Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open

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Phoebe Hoban, author of definitive biographies of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Alice Neel, now turns her attention to Lucian Freud, the grandson of Sigmund and one of the greatest painters England has produced. Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open is the first biography to assess Freud's work and life, showing how the two converge.
In Hoban's dramatic and fast-paced narrative, we follow Freud from his birthplace in Berlin to London, where he fled ...

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Phoebe Hoban, author of definitive biographies of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Alice Neel, now turns her attention to Lucian Freud, the grandson of Sigmund and one of the greatest painters England has produced. Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open is the first biography to assess Freud's work and life, showing how the two converge.
In Hoban's dramatic and fast-paced narrative, we follow Freud from his birthplace in Berlin to London, where he fled with his family in the 1930s, and then to Paris, where he mixed with Picasso and Giacometti. He led a dissolute life in Soho after the war, gambling and womanizing with fierce energy. He painted his wives nude, his children nude, himself nude. He married twice, had an uncountable number of children, and kept working through it all, painting everyone from close friend and rival Francis Bacon to Kate Moss and Queen Elizabeth. He sometimes spent years on a single painting, which could require hundreds of hours of sittings. However various his subjects, his intent was always the same: to find and reveal the character hidden within by means of his intense visual imagination.
Along with its startling biographical revelations, the great thrill of Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open is the way Hoban deconstructs the art itself—its influences, models, and technique—to show how Freud reproduced reality on the canvas while breaking down the illusion that what we see is real.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Barry Schwabsky
This brief biography by Phoebe Hoban…negotiates with equanimity a life that seems a disorderly maelstrom of sex, fighting, art, gambling, all obsessively pursued and so mixed up it's sometimes hard to tell one from the other. The subtitle Eyes Wide Open undoubtedly means to evoke the pitiless intensity of the artist's gaze, though Freud also recommended "dashing across the road with your eyes shut to test your luck." Hoban admits that his exploits can sound like pulp fiction, and she wisely refrains from stoking the melodrama.
Publishers Weekly
Biographer Hoban (Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art) returns with a lively, concise biography (part of Amazon’s Icon series) of realist painter Lucian Freud (1922–2011), in which he emerges as a vigorous philanderer, gambler, brawler, and social climber. According to Hoban, Freud was also a voracious, incisive observer who “never closed his eyes.” Born in Berlin, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, Lucian and his family fled Germany following Hitler’s rise to power. In England, young Freud “displayed a much greater affinity with animals than with people.” Eventually he would give his meticulously rendered portraits “an aura of taxidermy.” Hoban suggests that Freud had Asperger’s, as multiple family members believe, and speculates that his realism was “perhaps not so much an aesthetic choice as an instinctive strategy, a coping mechanism to transmute an inherited behavioral tic into highly original art.” But as an artist indebted to Ingres and Courbet, and one who changed his technique after meeting Francis Bacon, this level of determinism might be an overstatement. One of the book’s highlights is the section devoted to Freud’s relationship to his children (he fathered at least 14), informed by revealing interviews. Why Freud’s friendship with Bacon ended, and whether the two were romantically involved (as suggested by Freud’s daughter, Annie) remains vague. While not the last word on Freud, Hoban’s biography is a memorable offering. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
A breezy biography of the celebrated British painter. Since Lucian Freud's (1922–2011) place in the contemporary pantheon has long seemed secure, it's surprising that this is the first biography of him—at least until readers get to the acknowledgments, which refer to Freud as "a notoriously difficult subject to write about" with "an extreme penchant for privacy" that "discouraged all biographers in his lifetime." Since his death, his "immediate circle has remained for the most part closemouthed." The result is this work that feels more like a primer than the definitive last word on his subject. As traced by Hoban (Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, 2010, etc.), his life is plainly as fascinating as his art and deeply interwoven within it. As the grandson of Sigmund Freud, and the father of at least 14 children, the "hyperactively heterosexual" artist was "fundamentally incapable of romantic fidelity," and his scandals included sleeping with many of his models and painting his children in the nude (which seemed to be his major relationship with many of them). Yet his most important relationship was with fellow artist and inspiration Francis Bacon, whose "influence would ultimately push Freud's painting in a pivotal new dimension, from flat and linear to fully fleshed out." Yet as central as Bacon was to Freud's life and art, Hoban never determines whether they had a sexual relationship (as many who know both assumed) or why the two men who shared such a "strong affinity" would ultimately have such a bitter falling out. Throughout, the author mixes whatever revelations she can glean from his personal life with paragraph descriptions of dozens of his paintings. He once remarked that he expected great art to "astonish, disturb, seduce and convince," and he fulfilled all with art that often seemed more intimate to him than a sexual relationship yet that for viewers, could have "an aura of taxidermy." A first step toward a biographical understanding of a provocative, complex artist.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780544114593
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 4/15/2014
  • Series: Icons Series
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 202,780
  • Product dimensions: 8.30 (w) x 5.80 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Phoebe Hoban is the author of the best-selling books Basquiat and Alice Neel.

