|Lucian Freud, “A painter”, oil painting, 1962|
(model: Tim Behrens)
by T. BEHRENS
The decision to write this piece in Spanish, not in English, has shown me a way to begin it. I’ve got no memory of having drawn or painted as a little boy, but I do remember my first Latin lessons. My parents sent me – I can’t think why, since I was only 5 – to a private teacher, a certain Miss Wheatfield. The concept of a language in which verbs are conjugated and all objects have a gender struck me as funny, and therefore I learned quickly. From then on Latin, later French and Greek too, were always my favourite subjects at school. It seems to me now that languages, until my discovery of the concept of art, were useful to me as s creative escape valve. And now I prefer writing in Spanish because it reminds me of childhood.
After the war, when I was 9 or 10, my father started collecting pictures and I started painting. But, because he and I always got on badly, it took me half a century to recognise the obvious connection between these 2 beginnings.
I wasn’t interested in drawing. I painted awkwardly with impetuous, rather brutal brushstrokes. I admired Matthew Smith, a great English painter, whose work I could identify with because of its strong colours and apparent disregard for classical draughtsmanship. My father had several of his pictures.
My mother was proud of my paintings. One day – I was away at boarding school – Matthew Smith visited our house. My mother plucked up the courage to show him my oils. A man of few words, he looked at them for a bit and said, “he should carry on”.
We had a painter friend called Bateson Mason. Although I also liked his work, I loved him as a person and as an example. He was a Bohemian, the only one we knew. He didn’t have much money and didn’t mind. My mother collected his paintings. My father, on the other hand, remarked about him one day: “he’s got nothing to say but he says it very well.” I was adolescent by then, and I thought this piece of rudeness had been caused by jealousy of the painter’s relationship with my mother. I decided, unfairly, that my father was a bad judge of painting. I also decided to be a painter, meaning a man like Mason.
On Saturday mornings in the holidays my father took me round the West End galleries. In those days they exhibited, for sale, not only the School of Paris – Braque, Juan Gris, Miro, etc – but also the Impressionists and the Barbizon School, at the beginning of the 50s London was almost completely under thumb of Paris. My father bought, among other things, a late Corot, a Forain and the Balthus called The Card Game. This last picture was to have a great influence on me.
At public school I went on painting whenever I could. It was a school of more than a thousand boys, of whom less than 20 painted regularly. Thus painting was a marginal activity, and “modern” painting, which is what I tried to do, was actually laughed at. There was one teacher, all the same, who was very encouraging. Thanks to him I sometimes won the annual painting prize.
Mason, the Bohemian painter friend of the family, seldom painted the human figure. His pictures were landscapes with architectural elements. I took refuge in his example to cover up my fear of the figure, but subconsciously I knew that such a state of affairs couldn’t last for ever. Meanwhile I went on doing big pictures of quaysides, factories or train stations that I’d sketched in the holidays.
At 16 I was fed up with public school. In defiance of my father, who wanted me to go to university to continue with my specialist subject, classics, I took my recent pictures to a London art school. Surprisingly – it wasn’t the right time of the year to apply – they accepted me. I was going to be the youngest student of the famous Slade School of Fine Arts.
The new students had to draw ceaselessly from the plaster cast, which isn’t exactly the human figure so much as a representation of it. It was a hard and boring first term and I only passed the test. But at least I’d made some gradual progress towards exorcising my nightmare, the figure, without the disturbing presence of flesh and blood.
The Slade was historically considered the headquarters of drawing, particularly of academic life-drawing, but it was in a moment of transition. The Professor, William Coldstream, was a prudently progressive man. Of this star students few adhered to the traditional style and some were pure abstractionists. We accepted that, in order to be someone in the world of painting, we would have to arrive at an unmistakable personal style based on an academic apprenticeship. I never mastered the way of drawing, loosely based on Cézanne, in fashion at the Slade. With time, all the same, I was losing my fear of the human figure.
In the summer a friend and I went hitchhiking to Italy. We were researching the obligatory figure composition that we’d hand in for the autumn prize giving. I was amazed by Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation. In Venice I sketched a group of men playing cards in a bar. Back home I used the sketch as the basis for the prize composition.
