And to think that I almost missed this book, which is subtitled, “On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” I was sent it by a friend, who thought the account of intense engagement with an artist would interest me. As it happens, I have read and admired Martin Gayford’s The Yellow House, which is about Van Gogh’s time with Gauguin in Arles. I like Lucian Freud’s work. (He appears tangentially in Book Group of One because he was married to Caroline Blackwood.)
Still, I was not prepared for the sheer exhilaration and charm between these covers. Man with a Blue Scarf is so stimulating and provocative that I gulped it down like my first cup of coffee, and like caffeine, it made me feel more alert and perceptive. The premise is simple but unusual. Gayford is a well-known curator, writer, and art critic, and a longtime friend of Lucian Freud. He proposed himself as a sitter for one of Freud’s portraits, and was accepted. This book is his account of the several hundred hours he spent in Freud’s company, watching — and participating in — the creation of an image of his own face. That transaction in itself, Gayford sitting, Freud painting, is a fascinating matter. Gayford’s erudition and authority make him an excellent guide to Freud’s technique and place in contemporary art. (He’s a huge fan, by the way. My only criticism is a faint whiff of hagiography.) Freud works very slowly, gradually building up his image to reflect, not the way Gayford looks on one occasion as in a photograph, but the way he looks over time, with different expressions and moods.
But as Freud creates a portrait of Gayford, so does Gayford create a portrait of Freud, using his own medium of words. And Freud is evidently a fascinating talker. One of the great pleasures of the book is Gayford’s direct, elegant summaries of ideas, punctuated by Freud’s colorful judgments. (For instance, Freud despises Dante Gabriel Rossetti: “‘He’s the worst of the pre-Raphaelites, his work seems to me the nearest painting can get to bad breath.’”) Naturally one preoccupation of the two men is the creative enterprise and here is real wisdom. Gayford intensely admires Freud’s focus and his work ethic, referring on many occasions to the way Freud thinks about producing paintings. An artist, Gayford says, “has to navigate forward into the unknown guided only by an internal sense of direction, keep up a set of standards which are imposed entirely from within, meanwhile maintaining faith that the task he or she has set him or herself is worth struggling constantly to achieve.” He sees this as a job description for Lucian Freud but it’s true also for himself, as he produces a book. Like the one on the desk next to me. Like the one I’m writing now. He makes it sound difficult but worth while — for that alone, I would love this volume.
I have to add that, much as I love electronic books, I deeply appreciated this physical one. Lovely heavy paper, beautiful type, and many illustrations, placed artfully within the text. All in all, it’s a splendid reading experience.