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June 09 2012

Jenny Saville: 'I want to be a painter of modern life, and modern bodies'

Jenny Saville's nudes are firmly in the vein of Lucian Freud, yet only now is she having her first major British solo show
Jenny Saville's work - in pictures

I have a low-level dread of artists' studios, which tend to be full to overflowing with the (to me) highly distressing detritus of creativity: encrusted paint; cruelly abandoned canvases; ghostly dustsheets. But I find that I can just about cope with Jenny Saville's work space, which is in a shabby office building in Oxford, owned by Pembroke College.

For one thing, its scale works against claustrophobia; though she has had to remove ceiling tiles in a few places, the better to accommodate the taller of her paintings, it is nevertheless as big as a small supermarket. For another, it is divided, albeit haphazardly, into zones – broken-backed art books here, shrunken tubes of paint there – with a few feet of clear floor between. As we settle down with our mugs of Earl Grey tea, the spring rain fizzing against the windows, the feeling is almost – if not quite – cosy.

Only then, out of the corner of my eye, I see it. A portrait: a woman, her neck at a difficult angle, her head tipped back, her unseeing eyes a pair of cloudy marbles (I know without being told that the model who sat for this work is blind). Now I'm not so cosy. The trick of the painting, the reason it is so hard to pull one's gaze from it, lies with the way it captures its subject's extrasensory watchfulness. She is sightless, and yet you feel, somehow, that she sees right into you. Art critics, anxious to emphasise the resonance or beauty of a particular work, have a tendency to exaggerate. They will tell you, for instance, that a canvas seems almost to vibrate, such is its power. But this painting moves well beyond vibration. No superlative I can think of seems to do it justice. It's uncanny. If I heard its subject softly breathing, I would hardly be surprised.

A painting similar to this one – I find out much later that the girl in question is called Rosetta; she lives in Naples, and was so determined not to be on the receiving end of pity she interviewed Saville at length before agreeing to sit for her – will star in the forthcoming retrospective of Saville's work at Modern Art Oxford, the artist's first solo show in a British public gallery. (It tells you a lot about contemporary art – its whims and its desires, its peculiar snobberies and its deranged hierarchy – that Damien Hirst, whose work appeared alongside Saville's at the Royal Academy's Sensation show in 1997, is having his first solo public gallery show at the rather more grand Tate Modern; but we will come back to him.) Will Rosetta, part of Saville's Stare series, have the same effect in its pristine galleries? Almost certainly, though she will also have competition. Saville's work – she remains best known for her voluminous and unsparing early nudes – is nothing if not startling.

"There's a painting called Fulcrum," she says. "I used to call it The Bitch when I was making it, because it was so difficult to move about. But when I saw it again [recently], even I was shocked by how big it is." She shakes her head, mournfully. "I'm sort of impressed that I once had that sort of energy. The drive I must have had. I can't believe I was only 21. That's so young, and yet I was so determinedly serious about making art." Her voice runs on. "It's cathartic, too, though, seeing these paintings again. When you're in your studio, you've got so much work around you, you don't always see an individual piece for what it is. You think: 'Oh, so that's what I was doing.' Not that I can say I'm hugely looking forward to it [the opening]. I mostly see failings in the work – which is normal, isn't it?"

Has her confidence grown in the years since Sensation? "No, not at all. The older you get, the more doubtful you become, though I mean that in a good way. It's like being an athlete. You get quite fit on your toes when you're really pushing. But then you finish a piece, and you have to start all over again. On the other hand, I don't have anything like the traumas I used to have, throwing paintbrushes or whatever. I used only to work on one piece at a time, and that's where the trauma came. Now I move between paintings. When I start getting a bit dogmatic, I switch."

I look around the studio. From where I'm sitting, I can see no fewer than six canvases carefully arranged against the wall (not Rosetta, though; I have my back to her, so I can concentrate). Are these all works in progress? "Most of them, yes." She eyes them, warily. "It is odd to be showing in Britain. I've been shown a lot in America; that's my favourite place to show. We're quite conceptually driven in Britain. There's less guilt about being a painter over there."

Does she feel guilty? Surely not. People have talked of her, reverentially, as the heir to Lucian Freud pretty much since she left art school. "No, I don't. Not at all. Painting is my natural language. I feel in my own universe when I'm painting. But, in Britain, there has been a drive in art schools to describe and to rationalise what it is that you're making, and that is a death knell to painting. Painting doesn't operate like that. It works on all the irrational things. If you stand in front of Willem de Kooning's Woman, I, you can't unravel with words how that works on you. In America, painting is embraced, perhaps because one of the last great moments of painting was in New York, with de Kooning and Pollock."

She hesitates. "I'm not anti conceptual art. I don't think painting must be revived, exactly. Art reflects life, and our lives are full of algorithms, so a lot of people are going to want to make art that's like an algorithm. But my language is painting, and painting is the opposite of that. There's something primal about it. It's innate, the need to make marks. That's why, when you're a child, you scribble."

Jenny Saville was born in Cambridge in 1970, one of four children. She knew early on that she wanted to be an artist. "I was conscious of it as an idea from about the age of seven," she says. Her parents were both in education and, when it came to creativity, were encouraging. "We had this big old house, and in a corridor downstairs, there was this weird cupboard. I kept nosying around it, and eventually my mother gave it to me: it became my first studio, and no one else was allowed in. I would wake up every morning, and I just couldn't wait to get in that room, because I always had something on the go."

Later, she was encouraged by her uncle, an art historian, to whom she remains close (he lives near her studio in Oxford; they like to eat lunch together, and talk about Prussian blue). "When I was about 11, he gave me a section of hedge, and told me to observe it for a whole year. So I did, and I learnt such a lot about how nature shifts, and the necessity to really look."

She sees my face. "It wasn't weird at the time! It's only weird when I tell other people. I'm so grateful to him. Later on, he took me to Venice, and it wasn't just that he said this is Titian, and this is Tintoretto, or whatever. At six o'clock one morning, we went to draw at the fish market at the Rialto bridge. Great art wasn't something far away; it was part of life. We would go and drink in the same bar Rembrandt drank in; it was as fundamental as that in terms of the working life of the artist. All this helped me so much. I never questioned my ambition. I never thought: I'm a girl, I can't do this. It was only when I got to art school that I realised that the great artists of the past were not women. I had a sort of epiphany in the library: where are all the women? Only then, as the truth dawned, did I start to feel pissed off."

She went to Glasgow School of Art, an institution that instilled in her an "amazing" work ethic, and which set great store by life drawings; students had to produce 36 such sketches a term, and dedicate the hours between 7pm and 9pm every day to working with a model, even if their interests lay with abstract art.

Saville believes this gave her a kind of freedom. "Picasso wouldn't be Picasso without his academic training. That's why he nails it. The wildest distortions stand up, even if they're crazy. The point is that destruction is fundamental to the process; without it, you never get anywhere interesting. But fundamental to that is knowing what you can excavate from the destruction."

At Glasgow, she won every award going, among them a six-month scholarship to Cincinnati University, where she was captivated – if this is the right word – by the sight of obese women at shopping malls. It was these women who inspired her 1992 graduate show and who, in their turn, caught the eye of the collector Charles Saatchi – though her interest in flesh was hardly a new thing. As a little girl, she found the sight of liver turning from puce to grey-green in the pan "thrilling". She remembers, too, sitting on the floor, aged about six, and looking up at her piano teacher's thighs under her tweed skirt; they rubbed together as she played. "I was fascinated by the way her two breasts would become one, the way her fat moved, the way it hung on the back of her arms."

After tracking down and buying up the work already sold at her degree show – this was how he came by two of her most famous paintings, Branded and Propped – Saatchi then commissioned her to spend two years working on pieces to be shown at his own gallery in Young British Artists III.

"I think everyone has their squabbles with Charles," she says, now. "That's the nature of the situation. But the marriage of a new generation of artists from all kinds of backgrounds with this man who wasn't from the establishment… You have to understand that he energised a whole generation, and he engaged Britain in contemporary art. He had the money, and he said: make whatever you want.

"I was only 22; it was a dream come true. I can't say anything bad about Charles because I'm so glad he was there. Suddenly I didn't have to wait until I was 45 to be at a certain gallery. I'm 42, and I'm still younger than de Kooning was when he had his first show. It's incredible how much has changed in 20 years, and quite a lot of that is down to Charles. When I graduated I would have been hard pressed to think of a single woman who showed in a museum, and now women are directors, curators…" Her voice trails off. She can't go on, I think, because the unavoidable truth is that there are still relatively few women artists who are deemed worthy of museum exhibitions.

Am I right? She doesn't answer, or not directly. "When my show opened at the Saatchi gallery, I met David Sylvester [the art critic, who died in 2001] at the door. In the end, we became great friends. But on that day, he said: 'I always thought women couldn't be painters.' Later, I asked him why, and he said: 'I don't know. That's just the way it has always been. That's how it is.' He was right, but I think it's beginning to shift, now. Apart from anything else, there's been a sea change in what we consider to be the canon. Tracey Emin's quilts are art, whereas in the Sixties, they would have been deemed to be craft."

To coincide with her retrospective, Saville will be putting two pieces in the Renaissance gallery at the Ashmolean Museum. "I was standing there the other day, and it's full of nude women all painted by men. I'm the first woman to show in the room, which is great, but it's also obscene." She pauses. "Actually, it's not even obscene. It's just… silly."

In 1994 Saville returned to the US to observe operations at the clinic of a New York plastic surgeon. She then painted women with the surgeon's black markings on the contours of their bodies, so that they resembled living, breathing dartboards. This led in turn to Closed Contact, a series of photographs by the fashion photographer, Glen Luchford, of Saville's naked body pressed against Perspex and shot from below (Saville fattened herself up for this, the better that her flesh appear squashed and distorted). The subtext of this work is, of course, familiar now. But it wasn't at the time.

"When I made Plan [showing the lines drawn on a woman's body to designate where liposuction would be performed], I was forever explaining what liposuction was. It seemed so violent then. These days, I doubt there's anyone in the western world who doesn't know what liposuction is. Surgery was a minority sport; now that notion of hybridity is everywhere. There's almost a new race: the plastic surgery race."

These experiences, however, have cast a long shadow. She is still interested in the idea that many people hold fast to a notion that their natural self isn't the "real" them, and her work continues to be preoccupied by what she calls a sense of in-betweenness. "That's why transsexuals and hermaphrodites have become interesting to me. I want to be a painter of modern life, and modern bodies, those that emulate contemporary life, they're what I find most interesting."

More recently, she has been inspired by motherhood (she has two small children). "People told me [before I had children] that I wouldn't be able to engage with my work in the same way once they were born." Which people? Were they women? "No!" She laughs. "They were guys. Anyway, they were wrong. I enjoy the work 10 times more now. It's still a necessity to me, something I have to do. But I'm more carefree. Partly, it's watching them – the total freedom they have, scribbling across paper, the way they paint without any need for form. I thought: I fancy a bit of that myself."

Since they were born, she has produced a series of drawings, Reproduction, which nod to nativity sketches by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo but are informed by her own experiences – a friend photographed her as she gave birth – so that mother and child are viscerally connected rather than soppily idealised. (Just so there is no misunderstanding, Saville is naked in these drawings, and the baby in her arms is lain on a belly swollen with a child yet to be born.)

Before I leave, we walk the studio, looking at the work that is still in progress (Saville is remarkably cool about this; only one canvas is turned to the wall to protect it from my gaze). "In these pieces, I'm trying to get simultaneous realities to exist in the same image," she says. "The contradiction of a drawing on top of a drawing replicates the slippage we have between the real world and the screen world. But it's about the memory of pictures, too. I'm directly referencing other artists: Manet, Titian, Picasso, Giorgione." If she has any sense of the daring involved in this – the sheer chutzpah of it – she isn't letting on. How does she know when something is finished? "When it starts to breathe, then I'm on the home straight."

