Bacon: Whoopee

Lucian Freud, “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, 1995. Courtesy Getty Images.

Roman Abramovich, the partially-bearded Russian owner of Chelsea Football Club (AKA ‘Chelski’), and 16th-richest person in the world (according to Forbes), was this week reportedly the purchaser of two paintings by significant British painters. Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping and Francis Bacon’s Triptych (1976) sold at auction in New York for a collective total of around $120 million.

Meanwhile, it emerged that the model for Freud’s vast canvas of a overweight woman reclining on a bulging couch, Sue Tilley, was paid about £20 ($38) a day to pose. While it’s tempting (and very high school maths exam) to work out how long she’d have to pose to be able to afford the painting she was posing for, it’s perhaps more interesting to consider the always-baffling disparity between an object and its value.

Freud’s painterly insistence on the quiddity of his subject – the lunar impasto of paint on the bulge of Tilley’s stomach, the layers of tone gradually ‘becoming’ flesh – is predicated on the idea that paintings are in their essence traces of elapsing time, time that (here) directly corresponds to a financial transaction. The thought that each brushstroke translates into a before-and-after set of specific values is weirdly giddying, like comparing the price on the menu and the price on the bill.

  1. ECC says:

    Art critique and entertainment don’t usually go together unless you’re reading an article by Ben Street.

  2. SJP says:

    i’m so glad you didn’t use the word “bovine”. well done, sir.

  3. info says:

    Relative value is always a hard, if not impossible, question when it comes to the art market and the actual value it has for culture, let alone the relationship of an artwork to time, skill, and materials. Look at the academic arte povera shite coming out of new york. Someone please defend an argument for why Gedi Sibony is art.

  4. wesasketch says:

    Hey Ben — what do you make of this NYTimes article/interview on the same subject? Are mainstream, neo-liberal economists in touch with the art world? Article:

  5. Ben Street says:

    Speaking of bovine, Freud is often described as lupine. I suspect Bacon might be described as porcine, if it weren’t such a bad pun.

  6. Ben Street says:

    Wesasketch: first of all, I’m pretty certain that Freud’s family tree have nothing to do with his prices. I also liked hearing about Koons and “his – then – Italian wife” (what nationality is she now?).

    Generally, though, it seems that no sense can really be made of this. The “Conceptual innovators/Experimental innovators” part as evidence of the ‘rationality’ of the art market assumes that an object’s perceived ‘quality’ is something quantifiable: that (in the case of Bacon, Freud and Bourgeois) the older the artist is, the better. If anything, that’s evidence of irrationality, and it sounds like dealer-speak. And it’s not true (compare this with this). It’s an old argument, but the problem is one of demand outweighing connoisseurship, and not the connoisseurship of “super yachts” (what are super yachts?).

  7. Adrian Duran says:

    Nicely put Street. Regardless of this miraculously soupy issue of market value vs. whatever quality may in fact be as a quantifiable entity, it is reassuring that someone, even if perhaps only monetarily, is respecting the sublime and supple history of British mid-century figurative painting. What will history make of its more contemporary iterations?

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