Magazine article The Spectator

Missing Pictures

Magazine article The Spectator

Missing Pictures

Article excerpt

If you go to the great Tate Britain exhibition of Lucian Freud's work and look at the labels - which some have complained is rather difficult - you will note an odd fact: the most recent picture from the Tate's own vaults is `Standing by the Rags' (1988-9). Because Freud remains a vigorously productive painter, that picture is, chronologically, about four rooms before the end of the show.

The most recent Freud painting the Tate owns, not in the show, is from 1991. What that means is that our national collection owns no work by this indisputably major British artist from the last decade. All of the great works from those years - the years of Leigh Bowery and the mighty model known as the Benefit Supervisor, of the wonderful `Self Portrait' that finishes the show - are either in foreign museums or private collections (again, mainly foreign).

Now, you might say that this is because the Tate - or Sir Nicholas Serota - does not like late Freud. It could be that that is right, though I doubt it. The true reason, I suspect, is that the Tate cannot afford a Freud. Our greatest living painter has become rather expensive. The large picture entitled `After Cezanne 2000', in the penultimate room, was bought by the National Gallery of Australia for a sum close to 2.5 million. It would be difficult for the Tate, or any other of our national museums, to come up with that sort of money.

We have reached a strange position in this country. Vast sums of money can be raised - through the Lottery and in other ways - to pay for museum buildings. Indeed, it sometimes seems that there is scarcely a gallery in the country that has not thrown out a new wing, probably with restaurant, education and conservation facilities. Most of those that haven't already are just about to. In the glory days of the Lottery Fund, a number of massive, completely pointless museums were thrown up around the country; in some cases only to close almost immediately.

But when it comes to forking out for stuff to put inside those gleaming new structures, the position is very different -- and has visibly got worse over the last 30 years. It can be seen most vividly in provincial art galleries, even more scandalously strapped for cash than their national brethren. Many if not most of these have fine collections of 19th- and probably 18thcentury British art, generously funded and bequeathed by local bigwigs around the time the institution was founded. Most trundle into the 1960s or so and, after that, nothing.

A typical provincial gallery has a terrific collection of 18th-century portraits and Pre-Raphael ites, fine things from the first half of the century by British and the occasional foreign artist, gets up to about 1970 with, say, a Bridget Riley, a Patrick Caulfield; and after that nothing, or very little. Where are its Anish Kapoors, its Damien Hirsts, its Rachel Whitereads and Richard Deacons? By and large, it couldn't afford them, so they are in Los Angeles or Cologne.

A similar problem is now afflicting the national museums. The incoming director of the National Gallery is faced with a cut in the money available as the grant-in-aid from the government over the last three years from 3.5 million to nothing. And nothing will not get you far in today's art market - where a National Gallery-worthy picture such as Rubens's `Massacre of the Innocents' recently fetched 49.5 million; not even if it is eked out by the usual strategems, including contributions from the valiant National Art Collections Fund. …

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