“The reek of human blood smiles out at me”, Francis Bacon once declared to Franck Maubert, adopting a few lines by Aeschylus. The painter of human anguish remains a star in contemporary art, in museums as well as in auction rooms.
Francis Bacon was born to British parents in Dublin on 28 October 1909. Scraggly and sickly, he was tutored at home rather than going to school, and transited between Dublin and London. He discovered his homosexuality when he was a teenager and left the family home for London.
Thus began a bohemian life for him, between Berlin and Paris, and doing odd jobs — namely as a decorative painter. He discovered expressionism in Germany, and was particularly struck by a Picasso exhibition at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg (Paris).
In 1929, he returned to London, and self-taught, he produced drawings and watercolours while continuing to work as a decorative painter. As of 1931, he focused more on painting and adopted large formats. In 1933, he completed Crucifixion, reproduced in the journal Art Now.
But after a series of failures, Francis Bacon thought about giving it all up. His first solo exhibition at the Transition Gallery in 1934 was not a success and in 1936, André Breton refused his request to participate in the international surrealism exhibition. When the war broke out, he was exempted from service and withdrew to the countryside. Upon his return to London, he rented a studio in Kensington and started afresh: he destroyed his earlier works, only keeping about ten of them.
In 1946, after the public outcry roused by his exhibition of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion at the Lefevre Gallery — distasteful to a society which preferred to forget about the war horrors — he left for Monte-Carlo. Here, he namely began his Screaming Popes series. It was at this point that he met Lucian Freud, and painted his first portrait of him in 1951.
Francis Bacon gradually gained renown. His Painting 1946 was purchased by the MoMA in 1948; he represented Great Britain at the 27th Venice Biennale in 1954 —alongside Ben Nicholson and Lucian Freud; his first retrospective took place in 1955 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. In 1958, he signed a contract with the gallery Marlborough — which would play a prominent role in his consecration.
In 1961, Francis Bacon moved to 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington, the best-known of his London studios. In the 1960s, he consistently produced triptychs — Three Studies for a Crucifixion was acquired by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1964. He multiplied portraits, feverishly painting Lucien Freud, George Dyer, Isabel Rawsthorne, Henrietta Moraes, and himself. Bacon wanted to “leave a trail of the human presence” in his faces.
George Dyer became his lover before committing suicide in 1972 on the eve of the great Bacon retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. Over these years, the artist’s work was at the core of a vast debate on the notion of realism and the role of the image in painting.
A cultivated painter, Bacon was impregnated by various influences: Diego Velasquez, Nicolas Poussin and Rembrandt. But he described himself as standing “outside a tradition”, rejecting the abstraction reigning at the time.
Asthmatic since his childhood, he died of pneumonia during a stay in Madrid in 1992.
Francis Bacon very much remains an up-to-date figure. His catalogue raisonné was published on 30 June 2016 by the Estate of Francis Bacon — and written by Martin Harrison, author of In Camera. This lengthy catalogue with colour illustrations offers the largest scrutiny of the artist’s works to date — referring to 384 paintings. Le catalogue raisonné thus updates “many works that have remained confidential as they have been in private collections,” explains Martin Harrison, when questioned by Art Media Agency.
Ultimately, this catalogue raises an interesting question: do we really know Francis Bacon? According to Martin Harrison: “In the last twenty years, a majority of essays on Bacon have focused on a total of about 150 works, which only represent one-quarter of his production.” Which is a good reason to rush and see the exhibitions on the artist that are popping up at the moment.
For the painter’s institutional presence is strong. The exhibition “Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms” finishes on 18 September at Tate Liverpool. Via some thirty paintings, it studies the idea of recurrence in the artist’s work. The exhibition will be travelling to the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, from 7 October to 8 January 2017.
A second exhibition has recently ended: “Francis Bacon, Monaco and French Culture”, curated by Martin Harrison. Featuring over sixty works, it aimed to reveal the influence of French culture on Bacon’s work and his Monaco period. The exhibition will be travelling to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao — and refocusing on the artist’s relationship with Spain — from 30 September to 8 January 2017: “Francis Bacon: From Picasso to Velazquez”.
This current interest in Bacon is not unusual. Ever since 1946, his works have been shown at over 460 exhibitions — two-thirds of them in museums. In addition, over 75 institutions, spread out over nearly 25 countries, own Bacon works in their collections.
