The portraitists

Times Staff Writer

This past summer, David Hockney's morning walk was an almost straight line from his small, sunlit studio near Pembroke Gardens, north through Holland Park. With a few stops to observe, perhaps sketch, the blooming trees along the gravel path, he would arrive 20 minutes later on the other side of the park, near Notting Hill, at the cave-like studio of fellow painter Lucian Freud.

For three months, Hockney sat for his friend, enduring his painstaking scrutiny, as Freud painted a portrait he had wanted to do for a decade.

Once the portrait was done, Freud, in a gesture of reciprocity, agreed to make the reverse journey, and put himself before Hockney's gaze. Arriving in his Bentley, he sat not alone but with his longtime assistant, and, unable to give what he asks of his own sitters, lasted about three hours.

This month and next, the two paintings go on display for the first time -- thousands of miles apart. The portrait of Hockney will be included in "Lucian Freud," a 60-year retrospective that has traveled from London's Tate Britain to Barcelona's Foundacio "la Caixa" and opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles on Feb. 9. Hockney's double portrait of Freud and his assistant goes on show at Annely Juda Fine Art in London on Thursday, the same day five others in his recent series of watercolors go up at the National Portrait Gallery. Other Hockney watercolors will be exhibited later this year at L.A. Louver.

The reciprocal portraits offer a glimpse of how these two artists see each other, and the world. Beyond their mastery, and their subjects' celebrity, they can also be read as essays on the art of portraiture.

Both British -- one an immigrant, the other an expatriate -- Freud and Hockney are as different as the studios they inhabit. In London, only a few miles separate them. But there is more than the park between the two.

THE SITTINGS

The door to Freud's studio is smudged with oil paint. Inside, it smells of turpentine, and paint crusts the otherwise bare walls, accumulated in layers over the last 30 years. (Freud doesn't put the tops back on his paint tubes after use, causing the paint to dry. To get rid of the crud, he swipes it off on the walls.) The room, a converted fifth-floor walk-up with a north-facing skylight, is all but empty -- a bed, a couple of chairs, an easel and paint cart. Used paint rags lie in piles on the naked wooden floor.

Here, Hockney sat on a straight-back chair, smoking, telling stories, as Freud scrutinized him. Between anecdotes, the room was silent, the only sound an occasional brush stroke on canvas.

For more than 100 hours, the two painters looked at each other, one creating a vision of the other.

"The relationship of painter to sitter, practical, professional, necessarily exploitative, involves a conspiratorial intimacy, a familiarity that transfers to the painting as it becomes the third party in the relationship and the main concern: literally the love object," writes William Feaver, curator of the Freud retrospective, in the catalog.

But the love object may not always be affectionate.

"Mustn't be indulgent to the subject matter," Freud has been quoted as saying. "I'm so conscious that that is a recipe for bad art."

Freud, who paints without his glasses so nothing comes between him, sitter and canvas, would fix on a part of Hockney's face. He'd stare for minutes, then mix the color -- for each brush stroke -- before making a single mark.

When the sittings concluded in the afternoon, Hockney would walk back through the park, returning to his own work. In his time in London, he painted more portraits than in any year previously.

THE SCRUTINY

On a recent morning at Hockney's pied-a-terre in Pembroke Gardens, David Graves, a longtime friend, answers constantly ringing phones as two dogs run between the living room and the little garden outside. Books, papers and drawings are scattered on the long wooden table where everything takes place -- be it work on a catalog or lunch. Potted plants are festooned with buttons reading "End Bossiness Soon," badges Hockney wears on his coat as well.

In the studio next door, several large watercolor portraits are pinned to one wall, charting Hockney's latest project and his obsession with relationships as subject matter: brothers, couples, parents and children. A photo of Hockney and Freud in Freud's studio is propped on a shelf.

Freud rarely gives interviews. Hockney talks amicably for hours about his travels, his past and current projects, devoting equal enthusiasm to the light in northern Norway as to the ingeniousness of tube mustard at lunch. (It stays fresher and, thus, hotter.) Partly as a result of his deafness, he owns the conversation. It is a monologue rather than a dialogue.

