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Two Francis Bacon Masterpieces Driving Interest in Contemporary Art Auction

by WorthPoint Staff (05/04/11).

NEW YORK – Two works by one of the greatest British painters of the 20th Century, Francis Bacon, are expected to realize more than $45 million combined at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on May 11, which will also include works by Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko.

Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for Self-Portrait”

The Bacon pieces—“Three Studies for Self Portrait” (1974) and “Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail)” (1952)—have been recently been exhibited in the United Kingdom before the sale for the first time, having resided in private American collections. It is expected to realize $25 million or more.

The arrival of these landmark works to the market—which feature Bacon’s timeless sinuous renditions of elasticized flesh that touch on the human condition and the fleeting nature of life—is buoyed by significant recent sales of Bacon’s work, most notably his “Portrait of Lucian Freud” from 1964, which realized more than $37 million in February of this year.

Bacon (1912-1992) painted only 10 self-portraits in the 1970s. In “Three Studies for Self Portrait,” each of the three distorted, guttural faces of Bacon is placed against a dark, muted background on 14-inch x 10-inch canvases. The work is one of the most anticipated lots of the Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale and joins a cadre of important self-portraits to be offered in the auction, along with those by Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Urs Fischer and Mike Kelley.

Bacon’s unequivocally timeless, richly-hued self-portraits convey psychological intensity akin to Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Bacon’s depictions of himself express with haunting power the existential nature of the human condition. Having suffered the loss of many near to him in the mid-1970s—including the death of his lover, George Dyer—Bacon embraced the cathartic exercise of painting himself during this period of grief, guilt and self-reflection.

Painted in 1974, the triptych shows the artist with eyes shut—in sleep, pain or contemplation—and varied in degrees from twisted expression to mutilation, offering the piece a powerful sense of motion, and fragility. This work was acquired more than 35 years by the present owner. It was exhibited in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s in 1975 and at the Fondation Beyeler, in Basel, Switzerland in 1999.

“I loathe my own face, but I go on painting it only because I haven’t got any other people to do… [there is] nobody else left to paint.” Bacon said in 1975.

“Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail)” (estimate: $10-$15 million), was painted in 1952. The work was part of one of the greatest art discoveries in modern times—one of several museum-quality works by Bacon that were rediscovered in the 1990s in a storeroom in Chelsea, London, where Bacon had left them in the 1950s. The discovered cache included one of the artist’s finest, “Pope” paintings, “Study after Velazquez,” 1950.

The present work is a sister painting of “Study for Crouching Nude, 1952,” in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Upon its discovery, Bacon expert David Sylvester hailed “Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail)” as a masterpiece, describing it as “more poignant” than the Detroit Institute’s painting, which is “more controlled and conventional.” Sylvester further described the work with “Matissean sensuousness that evokes the flesh in that mood . . . combining eroticism and melancholy.”

Francis Bacon's “Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail).

The malformed figure is half man, half animal figure. It is almost entirely abstracted, evoking psychological unrest with undertones of angst, passion and pathos. The expressive sweep and gesture of the work is symbolic in Bacon’s life and work, like one of his subjects and contemporaries, Lucian Freud. This work was acquired by the present owner in 1998, at the same time that Bacon’s rediscovered “Study after Velazquez” sold privately for the highest price ever paid for a Bacon painting.

“It is such a rare honor to be able to present to the market in one sale two amazing works by one of the greatest painters of the 20th century,” said Brett Gorvy, deputy chairman and international head of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s.” The Bacon market is truly global and we have witnessed strong prices paid in recent months. The rarity and importance of these two works will be very exciting for collectors and museums worldwide.”

Formore information about this auction, visit the Christie’s web site.

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