We talk, too, about other people's work. She loved both Gerhard Richter at Tate Modern and Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery. "It's sad he [Freud] is not going to make any more paintings," she says. "But I'm trying to work out whether he can be seen as a great artist, or whether he is a great portrait painter. I mean, why shouldn't he be a great artist? But then you look at Richter, and you wonder. Richter is definitely a great artist in the fullest sense of the word."

What about Damien Hirst? Has she seen his show yet? "No, but I will." I don't ask her what she thinks about him, but she tells me all the same, in her straightforward way. "I can tell you exactly the moment my feelings about him changed," she says. "He was the most brilliant artist right up until the time [2006] when he did this homage to Bacon at the Gagosian [A Thousand Years & Triptychs]. He did these vitrines, which I felt were dreadful. His work has become much more about the mechanisms of the art world than the art itself, and that must be quite a lonely planet for Damien to exist on. It's as if he has beaten his own horse. It's like the soul has gone."

Will this ever happen to her? At the start of the 21st century, she was, after all, one of the most expensive contemporary artists in the world. But, no. Of course it won't. Her life is here, in the studio. Even as we talk, and she is good talker, I can feel a part of her itching to get back to work. "I like all the bits up to hanging a show, and then I disengage," she says. "I don't even know my own collectors. All the razzmatazz: the market, the auctions. I'm quite immune to it. I know it's part of the process. But when you get in the studio, none of that will help you to make a better painting." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 29 2012

Tate's new gifts

Works by David Hockney, Lucian Freud, R B Kitaj and Rachel Whiteread are among the nine being gifted by philanthropists Mercedes and Ian Stoutzker

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Tate given artworks by David Hockney, Lucian Freud and Rachel Whiteread

Mercedes and Ian Stoutzker donate nine works of modern art to fill gaps in Tate's collection

Nine works of art have been given to the Tate, including a David Hockney, a Lucian Freud and Rachel Whiteread's maquette for her Trafalgar Square plinth.

Mercedes and Ian Stoutzker, a married couple who have been generous supporters of the arts over a number of years, announced they were to give works which fill gaps in the Tate collection.

"The gift was an initiative from the Stoutzkers," said the Tate director, Nicholas Serota. "They don't receive any tax benefit from this gift but in the current climate they were very keen to make it public because they wanted to encourage others to give works to the national collection."

Many senior figures in the arts fear such acts of philanthropy will be fewer unless George Osborne rethinks the budget decision to end tax relief on philanthropic giving.

The arts minister, Ed Vaizey, said the government had done a lot to encourage philanthropy and the chancellor "has raised an important issue, addressed it in the budget and is listening to people making representations. Large donors have made important points about how any changes should be implemented and I'm sure the Treasury will listen to those."

Serota said the Tate collection had benefited from major gifts from successive generations over the years including from Alistair McAlpine and Janet de Botton, and the Stoutzker gift was of a similar significance.

The works will go on display together in October and then gradually arrive in the Tate collection, with the last being on their deaths.

The Stoutzker gift essentially represents two generations of artists. There is a Jacob Epstein bust of Freud made in 1947; a small oil painting by Freud himself, Girl in a Striped Nightdress, or Celia 1983-5; RB Kitaj's homage to Francis Bacon, Synchromy with FB – General of Hot Desire 1968-9; and a Hockney painting of the Savings and Loan Building in Los Angeles.

The later works are a Peter Doig snow scene from 2001-02; Whiteread's maquette for her Trafalgar Square commission in 2001 which was a resin cast of the plinth itself; the Hurvin Anderson oil painting Maracus 111 from 2004; a Conrad Shawcross maquette for his large-scale work Continuum, a three-metre-high sculpture commissioned by the National Maritime Museum; and George Shaw's Ash Wednesday, 8.30am from 2004-05, one of a number of Humbrol enamel paintings the artist has made over the years of the Coventry housing estate where he grew up. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 28 2012

Peter Duggan's Artoons: Freudian slip

In cartoonist Peter Duggan's latest take on art history, he imagines how Freud's portrait of the Queen might have looked if it had been called Her Majesty Sleeping

March 23 2012

John Richardson: a life in art

'I was able to grow up and be what I wanted to be – a writer about art with a career at the centre of the art world'

"How well do you know Kipling's poetry?" demands John Richardson, almost before the door to his Manhattan apartment has closed behind me. "I'm trying to remember the name of a poem … it's for something I'm writing." Richardson – the first volume of whose Picasso biography won him the Whitbread book of the year award in 1991 – is 88 years old and suffers from macular degeneration, severely hampering his ability to read. But he is still working furiously: writing, now with collaborators, volume four of the Picasso biography, and curating exhibitions. (His Picasso: the Mediterranean Years at the Gagosian Gallery London in 2010 was regarded as a museum-quality exhibition – or indeed, as surpassing museum quality, arising as it did out of an intimate personal knowledge of the artist and his circle.) When I visit, he is drafting an essay on Lucian Freud, whom he had known since he was 18 years old and Freud was 20.

Richardson – who occasionally pauses at length to excavate a name from the deep layers of his memory, but who is otherwise sufficiently youthful to clamber out of a sash window to perch on his tiny terrace at the behest of the photographer – leads me through a startlingly impressive array of rooms, busily decorated with sculptures, deeply upholstered divans, elaborate lamps, antique tables and, above all, pictures. He gestures in the direction of an 18th-century portrait. "That's a Reynolds of Frederick, Prince of Wales. One of Queen Mary's ladies-in-waiting was always trying to get it out of me. They didn't have one at the palace." We whisk past Picassos and Freuds, and I spot what I imagine to be a reproduction of a Braque perched on a side table. It is only later, when I look at the inscription – "Pour Richardson, avec mes amitiés, G Braque" that I realise it's the real thing, a delicate piece in ink and cardboard collage of a bird flying to its nest.

Richardson is one of the last links to a dazzling, lost world: aside from Picasso, Braque and Jean Cocteau, whom he met while living for 12 years with the art collector Douglas Cooper in the south of France after the war, he was on terms with an array of literary and artistic figures – Anthony Blunt, Cyril Connolly, WH Auden, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Francis Bacon, Nancy Mitford, Graham Sutherland, James and John Pope-Hennessy – many of whom are vividly brought to life in his gripping, gossipy, score-settling memoir, The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Above all, the memoir conveys the character of Cooper, one of the most important early collectors of cubist art, who seduced Richardson and then swept him away to France in 1950.

Cooper introduced him to many of the stellar figures who shine out of the memoir's pages, but he was also a domineering, controlling companion. As Richardson puts it: "There was a great deal to Douglas - he was brilliant, he was very funny, there was never a dull moment, but to live under the same roof way off in a rather deserted part of Provence was – well, I sometimes went stir crazy."

He eventually left and settled in New York, writing for the New York Review of Books (among other publications) and organising a successful Picasso exhibition in 1962 that spanned nine galleries. He then set up the New York branch of Christie's with fellow Briton Charlie Allsopp. "We complemented each other. I didn't know much about 17th-century Dutch painting, or Chinese porcelain or silver. He didn't know much about modern painting," he says of Allsopp, the father of TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp. Leaving Cooper, he says, "I was able to grow up and be what I wanted to be – a writer about art with a career at the centre of the art world."

It was going back to France to consult Picasso about the 1962 exhibition that brought forth the idea of the biography. "I'd say: 'Who is it a portrait of?' And he'd say that with works of the late 1930s there were sometimes as many as four people in one portrait – Dora Maar, Nusch Eluard, Inès the maid, Lee Miller, you'll see all of them. So the whole question of identity in these portraits was fascinating. I thought I'd do a big study looking at how one could trace Picasso's style through the portraits of the women who were inspirational to him. Then I realised it was much better to do a large-scale biography."

With its sharp, jargon-free prose, its persuasive art-historical arguments and its pungent insights into its subject's character, the first volume was a revelation. Art historian Richard Wollheim wrote in the London Review of Books: "There is no short way of conveying the wealth, precision and imaginativeness of this book." For critic Waldemar Januszczak, writing in the Guardian, it was "the finest biography of an artist I have read".

John Patrick Richardson was born in London in 1924, the eldest son of the 70-year-old Sir Wodehouse Richardson and his much younger wife, Patty. "My father was totally fascinating and rather impressive," says Richardson. "He was decorated by Queen Victoria and knighted by Edward VII. He was quartermaster general in the South African war, and the first to feed the troops refrigerated beef – he brought in refrigerated railroad cars." After the Boer war he co-founded the Army and Navy Stores, with its HQ in Victoria Street in London and outposts in Calcutta and Bombay. "One day, on a Thursday, which was board meeting day, when he'd always do a tour of inspection of the store, he saw this little woman retouching photos and got interested in her, and he waited outside with a bunch of roses, and one thing led to another." His father died when Richardson, the oldest of three children, was six. "I was enormously proud of my father and to some extent have missed him every day of my life. He was so bright, so funny and warm – heroic in his way."

At 13, Richardson was sent to Stowe, its Capability Brown grounds and elegant 18th-century follies providing the backdrop for some of his earliest sexual experiences. Here, his art teacher introduced him to the work of artists such as Picasso and Schwitters. Richardson shows me a little abstract work that he made at the time, impressively progressive for a 1930s schoolboy. As war broke out he enrolled at the Slade. Later, just as he was called up, he caught rheumatic fever: he was out of the army before he ever put on an Irish Guards uniform.

He lived in wartime London with his mother and siblings, working as an industrial designer by day and doing air-raid warden and firefighter shifts by night. And then there were the parties. "In those days being gay was somewhat dangerous; my best friend was had-up for some non-offence and jailed for a month – you had to be careful. But during the blitz London was kind of amazing. There were these great nightclubs in bombed basements in Soho. And there would be a feeling of tremendous excitement because quite a few of the men would be going off the following day to Egypt. And people were so great with each other during the war. People weren't petty or bitchy, they were out for basically whatever thrills they could get before they were bombed or packed off to the battlefield."

Soon after the war he began to write literary journalism for the New Statesman, mentored by Cuthbert Worsley, the magazine's theatre and deputy literary editor. "Postwar London," says Richardson, "was bohemian fun, but also one felt there was a creative spirit to it, which seems to have ceased." One day in 1949 Worsley took him to a party at the house of John Lehmann – brother of the novelist Rosamond – in honour of Paul Bowles's new novel, The Sheltering Sky. Also at the party was Cooper, who had spent a chunk of his fortune amassing an impressive modern art collection.

"In those days," says Richardson, "booze was always a problem. You had to scrounge around for a bottle of port, then there'd be a bottle of scotch, a couple of bottles of South African red wine, some liqueurs – and so you'd get drunk after three different drinks. I had met Douglas before and I longed to see the collection; it was difficult, impossible, to see great cubist works at the time. So I went up to him and introduced myself. 'I know perfectly well who you are,' said Douglas.

"I said: 'I would like very much to see your collection.' He said: 'There is no time like the present. Let's leave these ghastly people and this ghastly party.' And off we went in a 20-year-old Rolls-Royce, black with yellow wheels, resembling a wasp. We set off at an enormous speed and screeched to a halt two blocks away at Basil Amulree's, with whom Douglas shared a house."

