Feaver, an art critic of The Observer for 23 years, writes of the paintings — of light, line, flesh and skin — with brilliant insight. Freud’s heroes were Dürer, Grünewald and Bruegel. Ingres’s Madame Moitessier was his ideal painted lady. When he won £980 at cards he bought a Rodin. He sought quattrocento certainty with an edge of the surreal. His portraits were forensic and unforgiving. His second wife was dismayed by her strained, shrunken portrait in Hotel Bedroom (1954). Later she understood Freud’s “genius ability to make the people and objects that came under his scrutiny seem more themselves, and more like themselves, than they ever have been or will be”.
Taken from numerous interviews with Feaver, in person or by phone over a period of many years, Freud’s voice is a startling, almost uncanny constant through the book, a ghostly commentary. His evident honesty is impressive, even if his recall is inevitably subjective (including such minor lapses as mixing the Abbey up with the Gate). Long-term lovers and friends provide essential balance. Even not so long-term. Joan Wyndham, who spent several weeks with him at the beginning of 1946, later wrote: “’One thing I liked about Lucian was that he always told me the truth, no matter how painful. And . . . you never knew where you were with him, and he liked it that way.’”
Freud died in 2011 and the amount of first-hand information available about his antics means that Feaver could easily have written a book filled to the brim with gambling sprees and babies, as well as egocentricity, carelessness, fecklessness and an interest in danger. And while he has indeed filled his book to the brim with the excitement and strangeness of Freud’s life, he sees him as painter rather than playboy, or rather he agrees with Freud, who told him: ‘Everything is biographical and everything is a self-portrait.’
The quotes, which run through nearly every paragraph, are Freud’s own, gleaned by the author over the course of years from their almost daily conversations. It is rare that a subject’s voice rings so clearly through his own biography, and its salty, bragging, screw-you tone, its barbed humour and sudden darts into seriousness, fleet as a fish, are among the main pleasures of this book...
The chief point of writing the life of an artist is to trace the threads of experience and influence that formed the mature works we know. In this baggy, indulgent, often highly enjoyable book, those threads can get snagged on detail, tangled in digressive anecdote. It could, should, have been cut by at least a third. But where would be the fun in that?
Almost everything Freud later achieved came from this brave and solitary moment of internal drama. To read this book is to be reminded, also, about the surrounding pleased-with-itself weakness of the art world in Britain with which Freud had to cope. There were so many anaemic post-Romantics and dull surrealists beckoning on every side. By the time this book concludes, the full force of American abstract expressionism had not yet really hit these shores, and Freud and Bacon stood almost alone as two pinnacles of serious painting.
Much more so than France, the story of British art has been one of uneasy solitaries, rather than movements. Few have been as uneasy as Lucian Freud. His art remains so. Quite why, is revealed by this extraordinary book.
Feaver knew Freud for many years before his death in 2011, and although the painter was averse to the idea of a biography, he nevertheless gave him his approval. Their conversations ranged widely and Feaver wrote them up immediately afterwards, resulting in an extraordinary tranche of anecdote and aperçu... It is through innumerable such vivid details that Feaver’s wonderful biography comes close to Freud’s own definition of his art: “A picture should be a recreation of an event rather than an illustration of an object."
A second volume is promised, and needed, because this one ends so abruptly if feels as if the publishers have just snatched it out of Feaver’s hands. The last sentence is the oddest I have ever come across: “In Paddington there was a Jewish butcher and the chickens were terribly old and blue and a friend saw talcum powder on them.” But Freud would have approved: he never wanted a neat summing-up.
[S]elected snippets of gossip, however interesting, are, you might think, peripheral to the life of Lucian Freud. But they tell us something crucial about the first volume of William Feaver’s biography. It is also an autobiography — written up from tapes and daily, noted, telephone conversations with his subject... As a biographical method, the rewards are obvious. Who but a prig doesn’t want to know that Francis Bacon once semi-publicly sucked off an unconscious, superbly endowed workman in a side room of the Colony Room Club? (The man vomited as he came.) The drawbacks are repetition, obscure chronology, tangled confusion in the telling — often quoted directly — and lack of explanatory annotation. On the one hand, first-hand, hand-held authenticity; on the other, a slight uncertainty and sometimes a yen for something more sober, something clearer.
Feaver lets non-sequiturs produce their own effect. There’s some fine judgment in the way he does this. Early on, I puzzled at the disparate events held together in paragraphs. In the teeming chapters of incident I kept expecting the arrival of a controlled narrative, questions posed and resolved, significant others brought sharply into focus. This biography does not work like that. So what is Feaver doing?
In a memorable 2013 essay, Julian Barnes discussed Freud as an “episodicist” for whom “one thing happens and then another”. His was not a linear view of life, concerned with connections and continuities. To an extreme extent, he acted on impulse, barely connecting one moment with the next. Every page of this volume affirms the distinction. No course of action on a Saturday (even marriage) affected his choice of what to do on Tuesday and Wednesday. Feaver replicates this episodicism in telling the life story. This is Lucian Freudian biography, packed with momentary stories and fundamentally resisting narrative