Ever-controversial, artist Lucian Freud proves an ideal subject for biography, writes Rebecca Wallersteiner.[divider]
Enigmatic, turbulent and colourful, the late Jewish artist Lucian Freud was certainly a man who lived life to the full, as revealed in his first authorised biography, Breakfast with Lucian, written by Mail on Sunday editor Geordie Greig.
It is a fascinating book exploring a colourful life that included Lucian’s escape from Nazi Germany, joking with his grandfather Sigmund Freud, his life- long friendships with Frank Auerbach and David Hockney, hiding from his mother and the Krays – as well as his numerous rollercoaster love-affairs.
Meticulously researched, it is full of intriguing little nuggets of information that will surprise even those familiar with Lucian’s complex story. Having initially been fobbed off, Greig befriended the reclusive artist during the last ten years of his life and used to meet him regularly for breakfast, with his assistant, Dave Dawson, at Clarke’s restaurant in Kensington. His lively book is based on their chats over tea and the morning papers.
Lucian Freud was born on 8 December 1922, in Berlin, where his father, Ernst, the youngest son of Sigmund Freud, was a modernist architect. Both his parents were Jewish and he was named after his mother, Lucie, nee Brasch, the daughter of a prosperous grain merchant, who adored him. The middle of her three sons, Lucian was always Lucie’s favourite.
Much of his early childhood was spent in an affluent part of Berlin, near the Tiergarten, the beautiful park in the centre of the city. Here, the three brothers skated, played and competed at long-jumping without a care in the world. “In Berlin, Lucian was surrounded by governesses, nannies, maids and a cook,” says Greig. It was a comfortable, upper middle-class household.
Prints of Bruegel’s Seasons, given to Lucian by his grandfather, hung on the walls of the family home, along with Durer’s engravings of a hare. Lucian and Stephen teased Clement, the youngest brother. “They made him go up to some Nazi soldiers in Berlin and ask if they had seen a monkey. Then Clement would hand them a mirror, which got him into trouble,” explains Greig. “The other two found it very funny.”
Lucian told Greig that some of his older school friends had been in the Hitler Youth and that he had even snapped Hitler with his own camera when he was nine while walking around Berlin with his governess. In 1933, the familiar world of the Freud family changed forever, as it did for other Jewish families in Nazi Germany. Hitler became Chancellor, an event followed in February by the Reichstag fire and subsequent reprisals.
In April, one of Lucian’s close relatives was murdered by the Nazis on Berlin’s Kurfurstendamm.
Then Lucian’s mother experienced an anti-Semitic verbal attack while playing with her sons outside their holiday home on the island of Hiddensee. These dark events prompted Ernst to travel to London and search for a suitable school for his children.
He encouraged them to develop their knowledge of English culture by reading Alice in Wonderland and Black Beauty. Sigmund left Vienna just after the Anschluss in 1938, but his four elderly sisters stayed and were murdered in concentration camps.
Lucian told Greig that he had happy memories of Sigmund’s playfulness and encouragement. “He remembered how Sigmund would clack his false teeth together in his hands and how especially kind he was to the maids in their house,” Greig writes. Always grateful to England for having saved him and his family from extermination, Lucian bequeathed his treasured Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and three Degas sculptures, including a bronze sculpture of a galloping horse, to the National Gallery, as a thank you.
Although he was unquestionably tricky and fell out with many people, Lucian maintained a lifelong friendship with fellow refugee Frank Auerbach, and they had breakfast together every few weeks for almost half a century. Frank told Greig: “I was interested in Lucian’s work and, slightly against my will, impressed by its intensity.” Both artists were linked by their common historical bond and shared family connections – Frank’s aunt had known Lucian’s parents in Germany.
Lucian had a complex relationship with his father, but felt despondent when he died and struggled to paint, shaken by the realisation that another link to his past had gone. After her husband died, Lucie attempted suicide, feeling that there was no more point in living. Always very secretive, Lucian had felt stifled by his doting mother and avoided her when he was young. She supported his desire to become an artist, but his father was against it.
Despite press allegations that Lucian was misogynistic, he was good to his mother, like most Jewish men. After Ernst died, he collected Lucie from her home almost every day and provided her with company, as he painted her.
With her strong, rather severe features, she looked rather like Lucian and his portraits of her are among his best. Greig points out the Germanic influences in Lucian’s early paintings, with critics drawing attention to the influence of Otto Dix or the painters of the Neue Sachlichkeit, such as Christian Schad.
Lucian, however, always downplayed anything German and hated speaking the language. Another talented friend of Lucian’s was the poet Stephen Spender and they were inseparable for a time. They jokingly called themselves ‘Freud and Schuster’ (the maiden name of Spender’s mother, who was half- Jewish). Eventually they quarrelled and stopped speaking to each other.
Lucian’s friendship with fellow artist Frank Auerbach, which lasted until his death, proved more enduring and the book also covers Lucian’s two tempestuous short marriages to Kitty Epstein, the daughter of sculptor Jacob, and Irish aristocrat Lady Caroline Blackwood, as well as his numerous love affairs.
Greig’s excellent memoir reveals different facets of Lucian, whom some believe to be the most controversial and intriguing artist since Picasso. Even if you disapprove of his rackety private life, he certainly had plenty of chutzpah – and he proved to be a good Jewish son by looking after his ageing mother.
• Breakfast with Lucian: A Portrait of the Artist, by Geordie Greig is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £25 (hardcover) and is available now