Assets? My Arts! Why the World Loves Bacon
Francis Bacon that is. The artist, born in Dublin October 1909 and who died in 1992 while on holiday in Madrid. Not to be confused with ‘Sir Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Alban’, who died of pneumonia in 1626 while at Arundel Mansions, Highgate, London.
This means that when I first came across the art of Francis Bacon he was still alive. For it was 1990, I was living in Wiltshire studying to be the next Ansel Adams (for the record, that didn’t work out). I lived in a shared house with people who were, pretty much, in the same position as I was. We didn’t have any money. There was no internet. We didn’t have a phone (not even a landline). No computers. One TV with four channels on it. You watched what you had all mutually agreed upon. We did have books, usually bought second hand and passed around. They were valued. Art books especially so.
It was hard work during those times. I didn’t have a student grant and student loans hadn’t been invented yet. Going to college meant working; I would work all the evening shifts I could in a pub and even pick up cleaning shifts the morning after. Others may have spent their weekends taking part in the rave scene that was sweeping the nation, but by Saturday night I was usually so tired my eyes wouldn’t work properly. I would walk back from the pub that I worked in with a bag full of ‘whatever had gone out of date’ (there was always something) to the living room where I would spend an hour or so with my house mates before falling asleep on the sofa.
It was during one of these Saturday nights that someone showed me a book of Francis Bacon’s pictures. It was small, about A5 size, and had a deep red hardback that had lost its original sleeve. The pages of text were cheap matt paper, but the ones with pictures were thick and glossy. The book fell open at these gloss print pages.
The first painting (or series of paintings) I looked at were Studies for a Crucifixion (1962). The figures writhed on the page. It was like a freeze frame of blurred film that came to life in three dimensions. The first two figures appeared to be looking at me then moving on, I thought the first looked like President Nixon (I still think that, though it probably isn’t meant to). The second was in spasm on the kind of metal bed that we all had back then. The third I thought looked like a body hung in a butchers; a rack of ribs on display but still moving. I turned the pages and saw Study for a portrait (1952). To me it appeared as the image of a judge caught in the middle of being transported from another dimension into this; open mouthed, pronouncing guilt and uttering sentence. As if to reinforce this view I saw Study of Velazquez Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953). I didn’t know it was supposed to be a pope (I was too worn out to read the small print), but it appeared ‘cardinal’. I had gone to a catholic school and all the iconography of the high echelons of the Catholic Church were there to be seen. Again there was an open mouth, screaming judgement and condemnation of the viewer for some hidden sin. It reminded me of Judge Death from the 2000 AD comics (a kind of art book we got on a weekly basis). The images were powerful, profound and drew me in. We looked at other books – Dali, Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy and other surrealists – until I couldn’t stay awake any longer, but it was the Francis Bacon images that stayed in my head as I fell asleep.
I looked at the book again when my head was much clearer and the images before me were still compelling. Bacon seemed to capture human forms as if they were part way through materialising from another time or dimension. Other paintings and photographs captured a still moment in time – Francis Bacon captured not just the moment, but the arrival and departure of that moment.
I didn’t get to hang on to that book (too precious to its owner and I respected that). Time moved on and I didn’t keep up with studying books. I reached my twenties and instead spent my time studying girls and motorbikes.
Many years later I was in a gallery in London – I’ve been to nearly all the ‘free’ ones you would know – and saw Study for Portrait II (after the life mask of William Blake). I didn’t know it was supposed to relate to Blake, but that didn’t matter. In the painting was something prints and reproductions couldn’t capture: the blackness in which the face appeared to be suspended. Again it was as if Bacon had captured the image coming forth out of nothing. My respect for the art of Francis Bacon grew. Obviously, he was dead by then so I doubt it made much difference to him. The point is that I was struck by the uniqueness of his work; they were true masterpieces, with each one a treasure and a privilege to look at.
