In their brief introduction to this handsome and enthralling volume, the editors, David Dawson, for many years Freud’s personal assistant, and Martin Gayford, a friend of the artist, begin by insisting that what they have produced is neither a memoir nor a biography, but a collection of letters. This is disingenuous, and does both men an injustice. Love Lucian is unique, a sort of biographical tapestry woven around a set of missives reproduced in facsimile that are at once skimpy, slapdash, funny and, in many cases, idiosyncratically but beautifully illustrated – works of pictorial art.
Freud was not a letter writer in the sense of two cases the editors mention, Van Gogh and Michelangelo. He was not as driven as the former, or as self-absorbed as the latter. He took his work, but not himself, seriously. Which is not to say that he was unaware of his own worth as an artist, or shy about proclaiming it. Dawson and Gayford suggest, and surely they are right, that the flippancy and raucous humour of the letters, like the hectic private and public doings of the man who wrote them, were a release and a relief from the rigours of a life dedicated to the making of art.
At the close of the book – which stops when the artist is 32 – the editors note that Freud’s fame “had two peaks, with a very long trough in between”. He was “a celebrated artist and a celebrity in mid-1954”, when he was chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale, but thereafter his reputation went into a steep decline, and did not recover until the 1970s, when his new, rawer style struck a chord with critics and public alike.
One of the effects of this book is to remind us how radical was the change that took place between the earlier and later periods. As a young man Freud produced works that could have been painted in the Dutch Golden Age. A masterpiece from 1948, Girl with Roses, a large portrait of Freud’s wife Kitty, is remarkably detailed. Kenneth Clark, one of his patrons at the time, requested a closeup photograph of the eyes in the picture, in which, the editors point out, “the reflections of the sash windows of the studio and, astonishingly, even the silhouette of the artist were visible”. Many the paintings of this period are similarly intricate. Consider, for instance, in another portrait of Kitty, Girl With a White Dog, 1950-1, the uncanny trompe l’oeil effects achieved in the depiction of the upholstery of the sofa where the figure is seated. Here too the eyes, of both woman and dog, are exquisitely painted. The somewhat desperate stares of the models in these and many other portraits are probably the result of the immensely long sittings that the painter demanded, and got.
As the editors note, the most striking absence from this batch of correspondence is with his friend and artistic rival, Francis Bacon. The two young men met sometime at the start of the 1950s, and at once a bond – an often uneasy one – was formed between them. It may be at least in part the example and influence of Bacon that led Freud to abandon his early, mesmerically detailed style for the much looser technique of the later period.
This development lost Freud a number of significant supporters, Clark among them. Still, there will surely be some who regret, even deplore, the shift away from the limpid preciseness of the early work to the musclebound tortuosities of the later. In many of his most admired pictures from the 1970s onwards, too often the figures look as if they are made not of flesh but some other malleable material, such as plasticine or gutta percha.
Freud must have been a wonderfully amusing if somewhat dangerous companion
Readers eager for artistic insights or extended ruminations such as those found in, for instance, Van Gogh’s letters, will be disappointed by this volume. If we are to judge by his correspondence, Freud, at least in his younger years, did not give much time to artistic introspection or theoretical musings. The style in which he writes to his friends and lovers is rambunctious, irreverent, sometimes facetious and almost always funny. He must have been a wonderfully amusing, if somewhat dangerous, companion. An obsessive womaniser, he treated his lovers appallingly – or so it seems; the devotion shown by his two wives and countless others itself verges on obsession.
Freud was largely self-taught. The academy that he began attending in 1939 was, the editors write, “in some ways more like an artist’s colony than a conventional educational establishment”, where the students were left mostly to their own devices, learning only from the example of older painters. It was run by a gay couple, Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines, in, as the artist said, “a very odd atmosphere, really odd”. We can certainly believe him, given the nature of the atmosphere that Freud himself generated, as is amply attested to by the letters gathered in this beautifully made volume. More, please.
• Love Lucian: The Letters of Lucian Freud 1939-1954 edited by David Dawson and Martin Gayford is published by Thames & Hudson (£65). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.