Soon it would be Richardson's home, too: "I slept with Douglas out of curiosity, and also I wanted to get to know him better," he says. Amulree, a physician and a peer "who never did a mean or cruel thing", seemed not to mind. "He lived through Douglas," says Richardson. "In fact, the worse Douglas was, the more satisfaction Basil seemed to get. He wasn't so much masochistic as uptight. Somehow through Douglas he let go. He would hoot with laughter at Douglas's antics; occasionally he would give a slight sigh, but he would often egg him on. Basil was not in the least jealous of Douglas's relationships; Douglas, on the other hand, was extremely derogatory about Basil's occasional relationships."

Cooper took Richardson on something of a grand tour around Europe, which culminated in the discovery of a beautiful, neglected chateau called Castille, where they settled. It was here that they moved into the orbit of the magnetic, contradictory creature that was Pablo Picasso, who lived not far away.

Picasso was between mistresses, with various candidates swirling around. Richardson took a great shine to one of them: Jacqueline Roque. "She seemed perfect for him. She was the right shape – big pair of breasts and a big pair of buttocks and not much in between, and that's what he liked. I went up to Paris and got a present for her, a sort of bullfighter's cape from Dior, and that cemented our friendship, for Jacqueline soon ended up as the mistress."

Jacqueline was with him to the end, devoted to and exhausted by the artist. "The last eight years of Picasso's life there was no one around but her. She was secretary, housekeeper, she lugged around the canvases. She would have to do all the practical things – go to the bank, buy the stuff for the weekend, have a hassle with the lawyer – and be back at home by the time he rose at 10.30. Then she had to remain by his side without even leaving the room until sometimes two, three, four in the morning. And she started to drink. By the time he died she was in terrible shape."

After a dozen years, the relationship with Cooper ground painfully to a halt. A final episode of the endgame came when Cooper was stabbed by a young man whom he had picked up. Richardson, who had moved away by that point but was back to celebrate Picasso's birthday, rushed to the hospital, sleeping on a deckchair by his bedside. When Cooper eventually spoke, it was to enquire: "Where did you find that assassin?"

After all that, "New York was paradise for me," says Richardson. "I felt like a child let loose in a department store. There were white Russian chess players, interior decorators, old-fashioned English people, left-wing politicians." Friends included Andy Warhol, for whom he took part in a soap opera the artist had devised. ("Maxine de la Falaise played a once-famous actress who had fallen on evil days. And I was her brother from London.")

He says of Warhol: "Since he died I've seen all sorts of depths to Andy I hadn't spotted when he was alive. I'm a Catholic and I have realised the enormous importance of Roman Catholicism to him. He went every single day to mass. I think this explains the repetitions in his work – all the Ave Marias, like the 50 soup cans. To me he was like a character out of Russian fiction, the holy idiot. He could portray horrible and hideous things and be surrounded by horrible and hideous people taking drugs and killing themselves. But somehow he managed to retain his innocence and never get contaminated."

Today, Richardson is exasperated by the politics of the US. "Back in those days, most of my friends were to the left. Now the left doesn't exist any more. A woman – the wife of a well-known zillionaire – recently said to me: 'John, I had no idea you were such a liberal.' And I thought, do you know, this is what friends used to say when I was 18. Except they meant I should become a socialist. It seemed to me that history was repeating itself but upside down. I've stayed more or less where I am, politically. My father was a liberal, and I feel liberalism in my bones."

Volume four of the Picasso biography, with the collaboration of Spanish art historian Gijs van Hensbergen and curator Michael Cary, is near completion. It will cover the years from 1962 to the artist's death in 1973. "Finally one can set the whole Communist record straight," says Richardson. Though Picasso "became Communist because he was passionately pacifist and had very strong views about poverty", according to Richardson, he also did so in a fit of pique after "very temporarily becoming a passionate Gaullist" at the time of the liberation of Paris.

He explains: "The de Gaulle people got hold of this, Dora Maar told me, and they came round to dinner. But afterwards, he simply said 'bande de cons' [bunch of cunts] and joined the Communist party the next day." But, Richardson argues, "in private, he was critical of the Communists and very upset by the brutality of the Soviets, but he was stuck – he couldn't withdraw without looking like a turncoat. So up to the end of his life he realised he had no choice but to stay in the party."

And so work continues on a remarkable project; and this slayer, and celebrator, of sacred monsters, forges on towards his tenth decade. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 02 2012

Gilbert & George: our lives in art

'People said you can't buy their art because they won't be together very long. Everyone splits up, don't they? But we didn't'

"Man. Woman. Murder." Gilbert begins to intone. "Addict. Strangled. Rape." "Pervert", interjects George, "Suicide. Attack." It's almost comforting to hear Gilbert and George talk about their latest exhibition, London Pictures, which opens at all three of White Cube's London galleries next week as part of a 13 gallery world tour. The show comprises 292 pictures based on the 3712 newspaper sellers' posters they have stolen over the last six years – "we counted them in the end" – grouped together by headline words and arranged in their trademark grid designs. "And when you start to see the words together – School. Mystery. Tube – you start to see the most extraordinary townscape of London. And none of it is invented. These are real people's lives."

Their work has long been attuned to the beauties, the horrors and the mundanities of life around their east London home. The route to the Kurdish restaurant where they habitually eat passes a large block of flats. "Occasionally we see a policeman or woman ringing a door bell. You think 'my God. What has happened?' That could be a nightmare lasting generations. Death. Tragedy. Imprisonment. They say the shame of a family member going to jail can last for three or four generations. What do you tell the school? What do you tell the neighbours? And all that is captured in a word on a newspaper poster that lasts only a day before something else comes along and replaces it."

In a move away from the brightly coloured work they have produced for the last few decades, the London Pictures use just black, white, red and fleshtones. "It came to us with brutal simplicity. The only thing that united all the posters was humanity, and so we added flesh colour." The particular shade of flesh, of course, is essentially the colour of their flesh and images of the two men lurk behind the texts, as they have appeared in much of their work over the last 45 years.

Their distinctive appearance, subject matter and propensity to situate images of themselves in their art has ensured Gilbert & George are among the few artists to enjoy recognition by the general public. When they venture outside their Spitalfields home they are photographed by the art tourists who haunt the newly gentrified area. There is fan graffiti on the walls opposite their front door. "We are very proud of that," says George. "People say hello. Lorry drivers shout at us. One of those enormous trucks delivering steel once stopped and this middle-aged skinhead shouted out the window, 'Oi. My life is a fucking moment, but your art is an eternity'."

The forms and subjects of this eternal art have been many and various over the years since they first met as students at St Martin's School of Art in 1967. They began as "living sculptures", sometimes their faces covered in metallic paint, singing Flanagan and Allen's music hall classic 'Underneath the Arches'. A 1969 piece of "magazine art" called 'George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit', gave early indication of their ability to shock as well as pre-empting the potential criticism that might be levelled against them. They made large charcoal drawings – which they nevertheless insisted were sculptures – based on photographs of themselves. They further explored taboo language and images as they moved into films and photography proper through which they probed, with increasing graphic clarity, various subjects found near their east end base such as working-class youth, immigration and homelessness, as well as aspects of themselves including microscopic images of their own blood, semen and faeces, often accompanied by images of themselves in their trademark matching suits, or in varying degrees of undress.

"We have two main privileges," says George. "We can bolt the door of the studio and make pictures that say exactly what we want. Then we can take them out into the world and no one can say, not this one or not that one. You can't shout some of these thoughts on the street. You'd be arrested." "But it is all part of the language of human beings," says Gilbert. "People were told that shit was shocking. Shit is not shocking."

Their work has duly provoked more than its share of both real and sometimes manufactured outrage, and their professed Conservative sympathies have been equally frowned on within the art world. But more often than not they have enjoyed commercial and critical success as well as establishment recognition. They won the Turner Prize in 1986 and represented the UK at the 2005 Venice biennale. The Royal Academy once sought legal advice as to whether it could admit two people for one of its limited memberships. "Every two years they telephone to ask whether we would accept membership," explains George. "We say "Ask us. Write us a letter and we will reply". But they say it doesn't work like that. You have to say you will accept and then they will ask you. Not very honest, is it?"

In 2007 they were the subject of a large Tate Modern retrospective. "We felt we deserved it", says Gilbert. "But we wanted it in the right Tate, not the wrong Tate." When the idea was first proposed they were told that Tate Modern had never shown a British modern artist and had no plans to do so. "Then we knew we were on a journey. We had something to beat. And we won through by slow persuasion. We made it difficult for them to say no, because museum directors hate to say no in case they are proved wrong in the future."

They say they don't believe in the "racial division" of the two Tates. "You can't do art by passport," says George. "Gilbert is from Italy, Lucian was from Germany, Francis Bacon was from Ireland. That is what the modern art world is like here. And they have made a decision on those two buildings that will be forever fucked. A disaster. Show, say, a postcard of a Caro sculpture to anybody you meet in the street and they will say that is modern art not British art. So surely it should be in Tate Modern." "Every English artist who has a show in Tate Britain is finished two weeks later," says Gilbert. "It's the kiss of death. If you have Tate Modern, then the other one must be Tate Old-Fashioned. They're trying to say that they don't really believe in British modern art." It is a subject that has long exercised George. "At my first art colleges, art only came from wine growing countries. Teachers never mentioned an artist from the north. Later you couldn't be an artist unless you were from New York. That felt frightful. In that sense, to say you are English and an artist was a new idea."

This reference to his early art life – he only half-jokingly lists his teenage influences as "Jesus, mother, Van Gogh and Terry-Thomas" – remind us that while G&G was born in 1967, there was a time before Gilbert and George. In fact, George Passmore was born in Plymouth in 1942 and was brought up in Totnes in Devon. He had an absentee father, a larger-than-life mother and an elder brother who was converted to evangelical Christianity by Billy Graham and became a vicar. (Some years later his brother "saved" their missing father when he became a Christian.) George left school at 15 to work in a local bookshop, but took art classes in the evenings at the progressive Dartington Hall School where Lucian Freud had been a student before the war. His facility for drawing and painting prompted an invitation to become a full-time student and the plan was for him to move on to the Bath Academy of Art at Corsham where Howard Hodgkin was a tutor. Corsham rejected him and George left for London where he did various jobs – working in Selfridge's, in a music hall bar, and as a childminder – before enrolling at the art school of Oxford technical College en route to arriving at St Martin's in 1965.

Gilbert Proesch was born in a village in the Dolomites of northern Italy in 1943. He was from a family of village shoemakers and his early art revealed itself through traditional Alpine wood carving. He attended the Wolkenstein Art School in the next valley to his home and then, instead of taking the expected route south to Florence or Venice to continue his art education, went north to the art school at the medieval town of Hallein near Salzburg in Austria before moving on to the Munich Academy of Art where he studied for six years.

"So we are very highly trained," says George. "We did seven or eight years of naked ladies," adds Gilbert. But there was little evidence of their traditional background by the time they met at St Martin's on its renowned sculpture course. "St Martin's was very special because, briefly, it was the most famous art school in the world. And that department in particular. There were TV crews from Venezuela. We felt very arrogant about being there. They made us feel very privileged." But Gilbert and George, along with some fellow students such as Richard Long and Barry Flanagan, reacted against the orthodoxy of the time, characterised best perhaps by Anthony Caro's large abstract works, and an early product of their partnership was a jointly staged diploma show on two tables in a Soho cafe: "But we did give them tea and sandwiches when they got there." Later they photographed themselves holding sculptures before realising that they could remove the sculptures to just leave the human beings. "It was our biggest invention. We had made ourselves the artwork."

