Last night I watched a Smithsonian documentary on Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund and perhaps one of the most original, if not most talented, figurative painters of post-war Britain. Gone in his portraits is any effort to idealize the human form. If anything, his obsession with painting the nude had more to do with finding its essential fragility.
Though I was interested in his work, I was more interested in learning about the kind of man he was. From a number of interviews given by his “sitters,” some of whom were his wives and lovers and others of whom were his children (he had 14 known children by different women, but he was rumored to have fathered as many as 40), I learned that he was an unapologetically selfish philanderer who had little interest in sustained intimate relationships–least of all with the mistresses and daughters he seemed to have grieved so thoroughly.
Having rent many a blouse over men like this, I felt a certain contempt for this darker aspect of Freud, but really I was much more taken inside myself when learning about his single-minded devotion to his art and about his devil-may-care attitude over what others thought of him and of his predilections.
I found myself wondering about what my own writing, and painting, would have amounted to had I been capable of the same selfishness and dogged, day-in-day-out focus and what it could be from here forward were I to somehow acquire this capacity.
Last night I received an email from a friend who told me she had just finished reading Jenny Offill’s 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation. “Somehow, it reminds me of you,” she wrote. There is such mystery embedded in these six words that I searched for it at once on Amazon.
Happily, I was able to “Look Inside!↓” and read a few selected pages of the book. Though I couldn’t determine from these pages what in them might have reminded her of me, I did come upon a passage that made me think of something I wrote in 2012 on painter Lucian Freud. More a piece about what one needs innerly to live an artist’s life than it is about Freud himself, though, “An Ode to Selfishness” gave me an opportunity to reflect briefly on qualities that seem to make the difference between those who sustain the life of an artist — in the very broadest sense of the word — and those who do not.
Freud was a prodigious talent; he was also a prodigious philanderer who was rumored to have fathered as many as 40 children. A man who has a predilection for spilling his seed across continents is of interest anthropologically, yes, but what was most fascinating to me about him was, as I wrote, “his single-minded devotion to his art and…his devil-may-care attitude over what others thought of him….”
As I have gotten older, I have become much less preoccupied with what others might think about me, but I don’t imagine I will ever fully abandon my need for another’s good opinion. This craving, I have come to think, stands in the way of what it takes, in my case, to be a writer worth her salt.
In her novel, Offill has her narrator reflect more deeply on this idea and on how it is related to gender. “My plan was to never get married,” she says. “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”