In an experiment in disconnection over the past week (a diary-style magazine piece on what it’s like to return to total offline life for seven days) I’ve done a lot of reading. In time away from the internet I discovered a lovely rich sense of privacy and mental spaciousness, even allowing for a little rereading. One of the books I’ve dipped into again is an old favourite: Man with a Blue Scarf, by Martin Gayford. It’s an account of sitting for two portraits for the great Lucian Freud, an experience that took over eighteen months altogether.
This is such a beautiful book. I first read it as I wrote this piece here, for The Monthly. It’s perfect for dipping into, as it’s written in short, reflective, elegant pieces.
One of Freud’s conventions is to eat dinner in a good restaurant with his portrait subjects after each sitting, as the latter is a surprisingly demanding physical feat. But Gayford points out it is not just a pleasant reward for what could become ‘a grind’ – it’s also a chance for the painter to keep observing the sitter at close quarters.
There is a complicated relationship between painting, cooking and eating. Quite often the subject matter of painting is food, or as we call it in English, ‘still life’. The French term, nature morte, or dead life, describes it with bleaker honesty. The eatable is, generally speaking, dead matter, animal and vegetable, which if not consumed will soon decay. Living flesh is made by consuming other organisms. That is a fundamental biological process, one that is punningly recalled by Lucian Freud’s painting of a nude with two fried eggs (Naked Portrait with Egg, 1980-81; p 16), as close a visual analogy between the human body and comestibles as exists in the whole of art.
Artists who are interested, like LF, in the physical being of people are necessarily interested in food. Francis Bacon used to insist that we are meat, and – though one might disagree about whether there is more to the question – that contention is undeniably true. Moreover, painting – especially the thick and luscious variety often employed by painters who attempt to evoke the texture and weight of bodily existence – often uses techniques that verge on the culinary. Rembrandt, it has been discovered, used a liaison of oil and egg yolk to thicken those wonderful dollops of pigment that he used to recreate the bulge of a nose or the currugations of a forehead. In other words, he was painting with a variety of mayonnaise.
A remark by Sickert comes to mind: ‘The more our art is serious, the more it will tend to avoid the drawing room and stick to the kitchen. The plastic arts are gross arts, dealing joyously with gross material facts … while they will flourish in the scullery, or on the dunghill, they fade at a breath from the drawing room.’
‘Gross material facts’ are exactly the subjects of LF’s pictures, very often. And though many would dispute he deals with them joyously (though I am not sure I would), he does so – I believe – with sympathy, tenderness and, certainly, intense seriousness. From this first evening, the sights and smells of restaurants are mingled in my mind with those of the studio: linseed oil and olive oil, saffron and yellow ochre.
I highly recommend this book – it’s a lively and rich philosophical discussion of Freud, portraiture, friendship and painting. It’s an absolute jewel, and you can buy it here.