Bacon, Freud, and a Painting of Two Old Masters

The Guardian's Jonathan Jones described Francis Bacon's painting of Lucian Freud as a portrait of two geniuses. I have no objection to the sentiment, but I do disagree with the language. Three Studies of Lucian Freud is in fact a portrait of one old master by another.

In an era dominated by facile, superficial, precocious conceptual artists, Bacon and Freud were not young geniuses, but wise old masters, whose work gained in depth and power as they grew older, as they spent hundreds of hours making and reworking each canvas. Andy Warhol made his greatest -- and most expensive -- works in 1962, when he was 34 years old, and it is likely that Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst had passed their peaks by that age. Not so Bacon and Freud: Three Studies of Lucien Freud was painted in 1969, when Bacon was 60, and Benefits Supervisor Sleeping was painted in 1995, when Freud was 73. Bacon understood this: late in life, he told a friend, "Painting is an old man's business."

Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

David Hockney observed that Freud's portrait of him had more than a hundred hours "layered into it" -- a hundred hours of Hockney's moods, and a hundred hours of Freud's vision and thoughts. Art scholars have never fully explained the process by which the many layers of paint applied by great experimental artists, from Leonardo and Rembrandt to Bacon and Freud, create an impression in the viewer of depth -- not only of visible physical depth, but of psychological depth, as if the artist is portraying not only the appearance of the sitter, but is also capturing his or her inner life. But this is precisely what we feel in front of a portrait by one of these great experimental masters.

Francis Bacon, Study for the Head of George Dyer (1967). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The young conceptual Frank Stella once remarked that he would like to prohibit people from looking at his canvases for a long time, and toward this end he produced a series of abstract paintings with aluminum paint that were intended to be "repellent," unpleasant to look at. Bacon and Freud would never have said this. Both of them made their paintings slowly, painstakingly, and carefully, while they looked at the things and above all the people they loved, searching for a technique that would "give over all the pulsations of a person," trying to achieve portraits that were "of the people, not like them." In an age dominated by superficial conceptual art, instant computer links, and 140-character texts, the impressive sum paid for Three Studies of Lucian Freud is a vivid demonstration that there remains some appreciation for the slow production and slow consumption of great visual art.

Lucian Freud, After Cézanne (1999-2000). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.