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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Kim Willsher

‘A class of his own’: Sale of rare Bacon works marks 30th anniversary of artist’s death

Francis Bacon
Monaco-based collector Majid Boustany is selling 20 lots of Bacon’s works, including a hand-knotted rug he produced while working as an interior designer. Photograph: Bruce Bernard

As a teenager, the artist, Francis Bacon, famously ran away to Paris to escape school and an authoritarian, homophobic father who had thrown him out of the family home.

Although his visit was brief, Bacon returned to the city two years later and became fascinated with the works of Picasso, Rodin, Degas and Monet.

On seeing Picasso’s works at the famous Paul Rosenberg gallery, Bacon would later say: “At that moment I thought, well, I will try and paint too.”

Back in London, Bacon became an interior designer. It was the beginning of a lifelong relationship with the French capital, however, to which he would often return, eventually setting up his studio in the newly trendy Marais district where he lived for more than a decade, from 1975 to 1987.

Now, to mark the anniversary of Bacon’s death 30 years ago on 28 October 1992, one of the artist’s most assiduous collectors, the Monaco-based philanthropist Majid Boustany, founder of the Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, is selling a number of rare pieces including paintings, photographs and letters.

A rare postcard signed by Francis Bacon, dated 1934.
A rare postcard signed by Francis Bacon, dated 1934. Photograph: Sotheby’s / ArtDigital Studio

The highlight of the sale is the 1949 painting Figure Crouching, the earliest surviving work from Bacon’s long-running series of hunched subjects, which he would continue until into the 1970s, valued at up to €5m.

Another of the 20 lots is a hand-knotted carpet made while Bacon was working as an interior designer.

Guillaume Mallecot, who is overseeing the auction for Sotheby’s on 24 October, says the artist produced 20 rugs in the late 1920s and early 1930s, of which only seven are believed to exist today.

“We don’t know very well this side of Francis Bacon, the interior designer, and very few of the items he produced in the 1930s exist, so this rug adds a touch of magic to the sale,” Mallecot told the Guardian.

A rare surviving painting from the 1930s (Bacon destroyed most of his early works), the Corner of the Studio, which reveals the extent of Picasso’s influence, is also being sold along with a hand-drawn postcard, a paint-covered plate palette from the artist’s Paris studio – one of only three from this time – and several black-and-white photographs, including one by Cecil Beaton and another by Don McCullin.

Francis Bacon paint-covered palette
One of the artist’s palettes. Photograph: Sotheby’s/ArtDigital Studio

During his life, Bacon was equally parsimonious with details of his early years, censoring biographers and removing details he did not approve of. However, he admitted that he would not consider himself a success as an artist until he had achieved recognition in France.

“If the French like my work, then I shall feel that I have, to some extent, succeeded,” he said.

They did. A 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais is considered the zenith of his career – the only other living artist to have been given the honour until then was Picasso, though the event was marred by the suicide of Bacon’s companion, George Dyer, two days earlier in the Paris hotel they were staying in. David Hockney, then 34, and described by Le Monde as a “young rival” of Bacon’s, travelled from London to attend the opening.

“He always thought the English didn’t understand him, that his reception in Paris was decisive in a career, that it was the only place where an artist of his calibre could be recognised,” Didier Ottinger, curator of the 2019 exhibition Bacon en toutes lettres at the Centre Pompidou, told Le Monde at the time.

A portrait of Bacon by Don McCullin.
A portrait of Bacon by Don McCullin. Photograph: Sotheby’s/ArtDigital Studio

This was perfectly illustrated by the fact that the president, Georges Pompidou, opened the 1971 retrospective. Margaret Thatcher later described Bacon as: “The man who paints those dreadful pictures.”

The success of the Grand Palais exhibition prompted Bacon to buy a studio at rue de Birague in the Marais in 1974, which he kept until 1987.

To mark the sale, British art historian, Martin Harrison, an authority on Bacon’s work, wrote: “Arguably the most significant consequence of Bacon’s reception in Paris in the 1970s was that it reversed the injudicious and casual opinions of British critics who tended to glibly posit a visible decline in his later paintings. French critics ignored such subjectively inclined periodisation and responded with intelligence to major works that were often given their debut in Paris.”

A photograph by Cecil Beaton of Bacon in his Battersea studio, circa 1960.
A photograph by Cecil Beaton of Bacon in his Battersea studio, circa 1960. Photograph: Sotheby’s/ArtDigital Studio

Mallecot says despite the clear influences of other grand masters like Picasso, Bacon remains “in a class of his own”.

“There is no Francis Bacon movement, there is only Francis Bacon. He is a giant in the history of 21st-century art,” he said.

All proceeds from the sale will go to Boustany’s Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation.

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