Name: Lucian Freud
Date of Birth: December 8 1922
Location: Paddington, London
I like the anarchic idea of coming from nowhere. But I think that’s probably because I had a very steady childhood.
I’m secretive. I like to think that no one knows what I’m thinking or feeling. I happen to be Jewish, but I don’t want to go round exclaiming and tearing my hair.
At 15 I went to the Central School of Art. I was the youngest there and can remember seeing a naked model for the first time. I rang up all my friends and said, ‘Come and see this!’.
Painters who use life itself will eventually reveal every facet of their lives. My work is purely autobiographical. It is about myself and my surroundings. It is an attempt at a record. I work from the people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I live in and know.
Through my intimacy with the people I portray, I may have depicted aspects of them which they find intrusive.
Half the point of painting a picture is that you don’t know what will happen. I sometimes think that if painters did know what was going to happen, they wouldn’t bother actually to do it. I hope people will be affected by my work but whether it’s adversely or agreeably I don’t care at all. I’m fairly immune from praise or abuse, but there are a very few number of people where what they thought would count a lot for me.
I’ve gradually worked longer as I’ve gotten weaker. Fading strength makes me drive myself harder. But I’ve never lacked staying power. With age I’ve become increasingly ambitious. It’s a fascination with the difficulties. I don’t like many hours to pass without working. Many people are astonished that anyone would sacrifice the possibility of comfort and what is thought to be an agreeable life to a life of uncertainty and loneliness, where you are engaged in an incomprehensible activity.
All the real pleasures are solitary. I hate being watched at work. I can’t even read when others are about.
The task of the artist is to make the human being uncomfortable. I remember Francis Bacon would say that he felt he was giving art what he thought it previously lacked. With me, it’s what Yeats called the fascination with what’s difficult. I’m only trying to do what I can’t do. There is no free will and the only real work you can do is on yourself. I paint the sort of paintings I can, not the ones I necessarily want to paint.
I think of great pictures, rather than great artists. There are very few painters where I like everything they did because it’s by them. Unlike Andy Warhol, who said ‘People go on asking about my works, they don’t realise that they are exactly as they see, there’s nothing behind them,’ I want there to be everything behind mine.
For me the painting is the person. My idea of portraiture came from dissatisfaction with portraits that resembled people. I would wish my portraits not to have a look of the sitter, but to be them. I didn’t want to get just a likeness like a mimic, but to portray them, like an actor. As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as the flesh does.
I did 200 drawings to every painting in the early days. I very much prided myself on my drawing. [But ] the idea of doing paintings where you’re conscious of the drawing and not the paint just irritated me. People thought and said and wrote that I was a very good draftsman but my paintings were linear and defined by my drawing… I thought if that’s at all true, I must stop.
I don’t use professional models because they have been stared at so much that they have grown another skin. When they take their clothes off, they are not naked; their skin has become another form of clothing. And I want something that is not generally on show, something private and of a more innate kind. I’m really interested in them as animals. Part of liking to work from them naked is for that reason… One of the most exciting things is seeing through the skin, to the blood and veins and markings.
What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince. Surely all good art is linked to courage, isn’t it? The only thing that’s interesting about art present or past is quality. The whole mystery of art is why good things are good.
Lucian Freud On Paper is published by Jonathan Cape on December 4. randomhouse.co.uk
Picture credit: Man at Night (self-portrait), 1947-48
Words: Will Alderwick
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #16, Dec/Jan 2008/09