Art and soul: the world’s most expensive Bacon

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Francis Bacon's Three Studies of Lucian Freud. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Francis Bacon's Three Studies of Lucian Freud. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

He was described by dear old Margaret Thatcher as ‘that man who paints those dreadful pictures’; and just this month, an interesting Bacon piece sold for $142.4 million… and no, I’m not talking about the delicious meat. British-Irish artist Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud was sold for a record amount at Christie’s in Manhattan, making it the artwork with the highest price attained at auction (when not factoring in inflation), and the most expensive British artwork ever sold. This couldn’t have come as more of a surprise to me, considering the nightmarish nature of the artist’s work. If we consider the most expensive works ever sold, we’re looking at some sickly sweet Van Gogh flowers, or a colourful Picasso portrait of love; not, a gaudy, twisted and downright ugly triptych. Francis Bacon stands as one of the most prolific, yet mysterious figures of 20th century British art; producing disturbing, dark and shocking art over his sixty year career. His canvases are bleak, claustrophobic, existentialist, and were only appreciated by a very small avant-garde selection during his tragic life, which ended in 1992.

This work depicts three images of Bacon’s close friend, a fellow high- profile British artist, Lucian Freud. In each canvas, his body is contorted, his face unpleasantly abstract. He sits on a cane-bottomed wooden chair, behind him a headboard of a bed; his isolation emphasised by the black lines of a cage that he is trapped in. The walls which surround Lucian are imposing and a horrid shade of yellow (unusually bright for a Bacon work). All in all, this is not the kind of art you would want hung in your front room!

So who purchased this work, and why on earth did they want it to such an extent that it broke all the records? Admittedly, there remains only speculation with regards to who the secret buyer is, but it is reported to be a member of the Qatari royal family: Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad al-Thani. This would not come as a shock, considering the family already forked out a reported $269.4 million for Cezanne’s The Card Players (1892) in 2011. Indeed, the Gulf States are amassing an ever-growing collection of western art treasures, perhaps in preparation for the hosting of the 2022 World Cup. Maybe Qatar wishes to sustain the attention and tourism it will inevitably receive after the games by creating a cultural centre, to rival Paris or London. Yet, I do find it rather bizarre they would favour such a dark work, something which is by no standards beautiful, nor a significant work by the artist or of the century. Bacon himself was unapologetically homosexual, a theme which persists throughout his oeuvre; why would such a conservative nation endorse his art?

On a positive note, Bacon was adamant in his lifetime that the three parts of the triptych should not be separated, so we can be reassured by their continued unity. I suppose this episode demonstrates the saddening fact that art nowadays is no longer about love; nothing at all to do with the art, but simply commerce. It’s a bleak ending, but Bacon, the troubled creature that he was, would have wanted it that way. As he once famously said, “We live, we die. That’s it”.

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