Francis Bacon

Swiss Bacon exhibition includes work he tried to destroy

Lugano makes attempt to compensate for losing best of the Thyssen collection

A new exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon, who died in Madrid in April 1992, opens at the Villa Malpensata at the beginning of this month (7 March-30 May). Comprising four large and seven small triptychs and fifty other works, it has been curated by Dr Rudy Chiappini, director of the Dicastero Musei e Cultura della Città di Lugano, and private dealer Massimo Martino, and is the most important, in addition to being the only really international, exhibition ever to have been organised by the Lugano Municipal Arts Museum. Last year, the museum showed works by Thomas Hart Benton from the Kansas City Art Gallery but, otherwise, has restricted itself to exhibitions of local Swiss and Italian artists. For two years until autumn 1991 and Dr Chiappini’s appointment, it did not even have a director. The new effort is a clear signal that the city means to win back tourism which evaporated when Baron Thyssen removed his collection of Old Master and modern paintings from the Villa Favorita. Hotels, restaurants and other local businesses are known to have been deeply disappointed that the city failed to make a suitable offer which might have persuaded the Baron to forestall or reconsider his new arrangements in Madrid. To that end, the organisers have opted for a less familiar face of Francis Bacon and tracked down rare and unusual material as well as pictures of great significance. Nearly two-thirds of the works which they have selected did not feature in the major retrospective surveys organised by the Tate Gallery in 1985 and by the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, and the Metropolitan Museum, New York, in 1989-90, and will not, as a result, be particularly well known outside the circles of scholarship and Bacon’s dealers. They include two early landscape paintings, “Dog” (1952) and “Landscape, South of France” (1952), two versions of “Sphinx” (1954), a sinister self-portrait (1956), “Triptych 1976” and “Triptych 1986-87” (Marlborough Fine Art), that haunting work which represents, on its two wings, Woodrow Wilson at the Peace Conference and Trotsky’s blood-splattered lectern. The exhibition closes with “Study from the Human Body” (1991), Bacon’s last completed painting which has not yet been shown in a museum context. But the nearly complete reconstruction of the artist’s only polyptych, “Study for a Pope I-VI” (1961), is expected to arouse the greatest interest. Shown as a single work of art at the Tate Gallery and three other European museums in 1962-63, those six canvases were subsequently divided and sold separately, and none of them has been included in any recent exhibition of Bacon’s art. Martino’s ambition to reunite the series for the first time in thirty years has, however, been thwarted by the refusal of Sophia Loren to loan “Study for a Pope V”, but the exhibition reassembles the remaining five canvases, including the version owned by the Musei Vaticani. Miss Loren’s picture was one of thirteen canvases by Bacon which, with a collection of works by Picasso, Morandi, Henry Moore and other artists, were confiscated by the Italian government as the actress and her husband, Carlo Ponti, attempted to take them to Paris in 1977. It was shown at the Brera, Milan, in 1984. Intriguingly, the exhibition features several pictures and objects which date from the beginning of Bacon’s career, when he was employed as a decorator and influenced by Picasso.

They belong to the work which he disowned and attempted to destroy when he relaunched himself with “Three Studies for Figures at the base of a Crucifixion” (1944), the triptych which opens all conventional accounts of Bacon’s art. Less than a dozen works have survived from this period and, on the artist’s instructions, they were never exhibited with his other work during his lifetime. Chiappini and Martino are showing a carpet and a painted screen (about 1929), a gouache (about 1929) and “Interior of a Room” (about 1933), a fascinating composition rich with hints of the artist’s later development, which private dealer James Kirkman bought in auction in London in 1989. A second exhibition of Bacon’s paintings, carrying the official stamp of the British Council and curated by David Sylvester for the Comune of Venice and the Biennale, opens at the Museo Correr in June.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 26 March 1993