“A Portrait of Lucian Freud” By Julian Barnes

 

On Capri they show you the sheer cliff from which those who displeased the Emperor Tiberius were reportedly flung (though the Capresi, who call him by the softer name of Timberio, insist that the death toll was much exaggerated by muck-rakers like Suetonius). The court of Freud was similarly absolutist in its punishments: if you displeased him – by bad timekeeping, unprofessionalism, or disobedience to his will – you were tossed over the cliff. In the painting which shows Wyndham flaubertising in the foreground, the background originally held the figure of the model Jerry Hall breastfeeding her baby. She sat thus for several months, until one day she called in sick. When, a couple of days later, she was still unfit to pose, the enraged Freud painted over her face and inserted that of his long-time assistant David Dawson. But the baby had not caused offence, so was not painted out, with the result that a naked and strangely breasted Dawson is now seen feeding the child. Freud’s American dealer assumed the picture would be unsellable; it was bought by the first American client he showed it to.

Penelope Fitzgerald thought the world divided into ‘exterminators’ and ‘exterminatees’. Certainly it divides into controllers and controllees. A typical controllee is someone who is love-dependent; Freud was that once, and swore never to be so again. He was always a controller, and sometimes an exterminator. Martin Gayford and Geordie Greig’s accounts of Freud’s behaviour reminded me at times of two unlikely novelists: Kingsley Amis and Georges Simenon. When Amis’s second wife and fellow novelist, Elizabeth Jane Howard, saw him, at eleven o’clock on the morning he was due to lunch at Buckingham Palace, standing in the garden punishing an enormous whisky, she said, ‘Bunny, do you have to have a drink?’ He replied (and it was a reply that would have fitted a vast number of other exchanges): ‘Look, I’m Kingsley Amis, you see, and I can drink whenever I want.’ As for Simenon, he practiced two things obsessively: his art and fucking (though his speed at writing contrasts with Freud’s slowness at painting). Simenon once winningly observed: ‘Maybe I am not completely crazy, but I am a psychopath.’ Freud confessed his ‘megalomania’ to Gayford, adding that there was a bit of his mind ‘that believes, just possibly, my things are the best by anyone, ever’. Amis, Simenon and Freud all had controlling, interfering mothers, which may or may not be relevant.

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