Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud are likely to go down together in art history. If the link had not already been set in cement, it certainly became so at Christie’s New York last month, when Bacon’s ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ (1969), a three-part portrait of his friend and colleague, went for $142.4 million or a whisker less than £90 million, thus becoming the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.
Perhaps that was a freakish figure — I suspect Lucian would have thought so — but it remains dizzying fact that a figurative painting, done in London within the past 45 years, and born out of a friendship forged in raffish Soho bars and clubs, should have attained such a value. It helps to put Bacon and Freud at the centre of the late 20th century art scene, not only in Britain, but internationally: the Turner and Constable of their age.
Like those giants of late Georgian painting, Bacon and Freud were contemporaries, equals and in some ways opposites. Bacon was a relatively rapid painter who often used photographs as a point of reference, Freud in his own words could ‘work only very slowly’ and never used photography as a source. There was half a generation between them — Bacon was born in 1909, Freud in 1922. Yet for a long, long time they were close allies against the world. Lucian’s second wife, Caroline Blackwood, laconically noted that she had had dinner with Bacon, ‘nearly every night for more or less the whole of my marriage to Lucian. We also had lunch.’ Lucian himself recalled seeing Bacon at some point virtually every day for a quarter of century; that is, from the mid-1940s to roughly the time when ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ was painted.
Since Bacon was gay, and Freud had remarkable good looks, one might suspect a romantic element in this bond. But Bacon was attracted to older men, a masochist in hopeless pursuit of a suitably dominant partner. According to Lucian, ‘He complained that he spent the whole of his life looking for the roughest, most masculine men that he could find. “And yet I’m always stronger than they are.”’ He meant, Lucian explained, that ‘his will was stronger’.
Freud, on the other hand, was a notoriously avid pursuer of girls. He never detected the slightest hint of an advance on the older man’s part. The bond between them was different: artistic and temperamental. When Lucian first encountered him, Bacon must have represented a thrilling example of how to conduct the life of an artist. Though there were other talented painters and sculptors in 1940s Britain, the London art world — in comparison, say, to the Parisian one — was dingy and provincial. Against this background, Bacon was a figure of magnificent flamboyance: painting and living close to the edge, playing for the highest of stakes.
Freud and Bacon were both gamblers, of course. For them roulette and horse-racing had an almost ethical dimension. Lucian once told me that in the 1960s, a decade when his work was out of fashion and hard to sell, gambling helped him. Did he mean it helped him to make money? No, he answered, it helped him not to care too much about money. He remembered one day losing almost everything he had, going home, driving his car to a garage, selling it too, placing the proceeds on a horse, losing that, then going home to paint.
It must, I suggested tentatively, feel good when you win. He answered: ‘It feels pretty good when you lose too.’ Bacon, who was fond of casinos, on occasion quite literally chucked money away. Lucian described a grand private view, at the end of which a Soho drinking buddy had come up to Bacon and asked for the taxi fare home. He imitated the painter, very drunk, staggering about, ‘My dear fellow, of course,’ he said, reaching into his trouser pocket and scattering banknotes like a flock of birds. ‘Francis loved doing that, throwing money about to demonstrate his disdain for it.’
In art, they both risked their reputations on the chance that it was still possible to produce figurative paintings fresh, true and exciting. And carried on doing this in an art world in which representational painting was widely thought to be over and out. Abstraction was the path of the future.
Both Bacon and Freud were energetic, even cheery nihilists. The former often spoke about how ‘you can be very optimistic and totally without hope’. They therefore chose to devote almost all their waking hours and efforts to something that was for them, in the last analysis, meaningless. After all, Lucian would say, art is useless: ‘You can’t eat it.’
It was fitting that one evening they bumped into Jean-Paul Sartre at the Gargoyle Club — headquarters of London bohemia before the Colony Room opened, and a place where Bacon happily remembered more drunken rows occurring, sometimes continuing for days, than anywhere he had ever been (Lucian recalled once waking, upside down with his head in the lavatory at the Gargoyle).
The 'Three Studies of Lucian Freud'. The Francis Bacon painting of Lucian Freud has become the most valuable work of art ever sold at auction - fetching almost £90 million. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images
One evening when Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were in the club, they invited Bacon and Freud to their table. According to Bacon, ‘Sartre got up and sat on it waggling his short legs and said, “Who is that good-looking one?”, jabbing his Gauloise at Lucian.’
The critic Herbert Read once called Lucian ‘the Ingres of Existentialism’. In some ways the tag ‘existentialist’ fits both Freud and Bacon, but Sartre’s celebrated formulation ‘hell is other people’ decidedly did not. Bacon was a sociable man in his way, and for Lucian other people were his essential subject matter. To the end of his life, he would alarm other diners in restaurants by fixing them with an intent gaze, raising his eyelids to get more light. It might have seemed intimidating, but actually he was just imagining how well they would make a picture.
Freud’s portrait of Bacon from 1952 is, or was, a masterpiece (it was stolen in 1988 and has never been recovered). Bacon made numerous images of Freud, but they are not his best — at least that was Freud’s opinion. The painting now world-famous for its fabulous price captured little of Lucian apart from his restless impatient energy (the nose seems to belong to George Dyer, Bacon’s lover and obsessive subject at the time).
In the end, Freud and Bacon fell out, a dispute that was probably inevitable given two such characters, and was founded — or reflected — in a lack of admiration for each other’s later work. Lucian thought Bacon’s work of the 1980s ‘ghastly’, and Bacon fully reciprocated. But Freud never lost his admiration for earlier paintings by his friend.
On his bedroom wall there hung ‘Two Figures’ (1953), one of Bacon’s darkest, most powerful pictures. It was adapted from an action shot by the 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge of two naked men wrestling, but Bacon had transposed the action from a bare floor onto a bed floating in black void, so the figures seem to be making love rather than fighting (in Bacon’s life there was little distinction between the two).
Perhaps because of the subject matter, it remained unsold at the end of the exhibition, so Lucian bought it at a reduced price: £80 rather than £100. ‘I’ve been looking at it for a long time now,’ he said (in fact, at that point, for over half a century) ‘and it doesn’t get worse. It really is extraordinary.’
The last time I had lunch with Lucian, a few weeks before he died, he produced the final bon mot I ever heard from him. We were talking about the bohemian London life of the 1940s and 1950s. ‘It was marvellous,’ he reflected, ‘being taken seriously for behaving ridiculously.’ There were absurd touches, certainly, to his life in that era — as when Lucian took a pet hawk around on the Circle Line. But Freud and Bacon were also brave and audacious. Artistically, to an astonishing extent their grand gamble paid off.