The man who put the ‘sod’ in ‘episodic’

In an article reviewing recent books about Lucien Freud, the novelist Julian Barnes draws a distinction between two types of people: the ‘episodicists’ and the ‘narrativists’. The former are unable or unwilling to accept connections between events, still less their own responsibility for them. The latter recognise and act upon such linkages, accommodating limits to their personal desires. With respect to their work, argues Barnes, artists fall inevitably into the second camp as each brushstroke, note composed or written word affects and is affected by those around it. Their private lives may be different. Freud, with his insistence on being ruled by impulse unconstrained by obligations to others, notably his countless children, was the episodicist par excellence; a controller, in another of Barnes’ binaries, who used sex as a means of enforcing submission in women. That is if we believe his unlikely confidant, the bookie Victor Chandler. ‘Talk to Victor’ says the latter’s current series of advertisements and Freud, it seems, often did.

What is at stake here is the old question of whether an artist’s personal life has anything to do with his or her art. Barnes’ hero, Flaubert is quoted approvingly in the negative: ‘I have no biography’. And he is right to point out that the subjects of past portraits and the character, even identity of their painters have been lost sight of without preventing us from judging the pictures on their own merits. Additionally there is the well-known tendency of works of art to take on a life of their own. Once exposed to public and critical reaction the artist’s intention when producing them is easily overtaken by the effect they have on others, who may be in a better position to glimpse the personal and social forces flowing through the work but may equally twist it to their own ends or misunderstand it entirely. Either way, the artist’s take on what they have produced becomes one of many voices competing for attention and in those circumstances his or her biography might be thought of as less important.

Thus if we were to come across Freud’s paintings without knowing who he was what would be left is the impression made on our senses by the splayed nudes, blotchy skin and general air of hateful but forensic curiosity. It is a palette and a world view that demands attention for its brilliance, singularity and lack of compromise. You cannot gaze on the results without experiencing a degree of stress to your own fragile sense of hopefulness and well-being.

But the question can be turned round. In the unlikely event hypothesised above, the onlooker’s curiosity would be aroused with regard to the person, evidently male, who produced such images – the misanthrope who sees ugliness everywhere except in horses, the seer with such insight into the human condition. The artist’s processing of reality is not sufficient in isolation. The relationship between creator and creation absorbs us at least as much. That, presumably is why museums and galleries cannot help speculating about the medieval man whose sallow flesh and piercing eyes transfix us anonymously, or the artist behind the striking but unattributed crucifixion; and why, in the literary sphere, we continue to scratch the itch that is Shakespeare’s personality.

At its most shallow this focus on the person responsible for what we are looking at, reading or listening to approaches celebrity culture or the values of the auction room, where a signature is what determines when the gavel falls. More genuinely it is concerned with the act of transubstantiation whereby a person’s nature and experience generates something external to themselves, be it image, song or piece of prose. And that concern is extended to the people who nurtured, influenced or even hampered the talent in question. Creativity is so important to our conception of ourselves as individuals and collectively that it matters whether it is won at the cost of ruthlessness towards others.
Freud was at least true to his episodicist nature, refusing to indulge the cult of fame or notoriety that was eager to attach itself to his name. The paintings were events, isolated and moved on from. He took no responsibility for what people made of them. Now that he is gone however our fascination with him is all that remains: there will be no more canvasses. If, as a result he seems overly pathological to some it cannot be unrelated to the story of himself and his times, any more than the revelatory candour praised by others can be innocent of his remorseless attitude towards those he fucked, fathered and drew. In any case, how can we not want to know what makes someone dwell upon the deceit of human flesh when another story can be told, of its brief perfection – if only in the hope of proving him wrong?

Of course Barnes’ two categories are at opposite ends of a spectrum which, as with most ranges of behaviour we move along for our own comfort and convenience. So it must be when responding to art. That means not divorcing the work from the life as a matter of principle or judging one by the other in a moralising way, but holding them in suspension alongside each other. It is a form of critical multi-tasking that chooses whether to ignore the artist’s character, erect memorials to their victims while still saluting their victory – or rule that the paint, music or words are more tainted than even genius can allow. As details of his career continue to emerge the second category is the best Lucien Freud can hope for – not that he would have cared.