He spends his time gambling in Monte Carlo, and then occasionally he comes back. If he does a picture, he generally destroys it,' and so on.
On hard work
On his grandfather Sigmund
On Francis Bacon
On gambling and the Krays
On Damien Hirst
On his mother
On The Queen
Lucian Freud has maintained a scrupulous silence about his private life - until now. In conversation with Sebastian Smee and David Dawson, he tells of his encounters with Picasso, the Krays and The Queen
Lucian Freud: Well, it's all I do. It's all I want to do. It's simply a question of keeping well, really.
SS: Do you feel a kind of happiness when you're working, or is it more a question of being in the grip of something?
LF: I think it's more that if I wasn't working, I'd feel a terrible waste of time, a sort of prize c---. I suppose happy in a sense. Hopeful, really. But it's only what I want to do. I feel that having done things helps me.
SS: It always strikes me as odd that you don't seem particularly keen to see things that you've done. You went to the Tate show briefly, but you didn't exactly hang out there. You are interested in where they end up, though.
LF: Well, that's a bit of a joke - 'Where are they living now?' - you know. But I'm quite interested, I suppose. Very early on, in the Forties, there were some friends of my parents who bought some pictures, and they kept on asking me round. I went round there, and it was so awful, and I noticed how awful even their furniture was. I thought I'm never going to do that again.
SS: I remember something lovely you said about your grandfather: 'Laughter always seals your memory of someone,' you said. 'He made me laugh a lot.' It stuck in my mind in part because I don't necessarily think of him as a terribly jolly person. In what way did he make you laugh?
LF: The first time I remember seeing him, he had had cancer for a long time. Of the jaw. He had false teeth, which I wouldn't have thought was all that usual for the time. I went to see him and he was behind a screen being washed, or attended to for something to do with his condition. I was waiting. He looked up behind the screen with the false teeth in his hand and made them bite and click. My mother was furious, because she thought I'd be frightened. Well, you know, I was so pleased!
David Dawson: The humour that your grandfather had - it's always been in your work too, quietly.
LF: I hope so. I've thought, looking at paintings that I like, that they've nearly always got a joke in them, of sorts. With Ingres, for instance, it's in nearly everything. That feeling of 'Is this serious?' It's to do with extreme things, to do with his attitude to women, the richness of people. You can't help thinking, 'This isn't quite…' But it's not a literary thing - it's absolutely visual. It makes you feel that you're noticing something.
SS: Something like that was in your recent picture, The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer.
LF: I thought that painting was very badly in need of something to stop it being a sort of 'Silent Artist at Work', you know?
SS: I remember something you said about liking the anarchic idea of coming from nowhere. And it's true, from very early on in your work, that one can sense your eagerness to resist the appearance of having learned to do something.
LF: Yes. I didn't want (and this may be either vanity or perversity) my work to reflect other people's. That said, I think that when I was at Cedric Morris's [the East Anglian School of Painting], my things did look quite like his. Early portraits and so on. I certainly watched him paint, and I liked his portraits, which other people loathed. So I think I was affected by him. Mind you, originality has no virtue of any kind if you think about it very seriously.
SS: You seemed eager, too, to avoid any obvious displays of facility or virtuosity, as if you were deliberately cultivating a look of awkwardness.
LF: Looking at art schools and people drawing, I always thought that slick drawing was far worse than the most awful laboured mess.
DD: When did you meet Francis Bacon?
LF: I was friendly with [the painter] Graham Sutherland, and used to go down and see him in Kent. Being young and extremely tactless, I said to him: 'Who do you think is the best painter in England?' which, of course, he felt himself to be, and was beginning to be regarded to be. He said, 'Oh, someone you'd never have heard of. He's the most extraordinary man. He spends his time gambling in Monte Carlo, and then occasionally he comes back. If he does a picture, he generally destroys it,' and so on. He sounded so interesting. So I wrote to him, or called round, and that's how I met him.
SS: How did Bacon strike you as a person when you first met him?
LF: Really admirable. I'll give you a simple example: I used to have a lot of fights. It wasn't because I liked fighting; it was really just that people said things to me to which I felt the only reply was to hit them. If Francis was there, he'd say, 'Don't you think you ought to try and charm them?' And I thought, 'Well!' Before that, I never really thought about my 'behaviour', as such - I just thought about what I wanted to do and I did it. And quite often I wanted to hit people. Francis wasn't didactic in any way. But it could be said that if you're an adult, hitting someone is really a shortcoming, couldn't it? I mean, there should be some other way of dealing with it.
SS: Did you feel that he affected you in your work, as well?
