A Portrait of Lucian Freud: Interview with Phoebe Hoban


A new biography of English painter Lucian Freud, who was notoriously uncooperative with would-be biographers during his lifetime, appears this month. Written by New York-based writer Phoebe Hoban, Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open uncovers many little-known aspects of the artist’s turbulent life and rollercoaster career.

At the time of his death, Freud (1922-2011) was widely regarded as one of Britain’s most important painters. Particularly acclaimed for his extraordinary portraits, he lived to see his works sell for millions. (In 2008, the portrait Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995, sold for $33 million at Christie’s.) Last year, a portrait triptych of Freud by his one-time School of London crony, Francis Bacon, set the record for the highest price paid for any work at auction—$142 million.

The grandson of Sigmund Freud, with a charismatic personality of his own, he navigated the upper echelons of British society with relative ease. Subjects willing or eager to sit for him ranged from the Queen of England to avant-garde performance artist Leigh Bowery. For many years, Freud had a bohemian lifestyle and was often impoverished; his work was not always in fashion or well-received.

The author of previous biographies of artists Jean-Michel Basquiat (Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, 1998) and Alice Neel (Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, 2010), Hoban offers an insightful and juicy tale of Freud’s life and times, published today by Amazon’s new Icons series.

Hoban recently spoke with A.i.A. at New York’s National Arts Club about the new book.       

DAVID EBONY What drew you to Lucian Freud as a subject? How did the project evolve? 

PHOEBE HOBAN I was always interested in the intense, in-your-face quality of Freud’s work. That he is a somewhat controversial figure and Sigmund Freud’s grandson also attracted me. Plus, no full biography existed. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do a definitive biography of Freud, as I had with Basquiat and Alice Neel. Being American, and not part of the close circle around Freud in England, I knew I would probably be shut out. But I was in London doing research during his major 2012 retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, and was able to meet and interview a number of people who knew him, including, importantly, several of his children, and I felt I would be able to offer a fresh perspective.

EBONY In the book you discuss Freud’s social climbing and how that contradicted his own lifestyle, which was hardly upper class. He seems to have exploited his family name to gain access to certain social circles.

HOBAN Actually, Freud came to London from Berlin with an extraordinary pedigree. His family fled the Nazis in 1933, and by that time his father was already a well-known architect. His grandfather was, of course, famous, and his mother’s side of the family was quite wealthy. I wouldn’t say that he ever, as you phrased it, “exploited” his family name. While in his 20s, he did go around London wearing his grandfather’s coat, but as he grew older, he tried to distance himself from his grandfather and his psychoanalytic work, and wanted to get out from under his shadow.

He was intrigued by the British blue-bloods and their posh lifestyle. And he had enough personal charisma to make his way through society. The British were notoriously anti-Semitic at that time, so he had to deal with a lot of prejudice right from the start. 

EBONY Freud’s personal and professional relationship with Francis Bacon is fascinating. In the book, you suggest that it might also have been sexual.    

HOBAN Bacon was 13 years older than Freud. They were introduced by the painter Graham Sutherland in 1944 and became almost inseparable right away. Freud would stop by Bacon’s studio every day. Freud’s wife at the time, Caroline Blackwood, also become close to Bacon. Freud admired Bacon’s risk-taking and they had a lot in common. Both liked to live on the edge. They were compulsive gamblers, and sexually compulsive, too. Were they lovers? Some observers say that they were, others say no. Freud was certainly “polymorphously perverse,” to use his grandfather’s term. There’s no clear indication that they were lovers, though. Nearly all of Freud’s close friends and mentors were gay, including John Craxton, his roommate early on, who may have had a crush on him, although Freud apparently rebuffed his advances.

EBONY You make some insightful comments about Freud’s work throughout the book, and about how his shifts in style caused him to lose certain important supporters, like art historian Kenneth Clark, but gained him others. His work was always controversial, and he seemed to invite that. 

HOBAN Bacon certainly was a major influence on the way Freud moved from the flat and illustrative style of the early work to a more painterly attack of the canvas. I wouldn’t say he sought out controversy, but I think he never really cared about what people thought of him or his work. He just did what he wanted to do.

EBONY What do you think Freud’s legacy is, or will be?

HOBAN As an artist, he belongs in the canon not only for prolonging the tradition of portrait painting, but for adding something significant to it. Chuck Close, Alice Neel and a few others also pursued portraiture, but most critics dismissed the genre as passé. Freud pushed the portrait into another realm. He gave it a new dimension and direction. He didn’t want the painting to be like the person, he wanted the painting to be the person.