lucian freud: painting people at the national portrait gallery

22 March 2012 § 1 Comment

On my way to the Hayward last Sunday to take a look at the David Shrigley exhibition I was blocked off by the St Patricks day parade. I quickly gave up any thoughts of going south of the river and parked up. Negotiating samba dancers and steel drum bands playing Caribbean music (St Patrick of Antigua perhaps?) I made my way past irritating orange-bearded leprechauns and giant Guinness hats to the National Portrait Gallery.

They have named the exhibition Lucien Freud: Painting People, a strange title, as if the next exhibition might be called  ‘Lucien Freud: Painting Still-Lifes’ or ‘Abstracts’ – Freud of course never painted anything other than people.

Nevertheless it is quickly evident that this is a very impressive show that has gathered together some 130 works, predominantly oils, and includes many rarely seen pieces. The curators have sensibly chosen a largely chronological hang which nicely clarifies Freuds often subtly changing styles. It also interestingly puts together groups of works where the sitter was portrayed several times – we all know about the ‘Benefits supervisor sleeping‘ but how many of us realised that there were three more very similar, sizeable, portraits.

As well as the above-mentioned government employee Freud painted a fairly closed variety of wives, girlfriends and children along with sundry friends and an occasional lord, lady and fellow artists

His famous selfishness meant that he needed people who would put up with his notoriously lengthy sittings and these very often seemed to be those closest to him. David Hockney calculated that he spent some 130 hours in a fixed pose but when Hockney asked Freud to return the compliment he allowed him just 2 1/2 hours!
Freud would only paint from life saying ‘I could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t actually there in front of me’. It often seems as if that turned out to be bored sitters with blank expressions and although that is probably what Freud wanted there are certainly few smiles here. What Freud seems to be painting are bodies, often it seems that all he wants is merely flesh.

The exhibition starts well, his precocious talent evident from his searingly precise early portraits – each hair neatly delineated, every fabric crease clear. Spiky plants, nervous cats and varied gazes adding extra meaning. Later he adds more background before moving on to freer brushstrokes and ever more nudity.

And there is plenty of nudity. There are bodies of all sorts – lovers, wives, daughters and, as if there is not quite enough flesh to be found, the more than ample Leigh Bowery and afore-mentioned benefits supervisor then appear. At this point (from about the 1990’s) it was hard to maintain interest in examination of every successive painting – I yearned to see clothed models or background detail – some blessed relief from the  relentless visual attack of the naked bodies.
Ever more acres of green, grey and pink appear in increasingly awkward poses, the flesh topped with impassionate, sad or distant faces, eyes gazing blankly in to the distance. More and more Freud seemed to be painting Beckettian existentialism. Most traces of emotion and expression have long disappeared – these are now paintings of blank acceptance of human frailty and decay. It is an exhibition that is not easy to follow right to the inevitable end, but one highly deserving of a visit.
Lucien Freud: Painting People runs at the National Portrait Gallery Trafalgar Square until 27 May 2012

bonhams takes on christies and sotheby’s with contemporary one

30 January 2012 § 1 Comment

The contemporary art auction market in London has in recent years been a bitter slug-fest between the two ‘big boys’ – Sotheby’s and Christies.  Last year Christies won on points with their total for the three sales – in February, June and October – reaching £167m, only about £3m ahead of Sotheby’s. A distant third is Phillips de Pury whose three sales grossed only (!) £36m.

The new kid on the block is Bonhams but this sounds a strange thing to say since they have been around since 1793. However it is only since 2001, when they came under new ownership that they have started expanding significantly and have steadily eaten in to the larger houses share of the auction market. Contemporary art has never been their strong suit and, following some dabbling in the contemporary market in their hit and miss Vision 21 auctions they have now launched a full-scale assault on the hegemony of the bigger houses. Following the inaugural sale by the new Contemporary Art Department last October – only grossing about £2m but largely successful and 70% sold – thay are offering another closely curated sale of 20 lots with a modest mid-estimate total of around £2.5m.

At first glance this sale could be dismissed as a sale of little importance in the London Contemporary market, but a look at the catalogue shows something more interesting. The catalogue is a beautifully and expensively produced whopper. One hundred and sixty-four pages. For twenty lots. Every lot gets loads of attention and space lavished upon it. Take a nice Alan Davie Little Tut’s Wagon (lot 5) modestly estimated at £25-35k – the artist gets a double page spread for his photo and a couple more devoted to his work, the painting has a double page plus a fold-out – the equivalent to about 8 pages! At Sotheby’s or Christies it might have got a half a page – in the day sale. There are other modestly-priced works – expect them to go well above estimate – and some very interesting higher rated works too – notably Urs Fischer’s Untitled 2006 (lot 10), Frank Auerbach‘s Head of Lucien Freud (lot 6) and Richard Prince’s Untitled (Girlfriend) (lot 15).

The modest number of lots and total value of the sale is, at least in part, deliberate. I was told that Bonhams wish to establish themselves with very successful sales of low to mid value lots, before going full tilt at the market. I wish them every luck, and with such commitment as they show here  who would bet against them becoming a major player in the contemporary market in the coming years. Meanwhile, if you have a contemporary work to sell there looks like only one sensible place to put it at the moment. With such attention and quality of presentation and, dare I venture, some negotiation of commission for good works, Bonhams will be hard to beat.