LF: I realised that his work related immediately to how he felt about life. Mine, on the other hand, seemed very laboured. That was because it was a terrific lot of labour for me to do anything - and still is. Francis, on the other hand, would have ideas which he put down and then destroyed and then quickly put down again. It was his attitude that I admired. The way he was completely ruthless about his own work. After all, nearly any artist I've ever encountered has a bit of a soft spot about their own work. With Francis, there was nothing like that.
DD: So you started seeing each other nearly every day?
LF: Yes. He had this wonderful studio, which had been Millais'. There was a man - a very high-powered businessman, very severe, very good-looking - who kept him there. The man was married with children. He loathed me, probably because he thought, wrongly, that Francis had some kind of relationship with me. Francis liked to say, 'I'm only attracted by men at least 30 years older than me.' But there came a time, rather a lot later, when he said, 'The awful thing is that now the people older than me are too old to do anything.'
DD: Would he let you look at his paintings, ones that weren't finished, when you went around to his studio? He wouldn't turn them to the wall?
LF: No, but he would slash them sometimes. Or say how he was really fed up and felt they were no good, and destroy them. He could be in a pretty bad mood for short periods of time.
DD: How long would it take him to make a painting?
LF: Sometimes I'd go round in the afternoon and he'd say, 'I've done something really extraordinary today.' And he'd done it all in that day. Amazing. He always said he didn't know what he was doing.
SS: Did he have things to say about your work?
LF: I'd have thought he was completely uninterested. But I don't know. When my work started getting some notice, he turned bitchy. What he really minded was that I started getting rather high prices. He'd suddenly turn and say, 'Of course, you've got lots of money.' Which was strange, because before then, for a long, long time, I'd depended on him and others for money. In those days, he'd simply say, 'I've got rather a lot of these' - a bundle of bank notes - 'I thought you might like some of them.' It would make a complete difference to me for three months.
SS: Did he become especially wild or aggressive when he drank?
LF: He didn't become aggressive. He drank, but he was extraordinarily disciplined. When he was working he wouldn't drink, and would usually stay in. But sometimes he went out to Soho, where I'd meet him at half past twelve. He'd have started work at half past seven or eight in the morning. But now he'd drink and get people around him. Some would be incredibly boring, but he'd get them to talk in the most amazing way. He'd go up to strangers - a businessman in a City suit, for instance - and say, 'It's pointless being so quiet and pompous. After all, we only live once and we should be able to discuss everything. Tell me, what are your sexual preferences?' Quite often in such cases, the man would join us for lunch, and Francis would absolutely charm him and make him drunk, and somehow just change his life a bit. Of course, you can't bring out things in people that aren't there - but I was amazed at what there was!
SS: What happened towards the end with Francis Bacon? You fell out, didn't you?
LF: Yes. He had a boyfriend - an ex-fighter pilot who, since Francis had got older and his tastes had changed, was younger than he was. He really fell in love with him. He was a rich fighter pilot, or certainly well off, and he was sadistic, which Francis liked. He knocked Francis about and beat him up. Once, when I saw Francis, one of his eyes was hanging out and he was covered in scars. I didn't really understand the relationship - after all, you don't. But I was so upset seeing him like this that I got hold of the pilot's collar and twisted it around. He would never have hit me because he was a 'gentleman' - do you see? - he would never get in a fight. The violence between them was a sexual thing. I didn't really understand all this. Anyway, I didn't talk to Francis for about three or four years after that. The truth is, Francis really minded about this man more than anyone.
SS: Were you on good terms when he died?
LF: Yes. But his character had changed, which I think was to do with alcohol. It was impossible to disagree with him about anything. He wanted admiration and didn't mind where it came from. To some degree he lost his quality. His manners were still marvellous, though. He would go into a shop or restaurant and people were absolutely charmed.
SS: When did you start gambling? For a while you were doing it quite a lot, weren't you?
LF: I always liked it. In funfairs you could gamble - something called roll-a-penny.
SS: Do you know why you liked it?
LF: Well, I think if I hadn't been painting... I don't know. I used to go to cellars where there were gambling games going on, with very rough people. But that was 1944. When I lost everything I always thought, 'Hooray! I can go back to work.' Sometimes you lost and lost, and were about to go, and then you won again, so you went on to lose some more. I was often six, seven, eight hours in these basements - and that I hated. But generally, I lost and would get out very soon. And very occasionally, when I won quickly, I'd make a run for it.
SS: You gambled on the horses as well as roulette?
LF: Yes. There were illegal betting shops. A lot of thieves. Money was usually dodgy money.
SS: And you knew the Kray twins.