Waving an ever-present, sometimes lighted, cigarette, he reflects on the months with Freud.

"Watching another artist, you're not used to it. Not that many people watch me paint," Hockney says. "To see somebody making marks on a flat surface, making a picture of some kind, it seems magical. It is, actually," he says, and laughs as if just realizing this. "It is magical."

Hockney, who has explored virtually every medium, always returns to portraits. He has painted other artists and been portrayed by them, among them R.B. Kitaj, Don Bachardy and Andy Warhol (the two drew each other, swapping pictures afterward). But Freud's scrutiny was unprecedented.

When asked what he thinks of Freud's portrait, Hockney tells a story:

Two brothers came to his studio to sit for a double portrait. He showed them a photograph of Freud's painting. "One of them told me afterward that when he'd first seen it, he thought, 'Ah well, [Freud] made him look older' and things," Hockney says. "And yet, when he then sat here for me, and he looked at my face for seven hours, he told me, 'I begin to see now what Lucian Freud was seeing.' "

Observed over time, the image comprises layers of expression, making it unlike a mirror reflection or a photograph. "It's a duration, not a moment," Hockney says.

"When people would ask me, 'Is it like you?' and so on, I always thought it was," he says. "I just assumed it, actually, because of his method of scrutiny."

During breaks to stretch, Hockney would bring out his sketchbook to detail the room -- a battered chair, an ashtray, a hole in the floorboards -- or draw the man who stared at him so intensely, at times just inches from his face. He was looking back, watching the portrait grow, and studying the painter painting him.

"It's a scrutiny that's hard work," he says. "Not many people could look at a face for 120 hours, and constantly be doing something with it -- not overlaying things, but constantly finding something that gives it a shimmer of life."

THE SENSIBILITIES

Both artists work from life, and their lives.

"My work is purely autobiographical," Freud has been quoted as saying. "It is about myself and my surroundings. I work from people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I know."

Best known for his portraits and nudes, Freud examines the human form with thick layers of paint and little charity. His paintings are raw, uncompromising and intimate, never valentines. The sitters' frailties are as evident as their veins, bones and flesh.

"His glumly pungent nudes have a challenging air, as if daring anyone to judge them less charitably than the proud, brooding artist judges himself," wrote Peter Schjeldahl in his New Yorker review of the retrospective. Freud's painterly obsession, he suggested, is "the incorrigibly unhappy animal beneath the skin."

The paintings are factual. But done for effect.

In connection with an exhibit of his favorite paintings from the National Gallery in 1987, Freud asked rhetorically: "What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince."

Art critic Robert Hughes has called Freud the world's greatest living realist painter. Hockney, in his phrase, is "the Cole Porter of contemporary art." Writing in 1988, Hughes asserted that "No other English artist has ever been as popular in his own time, with as many people, in as many places, as David Hockney."

Although he's been chided for his creative explorations -- the Polaroids, the faxes, the stage sets -- they are exactly the point. Hockney looks for new ways to engage himself, new ways of seeing, preoccupied with the connections between the history of art and life itself.

His sitters, as critic Henry Geldzahler put it, "are his guitar, absinthe bottle and journal, the objects of his affection."

A middle-class boy from Yorkshire, Hockney left England for L.A. in 1964, finding it, in his friend Geldzahler's words, "a more sympathetic Riviera, a warm and modern escape from the vagaries of English class and weather." He quickly became one of the most celebrated painters in, and of, Southern California.

Freud, a grandson of Sigmund, left Germany for England with his family in 1933 at age 11. After a few attempts at foreign adventures in his youth, such as a stint with the British merchant navy and stays in France and Greece after World War II, he now rarely and reluctantly leaves his adopted country.

"He's very English, Lucian," says Hockney. "His studio, for instance, is shabby in a way that a lot of things in England look shabby, because people like them that way. There's patina on them, some might say. Others might say they look shabby. But some things tell a story. They're not replaced just because there's a little rip in them."

