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Sigmund Freud’s Sicko Grandson: Cruel Lover, Terrible Father, One Hell of a Painter

Two new biographical studies and dual exhibits in Vienna plumb the psychodrama of the great Lucian Freud

Vladislav Davidzon
January 23, 2014
David Dawson, Albie Sitting for his Grandfather, 2004.(Courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, © The Bridgeman Art Library)
David Dawson, Albie Sitting for his Grandfather, 2004.(Courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, © The Bridgeman Art Library)

When the previous record for the world’s most expensive painting was blown away by the price paid at auction for Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” this past November, two widely held art-world intuitions were verified. First, that the art world is an annex of the Bourse, and second, the critical ascendancy of Freud, whose second-hand presence, as the subject of a painting by another famous artist, was a major reason for the fierce bidding.

Behind Freud’s triumphant moment is the fact that the English do not produce more than a few great artists every century, and so they embrace them with patriotic glee. Which also means that the enigmatic and reclusive grandson of the founder of psychoanalysis must now endure a degree of scrutiny of the sort that he never tolerated while living among mere mortals. A pair of newly published biographical studies, the affectionate and scabrously judgmental Breakfast With Lucian: A Portrait of the Artistby journalist Geordie Greig and the beautifully ruminative Man With a Blue Scarf, by art critic Martin Gayford offer up a rounded view of an extraordinary and closely guarded life: Born in 1922, into the family of architect Ernest Freud—the youngest son of Sigmund—in the upscale Tiergarten district of Berlin, he was taken to London at the age of 10 by his family in 1933, as the death knell of the Weimar Republic rang. (Sigmund joined the family there in 1938, only to die a year later.) There exists a general consensus among critics that Lucian would have been too young, and too sequestered by his bourgeois family, to absorb Berlin’s avant-garde developments such as the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity); his mature style was genealogically, even inexorably linked to developments in modernist Vienna. Effusing about the recently closed retrospective at the Kunsthistorisches, the Viennese press made the obvious comparisons between his works and the limb-contorting figuration and sallow coloring of Hodler, the frigid eroticism of Klimt, Kokoschka’s macabre portraiture, and Schiele’s appreciation of the pliable female form.

Though a product of fin-de siècle Vienna’s first family, Freud ignored countless entreaties to exhibit his work in the city during his lifetime. In the late ’90s an article in The Art Newspaper titled “A Lucian Freud Complex?” caused a minor furor with allegations that Freud was purposefully withholding his work from exhibition in Austrian museums. In fact, it was only in the last year of his life that he allowed a career retrospective to be held in the majestic Kunsthistorisches, which led the Guardian to wonder whether it was an ‘‘agreement extracted from a frail old man, a shifty bit of mythmaking that buries Europe’s crimes under Europe’s glory?” For Freud the decisive factor may have been that the works would hang adjacent to the Kunsthistorisches’ ample holdings of his beloved Titian, whose prints he received as a gift from his grandfather as a boy. A key painting in his oeuvre’s development, “Pregnant Girl,” was lent by a collector on the condition that a plaque be placed under it reminding the Viennese that four of his five great-aunts, Sigmund’s sisters, were deported to Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Treblinka.

Concurrently, Freud’s longtime assistant David Dawson has organized an exhibition from his private cache, Lucian Freud: In Private. Revelatory in their intimacy, the photographs range from cozy vistas of the artist’s dining room and library to crisply shot close-ups of him painting the queen in his ramshackle studio. The Freud museum now occupies the family apartment at Berggasse 19, where Lucian’s father Ernst was born in 1892—and so the posthumous melding of the two Freud households, the pictures of Lucian’s dining room exhibited in the midst of Sigmund’s, brings the family saga full circle.


After jettisoning his constrained early style of painting in an appropriately Unheimliche-tinged—the concept of Unheimlich was appropriated by the surrealists from his grandfather—variant of neo-realism, Freud spent the remaining half a century of his life painting two kinds of pictures: psychologically probing portraits and expressionistically lissome nudes. A proponent of the high/low approach in his art as well as in his socializing, he would paint the people around him: his friends, children (he shocked most everybody by painting six portraits of his pubescent daughters and one of his sons in the nude), lovers, various aristocrats, as well as marginal underworld characters. The paintings were part of a wave of renewed interest in figurative painting after a prolonged period of critical neglect in favor of cyclically fashionable alternatives such as conceptualism and Pop art. Unfazed, he simply kept painting.

The paintings were executed with the brusque, sweeping strokes of a hog’s hair brush. The pigment was slathered thickly onto the canvas until the clumps of it congealed into gloppy approximations of flesh. Set in the plushly hermetic interiors of the bohemian squalor he surrounded himself with, his sprawling figures usually evince an expression somewhere between frail melancholy and detached intimation of dread. His subjects are soaked in carnal appetites and sex, but they are rarely sexy, the painting’s carnality constitutes a merciless exploration of the degeneration of flesh. With his absolutist negation of sentimentality, his notorious derision of “false-feeling,” and his pitiless delectation in physical defects, Freud often wended deeply into the realms of physiological detachment with results that can seem cruel. The words that people use most often when they discuss his work are “clinical,” “discomforting,” “penetrating.” In Vienna, I was delighted to hear a nouveau-riche Russian woman fleeing the gallery while briskly complaining to her tour guide that “these make me uncomfortable and angry.”

