Horst and £17M Sue May 15, 2008 at 8:52 am

Two contrasting news headlines drew my attention this morning. Horst Köhler – a former head of the International Monetary Fund – singled out excessive executive pay … as a factor in the subprime crisis and accused bankers of acting irresponsibly according to the FT. And over in New York a Lucien Freud portrait of Sue Tilly set a record Tuesday night for the most money paid for any work by a living artist. The 1995 life-size painting — “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” — fetched $33.6 million during bidding at Christie’s auction house in New York according to CNN. (That’s $10M more than the previous record, by the way.)

Whatever you think of the desirability of having one of his paintings on your wall, Lucien Freud is one of the greatest artists of his generation, perhaps of all time. His unflinching cruelty, the visceral brushstrokes, the shock of seeing the reality of the body as he portrays it: no one since Goya has been as brutal about what people are. His output is of staggeringly high quality as anyone who saw his only major retrospective (the Hayward in 1988 – why hasn’t he had one since?) can attest. Yet despite the new record price, Stan O’Neil could buy four paintings at this price and still have enough left to build a gallery to put them in and staff it for life with his payoff for leaving Merrill — leaving it with enormous losses. Chuck Prince could manage three with his payoff for failure at Citi. When you see that, you realise that perhaps Horst has a point.

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