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Breakfast with Lucian: The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain’s Great Modern Painter

By Geordie Greig

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

272 pages, $30

By Colin Dabkowski

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Lucian Freud, the lauded British painter who led a tumultuous life and achieved international success in the final two decades of his career, was known to make his subjects sit for their portraits for excruciating lengths of time in his shabby-chic studio in west London.

But rarely did the prickly and private painter allow anyone else to gaze at him for very long, preferring to remain a stylishly enigmatic figure in the eyes of his many family members, friends, lovers, enemies and admirers.

That changed in the final decade of his life, when the thick wall of privacy he spent years building began to show a few strategic cracks. Through one of those late-life fissures slipped the journalist Geordie Greig, Freud’s longtime follower and eventual friend and editor of the British newspaper The Mail on Sunday. After 10 years of breakfast meetings with Freud at a Notting Hill restaurant and many months of writing after the painter’s death in 2011, Greig emerged with the penetrating biography “Breakfast with Lucian.”

The book, a quick read at 272 pages, serves as a fine introduction to Freud’s unsparing and sometimes shocking portraits and a modestly dishy look into the extraordinary life that swirled around them. The painter essentially sat for Greig, not a bad portrait artist in his own medium, as so many friends, lovers and family members sat for Freud across his career. Though more clinical and certainly a great deal more affectionate than Freud’s paintings of exposed human bodies, Greig’s portrait of his wily subject is as penetrating as might be hoped under such cozy circumstances.

It’s an impressive achievement, to pin down one of the most slippery characters of 20th century art and force him to sit still for long enough, and reveal enough about himself and his history, to produce a document that approaches some kind of honesty.

Greig gives us a short glimpse into Freud’s childhood in Germany and his family’s rather narrow escape from the scourge of Naziism. The painter was the grandson of Sigmund Freud, and reportedly drew his love of animals, and thus of the mechanics of human bodies, from the great psychoanalyst. But, as Greig writes, Freud refused to acknowledge any psychological meaning or implications in his paintings, preferring to leave interpretation up to the viewer.

“He believed the human body was the most profound subject and he pursued a ruthless process of observation, using the forensic exactitude of a scientist dissecting an animal in a laboratory,” Greig writes. “His paintings were always more analytical than psychoanalytical; he never intended them to have a narrative. They merely showed what he saw and if the oddity of a zebra, rat or protruding leg gave rise to psychological interpretation, he would insist that he had merely painted what was before him.”

What comes across most clearly in the book is Freud’s compulsion to work and his dedication to his art at the expense of everything and nearly everyone else in his life, a drive that most likely had something to do with his childhood experiences in Germany and the war’s subsequent effects on his adopted home.

“He was wedded to the idea and practice of figurative art. He ignored abstraction, expressionism, postmodernism and conceptual art, and was disdainful about them, certain that prolonged and intense observation of the human figure was the core of an artist’s purpose,” Greig writes. “His was a race to leave a permanent mark, and painting was the obsessive center of his life.”

Other obsessions included poetry, literature and music, from Flaubert to Blondie, which Freud would often recite from memory during his meetings with Greig. But his main distraction and occasional inspiration was women.

Hundreds of broken hearts doubtless litter Freud’s past, and Greig makes no attempt to account for all of them. He focuses instead on Freud’s greatest loves and obsessions, especially when they flowed in some important way into his work. These include the society women Lorna Wishart, Lady Caroline Blackwood and a dozen or so other temporary romantic partners who played a distant fiddle to the painter’s main love – that is, the paint itself.

Where Greig engages in his own psychoanalysis of his subject, he usually does so with great care, preferring to suggest connections rather than to draw conclusions that are too resolute or far-fetched. He also proves himself a level-headed art critic with a knack for description. Here he is on Freud’s portrait of his onetime wife Lady Caroline Blackwood:

“In ‘Girl in Bed’ she is again obsessively observed, for such a long time, pinned down like an exotic butterfly. She stares out with an empty vagueness. The tonality is subdued, almost bleached. Her vulnerability and sensuality are suggested by her blue cloudy eyes, the size of gull’s eggs.”

Freud could be mercilessly cruel with his lovers, his children and his fellow artists on the canvas and off. And though Greig’s portrait of him is largely sympathetic – perhaps because of the author’s lifelong fascination with Freud’s work or his close friendship with the painter during the last years of his life – some uninitiated readers might still come away with the view that Freud was something of a high-functioning sociopath.

Because their relationship was so close, and even though Greig includes plenty of unflattering stories and details about Freud’s life and career, it’s tempting to wonder what a more independent inquisitor might have uncovered, what secrets might have been kept out of respect. Surely, a more fully fleshed-out biography will eventually rise to the occasion. But in the meantime, this compassionate and considerate look into the life of one of the 20th century’s great painters will more than suffice.

Colin Dabkowski is The News’ arts critic.