Hid­den for years, Ba­con mas­ter­piece goes on sale

The Guardian - - NEWS - Jonathan Jones

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.

Pho­to­graph: Nils Jor­gensen/Rex/Shutterstock

The work will be auc­tioned at Christie’s next month for an ex­pected £60m

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