The opposition to this strategy included St Martin's writing to a potential sponsor advising having nothing to do with them. "And we felt very proud of that," says George. "We knew we were on our own. It was hard but that's why a two is such a common arrangement. It makes you stronger. People said you can't buy their art because they won't be together very long. Everyone splits up, don't they? But we didn't. It was us against the world in that the only galleries exhibiting at the time were minimal. Figurative was not really allowed. Colour was taboo. Emotions were taboo. It all had to be a circle or a square or a line. And be grey or brown or black or white." "And being in the work ourselves was not liked," adds Gilbert. "That's not the case now, everyone is in their work. But then we two were like a fortress. You become somehow untouchable."

The precise nature of their relationship has long been a source of speculation, given additional spice in the 90s when it emerged that George had been married as a young man and had two children. In 2008 Gilbert & George entered into a civil partnership, but they said at the time this was primarily to do with the practical business of protecting the others interests if one of them were to die. Even their friend, and biographer, the late Daniel Farson concluded by saying in his 1999 study of them that "frankly, I have no idea what goes on".

And far from being gay spokesmen they say they are "just the opposite". They object to their work being described as homo-erotic, claiming it is just "erotic". "Sex is just sex. When you ask for a steak in a restaurant you don't ask whether it is a girl or a boy." That said, they did complain when a critic said that at St Martin's they called themselves living sculptures while "anyone with eyes in their head could see that they were actually two fruity gays in suits". "I phoned the editor, not the writer," says George, "and she said it was meant as a compliment. I said 'Madam, you are a liar. Good day.' But I suppose it is another one of our battles in a way. So why not. We deal with everything."

In 1970 they were invited to show some of their charcoal works in Düsseldorf. "The dealer asked the price and, not thinking for one second that anyone would buy it, we said rather big-headedly, '£1000'. The next day he sold it. We were amazed and had enough money to misbehave for a year." Soon after they performed their singing sculpture in Brussels in a borrowed part of a gallery – "it would be called a pop-up space now" – and were invited, on the spot, to open Ileana Sonnabend's new gallery in New York which resulted in the NYPD having to control the crowds in one of the first downtown art events. By this time they were resident in the Fournier Street home that they have occupied ever since. They say when they bought the first house in 1972 they got a free studio at the back, when later they wanted to expand and bought the studio next door they effectively got a free house.

The change in the neighbourhood has been profound in the intervening 40 years – "We know people who live here and who have never been to Oxford Street. It's just some distant and boring place." – and the transformation of the art world has been equally dramatic. "When we were baby artists, you could ask people on the street to name an artist and they would only mention long dead ones; Michelangelo, Leonardo, Van Gogh. If you asked them to name a living murderer, they'd know two or three in prison. But that has all changed."

They are straightforward in their proselytising beliefs for art in general and theirs in particular. At St Martin's they made a looped tape recording simply saying "come to see a new sculpture" and used marshmallows and cigarettes to entice people. 'We did that because I remember Richard Hamilton coming in and speaking to seven people because no one had told the students. We thought how wretched. We never wanted to make that mistake. At least make sure people know about your work. No one has to go to an art show, but we want them to know that it is there if they did want to go. And if you take an exhibition to a city and 20 or 30,000 people see the show, your work stays with them forever. They become a little bit different than if they hadn't gone to the show."

Gilbert and George and their work have travelled all over the world including trips to China and Russia in the early 90s and most places elsewhere since. "We were recently in Gdansk where just the idea of two men being one artist is still something to get over. There may be a sense in London of people saying 'here they go again', but in other places it feels as pioneering as when we began."

Most of their early photographic work was made in the near derelict kitchen at Fournier Street. "It was very primitive", says Gilbert, "but those pieces are now some of the most expensive ones. And we didn't really know how to do it. It was a new type of art to make work out of negatives and photographs. Back then art meant oil paintings, especially for museums. To make this new work into an art form took years."

They say from the beginning they have had an eye on both posterity and the past. "We don't believe modern is it alone. We have to make an art that will survive into the future, and to prepare our pictures for that. And to take account of the past is essential." Not that they have set foot in a national gallery for years. "We know it all," says Gilbert. "But we want to be inspired by life in front of us and not that sort of brain pollution. A lot of artists go to a gallery and see a picture and then make art. We never did that." "If you have a landscape painting in a museum, people glide past it," says George. "But if there was a little policeman on the horizon and a tramp in the foreground masturbating, then it becomes an amazingly interesting picture. We have thoughts and feelings in our pictures, although that does have a price."

Preparing the vast amount of material that became the London Pictures was a physically demanding task, "but sorting through all those 'man dies' 'woman dies' left us sort of crazed," says George. "As we made these pictures we lived through them. You really began to feel it, all this death. But it is very important that we carry on telling the truth as far as we can work it out. We were making pictures then and we are making them now. It's very simple. How we are tomorrow is how our new pictures will be. But it is always a long journey, which can be exhausting and rewarding. But at the end of it, we know there will come a time when we will find ourselves standing in the middle of White Cube, holding a glass of white wine and being  licked all over by teenagers. It's quite a magic moment, and that will be that." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 12 2012

David Dawson on Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud's assistant, frequent model and friend David Dawson talks about their 20-year working relationship

David Dawson was Lucian Freud's assistant, frequent model and friend for the last two decades of his life. Freud was working on a portrait of Dawson at the time of his death. Dawson's photographs captured the artist at work and play and can currently be seen on display at Pallant House in Chichester (David Dawson: Working with Lucian Freud; until 20 May) and at Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert in London SW1 (Lucian Freud: Studio Life; until 2 March).

Having been working towards the National Portrait Gallery show in the months since Freud died, it must feel like another ending or a closure now it has opened?

That's true, it does. But then I have spent the last two weeks hanging Lucian's exhibition every day, and it was just amazing having all the paintings together again in one place. It has been liberating, empowering almost in that way, a proper memorial.

If he had lived to see it, would he have loved looking back at all that work?

He would have enjoyed the light side of it, seeing it in the papers, all that. He would have had a last look at the hang itself, just to make sure he didn't want to change anything. But I imagine he would mostly have been in his studio wanting to get on with the work ahead of him. He wasn't one for looking back.

The last, unfinished painting, The Hound, of you and your whippet Eli seems an appropriate place to end, given your long friendship and working relationship. Did he regret not completing it?

He was pushing all the way to finish it for this show. He never worried about dying. He would come into the studio every day up until about the last two weeks, and try to paint, even just for half an hour, before he got too tired.

He was working on that last portrait for four years. Did it feel different from your previous experiences as a sitter, more of a farewell?

I was only aware, and he was perhaps only aware, in the last six weeks that it might not get finished. I had done six or seven portraits with him; this one was certainly the most relaxed. Though it is not finished, it's quite resolved, I think. It's in there because it's a very good painting, not because it's the last one.

I'm sure it was a privilege to be his friend, did it ever feel a burden?

Never a burden, but certainly a commitment. Even though Lucian said he was not a creature of habit, the one thing he did do every single day of his life was get into the studio every morning. In our 20 or so years he did not miss a day, literally. And I had to be there first thing every morning, seven days a week, to prepare it for him.

The studio was a very private, almost sacred space for him?

Very, very private. I would never disturb him when people were sitting. No one ever casually came in and out. The door was closed to the world.

Did he tell you when you could take photographs and when not?

No, it was always me deciding. We had that trust. I never wanted to keep a diary: it didn't feel right to go home and then write about what I had done that morning. So the pictures were a visual record of it, an honest record of our relationship.

You captured very memorably that extraordinary occasion of him painting the Queen. Did they hit it off?

They did seem to get on extremely well. I would go in every morning and set up the easel and wait for her majesty to arrive. One day I just asked if she wouldn't mind me taking a picture and she said: "Of course, it might be a little piece of history."...

Did he treat her any differently from his other subjects, the benefits supervisor, say?

No. Lots of amazing people sat for him, from aristocracy to fashion models. And everyone was treated exactly the same. If he had an overriding quality with people, I would say it was his sense of fairness.

How did he choose who to paint?

Well, he had a very clear eye for what he wanted and he would grab at that. One of the key things was the sense that the people could be trusted to be reliable, and punctual.

What happened if subjects were late?

It really upset him. He was so charged up and ready to paint. iIf the person wasn't there, that was the most emotive he got. If someone came late they were told to "fuck off home" immediately, and that was that.

Were other painters ever invited into the studio?

No, it made him incredibly nervous to have anyone, particularly painters, in the studio if the paintings were half finished – he was jumpy about that. Frank Auerbach came, but he would only look at paintings when they were just about finished. Before Frank, Francis Bacon filled that role.

Some of the more moving paintings are those of his [14] children. Did he approach them with trepidation?

No, the children were just sitters like anyone else. Biology was never very important to him in the studio.

What is the studio like now?

It is exactly as it was when he died. It would be nice to think it can stay like that. Nothing has been decided yet, but I hope so.

Your own show, in Chichester, as well as photos includes paintings you made during the time you worked with Freud, but they don't reflect that relationship. Were you never tempted to paint him?

Paint Lucian? No. It would be too, too hard. A portrait of Lucian? I wouldn't have known know where to begin. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 10 2012

Picasso in Britain and Lucian Freud – the week in art

Tate Britain makes a rash move, exhibiting the defining genius of European art alongside British artists, and Lucian Freud goes on show at the National Portrait Gallery – all in your weekly art roundup

Exhibition of the week: Picasso and Britain

It must be a temptation. You are Tate Britain. Your job is to exhibit British art from Tudor times to the present day .… Oh no … British art … It's not exactly French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch or Norwegian art, is it? For most of our history, we were at the margins of European visual culture. Pick a century, any century, and the British look from most points of view like also-rans in art. So how about cheating … just a little bit.

Pablo Picasso's trip to Britain after the first world war – when he stayed at the Savoy, worked on a ballet design, and met the Bloomsbury set – was little known until John Richardson researched it for the third volume of his definitive biography of the greatest artist of the 20th century. But according to this exhibition, Picasso was much more than a passing visitor to these shores. He exerted a tremendous inspiring influence on British modernists, who feature alongside him here.

It is undeniable that Picasso influenced Henry Moore, to take one of the best of them. But this is like saying a British 1960s office block is influenced by the Rockefeller Centre, or a British wine is influenced by the vintages of Burgundy; it just ain't the same. I fear this exhibition is a huge own goal for 20th-century British art, allowing everyone to see just exactly how dull and minor Moore, Graham Sutherland and others actually look beside Picasso.

Because Picasso was a genius – pure and simple. The only British artist in this show of whom you might say the same is Francis Bacon: and his relationship with Picasso's work is very interesting. In a way, Bacon was the artist who went beyond Picasso and discovered abyssal regions uncharted by Picasso. On the other hand, I remember seeing a good exhibition of Bacon and coming out of it to encounter, in the museum's displays, Picasso's Weeping Woman. This painting by Picasso is so human in its tragedy, so full in its view of life, that it made the Bacons seem indulgent and morbid.

Weeping Woman is in this country because it was bought from the artist by the surrealist artist and writer Roland Penrose. This is where Tate Britain is right to see a special relationship between Picasso and Britain. In the later 1930s, he became the most politically effective of avant garde artists, and his cry of rage Guernica visited Whitechapel. Young artists like Penrose were at the forefront of recognising Picasso not just as a great artist, but a modern hero. Weeping Woman, like Guernica, is a profound lament for the victims of war and fascism in the Spanish Civil War – where Britons went to fight on the same side Picasso painted for.

Penrose later wrote a biography of Picasso that is a monument to this hero worship. It was the first art book I ever read and I still think it tells a lot of truth among the myths. The British could not hold a candle to Picasso artistically. But we have always been good at loving him.

