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The portraitists

David Hockney and Lucian Freud reveal themselves as they examine each other.

January 12, 2003|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

London — 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.

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