Nicola Rose O’Hara
Girl With Two Fingers
DAILY MAIL - BOOK OF THE WEEK 8.10.2021
Girl With Two Fingers is an edited day to day account of life as a subject of eight portraits by Lucian Freud.
‘…diaries and letters are a form of time travel. They transport the future reader back to the moment the words were written.’
In 1999, a young woman writer returns to London from living in Paris, having been hit by a bus. The accident is a wake-up call: what should she do with her life, how to continue writing? Having known Lucian Freud over a decade, and having previously declined to have a portrait painted by him, she writes asking if he still needs someone to work from Something to do while thinking what to do next.
Writer and painter meet for dinner and an after hours visit to the National Gallery, and agree to start painting the following week.
The studio in Holland Park is unchanged, except everyone’s ten years older. The puppy, Pluto, is an old girl now. The writer has travelled, written, grown up.‘Now I look for the adult in me, instead of the child.’
She keeps a diary, as she always has, until it becomes too much of a chore. After a few weeks, she begins to write to an imaginary confidante instead.
‘Every thing, be it glamorous or mundane, has a particularity of its own. Seeing and recording that particularity is what a writer does. And it’s a form of protest. Because it’s the loudest voice that tells you how to see, and the smallest voice that sees and hears the most.’
As an act of independence she rejects the offered chair and stands for her picture, standing up to the artist. She records, ‘For now, my place on the planet is in this studio, my small space the shapes of my feet carved into the floor.’
The writer’s under no illusion that the picture will be flattering. ‘I’m simply a body for him to paint, one of many bodies. And a face. Another one of many.’ She won’t connect to the finished image.‘I’m not going to recognise myself, or connect with this image. It’ll just be a work of art.’
But writer and painter do connect. This becomes a painting relationship, one picture leads to seven more. Leading to night time phone calls and the painter saying ‘I’m beginning to depend on you.’
‘It feels a bit like Shakespeare’s The Tempest up here. The studio our island. Lucian as Prospero, with ‘art to enchant’. The shopper as Ariel, and me as a stand-in Miranda.’
But not everybody’s happy with this painting relationship. And it’s proving too much for the subject herself. Despite being committed to the painter’s work, she’s keen to regain her freedom. ‘I think he knows I’m starting to want to break free. That’s a kind of magnetic energy for him.’
Face to face: writer and painter, woman and man, the seer and the seen. And the unseen. Because that’s the joy of writing: it’s seeing what can’t be depicted in paint.
On a trip to New York May 2000, standing unnoticed in a gallery between two of the portraits of herself, the writer looks in to the pictures she’s - depicted as - looking out from, and asks if the images are more about the painter than the painted: ‘…his view, his space, his paint, his colours, his brushes, his language, his desire to control and portray. His feelings. His life events. And the distortions, the freuding, are his signature. They are autobiographical naked portraits of Lucian. Hiding in plain sight.’
‘The stories that bring a fixed portrait into being are much more fun than the finished thing itself.’
‘What’s lovely about (a friend),’ says Lucian ‘and you do it too, is you describe people by what they say.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well you repeat what it was they said.’
Beautifully written, poignant and evocative, testament to the world of the studio, witness to the act of portraiture.
‘Historically, men make images of women. Men tell us how to see and understand those images. They narrate them. And then they market what they have made. So the images of women are about men.’
Girl With Two Fingers is the female gaze, a detailed subject’s account of the making of eight works of art.