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Read an Excerpt


The Art of Looking

Imagine a young man walking across a high, slender, wooden beam, eyes tightly closed. It’s a striking image, but one Lucian Freud would never paint. As his cousin, Carola Zentner, recalled from a long-past summer in the Freuds’ country house, “There was an oak beam which went from one side of the barn to the other, twenty feet in length at least, and about nine inches wide. And I have a distinct memory of Lucian, about 15, walking in a rather languid way up the stairs, and then closing his eyes and walking across the beam. It was impressive.”
   Although such bravura abandon would characterize much of his later life, as an artist Lucian Freud never closed his eyes. His omnivorous scrutiny bordered on obsessive; his forensic curiosity was satisfied only through countless sittings, as if by minutely examining and recording the world in his studio, he could command it. His gaze has been called “cruel.” More accurately, it was insatiable.
   Where did Lucian learn to look at things the way he did? It would be easy to attribute his particular form of acute observation to genetics: his grandfather, after all, was Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. It is almost impossible to write about Lucian Freud without drawing a parallel between Sigmund’s repeated sessions with his patients and Lucian’s repeated sessions with his subjects. Both took place in a private room, with a recumbent figure being intently examined, although Sigmund’s focus was the unseen, and Lucian’s the seen.
   Indeed, Sigmund Freud’s study, which Lucian visited as a child at his grandfather’s house at Berggasse 19, in Vienna, and which was later recreated, objet d’art by objet d’art in 1938, in a townhouse in London at 20 Maresfield Gardens (now the Freud Museum), not only provided an influential working template; it was replete with key imagery that would resurface in Lucian Freud’s paintings: ceramic and bronze heads; horses (a deep and life-long love—one of his earliest works is a sandstone sculpture of a three-legged horse); and a rich array of Egyptian antiquities, including mummy portraits, whose flat aspect he later emulated. One of Lucian’s favorite books was J. H. Breasted’s Geschichte Aegyptens, which was given to him when he was sixteen. Freud even depicted it in several pieces: Still life with Book, 1993, The Egyptian book, 1994.
   The architect Richard Neutra, a friend of Lucian’s father, Ernst, recalled Sigmund Freud’s study in detail: “Pompeian frescoes . . . mummy fragments . . . many Egyptian bronzes . . . ceramics . . . antique vases, paintings . . . sculptures . . . Greek gold ornaments and these books . . . the erotic work. Terrific.”
   In a short film clip in the Freud Museum’s archives, Lucian, age 16, can be seen, as he stands side by side with his grandfather (who died the next year) near a goldfish pond at 39 Elsworth Place, where Sigmund stayed until the house at Maresfield Gardens was ready. Lucian was extremely fond of Sigmund—and later flamboyantly wore his grandfather’s fur-trimmed greatcoat around London. He refused to go to the funeral, causing a family scene. “Doing so would have been absolutely meaningless to me,” he told writer John Gruen in the 1970s.
   Even at that early age, Lucian was considered a wunderkind. “I met him first in the winter of 1938–39 and [he was] already spoken of as a boy wonder,” wrote one of his first chroniclers, Lawrence Gowing. “He was in a studio flat in Charlotte Street, round the corner from the house where Rimbaud and Verlaine took rooms, in company with a self-appointed Svengali who showed him off, whispering behind his hand, ‘Marvellous.’ ”
   And something else, less tangible. He was also, notes Gowing, “fly [sic], perceptive, lithe, and with a hint of menace,” characteristics which would remain lifelong traits. This slightly sinister quality was also observed by Stephen Spender, one of the first to reproduce Freud’s work, who thought of him as “totally alive, like something not entirely human, a leprechaun, a changeling child, or if there is a male opposite, a witch.”
   It was not only Lucian’s “extraordinary looks,” remarked on by the artist’s friend Bruce Bernard in his authoritative monograph on Freud, that made a striking impression, but what Gowing describes as “the pointed intensity apparent even in Freud’s juvenile vision.” That pointed intensity would be Freud’s lietmotif.
   Lucian Michael Freud was born in Berlin on December 8, 1922. (His middle name refers to an archangel, as do those of his two brothers, Stephen Gabriel and Clement Raphael.) His father was Sigmund’s youngest son and fourth child, Ernst, thought of by the family as a Gluckskind, or lucky child. Although Ernst had originally wanted to be an artist (at least so Sigmund told his famous patient, the “Wolf Man,” in a discussion of his son’s career), he decided on the more pragmatic profession of architecture. But he remained steeped in the arts. According to Gowing, who saw a series of his 1913 Alpine landscapes, Ernst was an accomplished watercolorist. And, like many German youths, he was an ardent fan of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, so much so that Sigmund wrote his dear friend Lou Andreas-Salome (famously Rilke’s lover and mentor) in the hope that his son might meet Rilke, who then not only returned the compliment, but wrote a dedication to Ernst in a book by his friend Regina Ulmann called Field Service. Ernst eventually did meet the poet in Vienna, in February of 1916, when the young soldier was at home on leave from the army.
   Lucian’s mother, after whom he was named, was Lucie Brasch, the daughter of a prosperous Berlin corn merchant, Joseph Brasch, and his wife Elise. Lucie studied classical philology in Munich, as well as art history with the famous Swiss art historian, Heinrich Wolfflin, for a year in Munich, after first reading German studies in Berlin. Zentner, the daughter of Lucie’s older sister, Gerda, describes Lucie as “tremendously vibrant and vivacious, an intellectual. She had done classics at university, which was fairly unusual when she was a young girl. She was very funny and very beautiful, with jet black hair.” As for her background, “Lucie’s father was the president of the Corn Exchange in those days. It was a Buddenbrooks sort of family.” (As Clement Freud put it in his memoir, Freud Ego, “My father’s family was distinguished, my mother’s was rich.”)
   Ernst first attended the Technical University (Technische Hochschule) in Vienna from 1912 to 1913, studying mathematics, engineering, and sketching after nature and the body, among other courses. In 1913, he left Vienna for Munich, where he studied architecture with Theodor Fischer at the Technical University (Technishe Hochschule) in Munich, and, according to Gowing, also took an art course. He volunteered to fight for the Austrian-Hungarian army in 1914. Although at first he was rejected for health reasons, he was eventually assigned to a gun unit at Doberdoplateau, which came under heavy attack, leaving him the only survivor. He was awarded a gold medal (he eventually earned three) and an architectural commission to commemorate five fallen fellow soldiers
   Freud had had not dropped out of university to join the army, and when the war was over, he returned to his studies in late 1918. He also met Lucie Brasch, who was at the time studying in Munich. Ernst passed his final exams in 1919, and his first job out of school was as an intern with the architect Fritz Landauer. But later that year he moved to Berlin to join Lucie, who had returned to her family’s home after finishing her s
   The year 1920 did not begin well for Ernst. His sister, Sophie, died on January 25 from influenza, and Ernst consulted on the design of her gravestone. Around that time, he himself developed a lung ailment, and was prescribed a stay at a sanitarium in Arosa, Switzerland. He was well enough to marry Lucie in Berlin on May 18, 1920. However, he was forced to return to the sanitarium for three months from February through April, 1921. His son’s health was of some concern to Sigmund, who wrote to a friend that the sanitarium sojourn was “so short after one has married into a rich family . . . I only hope that the Braschs are too refined to suspect anything behind this.” But by then, Lucie was pregnant with her first son, Stephen Gabriel Freud, born that July.
   At the time, the couple was living in what was recalled as a “charming home” located on Regentstrasse, in the well-to-do Tiergarten quarter. When Lucian was two years old, a third son, Clement, was born, necessitating a move to a larger apartment, on the same street, Number 23 Regentstrasse. (Clement Freud refers to the neighborhood as the “best part of Berlin.”) The family lived there until Lucian was eight years old. Its interior and furnishings, designed by Ernst, merited a 1928 article and photograph in Die Pyramide magazine.

