Francis Bacon: First Look At Pope Set For Sotheby’s Auction

A work from of Francis Bacon’s most famous series of paintings, of seated and often screaming popes, is to go on sale with an estimated value of £25m to £35m. When the canvas last went under the hammer in 2005, “Study for a Pope I” (1961) fetched £10 million — at the time this was a record for the artist. But even if the work goes under the hammer for the lower end of the latest price estimate, it would still equate to a rise in value of 150 percent.

The painting was originally bought by the photographer and art collector Gunter Sachs, former husband of Brigitte Bardot, who held it for 40 years before selling in 2005. The canvas was the first of six “pope” paintings that Bacon made in 1961 for a landmark show at the Tate. Ironically, the Vatican actually holds another example of Bacon’s popes from the same series in its museum in Rome.

Bacon had an ongoing obsession with the 1650 painting of “Innocent X” by Diego Velázquez, often repeatedly returning to the work as a source of inspiration for a series of canvases the artist worked and reworked in the 1950s and 1960s. Bacon’s studio was covered with images of the Velázquez oil painting — alongside photographs of the screaming nurse shot in the eye from the Russian classic ‘The Battleship Potemkin’, although the artist famously decided not to see the original work when on a visit to Rome, but instead worked from reproductions of the painting.

Deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, Oliver Barker, said that the artist deliberately painted most of his works “at arm’s length” from his subject matter, working from photographs of his sitters or reproductions of other paintings in books. “This enabled him not to get ‘crowded out’ by real life but allowed him to temper his painting with his own interpretations.”

Sotheby’s is set to auction the painting in London on July 1. Post-war British artists are currently in vogue, with works by Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff fetching ever-higher prices; these were “school of London” artist’s who turned their collective back on fashions in the avant-garde to pursue figurative work.

“All of these British artists are gaining increasing international interest and the values of their works are rising,” Mr Barker stat to the FT. The auction house’s contemporary sale has works totalling an estimated £204m, with 35 per cent of these works by British artists. In the equivalent sale back in 2010,works by British artists made up only 12 per cent of total value.

“Figurative art for a long time was unfashionable, and particularly art that was psychologically very challenging. These are powerful images to live with,” Mr Barker concluded as part of the explanation for Bacon’s renewed popularity with collectors. Thus far the highest price paid for a single work by Bacon was £42.2 million for “Portrait of George Dyer Talking”, sold last year in London by Christie’s.

Image: Courtesy of Sotheby’s © 2015

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