Dealing with Francis Bacon and all that money

The exhibition of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” at the Portland Art Museum

The Portland Art Museum put itself on the international art map by snagging the first post-auction exhibition of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” which famously (or notoriously) brought a world-record auction price of $142.4 million last month. Even Philip Kennicott would have to admit that.

I can’t imagine that Kennicott, who writes about art and architecture for the Washington Post, has ever written about anything to do with the Portland Art Museum until now. Or that he knows much about Portland artists, collectors or the little art market here. I could be wrong.

I bring up Kennicott the day the exhibition of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” opens here, because he does know the international art world and its market, and as we look at those three paintings, lined up just so, we have to deal with his criticism of the Portland Art Museum’s decision to display the triptych, whether we’ve read it or not.

“By celebrating the painting with a specially organized exhibition, the museum aligns itself with the commodification of art and effectively endorses the idea that the price tag is a valid a marker of quality. Museums don’t just house art, they place art on display in such a way that the viewer is compelled to ask a fundamental question: Why am I looking this? Why here, why now, why in this room, next to these other paintings rather than some other room? That process of interrogation is fundamental to the museum experience.”

In Portland, we know exactly why we’re looking at this painting, and the interrogation is over before it even begins.”

As Lady Catherine de Bourgh might say: “Heaven and earth, are the shades of the Portland Art Museum to be thus polluted?”

Kennicott is arguing both that the art museum has aligned itself with dark forces, and that we, its visitors, can’t look past the $142.4 million and see the painting behind it. The price tag answers all of our crucial questions about the art before we encounter it.

I don’t happen to think he’s right, and I’m about to argue against the monkish way he looks at art, but that doesn’t mean I’m not sympathetic to the critique that much of what we hold dear and meaningful has been “commodified”—and cheapened in the process—including art. After all, the hyper-capitalist society reduces every object and experience it can to a price, and those of us living in that society of prices can hardly ignore them. The great paintings of a major American art museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, in a major bankrupt American city have just been assigned a dollar value, after all. But perhaps we can prepare our defenses against this society of prices. Perhaps we already have.

****

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, New York / Christie's Images Limited 2013

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, New York / Christie’s Images Limited 2013

The three paintings are large, 78-by-58 inches each. After seeing them in tiny digital reproductions, I wasn’t prepared for their size, their weird grandeur, framed in gold and hung on top of the deep burgundy wall the museum chose for them. A perfect color, that burgundy (or deep maroon), because it sets off both Bacon’s favorite mottled olive green bottom background color and the mustard yellow top color. Look closely and maybe you can get a glimpse or a “vibration” of that burgundy in the green.

Those colors: I find myself in disagreement with the catalog description for the 1999 American tour of “Francis Bacon: A Retrospective,” which insists that the mustard is a “sharp lemon yellow.”

And that calls to mind Bacon’s comment to interviewer Michel Archimbaud: “Basically, I believe that you simply cannot talk about painting, it just isn’t possible.”

Well, we’ll just let that one drop…

Back to the paintings, each of them set up the same way, same background, same cane chair, same geometric structure around the figure, same bedboard, presumably the same subject, the painter Lucian Freud, who wears the same white shirt and gray slacks, but different shoes and socks. The three form a sort of brief montage, views of the subject from different angles, though sometimes Bacon does a Cubist move by showing us different perspectives within the same painting. The pose is the same: seated, right leg crossed over left, hands in lap. The feet seem to escape the front imaginary plane of the geometric figure, but the rest of the human figure resides within it.

By this time in the history of modern art, we aren’t totally unsettled by the face, right? Which is rather “monstrous”? Maybe it has mask elements: the noses have a sort of beastly prominence. The eyes peer out from behind glasses, or the sockets are vacant. The mouths aren’t scary, exactly, but not quite human either. Those faces are beautifully painted, though, the effects achieved economically, the ambiguity in them completely intentional. They disconcert without repelling.

What I said about the faces extends to the rest of the figure. I love their economy, how they obey a logic of form that isn’t bio-logic, though it’s instantly recognizable.

****

Yes, Kennicott is right about one thing. When I walked into the foyer where “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” is displayed, I thought about the money. Mostly, I thought that $142.4 million was probably enough to set up lots of little arts centers around the city where neighbors could make their own art and experience the art made by others and how great that would be.

And I was there to satisfy my idle curiosity about a painting that was newly famous because of its pricetag. What does it look like in person? How do I “experience” it? And I intended to write something about it, if something occurred to me, because that’s what I do.

“Why am I looking this?” Because the art museum managed to nab it. “Why here, why now, why in this room, next to these other paintings rather than some other room?” Honestly, I don’t even understand that question. I think Kennicott’s asking something like: “What’s at stake in this room that makes you want to be here?” But even then, I don’t get it. Maybe they are critics questions and I’m not a critic.

