Sebastian Smee on Artist Friendships

It is rare when a speaker absolutely grabs you the moment he or she opens their mouth, but Sebastian Smee did exactly that.  As an expert storyteller, and a smart and lyrical writer, the audience was smitten.  This past Saturday April 12, the Pulitzer Prize winning, Boston Globe art critic, Sebastian Smee, presented a portion of his working manuscript for his book on artistic friendships. While the forthcoming book will focus on four sets of artistic friendships including: Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning, Smee presented only a portion of his research on the lesser-known and extremely complex friendship between Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. The story he wove was fascinating and filled with unexpected twists. Smee’s ability to convey the details and nuances of a personal and complex relationship allowed his listeners to deeply connect to the characters and maybe even make connections to their own lives and histories. Although he apologized for reading parts of his manuscript, the audience was unfazed and hung on his every word.

Freud's Wanted PosterSmee began his story by focusing on a troubling event. In 1988, Freud’s portrait of Francis Bacon was stolen from a Lucien Freud retrospective at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The stolen portrait, a study of Bacon’s face, was a small painting, seven inches by five inches, and bursting with latent tension. The art critic, Robert Hughes, compared the intensity of the likeness to that of a grenade a fraction of a second before it explodes. As Freud was preparing for his 2002 retrospective at the Tate Modern in London, he made an uncharacteristic plea in the press for the return of the painting, politely asking, “would the person who holds the painting kindly consider allowing me to show it in my exhibition next June?”  Freud even created a wanted poster featuring plain lettering, a black and white image of the stolen work and a generous reward. The publicity team tasked with trying to recover the painting, plastered 2,500 of these posters throughout Germany, and it was reproduced in international newspapers and websites. Freud’s painting of Bacon was never returned and the Tate retrospective took place without it.

The painting was important to Freud not only because it bridged the divide between his early work and his later, more mature style, but also because it was Freud’s connection to—as Smee asserts—the most important relationship of his life.  From Smee’s description, Bacon was the charismatic and spontaneous life of the party whose penchant for gambling often led him to the roulette tables of Monte Carlo. Bacon’s ability to charm and gather people around him mesmerized Freud.  His artwork was revolutionary and captured his electrifying emotion and grenade-like tenacity that was not only his painting style, but also his lifestyle.

Bacon portrait of Freud
Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud (detail), 1969, oil on canvas, © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved.

Freud himself professed that it was Bacon’s attitude that he admired most and commented that the way in which Bacon worked as an artist related to how he felt about life.  Bacon believed that “only by going too far can you go far enough,” which is how many describe his artwork.  According to Freud’s friend and early lover, Ann Dunn, Freud harbored a hero, worshipping crush on Bacon.  Smee made it clear that Freud was very different than his boisterous friend, quoting the critic Laurence Gowing who said that Freud’s effect on others was not social or intellectual, but rather visceral; a “coiled vigilance, a sharpness which one could imagine venom.”

Smee reminded the audience that both men carried the names of their famous relatives; Lucien Freud was the grandson of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and Francis Bacon was a descendant of Sir Francis Bacon, the English Renaissance philosopher and chancellor.  Freud had arrived in London in 1933; he and his family had narrowly escaped Nazi Germany, due, in large part to his family name and high-level intercessions at the government level. Bacon had arrived in London in 1926 at the age of sixteen when his father, a belligerent, retired army captain, had thrown him out of the house when he caught his son wearing women’s clothes.

Smee expertly details the story of their intense friendship and honors his readers and listeners by not shying away from the complexity of it.  He notes that the relationship between Freud and Bacon was asymmetrical; Bacon was eleven years older and more established as an artist.  Since Bacon’s paintings were selling well, he would often give Freud money without hesitation.  They spent decades fostering a very intense friendship. There were periods of many years where they would see each other every day, spending hours in each other’s studios and homes. They both embarked on amorous relationships that sparked self-destructive behavior in each.  Freud left his wife for Caroline Blackwood, an heiress.  Bacon found himself in a sado-masochistic relationship with the ex RTA fighter pilot and accomplished piano player, Peter Lacey. When Freud’s marriage to Blackwood dissolved five years later, Freud spiraled into despair.  Bacon would ask mutual friends to keep an eye on Freud and make sure he didn’t hang himself.

Sebastian SmeeIt was clear that Smee had done his research. Throughout the lecture Smee quoted his interview with Freud, bringing the story to life by noting how the artist recalled his friendship with tenderness and sadness. According to Smee, Freud marks the beginning of the deterioration of the friendship to the moment when Bacon was hospitalized after Lacey threw him out of a window.  When Freud saw Lacey with Bacon in the hospital, he reacted angrily and Bacon was upset with Freud for interfering with his love life.  For many years they continued to see each other within their circle of friends, but they were never able to regain the closeness they once had.

Smee notes that life and relationships are messy and complex, and they are very rarely as reductive as they are often portrayed.  As is the case with Sol LeWitt and Eva Hesse, Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon’s friendship was surrounded by a circle of friends and co-conspirators.  As Lucy Lippard points out, “Influence among artists is never as specific as art historical shorthand makes it out to be.” What we gain from multiple perspectives and accounts of history allows for a fuller, more nuanced depiction of a period of time and relationships between people.

I, like many in the crowd last Saturday, am anticipating the publication of Smee’s book so that I might learn more about the inner lives of other artists I have long admired.

Amethyst Beaver is a curatorial assistant at the Blanton Museum of Art.

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