Freud’s placement of animals—often his sitters will appear with a hound or clutching a rat in his compositions—was always a major clue to his bestial inner world. He thought of himself as a biologist arranging taxonomic categories in the same way that he thought of his grandfather Sigmund as a distinguished zoologist. His painterly practice constituted a parallel disrobing to the one that Sigmund had carried out upon the structures of the repressed id a half century before. When he was a young refugee in England, his beastly antisocial tendencies were already in full display when he was expelled from one art school and fingered as the prime suspect in the arson of another. He would prefer the company of the horses to that of his fellow pupils, sleeping with them and arriving in class reeking of the stables: Years later he would paint horses while losing millions at the races. His public-school-educated bookie would describe Sigmund’s scion as “not a great one for analysis.” “He was almost animal. He went with his feelings, took what he wanted. That was his strength. You could also physically see it in his actions, tearing birds to piece on his plate. When we cooked pheasants or partridge he wouldn’t use a knife or fork. I don’t think he ever articulated it, but the usual social rules that we apply to ourselves, I don’t think they ever applied to him.”

Improbably handsome and fantastically, even addictively charismatic, Freud took complete advantage of these gifts to do whatever he pleased in the most exaggerated and anarchic fashion. He was a bird of prey—thus Greig’s choice of the adjective “hawkish” to describe his chiseled visage. In his restless moods he would delight in sending his enemies and those who displeased him poisonous epistles, vicious postcards, and occasionally envelopes stuffed with feces. There were altercations in restaurants, bars, and supermarkets. He was quite capable of cadging money from the duke he was breakfasting with to repay the mob bookies who would appear to menace him for the previous night’s lost wagers. On other occasions he would shock whomever he was with by head-butting the bookie and instructing his companion to run. Writer Francis Wyndham coined the aperçu “eloquent vituperation” to describe his special gift for aestheticized belligerence.

Devious and compulsively secretive, he moved from address to address (one wonders if he ever ceased being a refugee inside his own head) and never registered to vote so as not to leave public traces of his whereabouts. The shiftiness of his personality was formed as an inoculating bulwark against the machinations of his smothering mother. He did not re-establish relations with her, or begin painting his famous portraits of her in her sickbed, until she was too destabilized by depression and health problems to dominate him.

Grieg, whose book is based on conversations they shared over weekly breakfasts at Clarke’s restaurant in Notting Hill, was obliged to play complex tricks in order to gain access to Freud’s court. Freud’s sexual sadism is an unsurprising revelation of Greig’s book for anyone who has spent more than half a minute looking at his paintings of female nudes. Two other revelations are the instances of Freud’s snobbery toward the middle-class Jews of north London manifesting itself in outrageously anti-Semitic outbursts in restaurants, as well as his guttural conversations with the bookie about never really dominating a girl until you have had anal sex with her. Writing about this final piece of Freud’s mother/mistress dialectic in the London Review of Books, Julian Barnes attempted to square it with the pervasive misogyny toward his paintings’ female subjects:

Some men, and many women, are, and always have been, made uneasy, indeed queasy, by them. They seem cold and ruthless, paintings more of flesh than of women. And when the eye moves from the splayed limbs to the face, what expressions do Freud’s women have? Even in the early, pre-hog-hair portraits, the women seem anxious; later, they seemed at best inert and passive, at worst fraught and panicked. It is hard not to ask oneself: Is this the face and body of a woman who has first been buggered into submission and then painted into submission?

That we had to wait for his passing to get a proper biographical account of his work, even one based on sketchy and enigmatic fragments, as is Greig’s account, is not incidental. He compartmentalized his life and demanded strict exultations of loyalty and displays of silent obedience from his inner circle. The manuscript of the official biography Freud authorized during his life disgusted him with its indiscretions, and he came to a settlement with the biographer. He dispatched his mobster friends to dissuade another biographer who neglected to ask permission. His amateur models could easily be excommunicated for tardiness, “unprofessionalism,” and insubordination. Gayford would learn the difficulties the hard way while sitting for his portrait “Man With a Blue Scarf.” As Freud studied Gayford with his eagle eye, Gayford meditated on Freud’s unhinged muttering and the technical aspects of the production of the art, also Freud’s “constant, deliberate, variations of scale, handling and angle of vision,” to create a subtle and gorgeous work of art criticism.

Sitting for Freud was certainly laborious, but also remunerated by the grace of being enveloped in his boundless charisma and undivided attention. His children also competed during sittings, the only time they were assured of their father’s attention: Some were entrusted with his phone number, while others were not—which quite understandably left some of them deeply wounded. In his relations with his children he was an unapologetic and exultant egoist as in all other matters. He considered any sort of birth control “squalid,” and as a consequence of his taking hundreds of lovers he fathered 13 or 14 acknowledged children, as well as dozens of bastards.

Reading through the memoirs of searing trauma wrought by his selective neglect and abandonment of his children (so many of them wrote these that such memoirs literally comprise their own genre), made me want to weep and hit him myself. His constitutional immunity to shame or guilt, which he attributed to his complete lack of introspection and radical disbelief in the concept of free will, must have helped. As Goya, an artist Freud greatly admired, famously surmised: “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos.” So, it would not be the first time in the history of art that so much beauty was to be created by someone who did so many ugly things.


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Vladislav Davidzon, the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review, is a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.

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