Feaver shares his subject’s style and timing. His clipped prose is running commentary and ironic aside; the sentences, bone-dry, have dramatic entrances. These examples are chosen at random: Freud’s father, says Feaver, was “a Cheshire cat. A looming then fading authority”, the death of Freud’s Aunt Anna “was not, for him, grounds for sorrow”. When Feaver asks about his self-portraits, Freud’s “eyes twitched and refocused, seeking exits”; answering the door to Feaver, Freud “lowered his head as though ducking a joke”. When a girlfriend has tantrums, “Freud suggested – rich coming from him – that she might see a psychoanalyst”. Feaver’s approach to Freud’s sex life (there were at one point, ten women on the go) is that boys will be boys. Amused and admiring, he never acts the psychoanalyst himself.
You wouldn’t have thought that any of this could possibly be as interesting as the hungry years. Yet Feaver has written a second great page-turner, one of the finest art biographies I know. Part of that comes about because of the artist’s authentic voice, meticulously recorded in all those conversations. By the time the book closes, you hear Freud ringing inside your head, with his sibilant Germanic accent, his subtlety, anxiety and humour. Asked about how it feels when an old picture sells for £1m, he responds: “I can only say that it feels like hearing that an overbearing great-aunt I had no contact with has been eaten by cannibals.”
These final years are a catalogue of shows, which Freud, now suffering from cancer, is usually too frail to attend, of deals and parties and chat — but the book slows up considerably. It’s the only point at which its huge bulk feels onerous. But if its length often seems indulgent, it’s surely appropriate to its expansive, brilliant subject and his lust for life. And if Feaver is sometimes too forgiving of Freud’s failings, in this magnificent book he is also adept at conveying the painter’s infectious joie de vivre.
Pondering both the rubble of his relationships and his unyielding gaze as a painter, the question of lovelessness was – is – bound to arise. But when one curator put this in writing, Freud was furious. Emotion was a recipe for “bad art”, but he was not unfeeling. In some ways, he was too feeling. As for the question of monogamy, you might as well “tell a dog to be vegan”. To Auerbach, he was more vivid than other people – more nervous, more simple, more honest and Feaver’s great and generous achievement in his book is to enable us to imagine this. Its last lines – Freud tells him, somewhere towards the end, that he’s always liked lipstick on the teeth – are so perfect. Somehow, they say it all. Dress up, go out, get laid. And then try to get it all down in your work: “Tell people you’ve been alive.”
Ultimately, Feaver’s proximity to his subject is both strength and weakness. Because he quotes the artist so liberally, we get a vivid impression of Freud as a companion. But difficult aspects of his character (his enmity towards his mother, his monstrously casual approach to fatherhood) are insufficiently interrogated. Freud was obsessively private, and he was careful not to reveal to Feaver anything too touchy-feely. Feaver, for his part, reports but doesn’t judge – which is fine (they were friends, after all), but, after more than 1,100 pages, across both volumes, I longed for less neutrality and more personality from Feaver.
All his emotion, and perhaps all his existential despair, went into his paintings. When it came to his work, writes Feaver, he was 'a man possessed'.
'What do I ask of a painting?' Freud said. 'I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince.'
This book, though too full of meandering conversations that could have done with trimming, does justice to Freud's pitiless genius as an artist.
This volume and the previous one make more than 1,000 pages, and have a cast of thousands. It would have helped had Feaver included an appendix-supplement of brief biographical sketches — as in the ongoing edition of T.S. Eliot’s collected letters. There are lovely Freudian quips here. Health: ‘This thing in my chest is like a really bad opera. Really boring.’ Sex: ‘“Old people becoming sex maniacs”: who said that? People change. “Dirty bastard” becomes “Hey, he can still do it”.’ On his deathbed: ‘Hello, Jane [Willoughby, a long-standing love]. I’m fashionably thin.’ The critic Brian Sewell: ‘An arsehole with a bit of rouge on it.’ But now and again, faced with this Knausgaardian compulsive inclusion, this epic of gossip, the artist’s complete asides, you wonder whether certain inclusions have earned their place in the story.
If there is a proper reckoning to be made of Freud’s sexual and emotional exploitativeness, Feaver isn’t the biographer to do it. The fallout of Freud’s peculiar psychology – the grooming of his youthful models, the sidelined children and the vindictiveness he sometimes showed towards his friends, including Francis Bacon – is noted in passing, but not explored. Feaver isn’t about to put Freud on the couch. Where he really excels is as a critic, nudging us away from Sylvester’s view of Freud as an idiot savant, a wode-covered savage strange to all artifice, to position him squarely in a sophisticated European painterly tradition... Feaver’s vastly detailed biography is the ideal companion to Freud’s work. It resembles nothing so much as a large Freud canvas: hypnotic, occasionally reiterative, quirkily dark in places, proceeding by a process of obsessive accretion.
Yet this fascinated scrutiny is done through a one-way mirror. You won’t find out much of what Freud’s sitters thought of him. Nor is Feaver prepared to unsettle his subject with searching questions. Plenty of self-justifications are offered: why he didn’t honour a gambling debt (£19,045 he owed Ladbrokes), why he accepted an Order of Merit, and a beef with his erstwhile friend Francis Bacon runs obsessively on (even after Bacon dies, he kept picking at the scab). Yet Freud is never put on the couch. So although you will sometimes be offered behind-the-scenes glimpses — I particularly liked something as simple as the description of what it was like to walk up the stairs on your way to a sitting — more often you will be left with an overflow of never posed and so never answered questions.
This remarkable book needs to be read with the online Lucian Freud Archive – which contains images of all his paintings, etchings and drawings, set out chronologically – open on your computer screen. Of course, there were failures, but thinking aloud in a taxi one winter evening in 1991, Freud told Feaver of the purpose of those long hours with his subjects in the studio: ‘When people forget about themselves. Human, tired, they are the thing which they themselves feel is essential to them, which is the effect they have by their presence, which is relegated to actually being alive and being there and sitting there.’ He might have been tired himself when he uttered those words, but for all their uncharacteristic incoherence, we have to be grateful that his Boswell was there to make a record.
Freud emerges, dab by dab, fully three-dimensional from Feaver’s vibrant recitation of dealers and models, works in progress and gambling (he lost often enough, but once won £1 million on the Cheltenham Gold Cup courtesy of a tip from Andrew Parker Bowles, whose portrait he also painted), family, friendship and food (woodcock or deep-fried parsley for breakfast). If Freud’s pictures are at heart all about palpable reality, the same is true of Feaver’s daunting enterprise. His subject — his friend — is selfish, often reprehensible, spoilt and sometimes vicious (not above posting dog faeces through an enemy’s letterbox), but also generous, honest about his failings and capable of inspiring great loyalty in others.