. And, as is not true of a painting, an etching--for no fault of the artist--may never reach the point of printing at all. This happened a few years ago with an ill-fated plate of Lucian's. The protective wax coating lifted, and a hundred of hours of work were ruined. 'It was a funny feeling,' Freud said, 'Not so much that you've been wasting your time as that your time's been wasted for you'. It almost happened with Girl with Fuzzy Hair 2004, which had to be removed from the acid early and as a result printed in a light, silvery manner that gives it a beautiful quality.

No such accidents happened with Portrait Head, but Lucian looked understandably worried throughout the whole process. When the first proof was pulled, an extraordinary transformation took place, which I took time to get used to. Having spent nine months looking at these lines one way round, I found it difficult to adjust to the opposite one. As the time of writing, it still isn't really finalised. The process of inking when the edition is printed will transform it once more. It's odd coming across yourself in a work of art; even stranger finding yourself twice on opposite walls of a room. In Venice I saw that the portraits were entirely different, but both me.

'Lucian Freud' is at the Museo Correr, Venice, until 30 October. The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer was also exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from 13 April to 8 May.

Martin Gayford is an art critic who writes for Bloomberg and a wide range of publications. His book The Yellow House, on Van Gogh in Aries, will be published by Fig Tree in spring 2006.
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Author:Gayford, Martin
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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