Portland brings the (Francis) Bacon

The Portland Art Museum announced that it will display what is now known as the most expensive painting ever sold at auction,  a triptych by the Irish-born artist Francis Bacon. The painting, which sold to an unknown buyer in November in an auction that raised eyebrows and ignited speculation about whether the art market was in the grips of a speculative bubble, was purchased for $142.4 million.


“Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” a triptych by Francis Bacon of his friend and artist Lucian Freud. The 1969 painting by Bacon set a world record for the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction when it sold Tuesday evening Nov. 12, 2013 for $142.4 million. (AP/AP)

The New York Times reports a few new details about the mystery buyer:  He (apparently not she) is based on the West Coast and is not Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, according to a spokeswoman for the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation cited by the Times. The painting, which depicts the artist’s friend and fellow painter Lucian Freud, will remain on display at the Portland Museum of Art through March 30.

This is not good news. While it is encouraging that whoever purchased the painting understands the importance of public access to art, the museum shouldn’t be tacitly endorsing the judgments of the art market.  While the work is an important one in Bacon’s career, and is an interesting painting to be sure, the only reason the Portland Art Museum would scramble to arrange its exhibition is because it has also become notorious. Existentially, its status changed when it became the world’s supposedly “most expensive painting.” It is now famous for being expensive, rather like some people are famous for being famous. It is an identity that will, for many visitors, overwhelm whatever expressive value is in the painting itself. Museums should further looking, not gawking.

By celebrating the painting with a specially organized exhibition, the museum aligns itself with the commodification of art and effectively endorses the idea that the price tag is a valid a marker of quality. Museums don’t just house art, they place art on display in such a way that the viewer is compelled to ask a fundamental question: Why am I looking this? Why here, why now, why in this room, next to these other paintings rather than some other room? That process of interrogation is fundamental to the museum experience,

In Portland, we know exactly why we’re looking at this painting, and the interrogation is over before it even begins. That’s a lousy message to send to people who care deeply about art.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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