Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” just became the most expensive painting ever purchased while its creator was still alive.
I vividly remember seeing an exhibit of Lucian Freud at the Chicago Art Institute when I was a teen–that’s the last time I’ve seen any of his works “in the flesh,” as it were, but I was dazzled by canvas after canvas during that fantastic show, which is why Freud has remained perhaps my favorite contemporary painter. I remember that he insisted on displaying his paintings behind glass, which lent a flat sheen to them (similar to what the mastering process does for a recording) when otherwise they might have looked rough and scratchy. Freud’s blotchy, pasty, unflattering works are never exactly pretty. But they’re real, human, and moving.
Kate over at Shapely Prose sees this painting’s $33.6m price tag as sort of a triumph for positive depictions of fat people. And in a way, she’s right: here’s an unapologetically large woman who is clearly wonderful to look at.
I don’t know if I see this work of art in quite the same way though. I definitely don’t think Freud is displaying this painting’s model, Sue Tilley, as a freak show. But I don’t think any of Freud’s paintings are meant to celebrate the human form–or at least, they don’t glorify it. Instead, I think they depict humanity in stark nakedness, devoid of any pretense of grandeur, because somewhere in that vulnerability is the ability to be loved. And at the same time, the opposite is true, because the paintings also dehumanize, turning their subjects into landscape paintings, which is precisely the language Freud uses to talk about them (here he has described the “wonderful craters” of Tilley’s body, a bizarre objectivism if there ever was one).
Freud squeezes so many different, sometimes conflicting meanings into his simple portraits that for me, he has revitalized the painting of nudes in the same way that Ligeti revitalized the piano etude. I hope he has some more canvases left in him.