London Contemporary auction scehdule February 2012

13/14 Feb Bonhams One/Two eve/day

14/15 Feb Christies eve/day

15/16 Sothebys eve/day

17/18 Phillips de Pury eve/day


records tumble at christies and sothebys

30 June 2011 § 1 Comment

Peter Doig - Red Boat

Shrugging off global economic worries this weeks contemporary art sales broke a series of records and confirmed the faith that buyers seem to have in the art market. Christies kicked off on Tuesday evening with an £80m total – their second highest ever. Star of the show was Francis Bacon’s Study for a Portrait which topped £18. A bunch of Warhols sold steadily with Mao, at £7m, the top lot, a nice Peter DoigRed Boat soared over its £1.4 low estimate to fetch £6m and a brilliant Lucien FreudWoman Sitting – made £4.7m.

Lucien Freud - Rabbit on a Chair

Kay Saatchi cleared out her attic and amongst her lots were a group of five very pretty Freud drawings. They all sold at around triple low estimate – perhaps because they were nice, perhaps due to a provenance beginning with Saa….. Losers were Chris Ofili whose two works went unsold (along with two of three in the day sale) – looks like the elephant dung bubble has burst?

Wednesdays Christies day sale was steady at £13m. The surprise of the day was that the two main offerings from Tracey Emin failed to sell – an appliqued blanket Something Really Terrible at £100-150k and a neon When I Go to Sleep  at £40-60k. Clearly the current Hayward show did not seem to inspire anyone (see my recent review). Meanwhile a nice batch of Picasso ceramics (in the contemporary sale?) flew out at £9-44k against estimates of £2-20k.

Sigmar Polke Dschungel

Over at Sothebys yesterdays evening sale cruised through the previous London Contemporary sale record to reach £109m. It was helped through the previous £95m mark from 2008 by the addition of the amazing Duerckheim Collection. A who’s who of German post-war art there were fabulous works from the likes of Sigmar Polke, Blinky Palermo, Georg Baselitz and AR Pencke. Gerhard Richter was particularly well represented with a good wonderful overview of his varied ouevre – colour charts, grey paintings, ‘abstrakte bilde’, photo-paintings and so on – the prices reflecting the high quality as they frequently doubled estimates, 1024 Farben at £4.2m the top lot. Polke’s auction record was broken three times in quick succession with a rare spot painting Dschungel  making £5.7. Palermo, Lupertz and Baselitz records were also set.


Gerhard Richter - Schwestern

In the rest of the sale Bacon (again) was top dog with Crouching Nude, at auction for the first time reaching £8.3m. Back nearer earth Ged Quinn‘s maintained his right to be in such exalted company with sales at £110k and £180k (Christies) against estimates of £60-80k.

Following hard on the heels of the recent impressionist and modern auctions where the total of the  ‘big two’s’ evening sales was the third highest on record the art market seems to have survived the financial meltdown in reasonable health. All eyes are now on Frieze and the October sales!

kick off for the 2011 sales season

8 February 2011 § Leave a comment

The next few days sees the first big art auctions of the year. Today, the 8 February Sothebys kick off with their evening Impressionist & Modern sale followed by their day sale tomorrow when Christies also have their evening sale.  Looking Closely is an extra Sothebys evening sale on Thursday 10 February which follows Christies day sale. The major Sothebys & Christies Contemporary sales follow on the 16 & 17 February.

Georgina Adam in the Financial Times (link to article) summarises this weeks sales nicely (so that I dont have to!), but it is the Looking Closely sale that Sothebys have slipped in to the schedule that really catches the eye. This is an exquisite private collection from the estate of Swiss collector George Kostalitz, who died last year. Collected carefully in the period 1960-90 it is a beautifully formed collection, made with a great eye for the best work.

An exquisite Dali portrait of Eluard is one of the most important surrealist works to come up at auction for years, estimated up to £5m –  but dont be surprised if it goes for £10m. Two portraits of Lucian Freud are included, the first being a 1964 triptych painted by Francis Bacon estimated at up to £9m, while amonst three Freuds on offer is a self-portrait painted when staying at Ian Fleming’s Jamaican villa, Goldeneye. Five stunning Marc Chagall feature, two of which were commissioned directly from the artist. They are all estimated at £2m or so and surely will go for much more. The sale estimate is £39-55m, but it will be surprise to me if it does not soars much higher.

The highest estimated work in all these sales is at Sotheby’s evening sale Picasso La Lecture at £18m – a tender portrait of his muse Maries Therese it is ‘only’ a small oil on board, but it is still unlikely that the estimate will prove to be too elevated.

Overall I am sure that we will see as very strong result at the sales continuing the ‘recovery’ in the market suggested by good results in 2010 – including Christies recent announcement of its record-breaking year. There will be a high proportion of lots sold, some broken records and sale estimates exceeded – especially at Sothebys – and let’s hope that this signals a good start to 2011!

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