The show that dares not speak its name: Francis Bacon estate intervenes in new Dublin show

The Joule archive drawings continue to cause contention


The Francis Bacon estate is refusing to allow the Irish Museum of Modern Art to hold an exhibition entitled “Drawings by Bacon”. But following lengthy negotiations, it has been agreed that the Dublin museum can to go ahead with the show, as long as the drawings are only attributed to Bacon. Next February’s exhibition will comprise nearly a hundred works from the controversial Joule archive, which belongs to Bacon’s former neighbour, Barry Joule.

When the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) initially told the Bacon estate that it would be exhibiting the Joule material, the estate said that it would not allow the artist’s name to be used at all. This would have put the museum in a curious position, in that the exhibition could only go ahead if the works were ascribed to an anonymous master. The resulting show would have gone down in the annals of art history as one of the more bizarre episodes in modern art.

The title of the exhibition, the explanatory panels, the labels, the catalogue, advertising and press publicity would not have named the artist, although there would have been some fairly elementary clues. The owner’s name would have featured prominently and Mr Joule’s one claim to fame is as a friend of Bacon. The works themselves are certainly Baconesque, with swirling lines and distorted bodies. The press would have been quite free to speculate on the identity of the artist. Few art lovers in Dublin would have missed the connection and everyone would have been able to point out that the works were Bacons (or Baconesque), except for the curators who were actually organising the exhibition. The Art Newspaper can reveal the astonishing story behind what promises to be one of the most controversial art shows of the Millennium year.

A year ago IMMA director Declan McGonagle first saw the Joule archive and he immediately realised it would make a fascinating exhibition. “There has been a great deal of discussion about the Joule material, but very few people have actually seen it,” he explained. Bacon had claimed that he never drew, and if these works are authentic, then it would mean changing our perception of the artist’s working methods. Since Bacon was born and brought up in Dublin, he was an ideal subject for the Irish Museum of Modern Art and it seemed just the right show to inaugurate its New Galleries early next year.

Barry Joule had met Bacon in 1978 and soon afterwards became his handyman, driver and friend. A few days before his death in 1992, Bacon gave Mr Joule a bundle of papers, which included nearly 700 drawings, many of them done on photographs. These dated from the late 1940s and early 1980s. Mr Joule kept the material in a bank vault until three years ago, when he began showing it to selected art historians. Despite initial hints that it might be accepted, leading Bacon specialist David Sylvester soon became doubtful of its authenticity and this created tensions with Mr Joule.

After seeing the Joule material, Mr McGonagle contacted the Bacon estate about the coming exhibition and received a very negative reaction. Over the past year there have been difficult discussions between the museum, Mr Joule and the estate, “with the ball going back and forth over the net, with some degree of animosity.” More recently, negotiations have been constructive, finally leading to a recent agreement. The IMMA director is pleased with the resulting compromise, although he admits that “quite frankly, I would have gone ahead even if the estate had not agreed.”

The full title of the exhibition will be “The Barry Joule archive: works attributed to Francis Bacon”. Mr McGonagle agrees that IMMA is in an unusual situation. Although museums often exhibit individual pictures “attributed to” an artist and less scrupulous venues sometimes hold entire exhibitions of questionable items, it is very rare for a museum to mount a monographic exhibition in which all the works are openly only “attributed” to the artist.

It was also agreed that IMMA would not produce a “book”, but a “catalogue”. The estate argued that a book suggests a more definitive publication than a catalogue, which it admitted was a legitimate adjunct to the exhibition. The 120-page publication will therefore be sold at museum bookshops across the world, but not in general bookstores. “In London, for example, you should be able to buy it at the Tate bookshop, but not at Waterstones,” an IMMA spokesman explained.

Brian Clarke, sole executor of the Bacon estate since last December and also an artist, told us that he is delighted with the agreement. “I accept IMMA’s assurance that this will be a serious exhibition and welcome the opportunity for the Joule archive to be publicly viewed. We are concerned that any unnecessary controversy should be avoided and we are in amicable liaison with Mr Joule and the IMMA.” Although happy with the accepted wording of works “attributed to” Bacon, he confirms that “at this stage we would not have allowed it to be called an exhibition of works by Bacon.”