I painted the picture in the basement area of my parent’s house, with 78 records of a Bach concerto on the wind-up gramophone. I remember feeling euphoric, for the first time conscious of a germ of creative potency. The picture didn’t come out as a pastiche of Piero, which is what I’d intended. It came out mine.
My picture won the 3rd prize, but it also brought me something much more valuable. In the second year we were allowed to paint what we liked in the corridors. While I was working there one day, a visiting teacher, Lucian Freud, approached me. After telling me that he’d liked my picture, he asked me if I’d sit for a portrait. Very honoured, I told him yes, of course.
Lucian, the youngest of the teachers, was also at once the most admired and most criticised by us. At 33 he had the reputation of being gambler and womaniser; he sometimes appeared in gossip columns; 2 pictures of his were in the Tate.
He became one of the fundamental formative influences of my life, along with my parents and Mason. For 8 years we saw each other practically every day, not only as painter and model but as intimate friends outside the studio too. I now imagine that he needed a protégé as much as I needed a protector.
I used to go drinking with Lucian in Soho, which, for many artists of that time, was more a school of ideas than the drunken red light district it seemed to the outside world. I learned much more about what it means to be an artist there than at the Slade.
Michael Andrews had left the Slade the year before I arrived, but people still talked about him as a prodigy. Lucian introduced me to him in Soho, and we immediately made friends. Our relationship was more evenly balanced than mine with Lucian, partly because Mike was closer to my age.
We decided to paint each other a portrait. Our studios then were about 7 minutes walk apart. For a few months we shared our mornings. First he’d pose and I’d paint for a couple of hours. Then the short stroll and the process in reverse.
Mike was at a rapidly changing stage of creative development. He was an intellectual who questioned everything, a thinker-painter. Cautious, almost neurotic, he was capable of watching the picture for an hour, like a cat with a mouse, waiting for the precise moment to pounce. I’d never before been in contact with that sort of seriousness, and was always hoping that some of it would rub off on me.
I left the Slade with a diploma but without distinction. In my 4 years there I worked less than in any other comparable period of my life, and one only learns by working. But I did make 2 friendships which have lasted to this day – with the painter Craigie Aitchison and the cartoonist Nicholas Garland. And quite a few of my fellow-students pictures stay in my mind: people like David Storey, Tyzack, Paula Rego, Margaret Evans, Elliot, Norris, Anne Norman, Barry Hirst…
As soon as I was out in adult life, everything changed. I got married. My painting got stronger. I began a long series of pictures of my domestic surroundings, mostly nudes and portraits. It was rather brutal stuff, like the work of my childhood but with the figure. Lucian, who always encouraged me to the limit, introduced me to Helen Lessore, who ran the Beaux Arts Gallery. Auerbach and Bacon, Soho drinking friends, had already showed there, so had Aitchison and Andrews.
I had the first of my 3 one-man shows at the Beaux Arts in 1959. It was then the only “serious” gallery in London that specialised in figurative painting. Very serious, like Helen, the incorruptible protectress of her artists and scourge of well-off clients.
Lucian was a friend of Helen’s, but had never shown at her gallery. She was uncharacteristically misled by gossip about his private life into seeing something frivolous in his work. But Lucian laboured away for up to 18 hours a day. He was ambitious enough to want to emulate Rembrandt, but modest enough to despair of ever doing so. He wanted the intensity of his effort to compensate for what he himself called his lack of natural talent.
I was astonished by his physical and mental energy. After all those hours of work he still managed to have time left over for fun. Sometimes he even wasted time. He taught me about time, in fact, but he was never doctrinaire. He never seemed to notice the extent of my dependence on his attitude towards life, a mixture of harsh self-discipline and an aristocratic disdain for what people thought about his behaviour. As far as I could I modelled myself on him.
I tried at all costs to keep visible influences out of my work. At that age I was unsure of myself as a person and as a painter. I painted violently so that people wouldn’t notice.
Lucian was a well-known painter. I spent most of my free time with him, either in his studio watching him paint, or in the bars of Soho listening to him talk to Bacon, say, about painting. In my little orbit everyone knew this, so I had to prove I wasn’t his disciple, still less his slave.
He himself was humbler, in spite of his powerful personality. After each session in the studio he’d ask my advice about what he’d just done, and, even stranger, change some passage or other following my suggestions. For him it was a question of common sense, since he lacked the sillier sort of pride. Having earned his independence, he was free to concentrate on doing a good picture by whatever means presented itself.