I’m in this room now, but I will be in another room soon. I don’t know what’s at stake until I get there. And what’s at stake is variable. Sometimes it’s personal, even intimate. Sometimes it’s abstract, in the sense that my understanding of Bacon, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” modern art, the art market, and the society in which it’s all embedded is abstract, an analysis or narrative I’m assembling in my head.

I don’t demand anything of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.” Either I get something from it that I need or I don’t. If all I need is the ability to say to someone, “Hey, I saw the most expensive painting in the world,” then that’s easily satisfied (though if I were honest, I might add, “ever sold at auction”). We can imagine a brief exchange.

— How was it?
— Oh, I don’t know. OK, I guess. I don’t see the big deal.

And then it’s on to subjects more pertinent.

****

For me, the Bacons worth the big bucks would be the earlier ones, the paintings that seemed to be in revolt against the world, acidic, nihilistic reductions of “human” to monster or beast or meat. The ones that said we are insane carcasses of grotesque desire.

Francis Bacon, "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion," 1944/Tate Museum

Francis Bacon, “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” 1944/Tate Museum

I’m partial to a 1944 triptych, “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” with their gaping mouths, bulbous shapes and ghastly colors. They are based on The Furies (or Eumenides), the revenge gods of the ancient world, who drive guilty men insane, including Orestes, who killed his mother Clytemnestra, who had killed his father, King Agamemnon, who had killed his daughter and Orestes’ sister, Iphigenia.

Elektra: What’s wrong with your eyes? You’re slipping away again!
Orestes: O Mother I beg you—Don’t send the bloodyfaced women down on me!—ah
they are here!
Elektra: Stay quiet, poor mad one, there’s nothing there.
Orestes: Apollo! Here they come like killer dogs, goddesses hot with the glow of hell!

That’s Anne Carson translating Euripides’ “Orestes,” and Bacon’s painted version of The Furies seems to have emerged from Orestes’ worst nightmare.

Bacon’s paintings of screaming popes, wrestling and tortured men, sprawling figures, hanging meat, have some of the same power as The Furies, if you’re open to them. Maybe if you’re not.

The triptychs of the 1960s of his friends and lovers seem tame by comparison, almost sweet, if you could call those distorted faces “sweet.” He’s a better painter in those paintings (and the subsequent ones), more accomplished as a colorist and composer, but maybe he isn’t as sensitive a lightning rod for the larger culture.

Don’t get me wrong. I like these intimate paintings, including “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.” And in some ways they represent an audacious turn for Bacon as he turns his swords into plowshares. OK, that’s going too far. Maybe all he’s saying is that we can learn to live with the beast within, along with proving that his vocabulary and style is appropriate to an entirely different sector of representation.

****

Francis Bacon, "Study for a Self Portrait," center panel/Wikimedia

Francis Bacon, “Study for a Self Portrait,” center panel/Wikimedia

Bacon’s life was novelistic, spent in the gay demi-mondes of Berlin, Paris, London, drinking and gambling and, um, other things, with the inhabitants. He came to painting late, without formal education, but his painting shows that his art influences were wide and profound, beginning perhaps with Picasso and going backward and forward from there. Lots of biographical resources exist, not the least, Wikipedia.

Lucian Freud was an old friend of Bacon’s and a frequent subject of his painting. Freud (the grandson of Sigmund Freud) was also a figurative painter, though of more realistic, less overtly expressionist bent. Were they “rivals,” did they argue about art, does it matter now? Freud was heterosexual, and had at least 14 children, two by his first wife and the rest by several mistresses.

If we know more about the lives of the artist and his subject, does it help us very much with “Three Studies of Lucian Freud”? I’m not sure it does for me, though I’ve done some research in the past on both of them, back in the 1980s when figurative art made a comeback and America realized that very large and important careers had been lived by figurative artists in Europe, such as Freud and Bacon. Let’s just say that Bacon was a complex character and that complexity reverberates in his art in his selection and treatment of subjects, mostly in subterranean ways, I suspect.

In the center panel there’s a perfect little circle yellow circle on the elongated left leg of the figure. How do we read it? Why is it there? Does it refer to some event in Bacon and Freud’s friendship? I’m just not convinced that’s a profitable way to proceed, and no, I don’t mean profitable in terms of money.

But then again, maybe we understand the bedboard in the paintings better if we know it represents Freud’s actual bedboard and refers to Lucian’s prolific sexual life. By the way the other primary elements are prevalent in earlier Bacon paintings: the triptych, the bare imaginary space, the geometric “room,” the large sections of color, the human figure.

****

Are there museums in America, major ones anyway, that don’t somehow align themselves with the commodification of art? That’s Kennicott’s specific charge against the Portland Art Museum.

