Bacon's rare drawings to go on show at the Tate

The Tate unveils its previously unknown Bacon drawings to the world while two US museums present new views of the blockbuster British artist


Following the recent unveiling of unknown paintings by the artist last year, as well as the release of the film based on his torrid love life, Francis Bacon has become blockbuster material again, with exhibitions of his work opening in London and the US this month.

The one show the artist might not be pleased to see—and the most important in terms of new material—is “Francis Bacon: works on paper and paintings” at the Tate Gallery, London (16 February-2 May). Bacon always insisted that he made no drawings, so the appearance of drawings from the collection of the widow of the writer Stephen Spender came as a surprise to those who saw them for the first time at the Bacon survey in Paris in 1996. The artist gave the drawings to Spender, a friend, as a gift and the Tate acquired them last year from the family.

A second group of Bacon drawings came from an anonymous friend of the artist, who was given them by the artist in the 1950s. They were acquired by the Tate from the Marlborough Gallery. All of the works on paper were acquired through anonymous donors with the assistance of the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Art Collections Fund.

“Since both groups of drawings were acquired directly from Bacon himself, we are absolutely certain that they are originals,” said Jeremy Lewison, head of Collections at the Tate Gallery. “They are the first known drawings by Bacon. No one knew of any Bacon drawings until those in the Spender’s collection were shown in Paris.”

Even a cursory glance at the Tate’s drawings shows that they bear no relation to the contested Bacon drawings which have been circulating in Italy. They are alleged to be fakes and are now the subject of a court case in Bologna. These pencil and ballpoint pen drawings were bought by a Bologna doctor, Francesco Martani, from one Cristiano Ravarini, who claims to have been given them by Bacon on one of the artist’s stays in Italy. Until recently, however, almost no drawings by Bacon were known by which a comparison could be made. The court case is still pending.

The Tate’s exhibition of over forty sketches made in pencil, ball point pen, gouache and oil paint is significant in terms of the Tate’s collection of paintings by Bacon, which are also on view. “Despite what Bacon said about not drawing, he may have worked out his first ideas on paper and they give us insight into his artistic process,” said Mr Lewison.

In the US two Bacon exhibitions open this month. “Francis Bacon: the Papal portraits of 1953” at the Museum of Contemporary art in San Diego (until 28 March) gathers together for the first time all of the nine “pope paintings” which Bacon painted in 1953, the most famous of which is “Study after Velázquez, Portrait of Pope Innocent X” now in the Des Moines Art Center. Bacon made these works in the summer of 1953, when attempting to paint a portrait of his friend, the art critic David Sylvester. Instead of depicting Sylvester, however, Bacon transformed the picture into an image of the pope and then, working feverishly, completed the seven variations which make up the virtually cinematic progression of images. A related work from a private collection in La Jolla will also be on show. San Diego is the only venue.

The more comprehensive “Francis Bacon: a retrospective exhibition” begins its US tour at the Yale Center for British Art (until 21 March). It contains seventy-four paintings, including a number of the famous triptychs and will be the first overview of Bacon in the US since his death in 1992 at the age of eighty-three. It offers a view into the brutal vision of the artist, whose outlook on life as a futile, aimless void is expressed in his recurring imagery of the caged and contorted human figure. Bacon’s paintings often seem to writhe and melt on canvas—their power is lost in reproduction—so the idea behind this exhibition is to bring American viewers face-to-face with the real thing. Organised by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions and curated by Dennis Farr, curator emeritus of the Courtauld Institute Galleries, the Bacon retrospective will travel to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minnesota, the California Palace of the Legion of Honour in San Francisco and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Bacon between the lines'