Amongst the most notable exhibitions in recent years, we can mention “Francis Bacon, The Human Body” at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1998; “Papal Portraits” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego in 1999; “Van Gogh by Bacon” in 2002 at the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh in Arles; “Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads” in 2005 at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh in 2005; “Caravaggio – Bacon” in 2009 at the Galleria Borghese in Rome in 2009; and “Irrational marks: Bacon-Rembrandt” at Ordovas, in London in 2011.
Francis Bacon is often shown in relation to his inspirations, his masters such as Rembrandt and Velasquez. He is incidentally most often shown alongside Pablo Picasso, followed by Andy Warhol, Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet and Joan Miró.
Seen regularly in international exhibitions, the artist has featured in Documenta (1959, 1964, 1977 and 1992) and the Venice Biennale (1978, 1995, 2003, 2005) while making appearances at the Sao Paulo Biennale (1959, 1998) and the Lyon Biennale (1997).
As one may have already noticed, it is mainly in the West that Francis Bacon has been shown. Together, Germany, the United States and Great Britain account for more than half of his exhibitions. Exhibitions on the artist have also multiplied since his death: appearing in an average of 2.3 exhibitions per year before his death, his works have featured in 15 or so per year since 1992.
The greatest writers on art have turned their interest to Bacon: David Sylvester, Michel Leiris and John Russell during his lifetime, as well as James Elkin… As for the press, his media coverage has followed the rhythm of his exhibitions, which have multiplied since his death. While about 53 articles per year were published on him in the 1980s, then nearly 300 in the 1990s, the figure has reached over 2,000 since 2000! Over half of these articles are in English, followed by Spanish (13 %), German (12 %) and French (7.7 %). The most prolific journalists to write on him are Kelly Crow, Jackie Wullschlager, Carol Vogel, Colin Gleadell and Kenneth Baker.
As far as the market goes, can the artist’s up-and-down auction results be explained by the global economic situation? Francis Bacon’s popularity is linked to the economy’s shifts, with a period of hype in 2007 and 2008, then a collapse in 2009.
But this should not obscure the fact that Francis Bacon remains an auction-room star. According to Artprice, during the first half-year of 2016, he was the world’s eighth most profitable artist, with auction sales proceeds totalling $77.6 million in 50 lots exchanged — notably, Two Studies for a Self-Portrait (1970) going for $34.9 million on 11 May at Sotheby’s New York.
In addition, Francis Bacon has long been one of the most expensive artists in auction rooms. His Three Studies for Lucian Freud was purchased on 13 November 2013 at Christie’s New York by Elaine Wynn for $142 million — before being overtaken by Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (version O) selling for $179.3 million on 11 May 2015, also at Christie’s New York.
Since 1989, nearly 2,000 works by Francis Bacon have been presented at auctions. Over 1,600 have been sold, with a negligible unsold rate of 16 %. It’s interesting to note that the works to be resold the most are in the middle range $50,000 to $250,000 bracket — with an unsold rate of 32 %. Too expensive for small collectors who prefer to concentrate on lithographs; not expensive enough for the very wealthy looking out for more prestigious works such as Portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1963), which sold for $42.5 million at Christie’s New York in 2015. So prestigious that the painting was among five Francis Bacon works to be stolen from a Madrid apartment in June 2015.
In all, Bacon’s works make up an auction turnover well in excess of one billion dollars — $1,711,870,000 —, in other words an average price of $1,060,000 per lot sold and $893,000 per lot offered for sale. Obviously, while paintings represent only one lot out of ten placed on sale, they generate almost all of the artist’s sales proceeds.
There’s no getting around the fact that these paintings are sold exclusively in London and New York, by either Christie’s or Sotheby’s! The two cities share 97 % of Francis Bacon’s auction takings, and the two auction houses make up 97 % of his business. Further driving in this duopoly, Christie’s and Sotheby’s have scored the artist’s 20 best auction sales and 187 out of his top 200 sales!
Finally, on a more reasonable market, Francis Bacon’s lithographs are also very sought after. They are sold for an average of $9,800 per work and also have a low unsold rate (18 %).
In short, there are still fine days ahead for the market for the most famous English painter in the 20th century.