At Tate Britain, London, Wednesday 15 February until 15 July 2012

Also opening

Lucian Freud
Freud never departed from what his eyes could see. He is a painter of pure observation, utterly committed to the struggle to make an adequate record of the people in front of his eyes. His portraiture is not radical, or innovative, or subversive, or even modern. It is simply profound.
• At National Portrait Gallery, London, until 27 May

Van Dyck in Sicily
It's high time British art lovers were reminded of the rich European travels of a Flemish artist we have come to see as one of our own – but who was, like all his best contemporaries, an emulator of the Italian Baroque genius Caravaggio.
• At Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, from Wednesday 5 February untl 27 May 2012

Marc Camille Chaimowicz
This romantic conceptual artist, who first came to prominence in the 1970s era of Glam Rock and has a Bowie-esque interest in theatricality, here explores the world of criminal culture hero Jean Genet.
• At Focal Point Gallery, Southend, from 13 February until 24 March 2012

John Piper: Mountains of Wales
This neo-Romantic 20th-century British painter found an ideal theme among the grand mountainous landscapes of Wales.
• At National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, until 13 May

Masterpiece of the week

Edouard Manet, Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, c1863, at Courtauld Gallery, London

There is something gloriously insolent about Manet's sex party in the countryside. The bohemian gents who dawdle in a wood with their mistresses are dressed in thick, dark garments, while the women are uncomfortably nude on what does not seem a particularly warm day. Pale flesh, dark eyes, formal gestures make for a strange scene in a forest of deep, various and vital greens and yellows. Most of all, the laws of composition are given short shrift: while the conventions of perspective established for European art in the Renaissance are perfunctorily observed (and indeed the painting is a deliberate travesty of a famous Venetian image of a concert champetre), they do not seem important. The figures are thrust forward towards us and the woman drawing water in the background seems to float independently of the trees around her.

Manet's people, in other words, do not fit their landscape. This may be an allegory of modern city dwellers no longer home a la campagne. As a way of painting, it is revolutionary. The deliberately awkward marriage of flattish figures with a woodland that is like a phoney stage set raises profound questions about the nature of illusion in art. These questions were taken up by Cézanne, then Picasso and Braque, right through to Magritte's painting of a landscape picture on an easel that has replaced the "real" view out of a window. Indeed, Magritte's demolition of pictorial illusion is very much an echo of this subversive pastoral that Manet painted in the 1860s. This painting is proof that Manet is the father of modern art.

Image of the week

What we learned this week

Le Corbusier's landmark modernist housing estate La Cité Radieuse in Marseille – famously modelled on a steamboat – has been badly damaged by fire.

That a room filled with the brilliance of life has descended on Tate Modern

That for the next few months, gallery-goers' eyes will be snagging on blue toenails, dangling cocks and profound paisley prints – courtesy of the late Lucian Freud

That Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron will design this year's Serpentine pavilion as little more than a hole in the ground

A hospital in Manchester is running the first ever museum and galleries week to promote patient wellbeing

Lastly …

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February 05 2012

Lucian Freud Portraits

The National Portrait Gallery's tremendous show celebrates the unexpected moments that were ever present in the artist's work

Lucian Freud painted strange, uneasy, figures, from first to last. Maybe they were uneasy because he was painting them. There was as much violence as tenderness in his stare, and in the ways he devised to paint.

This tremendous show tracks Freud's inquisitiveness and inventiveness, his constant returns to the mystery of presence. Almost everything Freud did was a portrait of a situation or a confrontation as much as it was a body in a room, whether the body belonged to a lover, a daughter, the artist's mother, a baron, a bank robber or the Queen.

Freud was 18 in 1940 when he painted his art college tutor Cedric Morris , the earliest work in this large, though far from complete exhibition, planned in close co-operation with the artist himself during the last five years of his life.

Freud's final painting, of his pet dog and his studio assistant David Dawson, was left unfinished on the easel when Freud died last year at 88. Its incompleteness is extremely affecting.

The first of these two paintings is small, querulous and faux-naive (though it is hard to imagine Freud naive at any stage in his life), the last full of eccentric impetuosities: Dawson looks up; Freud's eye circles like a bird of prey, quartering its subject from above. The painting runs the gamut from sketchy indications of what might have been, to revised and much reworked detail. Dawson's head is an encrusted eruption of granular pustules of paint. I churn too, as I look at it.

In his very late works Freud seems to have got fixated on certain details. There is an enormous, disjunctive, variety in Ria, Naked Portrait 2006-7. Ria's head is a coarse impastoed lump, the bedcover a fastidious off-white rumpled plain, its pattern emerging and disappearing. The painting is marvellous and terrible at the same time, both exhilarating and awful. There's frailty and failure as well as richness and complexity there, which makes it all the better.

Through a sequence of larger and smaller rooms, Freud's portraiture is unpacked, in all its variety, from the thinly-painted acuteness of his 1950s work to his affecting, grand and vulnerable portraits of the performance artist Leigh Bowery, and the mountainous and magnificent Sue Tilley (Big Sue, the Benefits Supervisor). Each has a room devoted to them.

Elsewhere, however, earlier, smaller, works are hung too close together. In some rooms there are too many confrontations and painted intimacies to take in. It's going to be tough when the crowds arrive.

Neither a realist nor an expressionist – though there is as much reality as there is expression in his art – Freud depicted the psychological tensions between himself and his subjects. His paintings are full of life. There is always a palpable atmosphere, even if it is often conjured from dead time in the studio, his models' lassitude or alertness, a sense of someone waiting for those interminable sittings at their appointed hours to be over.

Freud almost always found something new, or a new way to describe, the experience of being in a room with someone else. It was usually the same room, with the same bits of furniture and piles of paint-soiled rags.

Details as much as whole paintings arrest me. So many details! The weave of a wicker chair, the paisley pattern on his mother's suit, the halo of light reflected behind a head on a leather seat, the Paddington skyline rippling in the windowpane, iridescent blue nail varnish flickering on a woman's toes.

Freud's paintings always have great and often unexpected moments, things the eye snags on. His was a process of describing sensation and presence, people and things and spaces and light, through the language of painting.

He was continually trying to find new ways to describe the familiar: clasped hands, a man's dangling cock, a cheekbone, a turn of the head. His touch is almost never dutiful or rote.

Freud would steer through a sitter's boredom, their disquiet or their flamboyance or their awkwardness, to find something new in their introspection, their nakedness. His art is wonderfully perverse, and perversity was the method by which it constantly reinvented itself.

Being Sigmund Freud's grandson did not give Lucian any particular insights into his sitters, and he disparaged familial comparisons, but like his grandfather his work was largely concerned with being alone in a room with another, delving into the silence that falls between them, analysing the ongoing situation. This exhibition is unmissable. Go more than once, if you can.

Lucian Freud Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from 9 February to 27 May

Rating: 5/5 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 02 2012

Lucian Freud: reflections of the artist

The looking glass was an important tool for Lucian Freud, but his work went far beyond mirror-play. As an exhibition of his portraits opens, his biographer and friend writes about his ruthless, confrontational realism

"I really used the mirror as a device for an interior on a small scale," he explained. "Always the same mirror, which I like and know." For Lucian Freud the knowing and liking were mutually vital and this five-foot Georgian overmantel mirror stayed with him. It had come down in the world by the time he first set eyes on it in 1943 in the hallway at 20 Delamere Terrace, in what was then slum Paddington. It became one of his few possessions in the upstairs flat there overlooking the canal, along with a stuffed zebra head.

Though not in fact always the one Freud used, it was until the mid-70s his main mirror for giving him odd angles, distancing and that slight sense of behind-the-glass isolation. For as their titles often indicate – Reflection (self-portrait), Painter working, reflection, his self-portraits were, of course, mirror images of a face that to him needed no introduction, the face that frowned commandingly or squinted with the effort of examining itself in profile. As he said: "Painting myself is more difficult than painting people, I've found. The psychological element is more difficult. Increasingly so."

The poet Nanos Valaoritis, who first encountered an intense young Freud in Greece in 1947, went further, describing him as a combined dramaturge and reflector. "He is a sort of mirror. L invents a personality for people, which he imposes upon them by the force of conviction and concentration." That's putting it a bit strong; though, true enough, the paintings from the late 40s of Kitty Epstein, Freud's huge-eyed first wife, show her sitting to order, as it were, first bedazzled then shrinking.

The self-portraitist's mirror remained to hand. He took it from painting place to painting place, from Paddington to Maida Vale. It ended up in the kitchen of the top-floor flat in Holland Park that served as his studio until the final years. The one painting in which it actually features, frame and all, is Small interior (self portrait), begun in 1968 and completed three or four years later, in which it looks as though he's dancing attendance on it: his old friend the mirror. Diminutive in the reflection, contemplating his next brush move, the painter seems torn between doing this little picture or getting on with what was to become Large interior, Paddington 1968-9 (shown, barely begun, on an easel beside him) or, possibly, perfecting the glossiness of the leaves in the magnificent Interior with plant, reflection listening (self-portrait), 1967-8. Whatever. This is Freud giving himself pause. Just think: here's a representation of a reflection involving the representation of a reflection of his largest painting for years in which a resentful child, his daughter Ib, lies planted under a spreading zimmerlinde on a paint-smudged floor. Ostensibly a straightforward studio scene, Small interior compresses possibilities.

The complications in a Freud involve rather more than mirror-play. They aren't to do with symbolism (which he loathed as a metier) or surreality (why be clever-clever?); for him a fascination with appearances was motivation enough. He saw himself in a hand mirror wedged into the frames of a sash window. He peered at a morning-after acquisition: a ripe black eye. Love came into it: the intentness of love and the abeyance of love. Hotel Bedroom, 1954, shows him holed up with Caroline Blackwood, the newly-weds not enjoying their poky, shared accommodation in the Hotel La Louisiane, rue de Seine, she shivering in bed, he standing over her, his darkening presence transposed from the image he studied in the bevelled mirror on an unseen wardrobe door. Caroline complained about being made to look older than she was, but the bitten nails and the little finger lodged on her lower lip are telling. The marriage was soon over.

"Making a picture," Matisse said, "would seem as logical as building a house, if one worked on sound principles. One should not bother about the human side. Either one has it or one hasn't. If one has it, it colours the work in spite of everything."

For Freud there was no question but that making paintings came first. Yet, as one who lived by urges, attractions were there to be sprung. Instinct was foremost at all times. "The eyes give the messages to the brain," he once said to me, "and not all of these, by any means, come out in the form of speech. (I mean the information gathered, and the subsequent ideas.) The painter looking at a person thinks things that the other person jolly well doesn't want thought about them, and makes guesses which are really impertinent. It's to do with the inherent life in people." The human side and, wider, the animal side, was for him the main event. Painting one-to-one he had the advantage of being the initiator with work to do, thus wholly in charge. With two people or more he faced complication, distraction possibly, and never more so than in the early 80s, when he had the idea of restaging a Watteau.

He knew the original painting – Pierrot Content, featuring the commedia character seated in a glade with frivolous companions – only in reproduction. His version, enormous in comparison, is a sky-lit tableau set in what was, at that time, his quite recently converted Holland Park studio. "I wanted the setting to be a slightly deliberate setting," he said. "It's the nearest thing I have ever come to casting people rather than painting them, but they're still portraits, really. They are also characters. A slight bit of role-playing they are doing, but I didn't try and forget who they were. In the end they are just there." He showed them his photograph of the Watteau and told them that he wanted something similar.