I rented an attic room in a slum in Mornington Crescent, near where Rimbaud and Verlaine had lived. Now Frank Auerbach was my neighbour. Quite often we met in the street, and sometimes we visited each other’s studio. I admired him a lot. Once we were in my attic facing a picture that was giving me a hard time. I asked him whether a technical trick I was considering trying would work. He answered: “Anything’s all right as long as you do it with love.”
A maxim which encapsulates the Beaux Arts spirit. (Frank used to go out with his face dripping blood because he shaved as passionately as he painted). Aged 24 I believed him heart and soul, and even now it doesn’t sound at all bad.
I got divorced and remarried. The Beaux Arts Gallery folded; Helen, the most inspired gallery owner of her time, was never such a good businesswoman. Before closing for good she succeeded in placing Frank and Leon Kossoff with Marlborough. I too negotiated a contract with them, but for one reason or another it fell through.
In one sense the end of the Beaux Arts was a relief to me. My work had been gradually changing over the years towards a less martyred style. I felt suffocated by the obligation, tacitly instigated by Helen, to become a saint.
The break-up of my friendship with Lucian was much more painful. He had taught me more than anyone. To give just a few examples: the importance of giving emotional life to every square centimetre of the picture and of working to the limits of your strength; the close, intelligent interaction between the life of an artist and his work; the continual study of selected great painters of the past… Now I was on my own. I was going to have to grow up again.
Lucian vigorously rejected the concept of narrative painting; I was attracted to it. For him Italian art, with exception of late Titian and Michelangelo, lacked the necessary danger; I loved Giotto, Piero, Masaccio… I don’t believe my decision to move with my family to Italy would have been possible under his patronage.
We sold our house and bought a farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside. I took advantage of this radical change to make an equally radical one in my work. Industrial acrylic paint instead of oils; subject matter taken from dreams, with a tendency towards surrealism; on one hand the influence of Duccio, who I saw as the mediaeval equivalent of a film director, on the other a record of modern Italian street life; all painted smooth and flat without visible brushstrokes.
During the first year I felt very isolated. I frequently wrote to Mike, the only one of my friends with the qualities necessary for understanding the creative schizophrenic I was going through, but he never answered my letters. It appeared that he too was in a crisis and has hidden away. Our mutual friend Craigie Aitchison told me that Mike was now a recluse. We all ended up accepting it, but not without initial puzzlement and sadness.
I think my stylistic switch-about resulted from the desire, which now seems shameful, to paint more in the spirit of my time. Only history can be the judge of these things.
Helen came out to visit us, forewarned about what to expect from my recent work. Always forthright, she said: “You know, I don’t dislike them as much as I thought I would.”
I decided to look after my career. I began exhibiting, with no success at all, in the big Italian cities.
But those years weren’t entirely negative. Although I don’t like the pictures I did then, perhaps it was necessary for me to do them. Buried inside every artist is the solution to his own contradictions and he can only find it by experimenting, taking risks.
Classic and romantic. Apollonian and Dionysiac. Perhaps we’re all born with both tendencies. Which one later comes to the fore depends on lessons, conditioning, chance. I always knew that, if I were to paint a decent picture one day, it would be thanks to reconciliation between my polarities.
Bit by bit the source of the dream pictures was drying up. I wanted more reality. I went on painting acrylics with a smooth surface, but on canvas instead of board and with more domestic subjects. I took refuge in sensuality.
I showed these new pictures in Barcelona, selling quite a few of them. The relative success of the exhibition gave me plenty to think about. I’d been to Spain several times before. My friend and patron, the decorator Jaime Parladé, used to buy my pictures sometimes. I loved Spain. I thought perhaps I’d made a mistake, that of the Mediterranean countries Spain had more to offer me than Italy. In the Barcelona show a florist round the corner from the gallery bought 2 big pictures. The Town Hall bought another. I thought: what’s going on here? My love was being requited.
My recognition of Spain coincided with my second divorce. I had nowhere to live, an awkward situation for painters, who depend on spatial stability. I travelled around with a girl I was now with, staying for periods of 2 or 3 months in rented flats in Cataluña and Andalucía. The most fruitful thing about that time was the development of my professional relationship with Jaime.
