Monday 19 February 2018

Double take: Anglo-Irish artist Francis Bacon sells out

Sexually repression, conflict with his father and a miserable Irish childhood all combined to inspire Francis Bacon to paint that sort of self-portrait that sold for €20m this week. Ed Power reports

'Two Studies for Self-Portrait' by Francis Bacon during a press preview in London
'Two Studies for Self-Portrait' by Francis Bacon during a press preview in London
Francis Bacon
Ed Power

Ed Power

To gaze upon Francis Bacon's 'Two Studies for Self-Portrait' is to stare unflinchingly into the void.

The canvas, which sold for €19.8m at auction in London this week, was painted in 1977, when the Anglo-Irish artist was in the throes of one of the many depressions that dogged him his entire life and arguably defined his existence.

By then, he had lost a lover and a close friend to suicide while another romantic partner had passed suddenly. He was, thus, a haunted man, convulsed with self-loathing and existential despair - and you can see it all in the picture, with its warped contours and visceral brutalism.

"People have been dying around me like flies," he told an interviewer, around the time he created the painting, at the age of 68. "And I've had nobody else to paint but myself… I loathe my own face."

Art is not always pretty - but even by the most extreme standards, Bacon's oeuvre seethes and pulsates. Instantly notorious, his 'Pope' paintings of the 50s and 60s shimmer with demonic energy; his many sexualised drawings of men twitch with a sort of horrified lust, as if Bacon was disgusted, anew, every time he confronted his desires (he struggled for many years to make peace with his homosexuality). 

This has done little to stymie a posthumous boom in Bacon's work. When 'Two Studies' last went under the hammer, in 1993, it sold for a relatively modest €474,000. However, there was no surprise this week as it fetched nearly 45 times that figure (the sale was by a private collector - no income will accrue to Bacon's estate).

Such is the clamour for Bacon, dealers are being forced to revise the received wisdom that wealthy collectors are turned off by unsettling pieces. In 2013, his 'Three Studies of Lucian Freud' fetched €114 million, the highest ever paid for any item of art.

"I think that the appetite of collectors to own what would previously be perceived as difficult pictures is far more receptive," Oliver Barker, Sotheby's deputy chairman in Europe, said this week. "They are no longer after the transient and decorative in their collecting, they are really after the challenging and profound."

"His work is highly desired and you can see steep increases in prices as pieces change hands," says Katie Tsouros, of Irish arts website, Artfetch. "It's very exciting to see an artist connected to Ireland amongst the top 10 most expensive paintings ever sold."

Bacon was born in Dublin in 1902 and grew up in Straffan, County Kildare, where his English father had moved the family in order to breed horses. He was Anglo-Irish when tensions between Ireland's Protestant elite and the Catholic great unwashed was running towards open warfare. Consequently, Bacon's feelings towards the country were complex. He self-identified as British and, to this day, critics (often given to knee-jerk Anglophila) struggle to acknowledge his Irishness, no matter that his upbringing in a country seething with strife influenced the artist he would grow into.  

"There was an 'Irishness' in Bacon's temperament, although he vehemently denied it, having experienced his childhood in Ireland as traumatically painful," his friend Lady Caroline Blackwood (of the Guinness dynasty) wrote in the New York Review of Books, following his death in 1992. "He found it impossible to return to Ireland although he loved its countryside. He developed a neurotic attack of asthma on the plane whenever he tried to get there. He could fly to any country in the world without physical mishap, but any flight to his homeland always proved disastrous."

On the few occasions he commented publicly on Ireland, Bacon acknowledged the country had shaped him, and not at all in a good way. He vividly remembered barbed wire affixed to the gates of the estate, to keep angry peasants at bay. How bittersweet it would have been to know that his studio would today stand in the middle of Dublin, bequeathed to the Hugh Lane Gallery by his lover and heir John Edwards in 1998.

"I am a painter of the 20th century," Bacon once said. "During my childhood, I lived through the revolutionary Irish movement, Sinn Fein, and the wars, Hiroshima, Hitler, the death camps, and daily violence that I've experienced all my life. And after all that, they want me to paint bunches of pink flowers."

Fuelling his childhood unhappiness was a confrontational relationship with his father and a struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality.

"My father didn't love me, that's for sure. I think he hated me," he said. "He didn't want to spend money on me. He was always looking for an excuse to get his servants to beat me. He was a difficult man, very vindictive. He lost his temper with everyone, he didn't have any friends. He was aggressive . . . an old bastard."

"It can be assumed that it was a difficult time to be openly gay and have a relationship with Ireland as a country," says Tsouros. "This sense of isolation is something that contributed to the emotional manifestation within the work that he made."

Bacon fled Ireland aged 17, going first to Berlin, then to London, where he lived for many years in penury (not that this prevented him becoming a notorious lush with a penchant for the best champagne). He would never return - which made all the more striking the decision by Edwards to impart his studio, a riot of colour and chaos, to the State (Edwards who died in 2003, was the sole heir to Bacon's estate from which he inherited a reported £11m).

"The Bacon Studio in Hugh Lane is one of the greatest national treasures that we have and it does not get the attention and merit that it warrants or deserves," says Tsouros.

"To see what he surrounded himself with, what he lived with, how he worked and where he produced such astounding and significant works of art is fascinating. It's so alive with a feeling of creation."

"He was consumed by the human condition and what comes across as some sort of internal suffering," she adds. "[Suffering] was depicted by Bacon like no other artist: he delves openly and deeply into the human psyche through portraiture.

"Bacon 's reputation as a great artist is based on his images of the human condition primarily, but not exclusively, images of the male figure often in isolation," adds Barbara Dawson, director of the Hugh Lane.

"He viewed life existentially, and in his belief in its futility, created powerful imagery."

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