Book review: ‘Breakfast with Lucian’

New York TimesDecember 7, 2013 

  • Nonfiction ‘Breakfast with Lucian: The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain’s Great Modern Painter’ Geordie Greig

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 260 pages

Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon were friends and rivals. That scratching sound you hear is Freud clawing at his coffin after Bacon’s 1969 portrait of him recently went for a record $142.4 million.

The painting it displaced is Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Which is perfect, because that’s the face that Freud would have made. He’d have preferred that his 1951 portrait of Bacon smash the record. That’s some painting, as well. Robert Hughes compared Bacon’s face in it to “a hand grenade on the point of detonation.”

Too bad it was stolen from a Berlin gallery in 1988 and hasn’t been seen since.

I don’t mean to make Freud sound insecure and vile. Geordie Greig does a handy enough job of that in “Breakfast With Lucian,” a volume of prying and sabotage dressed up to resemble a book of love.

Freud, probably the most important British artist of the second half of the 20th century, died in 2011 at 88. He was intensely private. Until we have a proper biography, we have this book, written by the editor of The Mail on Sunday, whom Freud admitted into his circle in the final years of his life. Old and feeble, he let his guard down. Bad move, old bean.

“Breakfast With Freud” displays little feeling for Freud’s work. The book is seldom boring, though, which is something. It is so force-fed with gossip and incident – brawling, rutting, gambling, cuckolding, exacting revenge – that Freud comes off as equal parts society dandy and crusty bum.

At 84, Freud “chucked breadsticks at a man who used flash to take a photograph in the Wolseley,” a London restaurant. That fellow got off easy. A boxer when young, Freud loved to thump or head-butt his fellow Britons. One of his daughters recalls, “Dad used to hit taxi drivers and punched people in the street if he didn’t like the look of them.”

My favorite anecdote, melee division – it’s about the art dealer Jay Jopling – goes this way: “A dapper Old Etonian with signature ‘Joe 90’ glasses, Jopling had been having a quiet drink in Green Street, a dining club in Mayfair, when Lucian entered the room and attacked him. ‘He kicked me on the shins, grabbed the girl I was talking to and walked out with her,’ he said.”

Freud leapt on women (and occasionally men) throughout his life as if he were a flying squirrel in paint-flecked work boots. This volume goes long on his playing of “musical beds on a grand and anarchic scale.” He married twice, and has many acknowledged and unacknowledged children, but always had overlapping lovers. These women had to poke though his work in progress to see whom else he was sleeping with.

Freud painted with agonizing slowness and required his models to be present for every brush stroke. Sessions could drag on for more than a year. After sitting for four months for a Freud portrait, of her breast-feeding her son by Mick Jagger, the model Jerry Hall was late for a session or two. Freud got revenge, we read, by replacing her in the portrait with a man.

We do witness Freud commit acts of kindness and generosity in this well-illustrated book, but they are few and far between. In the stray details accumulated here, sinisterly speckled onto the page like Ralph Steadman’s ink blots, he is mostly cruel, loutish, self-centered.

Freud probably was all of these things, some or most of the time. But there is never a sense of seeing him whole in “Breakfast With Lucian.” Greig turns him into a cartoon, a man without texture.

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