How To Talk About Art

How to Talk About Art: Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud Edition (#H2TAA)

by Cat Weaver on October 18, 2013

Francis Bacon, “Three Studies of Lucien Freud” (1969) (screenshot via christies.com)

Francis Bacon, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (1969) (screenshot via christies.com)

As Christie’s preps to sell off Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” for a possible record price of $100 million, it may be a good time to bone up on your talking points for both of these canonized artists.

The high expectations for a new record are not based on the estimate, which is a very conservative $85 million; they’re based instead on a prediction that the triptych of the great Bacon’s buddy and peer in high-art stature will be so desirable that it will beat Bacon’s 2008 record of $86 million.

It’s a good bet: the November 12 sale will be the 1969 portrait’s first trip to auction, and the lucky buyer will obtain a one-two punch of art legend in one blue-chip stroke.

#H2TAA Francis Bacon

Here’s the thing: even though the painting that’s making the big news is Francis Bacon’s, and even though he’s in the canon and way more famous than Lucian Freud (queue the art phonies to screw up their faces and say, “Really?” Ask yer momma) — even though all that, you won’t have to LEARN much in order to talk about Bacon. He really has been boiled down to a pastiche of sensitive artist tropes.

That’s because there really isn’t that much to say. The man did talk a lot, but he mostly repeated the same things. Life is full of horrors, and he was just painting it like it is.

Francis Bacon was, like many of the postwar painters, a “bon vivant” sort: that’s the word on him socially. Well, and he liked “rough trade” and had a disastrous love affair with a dangerous fellow named (no kidding) George Dyer who committed suicide in 1971, leaving the already macabre Bacon just a little more “death obsessed” than usual.

Say “Existentialist”

If you must get intellectual about your subject, you can call Bacon an existentialist. Even though prose writers have to go a little deep in order to win the existentialist title, painters need only be postwar and have a veneer gritty enough for “the human condition” to stick to.

And what sticks to the human condition like Colorforms to a felt board? For Bacon that would be screaming popes, vaguely abstract sides of beef, twisted and blurred faces, and nightmare concoctions of teeth, necks, and talons, usually against an empty background or in a cage of sorts.

Obsessions

The thing to remember is that popes, heads, and crucifixions were his thing.

Finally, be sure the get the origin stories in there. Besides the death of Dyer, three other gadflies famously goaded Bacon on. They are:

  • Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin scene of the nurse screaming on the Odessa steps
  • a book about diseases of the mouth, which haunted him
  • Picasso (I know! Scary.)

#H2TAA Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud, "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping" (1995) (via christees.com)

Lucian Freud, “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” (1995) (via christies.com)

There’s one very key word to remember when talking about Lucian Freud: TRUTH.

Even though the man made every human he ever painted look like a rotten tuber, you are supposed to keep a perfectly sober face while proclaiming that his works were “truthful.”

This is a man, mind you, who managed to make Jerry Hall (admittedly very pregnant at the time he painted her) look like a hog-tied Oompa Loompa, and who posed the exquisite Kate Moss as a unstrung puppet sporting a half-wit smirk. He painted the queen as himself in drag (not on purpose), and he maintained a stubbornly soupy brown pallet throughout his career that made all of his sleeping, lolling, rumpled subjects seem a tad dyspeptic.

Why, then, is TRUTH the word we are supposed to write in our notebooks?

Well, mostly because he said so.  Honesty, revelation, and truth made up a good deal of his bluster. The artist’s statement, their essays and interviews, are the Cliff Notes of artspeak, mind you. Always read the artist’s statement, and if they are anyone’s friend, or if they seem to be a leader, or if they talk a LOT, then take notes, rinse, and repeat.

Another reason we believe in Lucian Freud’s truth is because those god-awful gravy-slathered Jello molds he painted look really, really HEAVY and UGLY, and UNHAPPY. And in the harpy-driven puritanical minds of our society, a man who relates the truth will unveil just how horrible the unguarded body can be. If it’s ugly, we tend to believe in it.

And if it’s heavy, we really buy it. Lord help him, his sitters, and his audience, Mr. Freud was very good with gravity — Sue Tilly’s great belly slops sideways as she rolls about the floor, sleepers’ renegade breasts slip like raw eggs down rib cages toward a spot below the canvas, faces of cavernous sinks and bloated swells stare blankly or snooze like you wanna call 911. One has to wonder if he didn’t live in a detox ward.

Bit of the Postmod

But don’t wonder that aloud, since everyone knows that Freud managed to slip in a touch of the autobiographical by using the same studio props in many of his portraits, thus reminding the viewer of the artist’s presence and the contrived nature of the scenarios he painted.

So, no, it’s not a detox ward: it’s just a bit of the postmod stance — the mirroring of the nature of the man’s studio and the sorts of textures and moods that made up his state of mind. In a sense, then, no matter what else the paintings are about, you can (and should) say that they’re about Lucian Freud painting in his studio.

As he himself put it: “My work is purely autobiographical … It is about myself and my surroundings.”

Say “Mastery”

Mastery is another key Lucian Freud talking point. Keep in mind forever, always, constantly, that Freud, who died only two years ago, is considered our age’s connection with real mastery. Be careful if you don’t nod to this because people are very sensitive about losing their connection with the greats. Say he made paint do what he wanted it to. Say he made brown his bitch.

Spawn

Finally, speaking of making something one’s bitch, remember to point out that Lucian Freud, grandson of the famously sex-obsessed doctor Sigmund, was a womanizer par non, with 14 reported children to his name from 12 different women.

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  • DAVID E. KEARNS

    Colorforms don’t stick to felt. Felt sticks to felt.

  • DAVID E. KEARNS

    ….yeah except that Colorforms don’t stick to felt. Felt sticks to felt. Colorforms stick to a vinyl sheet. Duh.

    • Cat Weaver

      Oh irony! Thou sweet god of sheer hap!

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