Now, it is quite right and proper (to me at least) that such great works of art should be preserved and the purchase of them should command a high price. They are unique and desirable objects. If I could ever afford (and I have no reason to believe I ever will) an artwork of such calibre I would stand in front of it for hours, taking in every brushstroke, trying to imagine the vision of the person who created it, and I would consider myself a very fortunate man indeed.
When Francis Bacon died, his estate was valued at £11m. Any artist I know would be happy to die ‘not in debt’, so it’s an achievement, be it a small one, and testament to how greatly his works were appreciated in his lifetime. Many great artists are not so lucky. Eleven million pounds sounds like a lot of money. It is a lot of money, but – hold on to your hats – in November 2013, Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud sold for $142,400,000! Its original estimate was for $85m. Being painted by such a great artist and because of the subject matter (another great artist) it was expected to exceed its estimate. Just not by quite so much. And who bought it? Well there is a bit of speculation about that but the name of ‘Elaine Wynn’ pops up a bit. She is the ex wife of a Las Vegas casino millionaire (I suspect billionaire and that it was a very expensive divorce). The painting was anonymously lent to the Portland Art Museum for a bit but has since been spirited away into private hands. It may be on display in some lucky person’s house where they stand before it and admire every brush stroke, but it is more likely in a vault and listed as a company ‘asset’, locked up securely and away from the prying eyes of the public. It will be a special event for the piece to be shown in London, the city it was created in.
Around the world, there are specialist fine-art storage locations, most notably the drab, industrial, sterile looking – but highly secure – ‘Freeport’ area in Geneva, Switzerland (ideally located for ‘tax purposes’). Great works of art are locked up in a controlled environment to preserve them as best as possible. And why is this? So that future generations can get to appreciate these great works? Probably not.
As well as specialist storage, there are specialist investment firms that will facilitate owning a share of these works. But this is not a time share – you don’t pay so that you can actually have special access to the work and really appreciate it. It is a share in its value for investment purposes that can be traded and sold; an asset that can be used as collateral for a loan to make more investments and more money. Art, the one thing that sits at the polar opposite of capitalism, is being used to bolster the capitalist ideal. And I wouldn’t mind all this (at least not as much) if the art was there to be seen. If I knew that someone walked past them on a regular basis and admired them. If I knew they had been bought so that they could be shown.
When Petter Olsen sold the only version of Munch’s The Scream to be held in public hands, he did so as to “offer the rest of the world a chance to own and appreciate this remarkable work”. So where is it? I’m in the “rest of the world” and I want to see it. He didn’t say “I want it to be shut up in a vault and shares in it to be flogged to people with vulgar amounts of money to buy new boats”.
I wonder what Francis Bacon would think of it all? I bet he was pretty chuffed with his success as an artist. He made a decent amount of money. I wonder how he would feel knowing that all the wealth he had amounted during his lifetime (even allowing for inflation) would not be enough to buy back even one of his great paintings or that he wouldn’t even be able to wander into a gallery and see them. It saddens me, and I expect it would take quite a few drinks and a few nights in the seedier parts of Berlin for Francis Bacon to get over it too.
I am all for artists getting paid (and all offers accepted). I am glad that Francis Bacon (unlike many other great artists) didn’t die destitute. Great art is not created for the purposes of financial gain. It is meant to be one of the few things left in this world that transcends such base crassness, yet it has been hijacked by investment companies, the ultra rich and taken away from the people for whom it was meant to be appreciated by; appreciated for what it is and not what it will sell for.
Thinking about this makes me very sad. So sad that I might hit the off licence early, get some gin and mope. This isn’t a course of action that I would recommend. I recommend that you go out and go to many of the world’s great galleries and stand before these wonderful creations while you still can. Before they are ripped off the walls at the will of some anonymous, high-net-worth conglomerate and shoved in an offshore bank vault – the only evidence of their once proud existence being figures on a spreadsheet of corporate assets.
Global Seven News