Breakfast with Lucian, by Geordie Greig - review

12 October 2013

9:00 AM

12 October 2013

9:00 AM

Breakfast with Lucian Geordie Greig

Cape, pp.272, £25, ISBN: 9780224096850

According to the medical historian Professor Sonu Shamdasani, Sigmund Freud was not the best, nor actually the most interesting, psychoanalyst in early 20th-century Vienna.  Rather, Freud’s genius lay in creating a loyalty cult around himself, collecting a group of acolytes who would ensure his reputation.  This is worth bearing in mind when considering the life of his grandson, the painter Lucian Freud, who died in 2011.

Lucian was famous for his secrecy. ‘Devious and secretive. I have been described as that,’ he tells Geordie Greig, not without a certain pride. He demanded a strict omertà of his intimates. There was a great deal to be furtive about: vast gambling debts, literally hundreds of lovers, many children by many mothers; in one year alone, three of them born to three women. Almost no one had his telephone number and he kept people in compartments, so that they could not confer. (Someone of his grandfather’s profession might have observed that he thus split off parts of himself as a safeguard against his devouring mother.) Even the pictures in his studio were stacked with the paint facing the wall. One lover describes peeking at other portraits when the artist was out of the room, to find out who else he was involved with.

Geordie Greig, who knew him well, here reveals more about Freud than has ever been in print before. He has interviewed a quantity of friends, sitters, children and lovers who were willing to break their long silence.One of the most revealing interviews is with Freud’s bookmaker. The book is excellent on Freud’s extraordinary charisma, which worked its magic equally on women, men,  animals and children. An especially charming passage — with accompanying photographs — describes Freud’s easy playfulness with Greig’s young children. The dark glamour is here, too: Freud drove Bentleys very fast, consorted with the Kray twins, played dangerous games of cat and mouse with bookies to whom he owed money, ate partridges with his bare hands and painted all night. ‘I like tension,’ says Freud.

The best portraits bring their sitters vividly to life, and this book does just that. There can be no greater compliment than to say that Greig makes the reader feel exactly as if they have met Lucian Freud. And what exhilarating company he is, to begin with: quoting poems, singing old Cole Porter songs, gossiping, making jokes. About his recently deceased (and hated) brother Clement Freud he quips: ‘He’s dead now.  Always was actually.’ When James Goldsmith threatens to murder him if he ever paints Goldsmith’s daughter, Freud replies with a note: ‘Is that a commission?’

And yet. Freud was blithe about the fact that he only ever did exactly what he wanted to do; which, luckily for the gallery-visiting public, was paint. But an entirely selfish life leaves casualties. Some of these were minor:  the waiters he tore into, the people he got into fist-fights with for no very real reason.  Among those who knew and loved him, the damage was worse. Devoted to him though his children appear to have been, he was only ever a father on his own terms. Fairness didn’t come into it. He plainly liked some of them better than others, although Greig tries not to say this too loudly. They sat for him because it gave them the chance, perhaps their only chance, to spend time with him.

Freud fell out with people, sometimes spectacularly. He very seldom forgave. Many great artists have behaved badly: being unconventional is a badge of honour among them, after all. But what of vengefulness, cruelty, preying on the young, the weak? In this account, Freud appears to have systematically sought out and seduced the teenaged daughters and nieces of his former friends and lovers. Themselves the sometimes neglected children of artists, drinkers and writers, they were vulnerable and easily won. Greig describes a shameful episode in which Freud slept with the extremely fragile daughter of a woman who had left him many years before. Not long afterwards this young woman died of a heroin overdose, at 17.  She was my childhood friend, as her mother had been my mother’s. She had long tangly hair and freckles. She was such a sweet girl.

We do not tolerate such behaviour in our light entertainers. Does being an important artist absolve Freud? While his stature as a painter is not, of course, affected by his private affairs, in the end this aspect of his life diminishes him and the myth of himself he took such pains to construct. The enchantment, the wit, the mystery, even the brooding and hawk-like physical beauty lose their allure.

Not that this seems to have been the intention of the author, who very much admired Freud, even loved him. But a good biographer must put the curiosity of the reader before the character of their subject, by which criterion Geordie Greig is a very good biographer indeed.

