There is a certain logic to the fact that Francis Bacon's 1969 painting Three Studies of Lucian Freud broke auction records when it sold for $142.4 million at Christie's in New York on Tuesday.
To begin with, the buyer or buyers are getting two major figures in one package. Both Bacon and Freud are names to conjure with. Secondly, they're getting Freud three times over. The previous record-holder, a less than prime version of Munch's The Scream, is widely thought to have been overpriced. By comparison, the Bacon looks like good value for money.
Born in Dublin, Bacon was in his 30s when his landmark painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion put him on the artistic map in 1945. Its raw emotional intensity and extreme imagery became hallmarks of his style right up until his death in 1992.
He never lost his knack for creating memorable images, and the Freud studies are indeed memorable. With their pale yellow and beige backgrounds, they are also unusually bright and cheerful. An added attraction is that the three individual paintings were initially dispersed, much to Bacon’s annoyance, and a dedicated Italian collector devoted much time and money to reuniting them before selling them on to Tuesday’s seller.
Bacon's top auction price prior to Tuesday was a still hefty $86.3 million, spent by Roman Abramovich in 2008, which presumably encouraged Christie's to open bidding at a bullish $85 million.
The paintings are recognisably based on a number of photographs of Freud taken by John Deakin in 1964.
In some of the photographs Freud is sitting on a bed, for which Bacon has substituted a chair. This may account for Freud’s sunken posture and, in one case, Bacon has folded over part of a photograph to create the kind of extreme distortion typical of his work.
The photographs form part of the Francis Bacon Archive at Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery. In 1998 the artist's heir John Edwards and executor Brian Clarke donated Bacon's studio in London to the Hugh Lane.
Transported in all its famous messiness to Dublin, the studio is now a major visitor attraction in the gallery, together with the sizeable archive of material it contained. Given the astronomical prices, it is hardly surprising that the Hugh Lane is not in a position to build up a core collection of Bacon's finished paintings, which is a shame.
At the same time, its possession of the studio, and the fact that its archive makes it a centre of Bacon scholarship, helps boost the artist’s reputation, which in turn ups his market value. Like many other big names in the art world, Francis Bacon isn’t just a great artist, he’s a great industry.
Mind-boggling auction records understandably capture the public imagination, but those who regard art as a get-rich-quick option should pause before giving up the day job. The hard fact is their pursuit is more likely to cost money than make it for most artists.
Even a superstar such as Jeff Koons, whose Balloon Doggy (Orange) set a record at the same sale for a work by a living artist at $58.4 million, has experienced dramatic cycles of boom and bust in his chequered career to date.