Lucian Freud's perverse depictions of magnificent muck
His painting's realism is governed by artifice - and his public persona was just as much a theatrical construction
Raddled and old, a self-possessed, semi-naked fool in ridiculous shoes, Lucian Freud painted himself old and mad, looming in that awful room in west London where he spent day after day, decade after decade, scrutinising the horrible walls, the thin light as it fell on his subjects, those piles of soiled rags that he used to wipe off his canvases and clean his brushes.
He was in touch with his mortality. The paint he used was a magnificent muck, and with it he rendered ageing flesh, an Irishman's neck, a dog's fur, a baby's puddingy stare. He paid as much attention to the floorboards or the tangle of buddleia in the yard below as he would to a woman's belly, Leigh Bowery's feminine bulk, Bruce Bernard's stoic drunkard's poise, Lord Goodman's vanity, Sue the Benefits Supervisor's affected boredom.
He was interested in presence, and not only human presence: a lightbulb's glare, a dog's leg, a horse's arse, a frayed bit of carpet. The language with which he described people and things, animals and lovers, atmosphere and futility, was a frightening construction. I believe he shared more with his psychoanalyst grandfather than he liked to admit.
At the heart of his work is the confrontation between himself and others, himself andpainting. His painting's realism is all artifice. They are perverse in their complications, their studied theatricality. His art was in its way as mannered as Francis Bacon's (with whom he had a terrible and irrevocable falling-out), and his public persona was just as much a construction.
Freud liked to appear dangerous and unknowable, to men at least. He could seduce and threaten. Next to him David Hockney or Howard Hodgkin are artistic pygmies. Freud worked at being great. His art has authority, even though he seemed forever stuck in a postwar London of peeling stucco and disappointed lives. He would stare at people in restaurants, turn up at a young woman's flat with a live eel in his bag, spread rumours about himself and call his lawyers at an unintentioned slight. I wish I'd known him better.