In England, Freud is beyond rock star status. He is alternately celebrated and reviled, like a soccer player. When his retrospective opened at the Tate in June, it was on the front page of every British paper, and the tabloids follow his affairs with gutter glee -- whether he's painting his naked daughters, or the queen (not naked), or dining out with famous models such as Kate Moss. (He painted her nude and pregnant, at night after the Hockney sittings.)

Currently dating Emily Bearn, a 27-year-old journalist, Freud has been married several times, and acknowledges nine children as his. Last month, the glossy magazine Tatler, which celebrates fashion and the landed gentry, named him -- second only to Prince Harry -- the most eligible bachelor in Britain. He is 80.

"He's quite bohemian," says Hockney, who is 64. "It's haute-bohemian, of course, but I like that."

Like Freud's, Hockney's private life has also been somewhat public. He's outspoken on gay rights, and one significant breakup was chronicled in the 1974 documentary "A Bigger Splash." He doesn't shun public appearances or openings, and his large circle of friends has always included fame. This past year, however, Hockney retreated.

Having lost one of his closest friends, as well as his beloved dachshund Stanley, he decided to leave Los Angeles for a while. "I wanted to work," he says. "You cut yourself off when you do that -- probably a bit easier here than in L.A. for me. After a while here, I was just a little artist again in a studio. Or I convinced myself of that."

THE EVOLUTION

To sit for a portrait is physically laborious. It is submission. The sitter is an object for study and dissection, and has no say over the result.

Over the years, Freud's assistant, David Dawson, has learned this. Himself a painter, primarily of street scenes, he has sat for several paintings, including "Sunny Morning -- Eight Legs," a humorous nude of Dawson sprawled on a bed with Freud's dog, Pluto. Another pair of human legs juts out from underneath the bed.

For about a decade, Dawson's life has been tightly interwoven with Freud's. He spends most days in the circumscribed entropy of the studio, where no repairs have been made since the installation of a skylight 30 years ago. When he's not sitting for a painting, he cleans, walks the dogs and gets supplies, routinely traveling to the Brick Lane flea market to buy sacks of old bed sheets that Freud uses as paint rags.

As he works, Freud can be chatty, sometimes reciting reams of Shakespeare sonnets, Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden poems. Or he will sing bits from favorite musicals. At times, when things aren't going in a good direction, he will scream and kick the wall in frustration. "And that makes your heart beat a little faster," Dawson says.

A painting evolves over many months: a strong start, with a lull in the middle of having settled in. The studio becomes the entire world.

"You go through every single emotion, because it's over such a long period," says Dawson. Sometimes "you're tired, fatigued after sitting. Other times you'll have a long spell of feeling exhilarated and alive."

During the final months, "Lucian will put the pressure on himself to make the painting the best he's ever made. And the sitter -- well, I do anyway -- also tries his best," Dawson says. "You can't sort of sit there and think about something else. You do have to be part of it, alive in the room."

The work fills everything.

"All there is, is paint," says Dawson. "The only movement is on the canvas. It's the paintbrush moving. And when you live within that -- year after year after year -- it changes you."

Freud doesn't see the point of vacations.

"He just wants to paint, every minute he has," Dawson says. "It sounds awfully morbid, but he wants to paint himself to death."

THE WATERCOLORS

Hockney and Freud first met 35 years ago, introduced by a mutual friend. They remained casual acquaintances, but saw more of each other as the years went by. When Hockney visited London, the two sometimes met at night to look at favorite paintings at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. (The museum is open to certain painters around the clock.) Hockney remembers wandering around the empty galleries, looking at Rembrandts with Freud. "We certainly agreed that Rembrandt's faces -- nobody has made them as human, before or since."

Until last year, Hockney had not spent enough time in London to sit for his friend. But, having finished "Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters" (Viking Press, 2001), a book advancing his theory that painters such as Ingres used optical devices to project images and then simply traced them, he was looking for a new project. His own experiments with such devices had led him back to portraiture. And at the time of the sittings for Freud, he began experimenting with watercolors.

"What was the phrase you used to say about people who weren't very good-looking? You'd say, 'Well, they're no oil painting.' I could use that here: None of my sitters were oil paintings, so I used watercolor," Hockney jokes.

