Lucian Freud had a famously complex love life fathering children with many women but before all that there was a passionate, secret and enduring gay relationship involving two other young artists, a new exhibition reveals.
The writer and curator Julian Machin has pieced together a story the artist tried to suppress and one, he argues, which helps us better understand the art of Freud.
The story involves Freud, Adrian Ryan and John Minton who as young, handsome artists in their 20s had, Machin says, a closeness and sexual intimacy which is little known and unexplored.
Machin has called his exhibition “Unholy trinity” although he believes the true passion was between Freud and Ryan with Minton acting as an enthusiastic enabler.
“It is more of an isosceles triangle,” said Machin, with Minton seeing the relationship through a casual sex lens. Freud and Ryan experienced so much feeling that “it frightened the bejesus out of them," hy het gesê. “What they had, they just couldn’t accept it. But I think what they had was something so precious.”
Freud is head and shoulders the star, one of the most important British artists of the last century. Minton is probably best known as an illustrator and the tragedy of a life he took in 1957. Ryan is the least celebrated, but Machin hopes the show will encourage a degree of “levelling up”.
Machin wrote a biography of Ryan and was told how the three young artists would meet up for sex at a house Freud shared in St John’s Wood, Londen. The meetings began during the second world war and continued after it. Others, insluitend the artist David Tindle, who became a friend of Freud’s in the 1940s, have confirmed the stories.
Freud has been said to have had a number of gay affairs, including with the poet Stephen Spender. While alive he dismissed them and in terms of Ryan he had “an absolute determination to diminish any possible suggestion that he had this incredibly passionate affair,” said Machin.
“It was difficult because of the times [when homosexual acts were illegal] and of course they were so young. Lucian would have been 19 and Adrian 21.”
Machin recalled a story from 2002 when the late art historian John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer, asked Freud about his relationship with Ryan.
The response, Richardson told Machin excitedly, was “vagueness in the extreme” which he interpreted as corroboration.
“John had this uncontrollable attraction to high-flying thinkers,” said Machin. “He was utterly delighted that there was something to this very well kept secret that Lucian had been trying to push away.”
Machin believes Freud treated Ryan shabbily in later life showing a determination to remove all trace of the relationship.
The exhibition will explore the closeness of the relationship and how it gave way to bitterness and betrayal.
All of it matters, Machin said, “because it exposes Lucian as the type of person he was which I think you can see in his paintings. It shows his unhappiness, that he wasn’t unassailable.”
The place Freud feared most, Machin argues, “was inside his own head. That was the worst place to be. I think to understand the art of Lucian Freud it is as well to know everything about him and everything about what he must have been feeling.”