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Table of Contents

1. The Art of Looking  1
2. Learning to Be Lucian  13
3. Women and Muses  24
4. London Days  32
5. Beautiful People  45
6. Letting Go  57
7. Carnal Knowledge  70
8. Channeling Courbet  83
9. Intimations of Mortality  89
10. Bypassing Decorum  95
11. New Views  106
12. The Way of All Flesh  112
13. Painting against Time  128
14. Not Going Gently  135
15. Leaving the Studio  144

Acknowledgements  153
Bibliography  155

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted April 4, 2014

    Was only generally aware of Lucian Freud the portrait painter fr

    Was only generally aware of Lucian Freud the portrait painter from having read work by Caroline Blackwood and about her life.  Also have read author Phoebe's work on Alice Neel, and I enjoyed this little book even more than I could have anticipated.  Book is very well written, although far from being thorough or definitive, and the narrative =moves along at a nice clip.  
    The story really ignites when Lucian Freud, native to Berlin, moves to London with his family to escape the Nazis.  After he became a painter and becomes part of the social underground scene in London, Lucian becomes friends with the master of the brushstroke - Francis Bacon.  Perhaps the finest painter to ever come out of Britain, Bacon's fearless and somewhat frenzied approach on canvas had a strong influence on our subject's painting style. 
    Overall, Lucian Freud became famous for paintings nudes using a subdued palette.  The focus of his work was the people around him:  his lovers, friends and even daughters.  Here, the daughters explain that sitting for these portraits was an opportunity to bond with a father who was often remote or just not there most of the time.  Others have questioned and will continue to question the ethics of a father putting his pubscent daughters into such a sexually charged situation. 
    If anything, this book whets the appetite for a thorough and scholarly biography of Lucian Freud.  He has passed on only relatively recently (2011), so it just might be a little too soon for that.

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