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Show comments
  • Norman Rosenblood

    re Lucian Freud. and Mr. Grieg. What an opening! Quoting some detractor of S. Freud and segueing into Lucian–two birds with one slur.

    • blog

      Note how fascinated mediocrities are with the private lives of their betters.

      And of course Freud the psychiatrist did actually have true acolytes, whereas Freud the painter had none – no one followed in his wake, he launched no school. On the contrary, products of the Big Thing in British art in the last 25 years, the YBAs, aren’t fit to have cleaned his brushes.

  • Matt Baen

    “We do not tolerate such behaviour in our light entertainers. Does being an important artist absolve Freud?”


    • Mnestheus

      It’s not as though he were Cyrill Connolly

    • blog

      Nope, doesn’t absolve him as a man. Is irrelevant to the merits of his art, of course.

  • Crispin Sartwell

    knowing what you know, you might want to look again at the paintings with a much more sceptical eye. i think he’s grotesquely overrated.

    • blog

      Why would you consider the life of the artist when you look at the work? All you need to see is right there in the paint. The works either stand or fall on their own merit.

      • Philistinism is in again. In a very big way.

  • Granite Sentry

    The world of fashionable people — art, entertainment, literature, politics — is so terribly prone to worshipping the meanest sorts of cretins. It calls into question the true quality of a lot of stuff we’ve been trained to think of as culturally valuable. It’s all trash and so are they.

    • blog

      Actually the work of Lucien Freud is about as far from trash as it could be. Of course, one wonders what your experience with the world of fashionable people is – I suspect nil – but even if the people are scoundrels that has nothing to do with the merits of the Freud’s art.

      • Granite Sentry

        No, see, you’re missing the point. These people strut and pose on the public stage constantly, purposely marketing their transgressive lifestyles because they know that being a scoundrel — in your very accurate term — is what sells. Their “art” is really a non-issue.

        Some may be decent technicians, but it’s their arrogant disdain for mainstream norms that really causes modern art fans to adore them. It’s a form of snobbery, of course, aimed at common folk who still believe in such outmoded things as right and wrong, morality, sin and evil. And artistry.

        • blog

          Groan. Freud never sought publicity, or “marketed” himself or his “transgressive lifestyle”. That’s absurd on its face. As a painter he was far beyond being a “decent technician” – he was a master who went from strength to strength as he aged. As for “modern art fans”, they mostly ignored him for most of his career. You are parroting received ideas – a kind of comfort food, really – about people and things you know nothing about.

          • Granite Sentry

            Right. Our views diverge and so mine must be ignorant. Another hallmark of our Art Appreciation Overlords. Thanks for lending support to my point about the snobbery inherent in the art world.

            If you want to compartmentalize Freud and other such predators from their artwork, please do so, though I would suggest you keep yourself and your loved ones at a safe distance. I prefer to judge these folks — and their acolytes — based on their work on life’s larger canvas.

          • blog

            Correct! I would certainly appreciate it if you would keep your uniformed blather and self-pity to yourself. Of course, special pleading about how our views “diverge” is always welcome, as it illustrates the relativism that permeates the minds of those who can’t be bothered to do the hard work required to understand anything other than their own narrow views and tiny experiences of living. Have a good time enjoying “life’s larger canvas”, and your imagined superiority to those who actually think hard about art – as opposed wallowing in resentment.

            “compartmentalize” ha ha ha.

            You read an little article about an artist you didn’t give a damn about, posted your little piece, and got your head handed to you. Why don’t you just give up? You don’t care about art, you just seethe with resentment about the imagined slights you’ve received at the hands of people who never even notice you. Of course, you can always accuse them of “snobbery”. You do know what that word means, right?

          • Granite Sentry

            Careful brother, we can all hear your teeth gnashing. But I do appreciate your help proving every one of my points. Adios!

          • But it really is ignorant, your view. Your opinion (which I’m glad that you’re free to express) is terribly uninformed. You clearly know nothing of Freud’s work… which is in itself no sin… but it’s a bit risky swinging into a comment thread armed only with a gut feeling, or a knee-jerk response, or in a vague rage, when so many are conversant with the topic at hand. I try (try) to restrict myself to arguing, in public, on matters in which I have some actual experience/ knowledge. Otherwise, the point is what? Blowing off steam?

