Hypnotic and hurtful: Those closest to the enigmatic artist Lucian Freud paint a portrait of him as candid and unflinching as any of his pictures
Surely it’s every documentary maker’s worst nightmare: You finally persuade one of the greatest artists in the world – a famously difficult individual – to have a film made about him. Then, when the questions have barely begun, your subject dies.
Such was the dilemma facing Randall Wright last year when he was sanctioned to make a documentary about artist Lucian Freud, who died in July, aged 88.
For a while, it was unclear whether the film would be made. But, after some deliberation, the cameras began to roll again, focusing on the friends, lovers and associates Lucian left behind.
Lucian and Kate Moss in Bed, photographed by David Dawson in 2010
In the event, the programme might be more powerful than had Lucian lived, as those who knew him were now willing to speak freely. And perhaps it is fitting that the man whose portraits were famous for their brutal realism was similarly scrutinised in death.
‘I paint people not because of what they’re like, not exactly in spite of what they’re like, but how they happen to be,’ Lucian said. His acquaintances have been equally candid and the picture that emerges of this extraordinary man is as nuanced as his art. As you might expect, some of the most moving contributions are from his children.
The film pooh-poohs the idea that the infamously scruffy lothario sired up to 40 children, concluding there are unlikely to be more than the 14 he acknowledged. Still, the stories they do tell – his daughters agreed to pose nude for him on the grounds it was the only way to forge a relationship with their father – are deeply poignant.
Lucian Freud's portrait, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, sold for a record 17million
Freud's portrait of the Queen remains one of the
most unusual and controversial depictions of the British monarch (left)
a painting, entitled 'Self Portrait, Reflection' (right)
Bella Freud, an acclaimed fashion designer, weeps as she recalls cutting her father’s hair when he was in his eighties. ‘I hadn’t really touched him before,’ she says. ‘It was lovely to run my hand through his hair.’
Her sister, novelist Esther, remembers the portrait Freud painted of her as a teen. It was all stocky realism, and she thought, ‘I’m not as big as that.’ Freud’s response ‘That’s what you think!’ As an artist he was right, she says. ‘He wasn’t trying to depict an image of me, he was painting who I am.’
The picture that emerges of Lucian Freud is of a man who put art ahead of everything and whose eyes – ‘peering and piercing’ according to fellow artist David Hockney – missed nothing. This is a man who watched on a video monitor as his painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping sold at Christie’s for a record-breaking 17.2million.
Did he swoon as the bidding rose No. While everyone else was speechless as the bids went higher and higher, Freud was observing the people in the auction house and commenting on how they were behaving.
For Freud was the ultimate people-watcher, equally enthralled by queens and commoners. But he painted them on HIS terms, not theirs. In the film his cousin Carola Zentner, says he once turned down a commission to paint the Pope. ‘He said he didn’t travel,’ she laughs. ‘That was Lucian all over.’
Family history: Daughters of artist Lucian Freud, Esther (left) and Bella
Born, like him, a Jew in Berlin, Carola’s family fled Nazi Germany a few years after the Freuds and she has vivid memories of the young Lucian, whose talent shone out in his teens.
‘I remember him doing a sketch of a baby and it was magical. The child was in a laundry basket and the detail of the wickerwork was remarkable.’ Then tragedy struck when Lucian’s father died in the 1970s and his mother, grieving, tried to commit suicide. She failed, but never quite recovered and, for a while, moved in with Carola’s family.
For much of her life Lucian shied away from painting his mother, but in her latter years he was relentless in trying to capture her on canvas. The resulting work has had critics enthralled – but his cousin is disturbed.
‘I can see the merit in the paintings. There is an undeniable truth to them,’ she says carefully. ‘I was happy with the first portrait in that series, but to paint my beloved aunt as she was virtually dying, well, it’s not something that sits easily with me.’
Lucien Freud's nude portrait of his daughter, Bella
Like so many people, Carola had a difficult relationship with her cousin. ‘Oh, Lucian could be incredibly charming. He had a way of looking at you, focusing on you, that could be mesmerising, but he pretty much did what he wanted. Lucian was a very easy man to fall out with. He could be very hurtful. The normal rules of life did not apply to him.’ Did she sit for Lucian ‘No. I would not have wanted to be exposed like that.’
Others – everyone from the Queen to Kate Moss and Andrew Parker-Bowles – had no such qualms. Another contributor to the film is Charlie Lumley, 80, who met Freud as a boy when the artist moved into his street in Paddington, West London. A friendship began and Charlie became one of his most famous subjects.
‘When he was married to his first wife he’d tell her he was painting me of an evening – but actually we’d go to clubs where he’d pull women. Then we’d go home and he’d paint me through the night.’
Years later, after his second marriage broke down, Lucian was depressed. Another legend of the art world, Francis Bacon, asked Charlie to keep an eye on him. ‘He was convinced Lu would throw himself off the roof,’ he recalls. That isn’t the only aspect of his life with Lucian that seems surreal. Back in 1944, one of the portraits of Charlie sold for 18. Last year, the same artwork fetched an eye-watering 1.5million. ‘If only I’d asked for royalties,’ whistles Charlie.
Lucian Freud: Painted Life, BBC2, 18 February, 9pm.