Christie’s, the auction house, took a full-page ad in the New York Times to publicize the record sale of a painting by a living artist, Lucian Freud, to the tune of $33.6 million. Thirty-three million greenbacks for a portrait of a horribly fat woman lying naked on a misshapen sofa. The mind reels. It is a dreadful painting, but it does tell us something about the corrupting power of money and one man’s contempt for the female sex.
Lucian Freud is not a sympathetic character. I have met him twice, and he is thoroughly unpleasant, an 86-year-old man who specializes in picking up young, impressionable women and making lotsa moolah with his relentlessly drab, ugly, and static paintings. The horrid images of the human body that he specializes in reflect his subjects: old, fat, ugly men and women. The modern hucksters who run the art world have declared Freud a genius, but in my not so humble opinion, he is nothing of the kind. He is a very minor painter who has never evolved from all the flaws of drawing and construction, using tricks, quirks, and mannerisms to hide his lack of talent.
Freud was born in Berlin in 1922, the grandson of that other fraud, Sigmund, and came to England in 1933. His brother Clement, an ex-member of Parliament, and he have not spoken for years, which in a way makes me like Clement, a man I know better than Lucian although he, too, can be quite unpleasant. I suppose unpleasantness runs in the family, but let’s not get Freudian about it.
Lucian Freud has to be among the worst draftsmen ever, disguising his artistic flaws by pouring the paint on ugly and contorted female nudes and even uglier male pachyderms. Sorry, but now I will get Freudian. Whenever I see one of his deplorable paintings, I can’t help but think that it must have been executed by someone who hates the human race. And he gets worse as he gets older. As his hatred of people and his prices grow, so does his peculiar obsession with the paint. He pours it on as if trying to obliterate his subjects. But enough of Freudianisms.
The sad truth is that Freud is an emblem of our times. The art world is in the forefront of the dumbing down of our culture, along with movies, rap music and the lewdness of language in the novel. Money, of course, is what the art world is all about. How, otherwise, can one explain the success of such phonies as Damian Hirst or Tracey Emin? Behind all the modern crap that passes for art nowadays is Mr. Big, the marketing expert and advertising executive Charles Saatchi. Saatchi is an Englishman of Mitteleuropa extraction, a man who began collecting conceptual art for its shock value. Remember the brouhaha in Brooklyn some years ago and the painting that insulted the Virgin Mary? Rudy Giuliani managed to shut it down, but Saatchi got his pound of flesh during the controversy surrounding the exhibition. His collection skyrocketed in value. Headlines bring in the loot. Saatchi knows only too well that the contemporary-art-collecting scene is not dominated by aesthetes or students of the beautiful, but by investment bankers and businessmen who want to buy into a lucrative market.
Freud is also aware of this, and although his style is not conceptual, his representational “art” plows on in his essays of hatred and his fleshy advertisements of how much he hates the human race. Of course there is room for the dark side of human nature. Goya and Picasso have made sure of it, as did many other great artists of the past. But it’s Freud’s repetitive and self-indulgent canvasses selling for millions that somehow rub me the wrong way. Sue Tilley, the model for the picture that sold for more than 33 million big ones, was paid 6 dollars an hour to pose for Freud. In real life she is hardly a beauty, but a pleasantly plump lady of some 60 years of age who has not paid attention to her diet. In the Freud picture, the artist dwells upon flab and folds with sadistic contempt for his subject. Morally, the work is worthless.
So there you have it. We live on a visual junk diet of soaps, smut, and vulgar language, and the most expensive painting by a living artist turns out to be as ugly and as disheartening as a porno shop on a rainy Sunday night. Why are we allowing our society to be shaped by the lowest standards of decency and by the nastiest people? I think I know who the latter are, but if I wrote it I’d be accused of things I am not guilty of. The love of money is of course first and foremost. It is the insanity of our money-worshiping age. It is the lack of education, the lack of civic responsibility, the lack of moral seriousness by our leaders, the lack of restraint by so-called freedom-loving shysters and defenders of the First Amendment, and many, many other things.
It is too depressing for words, hence I leave you with the following depressing scene that took place many years ago in London. It was a glittering ball given by an aristocratic family. We were some four friends, all young, and hiding in the loo in order to take drugs. I saw a man’s head rise above the separation. It was Lucian Freud. He looked fascinated. I screamed for him to scram, and he did. Is it any wonder he paints the way he does?