20 April 2001

Freudian slip

In between dealing with a hostile press, public brawls with former and current staff, controversial appearances before Senate estimates committees, and complaints about the air-conditioning, National Gallery of Australia director, Brian Kennedy, has found time to pursue a painting – one with an asking price of $8 million, no less. News broke last Wednesday in The Australian that Kennedy would acquire British artist Lucien Freud’s 1999 painting After Cezanne for a sum that would make it most expensive painting ever purchased by an Australian public gallery.
However on Friday Kennedy told The Bulletin that he was “taken by surprise when the story appeared,” and that the Gallery’s negotiations with the artist, who still owns the work, were continuing. As we go to press, Kennedy still has a $1m shortfall to make up from private benefactors in order to clinch the deal.
Suspicions that Kennedy himself leaked the story seem unlikely, given that it is highly unusual to seek publicity for a work you hope to purchase. There are fears now that Freud may now even raise his asking price, now that he is aware that the work is so keenly sought down under. And for the sale to fall through now would surely be a highly embarrassing nail in Kennedy’s professional coffin.
Informed reaction to the acquisition has, in general, been positive But not everyone is happy. One former director of a major Australian state gallery told The Bulletin that the NGA’s “whole collection policy needs to be reviewed and sharpened. Why in 2001 are we buying up the work of British artists? Why aren’t we looking to the Pacific or Asia or here in Australia for that matter?” And one leading benefactor to the NGA declared if he “had the choice of spending $8m on a British artist or a similar sum on Australian work I know what I’d be choosing.”
However William Wright, curatorial director of Sydney’s leading commercial gallery, Sherman Galleries, dismissed such criticism as shallow. “In New York they wouldn’t blink at such a purchase. It’s a worthwhile purchase.
“It’s a large composition, an excellent transcription of a remarkable earlier work (Paul Cezanne’s L’Apres-midi a Naples) that the NGA already owns. Freud is the best living artist of his kind by a long chalk and we have too few of them here.”
Should it make the voyage, After Cezanne will bring the tally to four Freuds in Australian collections, three of them in public galleries.
The Art Gallery of Western Australia purchased Freud’s Naked Man with Rat (1977) in 1983 for just $78,000. Today it is valued at $6.5 million, marking the $8m for After Cezanne as a fair market price.
The AGWA’s deputy director, Gary Dufour, says his Freud’s worth to his Gallery since it’s purchase has been more than simply fiscal.
“For smaller public galleries like ours, if you don’t have works in your collection that others want to borrow, it affects your ability to borrow works in turn,” said Dufour. “Our Freud has spent half it’s time with us out on loan to galleries all over the world – in Paris, Washington, London, Berlin, Frankfurt - if we hadn’t been loaning out the Freud for the past decade most of these major international galleries would not even know we existed.”
Asked which Freud was the superior work, Dufour said he wouldn’t comment only to say “I’m pleased that we have the one that we have.”
In the mid 1980’s the Art Gallery of New South Wales had the chance to buy an important Freud but decided the asking price of $360,000 too high. Three months later the work was eventually sold for $1.2 million.

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First published in The Bulletin

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