Aren’t they all funded by donors who participate in the marketplace from time to time? And build their collections from art supplied by those donors? Don’t they buy paintings directly in that marketplace? Aren’t their exhibitions frequently underwritten by those donors or the corporations they control? At a museum aren’t we nearly always seeing something that has an appraised value and an endorsement from the market?

So, Kennicott’s list of offending institutions must be extremely long. And their accomplices in the apparatus of value generation, curators and, gulp, critics? What of them? How often does Kennicott find paintings that exist outside this circle to write about for the Washington Post?

So, that charge is hard to take seriously, just on the face of it, unless it’s intended as the beginning of a general indictment.

Is the Portland Art Museum especially evil for seizing the opportunity to exhibit this particular and spectacular example of commodified art? Or is it doing its visitors a service by showing them what all the fu$$ has been about? We don’t get a chance to see art commodified at this high a level very often, after all, here in Oregon. But maybe the museum is polluting our experience, not just of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” but through neglect, all the other art in all of the other rooms.

I don’t think Kennicott is picking on Oregonians, specifically, having decided that we are particularly susceptible to the process of commodification. I think he’s saying that no one can look at it without being thus polluted. This is an interesting proposition, and I wish he had a shred of empirical evidence to back it up. Maybe he should come to Portland, observe people in front of the painting, talk to them about it, and then attempt to ascertain the extent of their pollution.

We know how that would go!

— How was it?
— Oh, I don’t know. OK, I guess. I don’t see the big deal. I’m mostly here for the Samurai show, and then I want to check out the Native American galleries.
— Why are you here now?
— I have the day off from work.
— What’s the meaning of art?
— ??????

All I’m saying is that the audience for “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” in Portland is likely to be skeptical of any claim for it based on its auction price. The same money would buy the total production of all Portland artists since Asian tribes crossed a land bridge into North America and made their way down to the Columbia River. We wouldn’t trade all that art, from the basalt sculptures of the Chinook tribes to the latest First Friday profusion, for that painting. Just to make that clearer: For me, there are hundreds of artworks produced in Oregon that have more value than the Bacon triptych does. Which doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in looking at it and taking from it what I can.

****

Enough. The article was short, and there’s only so much fun in pointing out false purity. Our art experiences are compromised, by the art marketplace and by the bad clams we had at lunch, and we attempt to allow for that. And it’s not confined to art experiences.

“Three Studies of Lucian Freud” has been assigned a dollar value. That’s one of the least interesting things about it. That value is higher than any other painting ever sold at auction. That just shows the absurdity of the system. What’s the deal with the different colored shoes in the central panel?

I’m glad I got to see “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” that Chief Curator Bruce Guenther tracked down its anonymous buyer and convinced that very wealthy character to lend it to us for a little while. I enjoyed my time with it, if you consider “enjoyed” in a broad sense, because, sure, that aggregation of painting strokes is a little disturbing.

I wish that the museum had a bit more time to prepare for the triptych, which is part of its Masterworks/Portland series of one-painting shows. It might have assembled a show from the Gilkey prints and drawings collection, for example, that expands our thinking about “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” by showing the work of related contemporary artists or artists his work connects to—Lucian Freud, for one, and Picasso, but also Giacometti, Van Gogh, Frank Auerbach, Velazquez, Soutine, George Grosz, Leon Kossoff.

I don’t think that my sensibilities, coarse as they are, have been injured by the experience. And I don’t think I’ve become any more inured to the commodification Kennicott’s talking about than I was before I saw it. In fact, I’m maybe more skeptical, if that was possible.

Mostly, I think it’s a good thing when we turn our attention to art, for whatever reason. This painting will likely attract both the casually interested art crowd and the diehards to the art museum. We can’t begin to predict what their experiences will be like or what the consequences of those experiences will be, but I don’t think it’s naive of me to think it will be positive.

One Response.

  1. David Row says:

    Barry: This is pretty much a spot on and comprehensive riposte to Kennicott’s column, which was shallowly argued to the point of making the critic sound peculiarly naive. Sometimes, critics feel the need to respond to an event rather than argue something worthwhile or cogently. Perhaps that’s the case here. And given his scant knowledge of PAM — why, indeed, would he have much reason to visit it — he would not know the salient issues regarding the institution this show perhaps allows the public to discuss.

    I haven’t seen the show, or painting. But that said, I’m not surprised by the lack of context, which has never figured much in some of PAM’s shows. What you see has more or less been what you get. Context can be an educational tool that inspires the public and viewer as well as an opportunity for the curator to show what (s)he divines from a work or works of art. It’s a chance for illumination and deeper conversation with the viewer. It’s a way of saying, simply: I care about what you think and see.

Comments are closed.