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Auction PR Publicity Announcements News and Information

Sotheby’s New York To Feature A Masterpiece Of The 20th Century, Francis Bacon’s Triptych, 1976, In May Sale Of Comtemporary Art

New York, NY – On the evening of May 14, 2008, Sotheby’s sale of Contemporary Art in New York will feature a masterpiece of the 20th century, Francis Bacon’s Triptych, 1976, the most important work by the artist in private hands. A masterwork of the first order, the potent concentration of imagery in Triptych, 1976, provokes a wide range of possible interpretations in a painting which matches the tragic grandeur of Aeschylus. Triptych, 1976, was the centrepiece of the artist’s most important show of new work of the 1970s, held at the Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris in 1977, which closely documented Bacon’s unease and restless mind during that time. One of only three large-format triptychs in the Bernard exhibition, it was illustrated on the cover of the catalogue. Acquired by the present owner at that time, it has been included in all the major surveys of the artist’s work to date, including the Tate Gallery, London, in 1985; Museo d’Arte Moderna, Lugano, in 1993; and the Musée National d’Art Moderne Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, in 1996. In the catalogue from the Museo d’Arte Moderna exhibition, Francis Bacon, 1993, Michael Peppiatt says, “Triptych, 1976, surely ranks among the greatest of Bacon’s paintings” (p. 106). The work is being offered from a Private European Collection and is estimated to bring in the region of $70 million*.

Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s Worldwide Head of Contemporary Art, said: “This is undoubtedly the most important Bacon in private hands. It has been with the same collection ever since it was acquired from the Bernard show over thirty years ago, and it is a masterpiece of the 20th century. The world has been waiting for a great triptych, and this is it.”

Dense with symbolism, the three panels in Triptych, 1976, are filled with a complex, highly charged allegory and supreme paint-handling which shows Bacon’s imagination at its highest pitch. While living and working in Paris, Bacon produced one of his most powerful paintings on the subject and a masterpiece within his oeuvre. This was the climax of one of the most sustained and productive periods in his career, following the incredible success of his 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris.

In Triptych, 1976, Bacon draws on Ancient Greek mythology to express his personal tragedy. In the central panel Bacon alludes to the legend of Prometheus, who as a punishment from Zeus is bound to a rock where his liver is perpetually devoured by an eagle. It is also a modern day interpretation of Aeschylus’ famous trilogy The Orestia. To avenge the death of his father at the hands of his mother, Orestes commits matricide and is plagued by the three Furies, the manifestation of guilt. Here, in the central panel, the human form is plagued by three hybrid biomorphic vultures, symbolic of Bacon’s inner demons. At the zenith of his mature career, Bacon revisits the same Greek text that inspired Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion, 1944, a painting which announced his debut on the world stage. A parallel to that early masterpiece, the present work reveals in a single composition the entire range of Bacon’s iconography over three decades of painting. In either side panel, two ominous portraits, like propaganda posters, bear witness to the scene taking place, raised up on structures reminiscent of the rails used for movie-cameras. In the foreground, an imbroglio of human forms – half-dressed, half-naked – exhibit some the best paint-handling witnessed anywhere in Bacon’s oeuvre, contrasted against areas of bare canvas, Letraset and thick pools of white oil. In the right, two heads and a row of teeth emerge from the conflation of anatomical forms and flesh-coloured shadows.

Sotheby’s set the record for a work by Francis Bacon at auction when Study for Innocent X, 1962, sold in New York for $52.7 million. Sotheby’s also holds five of the top six prices for Bacon: in addition to Study for Innocent X, significant prices were achieved for Second Version of Study for Bullfight No. 1, 1969 ($45,961,000 at Sotheby’s New York); Self Portrait, 1978 ($43 million at Sotheby’s London); Study of Nude with Figure in a Mirror, 1969 ($39.8 million at Sotheby’s New York); and Self Portrait, 1969 ($33.1 million at Sotheby’s New York).

*Estimates do not include buyer’s premium