Francis Bacon’s triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969), has become the world’s most expensive work of art, selling for $142.4 million. The pre-sale estimate was $85 million with Bacon’s previous record sale being $86.3 million. But what does this mean, apart from somebody having large amounts of cash to spend on art and Christie’s Auctioneers making a fortune in commission? Can any piece of art be worth $142 million? Is the purchaser a true art fan or are they buying art purely as an investment, or as an extreme form of consumer fetishism?
Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909, his family moved to London during World War I (his domineering father was a Boer War veteran and was appointed to the War Office) and then back to Ireland in time for the violence of the Irish Civil War. As a child Bacon was apparently subjected to regular whippings on his father’s orders. Bacon’s childhood experience of violence probably influenced his depiction of the frailty of the human body in his later paintings. Not surprisingly his father didn’t take to kindly to Bacon’s nascent homosexuality and he kicked Bacon out of the family home in 1926. Bacon then moved to London and it was here that he began his career as an artist.
Bacon’s style is highly original. If you see a Bacon painting the chances are you’ll know immediately it’s one of his. The backgrounds often lack details and are filled with blocks of colour. The people are twisted, distorted, blurred, and barely recognisable as humans. But the viewer does manage to identify the humanity in these distorted figures. The human body is vital to existance but prevents the true expression of human desires and emotions. It is this constant tension, between the physical, and the mental, this almost tortuous tension, that lies at the heart of Bacon’s work.
Bacon often used the triptych form for his painting. The triptych is a classic Christian form (often with Christ on the centre panel) which could be displayed above altars. Perhaps the most famous triptych is Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (ca. 1590-1610, suitably on display in the Prado in Madrid, the city of Bacon’s death) which has a distinct moral, if humourous, purpose. Bacon’s triptych’s don’t seem to offer any hope of salvation. The figures are trapped by the body and the body is trapped by the frame. Undoubtedly part of the attraction of Three Studies of Lucien Freud is the subject matter. Lucian Freud is arguably the greatest English artist of the last century (although if Bacon is Irish then Freud could also be described as German as he lived there until he was 10). Freud, like Bacon, lived a lifestyle filled with art, sex, and alcohol.
What would Bacon have thought of his piece selling for such an astronomical price? Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews in London is on permanent display in The Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. Bacon’s heir, John Edwards, left the studio the museum as they don’t charge an admission fee. Apparently a London museum was in negotiations to acquire the studio but it couldn’t guarantee free admission. The studio is a wonder, a dingy mass of canvas, paint, brushes, empty champagne boxes, books, photos, and magazines. There are also some Bacon paintings (some incomplete) and it’s fantastic to be able to get so close to them and see the colours and textures as they were menat to be seen. Whilst financial freedom is important to an artist it didn’t seem to change Bacon much, he stayed in 7 Reece Mews for over 30 years and was with John Edwards for over 20 years.
Some of the comments on The Guardian article about the auction rightly display a certain anger that $142 million can be spent on some canvas and paint. Some complain that the money would be better spent on the Phillipines disaster. And they are right. But, unfortunately, it’s unlikely the buyer will be making such a massive donation to a humanitarian cause. However spending $142 million on art is far better than spending it on fighter jets, chemical weapons, or the $225 million it cost to produce a Hollywood flop like The Lone Ranger. Paintings were created to be sold as is all forms of art. If art wasn’t sold there would be far less of it around. Admittedly auction house like Christie’s have a dubious reputation but they can’t be blamed for a piece selling for a ridiculous price. If you want to own a piece of Bacon art to bring to the beach this summer you could do worse than this…
Gadfly Online: Slaughterhouse Earth: The Crucifixion of Francis Bacon by John W. Whithead
Culture In Development: Christie’s Auction House Selling Stolen Merchandise by Delhi Times
Bacon by Luigi Fiacci, Taschen, 2003
7 Reece Mews Francis Bacon’s Studio by John Edwards & Perry Ogden, Thames & Hudson, 2001