The pope’s body is a spiralling heap of sausages wrapped in white and pink robes. Go closer, and even stranger physical images arise: brown smears over his fleshy hands look disturbingly faecal. You could almost believe it, if this were not a £60m – or more – masterpiece soon to go on sale in the opulent setting of Christie’s London auction house.
Francis Bacon’s Study of Red Pope 1962. 2nd Version 1971 is as close to a new painting by the great Soho bohemian painter who died in 1992 as we are ever likely to see.
The painting was first exhibited in Paris in 1971, six months after Bacon finished it, and was shown in Düsseldorf the following year. Since then it has been locked away by a private collector, who never lent it or showed it.
Francis Bacon's painting gloves are going to auction – praise be!
The gold-framed explosion of velvety red and rose on raw beige canvas has been hidden away for 45 years, said Jussi Pylkkänen, the president of Christie’s.
Pylkkänen will be auctioning this choice cut of raw artistic beef in person early next month, when the world’s art collectors converge on London for the Frieze art fair.
Bacon painted Study of Red Pope 1962. 2nd Version 1971 – probably not his best title – at the most intense moment of his life. It was the best of times and the worst of times for the Irish-born artist. He was about to put on a massive one-man exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. As a francophile who was friends with Paris intellectuals including the surrealist Michel Leiris, he cared deeply about how he would be received there.
Yet, Pylkkänen said, Bacon faced a problem. He wanted to include his renowned 1962 painting Study for Innocent X but its owner refused to lend it. With just six months to go before the most important exhibition of his life, Bacon shut himself in his cramped studio at 7 Reece Mews, Kensington to create a new version of a masterpiece.
He was facing a personal as well as artistic crisis. As Bacon painted, his relationship with George Dyer, the small-time East End criminal who was the love of his life, was getting ever more futile. Dyer had descended into an alcoholic malaise, unable to live as Bacon did in a giddily creative permanent champagne high. He was vanishing from Bacon’s life, but invades this painting.
As the pope squirms like a giant silk-clad turd, sitting not on a papal throne but a 1970s swivel chair, the glass booth that encloses him morphs into a mirror in which he sees the figure of George Dyer. This is not the decaying man Dyer had become by 1971. It looks more like the handsome, well-dressed young thug he was when Bacon first met him in a pub in 1963. Wearing a smart suit and tie, his hand elegantly clenched in a proud fist, Dyer is upright, strong and a bit cocky.
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Is the slumping pope whose formless body is capped by a drunk’s red nose in fact a portrait of Dyer drunk, looking at a last vision of his former self?
Pylkkänen thinks Bacon was working at an artistic and emotional peak when he painted this furious bloody mary cocktail of artistic ambition and private sorrow.
“There’s something about it that tells me – ‘I’m going to paint a great picture for this show, the last of my popes, with my muse George Dyer in it,’” he says.
Bacon succeeded, at least artistically. The exhibition at the Grand Palais would be the greatest triumph of Bacon’s career, raising his reputation to the sublime level it has held ever since. Yet as Bacon got ready for the opening, Dyer killed himself with a drug overdose in their hotel room. Notoriously, there was a conspiracy of silence for two days so the death wouldn’t spoil Bacon’s vernissage.
“We’re talking about £60m,” says Pylkkänen. That’s actually quite a bit less than Bacon’s record of £89.3m for Three Studies of Lucian Freud, so the estimate may be exceeded if bidders get excited enough by the painting’s intense combination of aesthetic and human drama.
“It’s got all the elements that collectors are looking for,” says Pylkkänen.
The president of Christie’s is by definition a good salesman – but his excitement is justified. This modern Baroque marvel proves Bacon was the Caravaggio of the 20th century.