LONDON - 1962 was a significant year for Francis Bacon. This was the year of his first full-scale retrospective at a major museum. On 24 May 1962 Francis Bacon opened at the Tate Gallery to rave reviews. The Times’ art critic heralded Bacon’s show as “the most stunning exhibition by a living British artist there has been since the war,” stating that “one can think of no experience quite comparable… except possibly one’s first encounter with the late paintings of Goya in the Prado.” Comprising almost half of the artist’s output to date, this show also included new ground-breaking work painted especially for the exhibition. Forming a crescendo to the retrospective, this new work included the artist’s first large-scale triptych, Three Studies for a Crucifixion of 1962 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York), as well as the iconic sequence of Study for a Pope I – VI executed the previous year. From this series, Sotheby’s is honoured to be presenting Study for a Pope I for auction on July 1st.


 FRANCIS BACON, STUDY FOR A POPE I. ESTIMATE £25,000,000–35,000,000.

It is the first in a sequence of six, based on Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of Innocent X (1650), in which the Pontiff is reduced to human frailty and fallibility; significantly number II in the series now prestigiously resides in the collection of the Vatican in Rome.

By his own admission, Bacon was obsessed by Velazquez’s painting, by the “magnificent colour of it,” and nowhere is this more apparent than in Study for a Pope I. Crimson and cardinal red are pitted against an abyssal black ground which is accented by the green geometry of a pared-back Papal throne; the face is treated like raw flesh and bone, as though the skin has been flayed back to reveal the visceral carnality that lies beneath. Although versions after Velazquez’s Innocent span 20 years of Bacon’s career, he famously never saw the original painting at the Museo Doria Pamphilj in Rome, working as he did from reproductions found in books. Nevertheless through its unbridled use of colour, the present painting and the series to which it belongs are the works through which Bacon’s obsession with Velázquez’s canonical Pope Innocent X is most fully brought to life.


(LEFT) REPRODUCTION COLLECTED BY BACON OF VELÁZQUEZ’S POPE INNOCENT X. DUBLIN CITY GALLERY THE HUGH LANE, DUBLIN ©THE ESTATE OF FRANCIS BACON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. DACS 2015. (RIGHT) DIEGO VELÁZQUEZ PORTRAIT OF POPE INNOCENT X, 1650. GALLERIA DORIA PAMPHILJ, ROME. IMAGE: © BRIDGEMAN IMAGES.

As part of the Tate show it was these Papal works and the new triptych that garnered praise from the contemporary press. As well as declaring Bacon to be “the most interesting” of “all the living painters I know,” on 24 May 1962 Nigel Gosling of the Observer accorded special recognition to Bacon’s most recent output by referring to “the exciting new paintings which crown this splendidly chosen and displayed exhibition.” Indeed, this exhibition and the paintings which were showcased there undoubtedly signal a true watershed moment for the artist and put into motion a newfound confidence that would herald his finest decade in paint.

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