LF: Yes, they had a gambling place. I used to be in the papers a lot for winning one or two art prizes, so they'd be, you know, 'He is a painter!'
SS: You mean you got a certain kudos for this?
LF: Yes, because of being in the papers and winning competitions. You know, 'They aren't all crooks - he's an or-tist! 'Ere, will you do my pho-to?!' There was a lot of that.
SS: So you were gambling after you started making money from your pictures?
LF: Yes, and never so that I gambled but still had some money stashed away somewhere - I always went all out. The idea of it being a sport seemed to me insane. The thing I liked was risking everything. Losing everything to do with money.
LF: Why? It's very hard to say. I loved the risk, but on the other hand it was only money.
SS: How did you feel if you won a lot? Did you often win?
LF: Very seldom, because I was so impatient. When I did, I felt so wild I couldn't work.
SS: Why did you stop? Did you feel it was interfering with your painting?
LF: Stop gambling? Oh, well, it was rather odd. As I got more money, they wouldn't take the bets, and it just became pointless. If I'd been in very high-powered card games with grand, rich people, perhaps, but that wasn't what I did. Although Francis did occasionally take me to these rather grand places - for instance near the Connaught Hotel, a very nice flat, with delicious food being served. They had a roulette game. I remember leaving this place where I had actually won, and thinking, 'God, how marvellous!' I left with this man who I vaguely knew. He was a sort of upper-class bookmaker who had racehorses of his own, and I said, 'God, what a nice place!' And he said, 'You know why it's such a good place? They don't have Jews in it.' I felt that if I'd said I was Jewish, if it had slipped out then and there, he would have fainted with embarrassment. Do you know? Well, I don't know if you know - I mean, now it's rather different - but English upper-class behaviour was absolutely so definite.
SS: You saw Picasso quite a lot in Paris when you were there. Were you already impressed by his work then?
LF: Yes, I was. Certain individual pictures I thought were really marvellous.
SS: You told me once about his asking you to look around his studio…
LF: On and off I spent several years in Paris when I was first with Caroline [Blackwood, who became Freud's second wife in 1953]. I went to Picasso's seven or eight times. He showed me a lot of things. There were piles of pictures lined up in his beautiful studio, in the rue des Grands-Augustins. He said, 'Tell me the one that you prefer, will you?'
SS: How many were there around?
LF: Oh, 250 or so. I took a long time about it and chose maybe seven or eight, at which point he said, 'I'm glad you like those because they're among the things I did last week.' Well, whether it was true or not…
SS: What other sorts of encounters did you have with him?
LF: When I met Caroline Blackwood I took her round to Picasso's. Caroline's nails were always bitten down, as much as possible. Picasso looked and he said, 'I'm going to do some drawings on your nails.' He did black-ink drawings on them - heads and faces and things. Then he said, 'Would you like to see the flat?' There were at least two floors in the rue des Grands-Augustins. So Caroline went off and shuffled back maybe 15 or 20 minutes later. I said to her afterwards, 'Tell me what happened.' She said, 'I can never, ever tell you.' So I never asked her again.
SS: But that must have been terrible!
LF: Oh? Well, I was very nervous. But then - and I know this isn't quite the point, and it sounds ridiculous in a way - but I never really knew Caroline that well. And then, if you think about it, I was 29 or 30 and he must have been around 70. I don't know...
SS: Are there any of the younger crew of British artists you admire? Damien Hirst, for instance?
LF: Yes, I know him. I used to see him. I've seen things of his that are lively. I think he's really capable. There's a sense with a lot of artists today that the public is potentially theirs, which is very interesting to me. 'How can we woo them and involve them with something new?' In an odd way it's the same as it was a long time ago - say, in Hogarth's time. 'What can we do to get them interested? Shock and surprise them…'
SS: You yourself have always been at least moderately well known as an artist. But in the late Eighties, the early Nineties, you became really famous. Were you put off by it?
LF: No, but I've always been really good at privacy. At not letting people know even where I lived. I always had two or three rooms about, and I moved around. I used to go about and have a dance and appear in the gossip columns occasionally, but that all stopped long ago. Eight or nine years ago, probably. I did have one single sort of principle: I never wanted to be the oldest person in the nightclub. I used to go to nightclubs and see these old boys - younger than I am now - and I really despised them. I thought, I'm not going to put myself in that position. Obviously I don't miss it or I'd go. But I used to go a lot. When you've worked at night for a long time, the one thing you're not is tired. You may be fed up, pleased, furious, very nervous - but not tired. So I used to go to nightclubs, to bars, and ask women to dance. Sometimes they did, or sometimes the man said, 'You fuck off, go back to the bar…' Not unreasonably.
