Last week, Francis Bacon’s painting “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (1969) sold for an astonishing $142.4 million at a Christie’s auction in New York. This broke the previous inflation-adjusted auction record of $119.9 million, paid for a version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1895) last year.
On the one hand, it’s good to see some people are still making high bids for a painting. Few can afford to pay the $142.4 million price tag, of course. Yet this type of lofty price for a piece of art is a telltale sign that the free-market economy is chugging along at a decent pace. If people have more than enough disposable income, they’re usually willing to spend it on luxury items such as paintings. That’s a good thing.
On the other hand, you really have to wonder who would pay this much money for a modern painting. The work of this Irish-born abstract painter, whose father may share genealogical roots with the famous philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, is definitely an acquired taste. As former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, Mr. Bacon was “that man who paints those dreadful pictures.”
Like Mrs. Thatcher, I’m not entirely sure how Mr. Bacon’s eclectic triptych, or three-panel painting, of fellow modernist Lucian Freud qualifies as art. The Daily Telegraph’s Mark Hudson recently wrote, “Much of his later work is mannered and repetitive. The savagery of his brushwork appears spontaneous, but it was always carefully controlled. There’s nothing wrong with that per se: that is artistry. But Bacon’s painting became progressively a matter of rolling out well-rehearsed stylistic tics with no real development.”
My preference has always been for the Baroque and Renaissance art periods. Although I own many art books, I’ve been fortunate enough to see the Old Masters — Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, Pieter Brugel the Elder, Johannes Vermeer, Diego Valazquez and many others — in galleries and museums. Their work is sensational, from the realistic subject matter to the magnificent interpretations of European society. Once you’ve seen such beauty firsthand, it’s hard to find paintings in other artistic styles that are even remotely comparable.
This isn’t to say I don’t like other artists, including more modern ones. For example, I enjoy British Romanticism (J.M.W. Turner, John Constable), French Impressionism (Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet) and Canadian artists such as Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and the Group of Seven.
As the British historian Paul Johnson wrote in “Art: A New History” (2003), “Art is fundamentally about order, whether the canonical or the new currently has the upper hand. We must always look for the underlying order which runs beneath the surface of the battle, to see that it is healthy and intact, and strong enough to sustain the dynamics of change. For once art loses its fundamental order, it becomes disorderly and therefore ceases to sustain a moral society and may, in fact, become a menace to our happiness.”
Mr. Johnson’s theory of order exists in traditional art. As for modern art, there is more emphasis on self-interpretation of what a scene or individual looks like — or should look like. If a person’s skin appears blue in the artist’s mind, or the grass is a finer shade of purple, that’s the color he should choose. If a person should be portrayed in a cubist or geometrical style, then so be it.
Modern artists such as Mr. Bacon strongly support this type of artistic freedom. I’m in favor of more personal freedom, too. Yet I also like to view things as they are, and not as artists want them to be. Hence, if a bird is supposed to look like a bird, and a house is supposed to look like a house, this should always be the artist’s primary goal.
That’s the great thing about art appreciation, however. You can like one style, and I can like another. There is no right or wrong when it comes to interpreting art as a thing of beauty.
At the same time, I’ll always defend the free market in terms of encouraging people to buy more paintings — even godawful ones painted by modern artists.
Irish novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford wrote in “Molly Bawn” (1878), “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The same principle surely holds for the beauty of Mr. Bacon’s art, which is truly in the beholder’s eye.
Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.