  • Anonymous Coward

    An artist I know once described Lucien Freud as “a happy cow”.

    Yes, he’s very over-rated as a painter. The real scandal is how did he get such a reputation. But then, the Brits never really could paint.

    • frankgado

      Yeah, that’s true, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Turner, Constable–dabblers all

      • Anonymous Coward

        Well, there were a few.

        A guy named Bonnington studied with Delacroix, and then there’s Francis Bacon, also Howard Hodgkins(sp.?).
        Don’t agree with you about Turner.

        But I’d like to read Clive Bell sometime and Roger Fry looked interesting.
        But yes, the Brits just aren’t that good at it.

        • frankgado

          Dear Noel,
          I was being facetious. Some American comedians have told me their humor just doesn’t work in Britain. If you’re a Brit, I can see why that may be so.
          Evaluation of art reflects how the eye has been schooled. English art is … very English. Reynolds is unsurpassed in attaining his objectives–which no longer conform to the propensities of modern critics. But how can one trust the judgments of critics who esteem deKooning and Warhol?
          Are you acquainted with the work of Washington Allston, an American artist, born in South Carolina and raised in New England, then long a resident in England? Coleridge and his fellow Romantics, whom he met in London, had an exalted opinion of him. Allston moves from Neo-Classicism to the Romantic–he’s a bit like Giorgione in his transitional role. Wrote some very fine sonnets about painters and their paintings. He is pretty much forgotten today, but shouldn’t be.

    • blog

      Actually, no, the “scandal” of his reputation is that there are fools out there who think he is over-rated, largely out of resentment and/or blindness it seems.

  • The_greyhound

    A nasty man then.

    That just leaves his paintings.

    Oh dear.

  • Pootles

    Orwell put it all very nicely in his ‘Benefit of clergy’. His target there was Dali, but it applies to lots of other swine, like Freud. Same goes for literary poseurs – Carey’s Intellectuals and the Masses sorts them out.

  • Joel Posner

    There is a clear anti social streak in his personaility. Superficial charm, lack of empathy, gambling, lying and cheating. Compare to grandpa and you see where it all came from. How can anyone enjoy any work of Lucien Freud from now on?

    • blog

      Quite easily, as it turns out.

  • Mievri

    Reading the review and these comments a couple of things occur to me. Even the best people are capable of surprisingly bad acts: even the worst people are capable of surprisingly good acts. One only has to read the news every morning to see that the most ordinary people are equally capable of both abhorrent and wonderful behaviour, although it is mostly the abhorrent behaviour which makes the news. Whatever you think of his painting, his life simply reflects his failings as a human, and our interest in it simply accretes around his celebrity. Personally I don’t buy into the romantic tortured artist shtick. His art just is what it is – what the viewer reads into it is up to them. His life is what it is and what Geordie Greig writes into it is simply his view based on his relationship with Lucian Freud. A man who compartmentalises his life in the way Greig describes will undoubtedly have layered secrets within secrets and peeling a few of them back as Greig does will likely only be a partial view – there’s bound to be a balancing hagiography in the works somewhere soon.

    I’m as curious about the private Lucian Freud as the next person of course, but I would be the last person to pass judgment on him from another person’s book. It won’t change my view of his painting either. I’m surprised (but not outraged lol) at the quality of some commenters’ outrage and ? disappointment. Kick the burgeoning outrage habit in the anonymity of the blogosphere, people!

  • Simon Fay

    A talented turd. I must say, he does look the very image of a nasty old c*** propping up a Soho bar that only a few would know existed etc etc.

    • blog

      Exactly! Talented, and a turd! How can it be? Stiff-upper-lip types are always perplexed by this.

  • Asmodeus Belial

    The fact that he bedded fragile 17 year old daughters and lived to tell the tale says much about the pathetic fathers one generally finds in the circles he ran in. I’d have castrated the little ass if he so much as looked the wrong way at my teen daughter.