The most important season for the buying and selling of paintings has always been in the fall, and the greatest interest in those exchanges is centered primarily around the numbers coming out of the big New York auction rooms. Not only does the art world follow the results, but financial institutions take an interest as well, since it gives them some sense of where the very wealthy are putting their funds. These days the products of the Modern and Contemporary art world in particular are often viewed more as investments or tax write-offs, rather than as the playthings of those who have money to burn. Thus, while sixty years ago the market was dominated by sales of Old Master paintings, and thirty years ago by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, today Modern and Contemporary Art sales act as a bellwether not only of the economy, but also of the culture.
Last week Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucien Freud” sold for $142,405,000.00 at Christie’s in New York, not only setting a new world record for the artist, but also entering the books as the single most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction. The piece, or rather the set of three paintings, consists of three large images of a figure seated on a wooden chair, portrayed from three different angles. Bacon (1909-1992) and Freud (1922-2011) were hugely important 20th century British artists, working in very different styles. The fact that the former painted this colossal triptych of the latter attracted a great deal of interest, particularly given the inherent rivalries of the art world which make these types of works rare.
In comparing the work of these two men I must confess that I am (comparatively) more attracted to Freud’s work than that of Bacon. Freud is not easy to like, exactly: the subjects of his portraits typically appear to be suffering from a particularly lumpy form of leprosy, and the skin tones in his nudes tend to remind one of a suckling pig being prepared for the oven. However Bacon is without question the more difficult of the two to appreciate, in that his paintings are often quite terrifying and macabre, featuring zombie-like figures and creatures which stem from a nightmarish imagination. I may have come to appreciate him more as I have grown older, but I still find much of his work decidedly off-putting.
While this series of paintings of his contemporary are not the sort of horror-film work one associates with Bacon’s repeated, hideous revisiting of Velázquez sublime “Portrait of Pope Innocent X”, or the almost H.R. Gigeresque “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion”, they are nevertheless not particularly pleasing things to look at. As he transitioned into the 1960’s Bacon’s work became, frankly, somewhat dull, losing some of its earlier, angry quality. The studies of Freud date from this period, and so it is hard to understand why someone thought that they were worth such a large sum.
What this auction result speaks to, beyond the general decline in taste among elites, is the all-important cult of celebrity. Here we have a piece by one very famous artist, portraying another very famous artist. The single most-often used word to describe this work across the news reports and press releases covering this story is “iconic”. CNN described it as “one of Bacon’s most iconic works”, while Christie’s defined it as “an icon of 20th century art”. If we simply take the word “icon” at its basic meaning, “image”, then of course just about anything representational can be considered “iconic”. Obviously, this is not what was intended in the marketing attached to this picture.
When an auction house refers to a piece as “iconic”, what they are trying to tell you is that this work is so important that somehow you, too will be considered important by association, should you end up buying it. It is rather like a keen bit of ironic observation made to me once by a Swedish architect friend, when I accompanied him and a group of glamorous – natch – Swedes to a very exclusive, members-only club in London. “Do you know why I am important?” he asked. “I am important because I am in this club. And you’re important too, because you are in this club. And all of these people in here? They must be important because they got into this club also. And so here we are, all being important together.”
The auction houses know that it only takes two well-funded, competitive bidders each intent on beating the other to drive the price of an auction lot beyond the estimated value of the piece. If two billionaires want to compete, this is one of the ways that they can do so without coming to physical blows. And the vanity attached to owning important pieces of art has been there from the beginning of collecting in general, since both the well-to-do and the average person like to have the admiration and envy of others when it comes to their possessions, whether those possessions are multi-million dollar works of art, or vintage Star Wars action figures.
The difference lies not only in the price, but in the degree to which one values possessions over what one is supposed to be doing with one’s disposable income. Those with more money than sense will be more than happy to have those who supposedly are better-informed than they tell them that they really ought to purchase something which, with a more detached and critical eye, they would never really want to own. Yet increasingly the idea that some things are just not worth the price, and that there is virtue in modesty and frugality even among the rich, seems to have gone out the window: the luxury has become the must-have, in order for one to be completely fulfilled as a human being. And this notion of course, is utter rubbish.
Naturally no one wants to be the little boy pointing out that the emperor has no clothes on in this situation, for fear of ridicule and derision by one’s peers. The risk is that one will be told that one’s taste or education or brain power is somehow faulty. It is practically social suicide among the intelligentsia to dare to challenge the established view that such an unattractive, poorly-executed mess such as this triptych is worth an inordinate amount of money. However the contrast between vanity and values becomes all the clearer when one considers that just six months earlier, an absolutely magnificently painted, deeply introspective portrait of a man looking into a mirror by the great 17th century Baroque painter Jusepe de Ribera sold at Christie’s London salerooms for only $1.1 million, quite a bargain compared to the Bacon which cost over 100 times as much. Personally, I know which of the two I would rather have hanging on my wall.
A visitor examines “Three Studies of Lucien Freud” (1969) by Francis Bacon