In 1981 my girlfriend bought a flat in London. There I decorated a room with a mural composed of pieces of painted plywood glued to the wall like a jigsaw puzzle. The next year Jaime visited us and liked it. He commissioned me to do another mural, on slatted blinds, for a house in Miami. This I painted in a hut near Jaime’s place in Andalucía. Then we shipped the 17 finished blinds to Miami, where, as far as I know, they still hang.
Jaime hadn’t forgotten the jigsaw mural. Next he commissioned one in the same technique, but far more ambitious, for a bar in Marbella. It took 5 months of hard but rewarding work.
Meanwhile I got married again. When the mural was finished we went back to England. I found that, after so many murals, I was incapable of adapting to normal-sized pictures. I had the idea of a “mural without walls”, a series of 8 big pictures using the jigsaw technique, but with the pieces glued onto board instead of the wall. The next stage would be to look for a client with walls, and then paint, still in jigsaw, an architectural framework related to the proportions of the space available. But this time Jaime was out of luck, or else this ideal client didn’t exist. I ended up exhibiting the 8 pictures first in La Coruña, then in Marbella a few months later.
The Coruña exhibition was a flop, but a Galician friend in England had lent us his house near town. There I fell in love with Galicia and painted my first Galician picture.
Something unthinkable happened in 1986. I stopped painting to write a book, got addicted to writing and didn’t pick up a paintbrush till 1990. When I started painting again, in oils, we had already made the difficult decision to emigrate to Galicia. Just as difficult was relearning to paint, but little by little I gathered momentum. If painting is a whole universe, we painters are very small stars. Painting made me suffer for my defection to a rival art.
Recently, it appears, I’ve attempted to merge the tendencies, both technical and thematic, of the various stages of my career. I say “it appears” because I certainly haven’t done so intentionally. I paint as I do because that’s how it comes out. I’ve never had the reserves of control to be able to pick and choose.
In front of me on the wall is an unfinished picture. Or rather… for me it’s unfinished. My wife, a good painter and a good judge of painting, tells me not to touch it. I’ve been ages painting it. It’s exhausting me to look at it, let alone go on with it. My wife isn’t wrong, but neither is she right. In painting there’s no right and wrong. I’ll go on with it because I wouldn’t sleep well if I didn’t.
Michael Andrews used to say: “A picture of mine is finished when someone takes it away from me.” With his existential, almost Zen refinement, he worked so that each brushstroke should represent a step forwards. Hence the hour-long wait – each mark had to conform precisely to his vision of the truth. I’m not like that. I paint blindly; I never know what I’m looking for until I find it. A picture of mine is finished when I’ve surprised myself.
I start off with a subject that stimulates me. Sometimes – a nude or a portrait – the stimulus comes from a single image, but more often from the fertilisation of one visual idea by another, or others. The search for the point of departure nearly always gives me a lot of anxiety, because it has to be robust enough to take the weight of, say, 100 hours of work.
What I like best is being in the middle. I’m aware that I’ve chosen a playful, pleasurable, childish way to live. I try to prolong this stage as much as I can. But inexorably the picture itself begins to boss me about, while I struggle to understand its mandates. It knows better than me where it wants to go.
Now it’s nearly finished, but only nearly. I’m aware that I’ve chosen a tough, grave, shattering way to live. Why isn’t it finished? I don’t know. And now the picture has stopped giving instructions. I’m on my own. Painting, in the end, is abstract; we’re dealing with a purely subjective balance between shapes, colours, tones, adding up to a whole which involves a spatial interplay. The picture isn’t finished because the balance isn’t yet there.
Every so often some unknown person asks me: “Aren’t you the painter from the School of London?” Well, no. It’s been a very long time since I lived in London, and when I did live there we didn’t have the title “School”. Here we’ve got magnificent painters: Carpo, Nitodavila, Encinar, Peteiro, Cabanas, Alfonso Abelenda, César Otero, Xoti, Cruz, Laureano Vidal, Diana Aitchison, Chelín, Correa Corredoira, Espona, Julio Sanjurjo, Anne Heyvaert... I prefer to belong to the School of La Coruña.
Copyright © 2003, T. Behrens