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Eel-like Freud revealed in posthumous bio

Posted by on 02/05/2019

He was the grandson of Sigmund Freud and fled Nazi Germany in 1933 for London.

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He painted disturbing realist portraits that now command colossal auction prices, fathered 14 children to six mothers (friends estimate the number of children was closer to 30) and became Britain’s most acclaimed figurative artist of the past century.

Lucian Freud was many things. Geordie Greig’s fascinating biography reveals a compelling but chaotic life which, until Freud’s death in 2011, was largely kept veiled by his family, friends and ex-lovers.

Breakfast With Lucian is the result of decades of persistence by Greig to secure an audience with the intensely private artist – a feat the author managed courtesy of Freud’s long-time friend and assistant David Dawson.

This posthumous bio draws on 10 years of conversations Greig had with Freud over breakfast at Clarke’s restaurant in London’s Notting Hill.

The bio reveals Freud to have been a series of paradoxes.

He was a control freak, who lived alone and liked to use the phone but would change his number several times or not give it out.

As Greig writes: “He was accused of infidelity, cruelty and absenteeism as a father, yet in spite of sometimes defiantly selfish behaviour some of his children and girlfriends, and even the children of his girlfriends, would still defend him over what was pretty indefensible behaviour. All his life he got away with it.”

Freud was an art satyr, and his affairs and relationships often read like a rollcall of British high society. Former lover Anne Dunn pinpoints the lusty rake’s magnetism: “He was so alive. He was like life itself, pulsating with energy. It was what I had sought and never found again.”

When not moving in upper circles, Freud liked to mix with East End gangsters, and was at one time in heavy financial debt to the Kray brothers. Greig, a former Tatler editor, revels in tracing the web of unlikely, unwieldy relationships that the artist liked to keep highly separate.

As juicy as all this personal detail is, Freud the artist is occasionally obscured in this bio. The book charts Freud’s long and uncompromising climb to the summit of figurative art, but often misses telling the reader why his art is so remarkable.

The best take on Freud is from Australian critic Robert Hughes, who once wrote of the artist’s paintings: “Every inch of the surface has to be won, must be argued through, bears traces of curiosity and inquisition – above all, takes nothing for granted and demands active engagement with the viewer as its right.”

It would have been good if Greig’s portrait had managed to paint more of that aspect of Freud. As it is, Breakfast With Lucian does a decent job of capturing one of “life’s eels” – no easy task as Greig tries to reconcile how Freud’s edgy, risk-taking life informed such a celebrated output.

* Breakfast With Lucian, by Geordie Greig, is published by Random House, rrp $59.99.

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