A situation is presented. "Like the artless shots in Bunuel which are necessary to set up the rest," he suggested. There his characters sit, "slightly costumey", four on a bed, the light falling evenly on them, the scent of the verbena mingling, we may deduce, with the whiff of paint. They include a daughter and two girlfriends from different times. "I didn't want to make too much about the unity, the fact that people are sitting next to each other, know each other very well, not at all, or slightly. I'm interested in all that aspect of things: the people and to what degree they are affected by being near each other (that's one reason I like Franz Hals so much); not cold-shouldered but each wrapped up in themselves."

When Large Interior W11 (after Watteau) went on show at Agnew's in 1983 more than one reviewer took it to be a study of bohemian folk living in squalor. "A sordid room … peeling walls, a nasty sink and the sort of all-too visible plumbing the English are prone to accept," Terence Mullaly wrote in the Telegraph, adding: "Lucian Freud has always seemed to me grossly overrated and this picture confirms my opinion." He wasn't alone in this; disapproval revolved around the raw plaster and fittings and zoomed in on the awkwardness of the posed figures, so obviously unused to sitting together.

Freud proceeded by dint of ruthlessness, pressing on where others settled. Failures were ripped. "Sometimes things that go wrong with me are through concentration (like when you forget to put your trousers on)." Successes were downright. "Nothing tentative." Working his way across Leigh Bowery's bare back, he approached those wide areas of pallid skin like Alps as yet unsurmounted. "Though I hope to strain the onlooker's sensibilities what I'm really interested in is outraging my own." Confrontational in his realism he treated everything, buttercups, babies, a monarch even or a dozing whippet, floorboards and all, as the stimuli whereby observation catches hold. Such realism is the tap root of art, perpetually modern.

In that he insisted that everything he drew or painted was a portrait, Freud recognised no distinction between genres. The National Portrait Gallery's decision to restrict its otherwise splendid great exhibition to human portraits only is unimaginative though not unreasonable. Freud relished the prospect of having retrospectives, but in the event found them disconcerting. When he went one Sunday morning 10 years ago to check out the hang of his Tate retrospective, he pronounced himself pleased, but then took me to one side. There was just one thing, he felt. "William, would you mind if we put my hand mirror self-portrait next to that small one of my mother?" Easily done and, sure enough, they went well together. "Oh, thanks awfully," he said.

He didn't return to look through his assembled work more than a few times. It really depressed him, he explained, to see so many portraits of people he'd known and liked and who were now dead.

• William Feaver, currently engaged on a biography of Lucian Freud, has curated Lucian Freud Drawings at Blain/Southern, London, 17 February to 5 April and Acquavella, New York, 1 May to 9 June. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 31 2012

Lucian Freud: up for auction

1955 painting of Bernard Walsh, who ran restaurant frequented by Freud and Francis Bacon, has estimate of £1.5m-£2m

A never-before-exhibited painting by Lucian Freud – of the kindred-spirit restaurant owner who provided so many of his long, enjoyable Soho lunches in the 50s and 60s – will be part of February's big London contemporary art sales.

Sotheby's said a 1955 painting of the restaurateur Bernard Walsh would be auctioned with an estimate of £1.5m-£2m at its contemporary art evening sale on 15 February.

The auctioneer's contemporary art specialist James Sevier said it was a significant painting and its emergence was an "exciting moment". "This is a work that has not been publicly exhibited or seen anywhere," he said.

The work is unmistakably a Freud. "The moment I saw it for the first time, you're struck immediately by what a masterpiece it is and how lucky you are to stumble across a work like this which has been in a private collection since it was painted," Sevier said.

The portrait shines a light on the School of London movement in which Walsh was, in a way, integral. He owned Wheeler's on Old Compton Street, which was Francis Bacon's favourite restaurant, a place where he would spend several hours a day talking and eating with the likes of Freud and Frank Auerbach.

"There was a real scene around the restaurant, and Bernard Walsh was as big a figure as the artists," said Sevier. "His friendship with Bacon and Freud was one of the important friendships in that School of London."

Walsh let the artists run up tabs and asked Bacon to do a portrait of Freud for him and vice versa. Freud though was keen to paint Walsh himself, and it is the resulting portrait that is now up for sale. "There was an obvious mutual respect between the two men and an admiration," Sevier said.

"It has all the hallmarks of a great Freud portrait, it has got that sustained analysis, an incredible awareness of texture between the tie, the shirt, the individual folds and creases on the face and the background which is covered in minute specks of paint."

The sale comes at the same time that a show of Freud portraits opens at the National Portrait Gallery.

Sotheby's is also selling five Freud drawings, including one of former Arts Council chairman Lord Goodman, as well as works by Roy Lichtenstein, Gerhard Richter, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Takashi Murakami. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 26 2012

Don't call me Sir

From Lucian Freud to Roald Dahl, creative talents have long been rejecting honours from the Queen. But why? Maybe they just don't want to be part of an elite gang of Fred Goodwins

Why are creative people so deeply sceptical of Britain's honours system? Previously top secret details revealed today show that artists including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and LS Lowry rejected honours from the Queen as well as such writers as Roald Dahl and Graham Greene. What made them so reluctant to be rewarded by the British establishment?

None of these artists were known radicals. They were not on record as being republicans – although Francis Bacon is said to have once booed Princess Margaret when she insisted on singing at a party. Simple politics cannot be the explanation. It must be something harder to pin down, something in the nature of OBEs and knighthoods and the rest.

In a perhaps not unrelated story, the government was wondering today about stripping former Royal Bank of Scotland boss Sir Fred Goodwin of his knighthood. And this might be a clue to the artists' snubs of royal honours – not that LS Lowry somehow foresaw the banking crisis when he said no five times. The fact is that public honours in Britain are bound up not just with royalty and snobbery and memories of empire, but also with the bonding of a business elite, a political elite, a judicial elite, and local elites. As we become more self-critical as a nation, it is starting to look like Sir Fred's honour was no exception – that there is something insidiously corrupt about the way the honours system binds the top people.

Why would a serious artist want to be part of that? Why would Freud want what bankers and police chiefs get?

France has the Légion d'honneur, which over a long period has established a reputation for rewarding cultural excellence. It is a known international recognition for writers or film-makers to get it. By contrast, Britain's gongs resemble an establishment club, presided over by royalty, in which no special aura is granted to the creative. They are not cool.

In 1950s to 1980s Britain, when philistinism was an overt part of British upper-middle class life, it would have been particularly unattractive for artists to join that club. These artists – including Lowry – clearly thought of themselves as bohemians and had no taste at all for recognition alongside mayors and newspaper owners.

Perhaps it is time to create a new honour specifically for creative achievement. Or perhaps that would just be a new corruption.

In some deep sense, these unlikely dissidents were not just rejecting the Queen – they were rejecting the tone of British life itself. They saw the corruption that others are only now starting to acknowledge. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Roald Dahl and CS Lewis among writers revealed to have refused honours

List of authors to turn down OBEs, CBEs and knighthoods also includes Aldous Huxley, Robert Graves and Evelyn Waugh

Authors CS Lewis, Roald Dahl and Aldous Huxley all turned down honours from the Queen, newly released documents have revealed.

A freedom of information request saw the list of people to have rejected an honour between 1951 and 1999 and since died published last night by the Cabinet Office . Literary names were prominent amongst those to have said no to CBEs, OBEs and knighthoods in the annual New Year or Birthday Honours list, with Dahl, Lewis, and Huxley – who turned down a knighthood – joined by fellow naysayers Eleanor Farjeon, the children's author, the poets Philip Larkin and Robert Graves, who said no to both a CBE and a CH (Order of the Companions honour), literary critic FR Leavis, Booker winner Stanley Middleton and the authors JB Priestley and Evelyn Waugh.

In the past, this information has generally only been made public if the individuals to have snubbed the recognition announce it themselves – a step taken by the poet Benjamin Zephaniah in 2003, when he wrote in the Guardian: "Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word 'empire'; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised."

Novelist JG Ballard rejected a CBE for services to literature the same year, saying: "I think it's deplorable when left-wing playwrights like David Hare, who have worn their socialist colours on both sleeves for so many years, should accept a knighthood. God almighty, this man actually knelt down in front of the Queen."

Also included on the list of 277 individuals refusing honours between 1951 and 1999 are the sculptor Henry Moore, the artist Lucian Freud, the film director Alfred Hitchcock – although he later accepted a knighthood – and the painters Francis Bacon and LS Lowry. Lowry was the individual to have rejected recognition from the Queen the most often, turning down a total of five honours, including a knighthood. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 18 2012

Farewell to my father

As Lucian Freud lay on his deathbed, his daughter Jane dealt with her grief by capturing him in sketches and sculptures. As the works go on show, she talks about their relationship

Jane McAdam Freud is staring at a sculpture of her father Lucian. Seen from one side, he is dead: eyes and mouth closed, serene. From the other, he is very much awake: eyes staring, mouth concentrated, face animated. And from the front, he looks rather ferocious. Jane calls the sculpture – for which Lucian sat (or lay) while he was in bed dying – a triptych. It's a beautiful work: playful, moving, eerie.

Lucian first sat for his daughter in 1991. Back then, she sculpted him and he sculpted her, and they spent the whole time nervously dancing round each other; they had just been reunited. This time it was different. She was in control. She began these works as a way of chronicling his life; they became an act of remembrance, but she had never considered an exhibition until Channel 4's Jon Snow saw them, and told her it would be selfish to keep them from the public. Anyway, her father had said they would end up on display. "He said, 'Jane, I've seen your work and it's good, and all good work becomes public.' He'd constantly give these backhanded compliments."

The forthcoming show, at London's Freud Museum (named after her great-grandfather Sigmund), consists of portraits in a variety of materials: from intimate drawings to imprinted copper coins, from Plasticine impressions to that giant terracotta triptych reflected in a mirror. Jane asks me to look at the back of one of the tiny copper portraits. "What d'you see?" she demands. Eventually, I make out the word EARTH. "And what d'you see in the EARTH?" I stare some more before shouting ART triumphantly. She giggles, delighted. "Exactly. I wanted to put something about what his life was about, what the centre of his world was."

Jane lives in a modest-looking house with her husband and two adult children (from his previous marriage) in north-west London. Inside, it opens up into something surprisingly spacious, with a massive studio at the bottom of the garden. There's something instantly likable about her: she's warm and talkative, funny and vulnerable, dizzy and ditzy: she'd make a great Mike Leigh character. Like her father, she has something of the bird of prey about her: beakish face, staring hawkish eyes. On her desk is a quote by the US education reformer Horace Mann: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." She smiles. "It doesn't have to be some big victory," she says. "Just a little thing."

Since Lucian died, she has dedicated her work to him, largely as a means of exploring their relationship. And what an astonishing relationship it was. Until she was eight, Lucian, who is known to have fathered at least 14 children, was a huge part of her life. She was one of four children born to Lucian and Katherine McAdam, who met at Central Saint Martins College of Art. The beginning of their relationship was classic Freud: Katherine had won a competition to find the London college's most beautiful student; Lucian thought it was his right to dance with her. They never married, but it was the closest the great portrait painter ever came to having a regular relationship.

Katherine and their four children had a home in Paddington, while Lucian lived nearby. He was always around; when he wasn't, the kids thought he was at his studio. Everything seemed just fine to young Jane. Her parents never argued, she says, but towards the end of their relationship, it became apparent that something was wrong. "There were times Mum wouldn't let him in the house. I remember him saying, 'Why won't your mum let me in?' She'd be trying to distance herself, get on with her life."

Katherine, herself a talented artist, found a career as a designer. Then one day she packed up without warning, moved the children to Roehampton in south-west London, and Jane didn't see her father again until she was 31. "Twenty-three years!" I exclaim. She looks astonished. "Is it?" And she counts them out: eight to 31. "Yes, it is 23 years." Her mother dropped Freud from the family name, and told her children to get on with rebuilding their lives. "When we moved on, I was screaming and kicking, absolutely gutted that I was being taken away." Bit by bit, she discovered what her father had been like, though, and why her mother had taken such drastic action.

