T his November, one of just six surviving paintings from Francis Bacon's famed Tangier series will be offered in Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction. Entitled Pope, the present work was executed in Morocco circa 1958, during a particularly emotional and prolific period of the artist's life. The offering of Pope is momentous: prior to this, only two of the six surviving Tangier paintings have ever appeared at auction – the most recent, another Pope, was sold at Sotheby's in 2008 for $7.3 million (estimate $3.2 – 4.7 million).
Entrenched in layers of intimate, dark emotion, the present work is a superb example of one of Bacon's most iconic subjects. Pope is distinguished by its impressive scale and the subject's fully articulated face; through swaths of dark blue, green and ivory, the Pope stares out with penetrating, hollow eyes to meet the viewer's gaze.
Pope offers viewers a privileged glimpse into the passion and pain that influenced Bacon's work during the later part of the 1950s. Peter Lacy, Bacon's longtime lover, served as a muse throughout this era. In the mid-1950s, Lacy moved to Tangier, a city known for its exotic lifestyle and unusual tolerance for homosexuality. This reputation attracted many creative figures, including Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Over the coming years, Bacon traveled to Tangier often to be with Lacy, staying for extended periods of time. During one of these visits, circa 1958, Bacon completed the present Pope.
But despite its promises, Tangier ultimately signaled an end to Bacon and Lacy's calamitous relationship. After the split, in 1959, Bacon gifted five of his six Tangier Paintings, completed in this storied period, to his friend Nicolas Brusilowski; Bacon hoped his friend would somehow be able to reuse the canvases. Instead, Brusilowski preserved the paintings, which later found their way to private collections around the world. The present Pope was sold to Swiss dealer Jan Krugier; and in 1967, American collector Olga H. Knoepke subsequently acquired the work from Krugier's gallery. A renowned businesswoman, Knoepke amassed a significant collection of contemporary and American art in her lifetime, which she gifted to the Brooklyn Museum in 1981. Now, for the first time in over fifty years, Pope will once again change hands; all proceeds from the sale will be used to support the museum's collection.
Pope will feature in Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction, taking place on 14 November at 7:00 PM EDT in New York; select works from the sale will be on display at Sotheby's New York beginning 1 November.