Book by Martin Gayford
Annotation by Susan Tuttle
Martin Gayford, art critic and curator, asked his friend, renowned British portrait artist Lucian Freud (a grandson of Sigmund) if he would paint his portrait. As he states at the beginning of Man with a Blue Scarf:
… my motive was partly the standard one of portrait sitters: an assertion of my own existence…. The other reason was a curiosity to see how it was done. After years of writing, talking and thinking about art, I was attracted by the prospect of watching a painting grow; being on the inside of the process. (9)
Gayford’s curiosity to “see how it was done” doesn’t start and stop with a description of palette, canvas and technique. It transcends the boundaries of mere description of how a portrait is painted from the viewpoint of the sitter to become an accounting of process, revealing much more about both the artist and the sitter than he could have predicted when he sat down in that chair in Freud’s London studio in late November 2003. In Man with a Blue Scarf, Gayford chronicles the process from start to finish in a series of dated narratives, often, but not always, starting with his arrival at the artist’s studio. As the book unfolds, the reader becomes aware that the sittings are just the scaffolding onto which Gayford’s observations, conversations, musings and remarks on Freud, art and his role as the sitter take purchase. The reader is afforded an intimate, unique and rare view into the working life of a world famous but reclusive portrait artist, as well as a glimpse into the psychology behind what a portrait is, and what it means to paint it.
One doesn’t have to have any particular pre-knowledge of art to enjoy Man with a Blue Scarf, but an interest in the creative process and some curiosity about what it means to be a working artist will make the reading experience more enjoyable. Gayford lives in a rather exclusive world, and a very British one at that, and while he usually makes an effort to explain the names dropped, sometimes he assumes we all travel in that circle. It could be taken as a compliment to the reader’s worldliness; seldom does it come across as stuck up. This is partly thanks to the fact that his subject, Lucien Freud, is about as down to earth as they come. And this is a strength of the structure of Man with a Blue Scarf: Gayford never fails to return the reader to the moment, back to the studio where wiry and spry octogenarian Lucian Freud is behind the easel, often half naked, wielding hog’s hair paintbrushes and thinking out loud.
The narrative is well balanced, taking advantage of conversations between Gayford and Freud to gain insight and reveal background without reverting to contrived flashbacks. Gayford recognizes early on what he has to gain:
While the artist is gathering the materials necessary for the portrait, the sitter – accidentally and automatically – is provided with a similar set of observations of the artist. By the end of this picture, I shall be in possession of a mental portrait of LF, culled from all the hours of looking at and listening to him. (21)
What the author perhaps didn’t anticipate was a slow and not overly obvious parallel to the development of the painting concerning how Gayford the sitter appears to Freud the painter. Months before the portrait is complete, Freud reveals to Gayford:
‘You look different every day.’
‘More than most people?’
‘More than almost anyone I’ve ever encountered. The features don’t change, it’s more the way that they are worn.’….
Throughout all the sittings to date I have thought of myself as a fairly unchanging object that LF is slowly tracking around, taking a long series of sightings as a surveyor might. Now it suddenly seems more like mapping a cloud, wave, or similar object in constant flux…. Josephine [Gayford’s wife] concurs that indeed I seem to alter in appearance from day to day. (136)
There is a nice dynamic between Gayford’s observations and his take on Freud’s observations that keep the narrative active and relevant. About midway through the book, Freud decides that he has painted Gayford’s head too large and needs to “shrink it” by applying dark paint (104). Gayford later makes an interesting comment in regard to this shrinking that could be applied to all art forms:
He continues with the process of ‘shrinking my head’, which is clear evidence that the picture is – like any work of art, in words, paint, stone or any other medium – an entity that follows its own inner laws. (107)
When I think of art – literary, visual or even auditory – as an “entity that follows its own inner laws,” I feel justified as a reader, viewer or listener to respond in my own way to the piece. As a writer I enjoy the dichotomy of controlling the medium while at the same time being aware that my work is taking on its own life, and letting the story lead me. In Gayford’s writing about a process through observations, the discoveries are multi-layered, running the gamut from what he has discovered about painting and Freud to what we the reader discover about Gayford.
Indeed, Man with a Blue Scarf is “an entity that follows its own inner laws” as is made clear sitting after sitting with all that is divulged and discovered. Abundantly punctuated with full color reproductions of paintings discussed in the text, adding a true visual to a discussion on the visual arts, the book is calm and thoughtful, and surprisingly revealing in an understated way. Gayford makes good use of the form, and is discrete when it comes to inserting himself into the narrative, careful not to push the main subject, Lucian Freud, offstage. This, in spite of the fact that Gayford himself is the Man with a Blue Scarf.