Mr McGonagle says that although not a Bacon specialist, he believes there is a growing consensus in the art world that the Joule archive is authentic. While not courting controversy, his message to art lovers is simple: “There is a debate over the Joule archive. Here is the material. Form your own view.”

Solving the puzzle

Exhibitions often help solve attributional questions (through research or bringing works together), but in the case of the Joule archive a quite separate and parallel investigation is to be launched. The Bacon estate has decided to appoint an expertise panel, to examine the Joule drawings and advise on their authenticity. Although the panel will probably be appointed shortly before the IMMA exhibition opens on 20 February, its work will not be finished until after the show closes. The findings will then be passed to Mr Clarke, as executor. If the panel’s advice is unanimous, then it will almost certainly be accepted, but otherwise he will have to make the estate’s decision.

The expertise panel is likely to comprise a handful of experts, selected by the estate, in consultation with Mr Joule and others. David Sylvester will almost certainly be on the panel. Others who might serve include IMMA catalogue author Professor David Mellor, Martin Harrison, Professor Dawn Ades and possibly experts from the Tate Gallery (Matthew Gale) and the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art.

The Joule collection

In the meantime Mr Clarke is not commenting on the authenticity of the Joule archive. “It would be grossly irresponsible for the estate to make any claims either for or against without having the benefit of considered and expert opinion.” However, Mr McGonagle regrets that the expertise panel was not appointed earlier, so that it might have reached a decision before the opening of the Dublin exhibition. “In an ideal world, that would have been more satisfactory,” he explained. Mr McGonagle rebuts any suggestion that he is courting controversy: “We are not a museum that attempts to pass on authoritative views and we are interested in generating a debate. The exhibition will present work that is conceptually contested within the artist’s practice, as well as contested in terms of attribution.”

Mr Joule has revealed to The Art Newspaper that if the Bacon estate accepts his collection as authentic, then he will eventually donate 90% of it to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. The plan is that the collection would remain under his control for three years (with ownership transferred to a charitable trust). The works would probably tour to other venues and among those interested are the Picasso Museum in Paris, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Barbican Art Gallery in London. The donation would then be made to the Hugh Lane in late 2003, provided that the museum had established and funded the projected Bacon study centre. Of the remaining 10% of the archive, Mr Joule says that he would like to donate drawings related to paintings in the Tate to the Tate Gallery and would retain a small number of works in his private collection. It is not clear what will happen to the Joule Archive if the estate eventually refuses to authenticate the material.

The Hugh Lane Gallery is the natural home for the Joule archive, since it has already acquired the contents of Bacon’s London studio, which comprises 10,000 items. The studio contents was a donation from Bacon’s sole heir, his former companion John Edwards (who received an estate worth well over £10 million). The contents were fully recorded and will soon be assembled in a special room in the Hugh Lane, alongside a display of a changing selection of works from the studio. The studio and the accompanying display are due to open in November 2000. Before that, a major retrospective of Bacon paintings, selected by Mr Sylvester, is being held at the Hugh Lane, from 1 June to 30 August.

The Liechtenstein connection

In a quite separate move, the Bacon estate is suing the Marlborough Gallery, which handled the artist’s work from 1958 for forty years. In 1998 the estate moved to the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York and Faggionato Fine Arts in London. Mr Clarke told The Art Newspaper that the estate’s lawyers have recently mounted “a very serious investigation in seven countries and this has alerted us to many extraordinary anomalies” during the Marlborough era. He also pointed out that sales of Bacon’s pictures had not gone through the UK gallery (Marlborough Fine Art London Ltd), but through their Liechtenstein subsidiary (Marlborough International Fine Art Establishment).

Marlborough did not want to speak publicly about the case, but the sales were apparently done through Liechtenstein at Bacon’s request, to reduce tax liabilities. If some monies from the sale of paintings appear to have disappeared, these sums were presumably diverted at the behest of Bacon. The case is expected to come before the High Court in London.

Bacon in Dublin, 2000

o “The Barry Joule archive: works attributed to Francis Bacon”, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 20 February-27 August

o “Francis Bacon paintings”, Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, 1 June-30 August.

o Reconstructed Bacon studio and accompanying display, Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, opens November.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The show that dares not speak its name'