"I remember talking to my mum about it, about these complicated things, and she was quite clear. She'd say, 'Well obviously he's very intense, Jane.' She said, 'You know I couldn't live with him full-time because I'd have no energy left. Too intense.'" And then there were the affairs. For her mother, the relationship was monogamous and pure; for Lucian, it was anything but. "My mum just couldn't take it any more. Maybe it was the betrayals, other women I suppose, other children."

For many years, she was known as Jane McAdam. It's simple, she says: she was in denial of the Freud bit. As Jane McAdam, she discovered art, went to St Martins, then to the Royal College of Art, got herself a masters, bursaries and scholarships around the world. Jane, now 53, knew she wanted to be an artist from the age of three, when she first played with water in a sandpit and discovered sculpture. Not that she knew its name.

For her mother, the Freud name was an albatross: not so much Lucian, who was still a struggling painter when they separated, but Sigmund. Katherine wanted her children to live their lives on their own terms. As Jane became successful, she convinced herself she didn't need anything else. "I was busy making my work and having successes in my own right. I didn't need anything more than that. I was completely driven and in love with art."

So she didn't think about her father during these years? She gives me one of those intense Freudian stares. "Well, I read about him increasingly in the press. I was in turmoil. Turmoil." Why? "Well, that's my father, nobody knows. Imagine living like that: it was torture." Why did she want people to know? "I didn't, but I wanted to be me. I wanted to feel more of who I was. I wanted to renew my relationship with him." What did she feel? "Longing and yearning," she says. In her head, she would fantasise about their reunion; she felt incomplete, dishonest, bewildered.

Lucian made no attempt to get in touch with his four children through Katherine. Nor did they try to get in touch with him: Jane says she was terrified of rejection.

In 1991, Jane was awarded the Freedom of the City of London for her work. To receive the award, she had to present her birth certificate, which not only gave her full name but also her father's name and occupation. "They went, 'We've discovered you!'" The press attention that ensued proved a mixed blessing. Strangely, she found it more difficult to get shows and commissions; people who had once loved her work began to doubt her, thinking she was somehow tainted by her father or hanging on to his coat-tails. But in another way it made her: she embraced her new identity – and rediscovered her father.

They met for dinner. She was terrified, couldn't eat a thing. He just stared at her. She loved him, was in awe of him, but quickly understood what her mother had meant about his intensity. "The intensity is a fantastic thing, exhilarating, but you end up exhausted." In what way was he exhausting – talkative, demanding? No, she says: it was his eyes, his look. "That drowned every inch of yourself. You became gripped by that look and lost in that look that changed constantly. Because of these long gaps between the things he said, you felt you were waiting. Waiting." When was she first aware of that look? "Always! I mean, my boyfriends have been reincarnations."

After that first meeting, she asked him to sit for her, and that led to a year of sculpting each other. Did she feel angry he'd abandoned her? "No. I'm a bit of a dreamer. And I'm an optimist. Philip Pullman said one has a moral responsibility to be more than 50% positive, and I think that's true." Did she ask how he felt about the absence? "He just said he didn't have a family life." She smiles. We're both thinking of the 14 children. "It's an enigma, isn't it?"

The funny thing is, she says, she thinks he would have loved to settle down with one woman. "I think he was very vulnerable." In what way? "He didn't like saying goodbye. It's hard when you're with somebody and they really don't want you to go. I sensed that so much – especially towards the end. That's why you felt so important when you were with him. People loved him, I think, because he genuinely needed people." She checks herself. "But you change, don't you? One minute you need them, the next you don't."

We're looking at the triptych as we talk. "There's almost a reptilian quality," she says. "It's like a cobra. Something that sheds its skin. You can't pin him down. You make up your mind, and then you think no." The thing she loves about the sculpture, she says, is that one eye is open and one closed, just like when he was painting.

Getting back in touch changed pretty much everything in her life; at the very least, she found herself with 10 stepbrothers and sisters. The reunion also had a dramatic effect on Jane's siblings: all three changed careers, announcing they were now artists. Jane is proud of what they have done, but is confident she is by some way the best. "It takes thousands of hours to understand who you are and what you are doing and what your work is about."

It was so strange, she says, the things she and her father had in common: the stare, the way they clenched their fists, particularly when they walked. And as artists? She thinks about it, and remembers that when Lucian was asked what relationship his portraits bore to their subjects, he would say: "It is them." She shares this desire to embrace reality.

Back in 2001, Jane was commissioned to create a portrait in the form of a medal. "I said, 'Can I do it of you?' He said, 'Oh! Then they will think I'm vain. It would be better to do it later – when it makes sense as a memento mori.' I thought, 'It's not about you, it's about me and us and bonding.'" But in 2011, when he was dying, he finally agreed. And as they sat, they talked about their lives, past and present, together and apart.

She brings out her treasure box and shows me its contents: a newspaper cutting of her mother as a student (she's sad she never realised how special she was); her grandparents (Sigmund's son and his wife); letters from her father in his incredibly childlike handwriting. She tucks it all away again, lovingly and self-consciously. Then she says she'd like to show me something particularly special: photographs of Lucian taken just days before he died, gaunt, bearded, Christ-like, not unlike Turner's death mask.

It was only months before his death, last July, that Jane set to work, reproducing images of her father in any number of forms. She's glad to have turned it all into a show, but insists that was never part of the plan. "There was no thought of exhibiting. Never in a million years. It was private work, part of the grieving process." Yes, she's proud of it all, but she knows it has been a coping mechanism; and through learning about her father, she has learned about herself. When he died, she felt like a great tree had been felled. But through this project, she has managed to make sense of it. "I was making the work to help myself," she says. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 15 2012

Hockney, Freud, Turner and Hirst: art blockbusters of 2012

As the works go up and the buzz begins, we speak to the movers and shakers about how they got here …

David Hockney: Royal Academy

It's an Olympic year for artists too, and first out of the blocks is David Hockney: A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy. Like the athletes competing in London this summer, Hockney – now a veteran at 74 – has spent the past four years pushing himself beyond his limits in preparation for what could be the defining test of his career. The result is one of the most ambitious shows in the Academy's 244-year history: more than 150 works, some of them gargantuan, more than 80% of which have been made specially for this exhibition and the particular spaces of this light-filled gallery.

For Edith Devaney, co-curator of the exhibition, the most invigorating part of the process has been watching the new paintings emerge first-hand. "Like David, we didn't know what to expect, but we knew it would be exciting," she says. "I remember him saying to me when we started off this process, 'We won't get this wrong.' And I thought, 'No, we won't.'"

Hockney has always dabbled in landscapes – notably his photo collages of the Grand Canyon and Pearblossom Highway in the 1980s and 90s when he was still in the States – but they have been a sustained focus of his work since he returned to live in Bridlington, East Yorkshire a decade ago. In recent years he has produced paintings at a complusive rate, first with watercolours then oils, and most recently on his iPhone and iPad. "David's not actually that interested in technology, he's just interested in other methods you can use to make art," she explains. "The work he did on his iPhone is charming, but the work he does on his iPad has the painterly quality of his oils – it's astonishing."

Another new direction for Hockney is his use of film. Showing as a world exclusive at the Royal Academy his films are created by nine high-definition cameras pointing in fractionally different directions – the result has been described as a "moving cubist collage".

"It has the same multiplicity of perspectives," says Devaney. "When you look at this film you feel as though you are seeing the world through David Hockney's eyes."

With Hockney's canny knack for self-promotion – he recently declined to paint the Queen because he was "very busy painting England actually, her country" – marketing expectations for the show are off the scale. As a private and independent institution, the Royal Academy is not obliged to supply a projected attendance, but there are whispers that A Bigger Picture could challenge the 1999 Monet exhibition, which hosted 813,000 visitors. Demand was so relentless back then that the Academy opened its doors 24 hours a day, a UK first. "In principle we'd do that again," says Jennifer Francis, head of press and marketing. "Certainly in the final few weeks, if we think people will be there at three in the morning."

Advertising for the show will have local, national and international targets – from buses in Bradford to the LA tourist board. "It's the first time I've bought space on buses up and down the country," says Francis. "There is a massive buzz about this exhibition."

"I really sense the position of this exhibition in history," interjects Devaney. "It's a slight change of direction for us: we are picking someone like David, who is at the height of his powers, and giving him freedom. Working very closely with him, but allowing him to take off. In 100 years' time people at the Academy will look back and think, 'Oh my God, this was a really important thing for the Academy to have done.'"

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is at the Royal Academy, London W1, 21 January-9 April

Lucian Freud: Portraits

The cynical among us might wonder if the National Portrait Gallery's auspicious Lucian Freud: Portraits exhibition was hastily conceived in the aftermath of the artist's death last July. We would, however, be missing the mark by, ooh, about five years. "The idea came to me in 2007, just after we won the Olympic bid," says the National Portrait Gallery's contemporary curator Sarah Howgate. "Everybody felt it would be a fantastic exhibition to do in 2012, when Lucian was going to turn 90. Our director, Sandy Nairne, told him, 'You are going to be our Olympian,' which Lucian found quite amusing."

Howgate can also measure the complicated gestation of the show in another way. "I started writing to lenders in 2008 to request his work and then I went off on maternity leave," she recalls. "Now my little boy is three and the exhibition is just about to start!"

There are 132 works in Lucian Freud: Portraits, the largest exhibition of his portraiture that has ever been assembled. Howgate secured almost all of the key paintings that she requested from museums and private collections, including Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, bought in 2008 by Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich for £17m, a world record auction price. Other coups include one of Freud's grandest works, Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau), not seen in the UK for a decade, and Portrait of the Hound, his final, unfinished painting.

"It's a balancing act for lenders," says Howgate. "Works, which quite often hang on their walls, have to come down for a year and that creates quite a gap. But on the other hand their work is going to be hanging in this really important exhibition in a great venue, so it's prestigious to be part of it. And it's happening at a time when the world's attention is going to be on the UK and London in particular."

The NPG is anticipating around 160,000 visitors, which would match the number that came to see David Hockney Portraits: Life Love Art in 2006 (also curated by Howgate), their record for a paid-admittance show. Denise Vogelsang, head of marketing, advises booking in advance and coming in the morning; an "early-bird offer", for example, gives you two-for-one tickets for the first slot of the day. "But the show takes over pretty much the whole of the ground floor," says Vogelsang, "so it's a bigger space than we normally have and we can accommodate a larger number of visitors without it feeling too crowded."

Howgate is adamant that Lucian Freud: Portraits be viewed as "a celebration, not a memorial", and she points out that the artist had seen and approved the paintings that are being shown, even the layout of the exhibition and the merchandise. Nevertheless, it will be almost impossible to view the show, which spans 1939 to 2011, without speculating on Freud's colourful personal life. His two wives and assorted lovers are prominently featured, and it sometimes feels that you can see relationships deteriorating over the course of their sittings.

It will also be hard not to consider Freud's legacy as you wander round. "It's just really sad that Lucian isn't going to see it because he would have been incredibly moved by it," says Howgate. "Obviously his family are all going to come, so it's going to be an emotional time for them and that is going to make it all the more powerful. There was a feeling in the art world that a real master had died, and I think it will become even more clear that we have lost one of the greatest realist painters of the 20th century."

