Geordie Greig, the editor of Britain’s “The Mail on Sunday” has interviewed many of the greatest names in contemporary art. An intimate friend of Lucian Freud, who frequently met him for breakfast, he has combined his personal reminiscences with biographical information to paint a penetrating portrait of the late, great British figurative painter in “Breakfast with Lucian: The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain’s Great Modern Painter.”
The grandson of the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Lucian was born in Berlin in 1922. His family fled an increasingly anti-Semitic Germany to settle in London in 1933.
The shadow of death and flight made Lucian hunger for the fullest life in England, smashing through conventional morality and ignoring any rivals. His was a race to leave a permanent mark, and painting was the obsessive centre of his life.
He was undeniably talented:
Intellect and emotion collided in his work and his life, as he used people to whom he was attracted to produce pictures which combined visual impact and psychological intent. They captured an intensely observed truth of what was before him, from the spread thighs of women exposing their genitalia to blank eyes of inconsolable men in awkward poses. He changed the mood and language of portraiture.
While intensely private – even secretive – his outsized personal life made him the subject of gossip for decades. Married twice, he fathered at least fourteen children by a harem of lovers. Those are the children he acknowledged – some put the number of his offspring as high as forty.
Charming and devastatingly handsome in his prime, his stream of devoted lovers and handmaidens endured a lot. Yet:
Many sitters and lovers felt tethered and trapped by his sheer force of personality, but year after year, they came back for more. . . .[He] simply did what he wanted, pursuing his art and his own pleasures at whatever the cost, never compromising. It was a blatantly selfish life, but one which he was happy to explain and defend.
His relationships with everyone were tangled and complex. He hated his mother, who he felt took a claustrophobic interest in him. Interestingly, his mother met his father during WWI “on a hospital visit” where his father was in hospital. Yet as a teenager, during brief hospital stay, he “developed a passion for nurses” and experienced “a startling awakening of his libido.” What would Sigmund say?
One needs a chart to unravel some of his relationships. His first wife, Kitty Garman, was the niece of Lorna Wishart, a noted older beauty with whom he had had a tempestuous affair. He began a twenty-five on-again-off-again affair with Anne Dunn while married to Kitty. Anne later married Michael Wishart, Lorna’s son, with whom Freud had also dallied. And so on.
His second wife was Guinness heiress Lady Caroline Blackwood, whose daughter Natalya:
confessed to her sister that she had slept with Lucian. She was seventeen; he was fifty-five. It was almost incestuous in spirit, sleeping with is ex-wife’s daughter. Shortly afterwards, she was found dead.
As a celebrated artist in his later years, he entered liaisons with willing young women who were, at times, as much as fifty years younger. He painted most of them.
“Breakfast with Lucian” is a gossip-filled account of the outwardly glamorous and thoroughly iconoclastic life of one of the greatest painters of the 20th century. Yes, Freud knew everyone from Greta Garbo to Kate Moss. Yes, he feuded with everyone from Stephen Spender to Francis Bacon. Yes, he liked living on the edge, running up huge gambling debts and becoming beholden to gangsters. But in the end, none of that mattered. He was a painter – and a glorious painter at that.
He told Greig that “painting is what I like doing best and I am completely selfish.” He worked every day, laboring intensively over each of his works, searching to reveal the essence of his sitters. He believed that “One thing more important than the person in the picture is the picture.” It is, undoubtedly, the pictures that matter most, no matter how selfishly and lustily he lived his “tangled web” of a life. A breaker of rules, he held one rule dear: a firm belief in the primacy of the picture.
“Breakfast with Lucian” is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.