He found the medium had certain advantages.

"I was thinking, how to work fast enough, to draw fast enough, to use two people?" With watercolor he could finish a double portrait in a day. And this past fall, he finished 25.

Unlike oils, with watercolors the painter works from light to dark, starting with the highlights. Hockney would sketch the composition on a small pad, dividing the image into four parts. For the portrait itself, each part was painted on a separate sheet of paper, lying flat so the colors wouldn't run.

"I quickly realized, this is painting. You can't cover up marks, and that seemed to me rather important, to get away from the photographic," Hockney says. "I was more aware of the brush doing its work, and leaving its trace.... You want evidence of the hand there. That's what you see -- you're seeing my hand, my arm."

Hockney can't paint and talk at the same time. It breaks his concentration, he says, unlike Freud, who "knows he's going to cover a lot of time."

Over three months, he realized something else about their working methods.

"He is possibly the world's slowest painter," Hockney says. "I may not be the world's fastest, but I'm quite fast. You see, speed -- I came to see that as part of the method. But, mind you, Lucian might say that as well."

THE TURNABOUT

One fall afternoon, Freud left his studio and came to Hockney's.

Hockney had drawn Freud at other times during their months together, but the double portrait was more successful in its likeness, he says, attributing this to Dawson. "I knew his presence -- a painter himself -- would affect Lucian."

Portraits are always about relations, usually a relationship of two: painter and sitter. Hockney's double portraits are about the triangulation between the two sitters and the painter. "The presence of one affects the other," he says. "And that becomes a subject as well."

Freud and Dawson sat next to each other on rolling office chairs, and Hockney began sketching the composition.

"He hardly spoke," says Dawson. "Always had a cigarette in his mouth, sometimes lit. He would wear his cap, and then he would take that off, and then put it back on. He was concentrating nonstop for four hours. It was quite remarkable."

Unlike Freud, who only works from what's in front of him, Hockney also works from memory, drawing on previous observations, Dawson says. "David's actual hand movement is quite quick, and he'll put the whole composition together very quickly. Lucian works in a very nervous and agitated manner, but he doesn't cover much ground."

After three hours in the studio, Freud was ready to leave.

"I didn't expect him to sit," says Hockney, "and he didn't expect to either. Meaning, I don't think he can sit for people. Sitting still is very difficult for him."

Freud lasted till about quarter to five. Dawson stayed behind for a bit.

After both had left, Hockney kept looking at the portrait, he says, "putting a mark here or a mark there, adjusting."

THE PORTRAITS

Hockney's watercolor is whimsical, optimistic, conferring -- in true California form -- youth. The 48-by-36-inch painting on paper is airy and light, the subjects full-length, casually facing the viewer.

Freud's oil -- 16 by 12 1/4 inches, head only, full face, done in thick, almost gritty brush strokes -- confers age and mortality.

The Hockney portrait is "a wonderful painting of someone who's decided not to dye his hair any longer and the pink of the head coming through," says curator William Feaver. "I think it's a very sympathetic view of ... a one-generation-younger artist who was -- I suppose is -- very, very famous, and for decades much more famous than Lucian."

Freud has made three key portraits of fellow painters, with half a century between the first and the last. In 1952 he painted Francis Bacon, and in 1975 Frank Auerbach. And now David Hockney. "Those three paintings do line up as milestones in the way he paints and the way he sees people," Feaver says.

When the retrospective was mounted in London and Barcelona, the final gallery ended with a self-portrait. When the show opens in Los Angeles, there will be two painters in that final room. Perhaps Hockney has achieved immortality, as an artist and a subject, but Freud's portrait of him is a memento mori, a reminder that death comes to everyone.

"It's not me," says Hockney. "It's an account of looking at me by a very intelligent and skilled painter. That's what a Cezanne portrait is -- an account of looking."

*

'Lucian Freud'

Where: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.

When: Feb. 9 through May 25

Why: MOCA is the only American venue for the retrospective, which spans six decades and includes 110 oil paintings; watercolors; charcoal, pen and ink drawings; and etchings, as well as new works for the exhibition, many never before seen.

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