Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Trip­tych (1970). Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia, Can­berra; pur­chased 1973.

VISI­TORS to Port­land Art Mu­seum in the past few weeks have been able to see the world’s most ex­pen­sive paint­ing ever sold at auc­tion. Fran­cis Ba­con’s 1969 trip­tych Three Stud­ies of Lu­cian Freud fetched a phe­nom­e­nal $US142.4 mil­lion last Novem­ber. The es­ti­mated price for the New York sale had been $US85m.

Even sea­soned art mar­ket watch­ers were sur­prised: ‘‘ This is not about col­lect­ing,’’ one dis­grun­tled bil­lion­aire col­lec­tor told Bloomberg.com on the day af­ter the auc­tion. ‘‘ For a mo­ment last night, I thought I was in the com­modi­ties mar­ket.’’ A high-pow­ered art con­sul­tant (a grow­ing breed in this cli­mate) said she was ‘‘ over­whelmed’’. The work will be on pub­lic dis­play in Oregon un­til March — tax rea­sons make this ben­e­fi­cial. And af­ter that, who knows?

The record sale of Three Stud­ies of Lu­cian Freud may make visi­tors to the NGA pause for a mo­ment in front of Can­berra’s own Ba­con, Trip­tych (1970), which was painted at about the same time. It’s ar­guably not one of his best, but then nei­ther — by crit­i­cal con­sen­sus — is Three Stud­ies. By 1970, Ba­con risked be­com­ing for­mu­laic. He was get­ting bored with his limpet East End lover Ge­orge Dyer, whom he painted in many dif­fer­ent po­si­tions and sce­nar­ios. In the Can­berra trip­tych Dyer ap­pears in a suit in the left-hand panel (he was al­ways smartly dressed) and naked in the right-hand one. He stares into space, as he does in many of Ba­con’s paint­ings of him. A year af­ter Trip­tych, Dyer died of an over­dose, giv­ing the guilt-stricken Ba­con pos­si­bly his best sub­ject. The paint­ings that he pro­duced in the af­ter­math of the tragedy — some­times de­scribed as the ‘‘ black trip­ty­chs’’ — are among his most pow­er­ful.

Ba­con liked to pro­duce paint­ings in threes. It was a for­mat with a long his­tory, es­pe­cially in Chris­tian art, and it suited Ba­con since, as he said, he con­ceived of im­ages in se­ries. The im­ages are not sup­posed to be read se­quen­tially, like a comic strip — they are not meant to be ‘‘ read’’ at all. Ba­con’s goal was for his paint­ings to have a vis­ceral rather than in­tel­lec­tual im­pact on the viewer; they are meant to ‘‘ open up the valves of sen­sa­tion’’. He worked out how to do this for him­self: he never went to art school. Once he found out, he de­vel­oped a ten­dency to re­peat him­self — the naked light bulb that casts a cir­cle of coloured light, the or­gas­mic spurt of white paint, the ec­to­plas­mic shad­ows. Even so, the paint car­ries its charge of hu­man ab­jec­tion in a way un­matched by any other artist. And even an av­er­age Ba­con is ex­cit­ing.

The re­cent sale of Three Stud­ies (boosted, they say, by quan­ti­ta­tive eas­ing) was not the first time a Ba­con paint­ing was bought for a record price. He is clearly a favourite in­vest­ment for the su­per rich. In­ter­est­ingly, money al­ways stuck to Ba­con, him­self a keen gam­bler. He had some­thing of Pi­casso’s ap­par­ently mag­i­cal abil­ity to sub­sti­tute his inim­itable mark-mak­ing abil­i­ties for cash, cre­at­ing in ef­fect his own cur­rency. It’s a cur­rency that has strato­spher­i­cally es­ca­lated in value. There are, af­ter all, only 28 or so Ba­con trip­ty­chs in ex­is­tence. Trip­tych (1970) was one of the NGA’s first ac­qui­si­tions, and surely one of its most sen­si­ble.

Oil on can­vas, each 198cm x 147.5cm

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