SS: I was looking at the pictures you did of your mother, when she was depressed, and it struck me that they cover such a long period of time.
LF: Yes, she was ill for quite some years. She was in her nineties when she died. She had tried to kill herself when my father died. She did a perfectly good job, but she was found by her sister, who brought her back to life when she was virtually dead. After that, even though my mother had amazing health, she pretended she was very ill. She was just terribly depressed to be still alive when she'd made this decision. I started painting her, because she'd lost interest in everything, including me. Before then, I always avoided her because she was so intuitive that I felt my privacy was rather threatened by her.
SS: Did you ever ask her exactly why she was so depressed?
LF: Oh, I knew why. She didn't want to live without my father. It was absolutely clear. My father was completely dependent on her. He was very masculine and even bullying and told her this and that: every meal had to have four courses otherwise it wasn't a proper meal, and so on. But I suppose that was only ordinary for men from Vienna from that time. When she tried to kill herself, she left a note saying, 'I've gone to join him.' She wasn't religious but she meant: 'same condition'. So when she came back to life she was really unhappy. Since she wasn't interested in me, I had a good model. But then also, I did it to cheer her up, to give her something to do. I got her, or got someone to get her, in the morning, and I did this for eight or nine years before she died. I did a lot of pictures.
SS: Did it affect you, this mood of hers - being constantly depressed?
LF: No, because from very early on I realised it was important not to be affected by her, not to see her. I'll give you an idea of what she could be like: when I lived in Paddington, in a rough part, I'd come out and there'd be bowls of food for me. Can you imagine? So I never used to get in touch. I remember I crossed the Atlantic on a Merchant Navy ship during the war, and I was somewhere near Newfoundland, and I thought, 'What an extraordinary place!' It was unbelievable, and I thought, 'I know! I'll send a postcard to my mother, because I'll never be here again and she won't be able to write back…' - do you see? I always avoided her. Until I did those pictures.
SS: How much do you think we can really know about a person from a portrait?
LF: Many people are inclined to look at portraits not for the art in them but to see how they resemble people. This seems to me a profound misunderstanding, which is nevertheless very interesting. For instance, when I was working on a self-portrait a few years ago, I was very pleased when the cleaning lady said she thought it was me when she came into the room. I like it if people say very contradictory things about my work: 'it's very ugly', 'it's very beautiful', 'do you get your models from an asylum?'
SS: What makes a great portrait? Is it different to what makes any great painting?
LF: No. If you think of Rembrandt, the people who sat for him were all bankers and merchants and probably really unremarkable people, but we'd have to believe they were all absolutely filled with spiritual grandeur. I don't think they were. Rembrandt may have been. But I think a great portrait has to do with the way it is approached. If you look at Chardin's animals, they're absolute portraits. It's to do with the feeling of individuality and the intensity of the regard and the focus on the specific. I think the most boring thing you can say about a work of art is that it's 'timeless'. That induces a kind of panic in me. It's almost like political speech - it doesn't apply to anyone. The idea that something's wrong if the work gives off a feeling of being tied to the moment is crazy. One of the things about all great art is that it involves you, don't you agree? It's the same in literature. One of the things I so like about Saul Bellow is that I almost feel as if I had written it myself. There's a degree of conviction that involves you in a way that seems almost innate.
SS: What made you want to paint The Queen?
LF: I've always admired her, and I've seen her around for a very long time. I always just thought she was interesting.
SS: Was she, when you painted her?
LF: Oh yes - and very surprising. She's very, very open-minded. Of course, we had only a limited number of sittings. At one point I remember saying to her, 'You probably think I'm going incredibly slowly, but in fact I'm going at 90 miles an hour, and if I go any faster the car might overturn.'
SS: Do you feel you've fallen in love lots of times?
SS: It seems like you have!
LF: Oh, well, that's my distortion. But no, I don't think so. I think about two or three times. Which is about as much as is possible, I think. People go on and talk about it every day, but I think it's comparatively rare. I'm not talking about habits, nor am I talking about hysterics. I'm talking about actual, complete, absolute concern, where everything about the other person interests, worries or pleases you.
SS: It's funny, Lucian, when you talk about people, you almost always talk about their feelings. And your pictures, I find, are full of feeling. But at the same time, there is this almost aggressive anti-sentimentality in them.
LF: Yes, that's quite right.
SS: Where does that come from, do you think?
LF: I think because I am a biologist.
SS: Can it kill something in art, do you think, to have too much sentiment?
LF: It's difficult to say. But it's not surprising that the French call falling in love tomber amoureux: it's an illness. That's not exactly sentimentality, but it is to do with an irrational preference.