Hidden for years, Bacon masterpiece goes on sale
The pope’s body is a spiralling heap of sausages wrapped in white and pink robes. Go closer, and even stranger physical images arise: brown smears over his fleshy hands look disturbingly faecal. You could almost believe it, if this were not a £60m (or more) masterpiece soon to go on sale in Christie’s opulent London auction house.
Francis Bacon’s Study of Red Pope 1962. 2nd Version 1971 is as close to a new painting by the great Soho bohemian, who died in 1992, as we are ever likely to see.
The work was exhibited in Paris in 1971, six months after Bacon finished it, and was shown in Düsseldorf the next year. Since then it has been locked away for 45 years by a private collector, who never lent it or showed it.
The gold-framed explosion of velvety red and rose on raw beige canvas has been “hidden away”, said Jussi Pylkkänen, president of Christie’s. He will be auctioning it himself next month when the world’s collectors converge on London for the Frieze art fair.
Bacon painted Study of Red Pope 1962. 2nd Version 1971 – probably not his best title – at the most intense moment of his life as he was about to have a massive one-man exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.
He wanted to include his renowned Study for Innocent X (1962) – but the owner refused to lend it. With just six months to go before the most important show of his life Bacon shut himself in his cramped, paint-spattered studio in west London to create a new version.
But he was also facing a personal artistic crisis. As Bacon painted, his relationship with George Dyer, the East End small-time criminal who was the love of his life, was getting ever more futile. Dyer had descended into an alcoholic malaise, unable to live as Bacon did in a giddily creative, permanent champagne high. He was vanishing from Bacon’s life – but invades this painting.
As the pope squirms, sitting not on a papal throne but a 1970s swivel chair, the glass booth that encloses him morphs into a mirror, in which he sees the figure of Dyer. This is not the decaying man Dyer had become but more the handsome thug he was when Bacon met his love in a pub in 1963. Wearing a smart suit and tie, his hand elegantly clenched in a proud fist, Dyer is upright, strong, and a bit cocky.
Is the slumping pope, whose formless body is capped by a drunk’s red nose, a portrait of Dyer drunk, looking at a last vision of his former self?
Pylkkänen thinks Bacon was working at an artistic and emotional peak. “There’s something about it that tells me – ‘I’m going to paint a great picture for this show, the last of my popes, with my muse George Dyer in it’.”
He succeeded, at least artistically. The Grand Palais was a triumph and raised his reputation to the level it has held ever since. Yet as Bacon prepared for the opening, Dyer killed himself with a drug overdose in their hotel room. Notoriously, there was a conspiracy of silence for two days so the death wouldn’t spoil the exhibition previews.
“We’re talking about £60m,” says Pylkkänen. The record for a Bacon is £89.3m for his Three Studies of Lucian Freud, so the estimate may be exceeded if bidders get excited enough by this painting’s intense combination of aesthetic and human drama. “It’s got all the elements that collectors are looking for,” says Pylkkänen.
The work will be auctioned at Christie’s next month for an expected £60m