Lucian Freud: Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, 9 February-27 May

JMW Turner: National Gallery

The venerable National Gallery was just five years old in 1829 when JMW Turner wrote a will leaving his entire oeuvre – more than 1,000 works – to the nation. The artist had just one stipulation: when he died, he wanted a pair of his own paintings (Dido Building Carthage and Sun Rising Through Vapour) hung between two landscapes (what he called The Seaport and The Mill) by a baroque artist who had inspired him more than any other, Claude Lorrain. The request is still honoured to this day, in the cosy, octagonal room 15, but in March the National Gallery is preparing a much grander statement of the affinity between the two masters.

Turner will be the draw for most visitors but Jill Preston, the National Gallery's head of communications, believes that Claude's mastery of light and composition will be a revelation. "We're hoping that a lot of people out there will, through the Turner name, be introduced to Claude for the first time," she says. "Outside the art world a lot of people who are not familiar with Claude will find his work absolutely delightful, really inspiring."

Turner was formally introduced to the work of Claude, who died almost a century before he was born, when two of his landscapes came through London in 1799. These paintings, along with Turner's sketches of them, open the exhibition. "They really caused a splash those two Claudes, they were what everybody was talking about," says Susan Foister, deputy director of the National Gallery. "The sketchbooks record Turner's reactions to these works and he refers to them again and again throughout his career because it's material he can keep reusing but making different each time. This room really sets the scene for their relationship."
Turner Inspired: In Light of Claude might seem the most traditional of the big 2012 shows, but the National Gallery believes it has much to intrigue enthusiasts of Hockney, Freud, even Hirst. "Our show "is about looking backwards and forwards at the same time," she says. "Turner saw that you could look at a work painted decades earlier and make something very different of it. That's what artists go on doing and I think that's what Turner was showing he could do with Claude."

Preston is determined to spread the word that the gallery is becoming more rounded, less stuffy even. The programme for 2012 includes a show where contemporary artists, dancers and poets respond to three works by Titian. Friday Lates, where the collection and shows stay open till 9pm, offers live music, debates and a roomful of people sat cross-legged with pencils and paper doing a Talk and Draw session. "We would like the process of discovering an exhibition to be an active one," she says.

"Five million people come to the National Gallery each year so variety is very important."

Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude is at the National Gallery, London WC2, 14 March-5 June

Damien Hirst: Tate Modern

Everyone in the art world agrees: the factor that has by far the biggest impact on the success of an exhibition is the fame of the artist. This is probably why Marc Sands, director of Tate media and audiences, can't help smiling broadly as he talks about Damien Hirst's first UK retrospective, opening at the Tate Modern in April. "It will be the most talked-about show of the year," he predicts. "The name recognition couldn't be much higher. I've never met more people with a view on an artist. Largely it tends to be more on the artist, whom they have probably never met, than it is on the work that many of them have never seen."

The 46-year-old Hirst will always polarise opinion, Sands concedes, but he hopes visitors can suspend judgment until they see the work, dating from 1988 to the present day. "The divisive nature will only make the discussion, the debate, the interest more prickly and more alive," he says. "I already know what some newspapers will say, but the public should decide for themselves."

For the curator, Ann Gallagher, Tate's head of collections, the exhibition started with a single work: the 14ft tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde or, if you prefer, The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living from 1991. "For obvious reasons, it's a piece that everyone would want to see," she says.

Most of Hirst's most notorious pieces will also be among the 70-odd works: there are spot and spin paintings, medicine cabinets and the £50m platinum and diamond skull, For The Love Of God, will be displayed in the Turbine Hall for the first 12 weeks. There's also a room devoted to the works he sold for £111m at Sotheby's in September 2008, the day before Lehman Brothers disintegrated. But Gallagher is keen to draw attention to lesser-known exhibits. She is particularly excited by the reconstitution of 1991's In And Out Of Love, which fills two rooms with hundreds of tropical butterflies, some of which are spawned from canvases on the wall.

There is no room in the exhibition for Hirst's recent, little-appreciated skull paintings, but there will be at least one new piece. Gallagher, however, remains tight-lipped as to what form it might take. "You have to leave something as a surprise." There has already been controversy earlier this month with reports – subsequently denied – that David Hockney had criticised Hirst for his over-reliance of assistants. For the Tate, he has been a model collaborator: "Damien's very involved, he's very busy, but he has a good team," says Gallagher. Sands has found him "hands-on, but with an incredibly light touch".

Any rivalry between Hockney and Hirst is likely to be settled after the summer by visitor figures. Sands is quietly confident. "If you come to London as a tourist, you're likely to go to Buckingham Palace, Tate Modern, the British Museum and Camden market," he says, "not necessarily in that order." Gallagher has a much simpler ambition: "I'd like people to come and actually look at Damien Hirst's work," she says. "Whatever they may have heard about him previously, just look at the work."

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern, London SE1, 4 April-9 September © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 30 2011

December 29 2011

The arts in 2012: visual arts

Adrian Searle picks his highlights of the year ahead

Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011; Tate Modern retrospective

Fancy a world trip? All Gagosian's 11 galleries, from London to Hong Kong, will be filled with Hirst Spot paintings in January. This dotty explosion is a mere aperitif to Tate Modern's retrospective in April. How much of what he's done over the last quarter decade really makes the grade – and how much is hype? The Complete Spot Paintings, Gagosian, London, 12 January to 18 February. Details: Damien Hirst, Tate Modern, London SE1, 5 April to 9 September. Details:

David Shrigley: Brain Activity

Shrigley's cartoons, photographs and animations are painful, violent, nihilistic, appalling and very often hilarious. Frequently emulated but never bettered, his humour is as dark as it gets. Hayward Gallery, London SE1, 1 February to 13 May. Details:

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture

Returning to Yorkshire, Hockney has swapped the sprinkled lawns and sunny pools of southern California for muddy fields, stands of beeches, and plain-air painting on brisk northern days. He is a great draughtsman and his art can be very atmospheric, sexy and sophisticated. I am more curious than hopeful about his later work. Royal Academy of Arts, London W1, 21 January to 9 April. Details:

Gillian Wearing

Wearing's photographs and films dig under the skin of everyday life. She is much more interesting than the confessional humiliations of reality TV, conflating a mania for self-exposure with a lightness and human touch, deft humour and a sense of life's pathos. Whitechapel Art Gallery, London E1, 28 March to 17 June. Details: 020-7522 7888.

Tino Sehgal

Dancing gallery attendants, art-history kisses, conversations with precocious children: Sehgal's art is one of live confrontation and surprise. The Turbine Hall commission goes to an artist whose work is as social as it is theatrical. Tate Modern, London SE1, 17 July – 28 October.

Yoko Ono

How substantial an artist Ono is remains a question, though her impact on contemporary art has been described as "enormous". Her delightful small gestures, vulnerability and benign silliness can get overlooked. She'll be uploading smiles from around the world for a new work here. Serpentine Gallery, London W2, 19 June to 9 September. Details:

Lucian Freud

More than 100 portraits by the painter, who died in 2011. The subject of many exhibitions, Freud continues to surprise and bewilder, however familiar many of his paintings may be. The longer you look, the weirder and more impressive he gets. National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, 9 February to 27 May. Details:

Documenta 13

This five-yearly keynote show of contemporary art worldwide, held in the German town of Kassel, is like sticking a wet finger in the air to check the wind. Polemical, political, always controversial, Documenta depends on the strengths – and weaknesses – of its invited curators. This time the team is led by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Kassel, Germany, 9 June to 16 September. Details:

Glasgow international festival

A corrective to Cultural Olympiad madness, this always impressive festival features Richard Wright at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, "performed installations" at Tramway, and Transmission's show of works by anonymous artists. More than 130 artists will show in 50 venues around the only British city outside London with a distinctive scene of its own. Various venues, 20 April to 7 May. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 11 2011

Lucian Freud remembered by Sally Clarke

For 15 years, the great artist took breakfast and lunch at Sally Clarke's cafe-restaurant. Here, she recalls the man she fed… and eventually sat for

Mr Freud started coming to the little cafe at the back of my shop about 15 years ago. I didn't know it then, but he worked close by in a studio in Holland Park, so we were quite convenient for him. Soon after this, he bought a house a few doors along the street from us and from then on became more and more of a regular. He would come for breakfast and lunch often, bringing with him whoever he was working with at the time – Leigh Bowery, Kate Moss, David Hockney.

There came a time, however, when I realised that there was a risk that he might be bothered in the cafe, so I decided to offer him a table in the restaurant, which was empty at that time of day, and at the same time I could make sure that he was somewhat "wrapped in cotton wool". I should say that he never asked for this special treatment.

If David Dawson, his studio assistant and model, was with him, breakfast tended to be centred around a pile of newspapers – but he would be perfectly happy by himself. What he ate for breakfast with us changed over the years, but it was Earl Grey tea in the beginning with milk and a huge pain aux raisins – the size of a saucer – which he devoured easily. As the years went on, he graduated to coffee, a sort of latte which we called a Mr Freud latte, being even milkier than normal.

Often, he would invite me to join him and David – I loved watching him enjoy the little Portuguese custard tarts that we make. He had a very sweet tooth. Sometimes, he would consume a whole bar of our homemade nougat – at breakfast time! Occasionally, I'd make him scrambled eggs with toast; at weekends, he would come in for brunch.

For lunch, he would always choose fish – whichever fish was on the menu. He was very interested in food and I think he was a good cook himself. He loved game and I remember one day Brigadier Parker Bowles brought him some partridge from the weekend shoot and he threw them straight into the oven and ate them the following day.

The first time we spoke properly was soon after he had moved house. He came to the restaurant one afternoon and asked to see me. He told me that he was having problems with his neighbours and wanted some planning permission advice. I'm not sure why he asked me, but what struck me more than anything, aside from just how charming, polite and lovely he was, was his German accent. It was dramatic – very guttural and individual.

I sat for him for three works. For the first painting, David Dawson asked to see me alone at my restaurant one morning. "Lucian is wondering if you would like to sit for him." This came as an enormous shock, but a few months later I was sitting in one of the most famous chairs in the world, looking through tall, wide French windows, into and over buddleia, bamboo hedges, a fig tree and bay trees. I had somehow imagined the house to be filled with music, but other than an abundance of sweet-smelling flowers, the house was filled with silence, concentration, thinking and looking – intent looking.

Within a short time, I learned the signals he gave; his hand moved to the top of his head equalled "move the top of your head over a fraction". His hand sweeping in front like an elegant tennis forehand meant "adjust the angle of your head very slightly". It was about detail, detail, detail. For such fine work, of face, hair or eyelid, the brush size seemed huge and yet the strokes on the canvas were light, delicate and few.

I had planned to spend my "sitting" time writing future menus in my head, checking my diary or making "to do" lists during the rest periods, but I soon realised that I was wishing to work as hard, and as intensely, as he was. This was a partnership: one giving and the other taking, but that taking was also giving – giving his all, and in return for the sitter's giving, a most special, unique and privileged experience was received.

The painting was finished three years ago, and very soon after this I sat for what was to be an etching, but he decided to keep drawing and drawing on the plate instead, so it was never etched. Then he started on another head and shoulder painting on canvas, which was about half finished, I think, when we stopped working, only a few weeks before his death.

Of course I miss him. I got very used to seeing him every day. Arriving in the morning, I would often walk past the restaurant and see him through the window, already sitting having breakfast and he would wave with his arms high above his head. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 07 2011

When Freud met Bacon – in pictures

A new exhibition, The Mystery of Appearance: Conversations Between Ten British Postwar Painters, looks at the personal relationships between artists from Freud to Bacon to Hockney

September 29 2011

Shooting stars: Scenes from the Art World – in pictures

Arts society photographer Dafydd Jones has spent 30 years photographing key art events. Here is our pick of the major moments

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