How is the price of Francis Bacon paintings related to mini-skirts?

News reports often send ripples across the web. Sometimes, a piece of news creates a volcano of opinions that is best described by this pic, although it is not always water that floods the community.

Yesterday’s sale of Francis Bacon’s triptych for $142m did just that.

The reaction of people of all possible colours, races, religions, and IP addresses begins with the “WTF” (not World Trade Federation) and is followed by one of the following:

  1. $142m is a ridiculous amount of money to pay for three canvases, even if it is art
  2. These three canvases are not art

It may be a delusion on my part, but I have a feeling I know the correct answers.

Is $142m a ridiculous amount of money to be paid for an artwork made in 1969?

It was bought, most likely, by either the Qatar foundation (that is also behind the purchase of Munch’s Scream for $120m and Cezanne’s Card Players for $250m) or the Saudi Royals.

The Qatar foundation wants to build a collection of modern and contemporary art that will make other nations respect their sheiks not just for their oil money but for their individual brilliance, as men of culture. They want to be at the forefront of culture, not just the few select New Bond Street/Fifth Avenue stores.

Paying $142m is ridiculous if it buys three canvases, but is rather a small amount for achieving the ultimate objective of buying respect.

You may wonder if buying respect is possible at all.

That depends on the mindset. Qatar and Saudi sheiks act according to the caveman’s mentality. They believe in totems. If something is venerated by a foreign tribe, it is probably revered because it makes their tribesmen better or protects them from evil or does something similarly wondrous. So, you do whatever it takes to get their totem, and bring it over to your tribe.

And, of course, the foreign tribe understands perfectly well that it is not Francis Bacon in the National Gallery (by the way, the National Gallery in London does not have a Bacon, I believe) that creates respected men and women of culture. So, its art chieftains happily sell the totem for $142m and are whistling all the way to the bank.

It might be of help to Qatar and Saudi sheiks to know that respect is not bought, but earned. Alas, it may take some extraordinary effort to explain it to people who still believe the Earth is flat (Sheik Abdul Aziz Ibn Baaz) and mini-skirts lead to earthquakes (Hajatosalem Kazem Sedighi).

It is impossible to explain to these buyers of Bacon that until they stop believing women should not be allowed to get education and drive cars (because if they do their children are born defective, according to Sheik Salah al-Luhaidin) and start investing into science, promoting freedoms, and, particularly the freedom of expression, respect is not going to materialise. These changes require much more money than $142m, but purchasing Munch, Cezanne, and Bacon is still not a shortcut.

The good thing is that they are paying top money for the other tribe’s totems, helping the art and fashion industries to prosper.

Oh, and I think that many of the super-rich of European or other origins have the same mentality. Roman Abramovich made a spectacular show of it when he bought Chelsea football club, for instance. The caveman’s mindset does not depend on race or religion. So, if I am wrong in my assumption about the buyer’s identity, it changes, basically, nothing at all. It was a purchase of respect, not art, by someone who’s got a lot of money earned in a way that has not generated respect on its own.

Bill Gates doesn’t need to buy respect. You may hate or like Windows, but you are bound to respect the man who invented it. If you sell oil you happen to own, well, what to respect about it?

Are the three paintings great art?

Yes, they are. They show a man who is very strong in the head, but who is being tested by the world in a very dramatic manner right that moment (aren’t we all, from time to time?).

Bacon would symbolize a man restrained by the society with a box within which the portrayed man would be confined. The bodily and facial distortions would reflect the inner fight the man has to live through to remain within the societal confines.

Bacon’s mate, Lucien Freud, is shown as someone who is within the box, but is feeling quite comfy, his legs or elbows can freely move out. That’s because Freud was a free artist inside.

Freud in this portrait is not someone happy (his paintings were destroyed by fire not long before that sitting) but he is not a suffering piece of flesh.

It is a genius representation of the idea of individual freedom which can be achieved despite and regardless of societal oppression. It is a promise, a hope to us all. I don’t know how much it is worth in terms of money, but in terms of its value as an idea, it is priceless.

I will talk more about it, if you want, I just need a better quality photograph of these paintings. As you are probably aware from my previous posts, to explain an artwork, I often have to magnify its details.

Is it your first time here? To sample stuff in this blog, click on ABOUT at the top. You’ll find links to some of my best or typical posts there. There’s an Art & Fun shelf there if you feel like in need of a laugh. And don’t forget you can sign up for my new posts: there’s a “Follow this blog” form on the right.


  1. It’s a very lively debate! Thanks for the provocative post.
    When our newly elected Prime Minister (Gough Whitlam) spent a great slab of the annual National Gallery budget on Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles in the early 70s there was similar outrage in Australia. Back then Australia was regarded as the world’s last uncultured backwater and most people regarded the purchase of art on this scale as an absolute ‘waste of money.’
    But the act of bringing this work to Australia was not about buying respect or simply installing a totem in another culture. Gough (and I am sure this is true of the current purchasers of Bacon’s work) absolutely understood the vital importance of art.
    I saw Blue Poles for the first time as a very young school kid and it knocked me over – it was like something out of this world. When I saw the painting again earlier this year it moved me to tears.
    Although the size of the work now seems less daunting given the style of contemporary art we are used to – I realized what a tremendous symbol that painting was in marking this absolute political break with tradition and the dawn to a truly contemporary Australian identity.

    1. I might agree with your view about the motivation of the buyer were their identity not kept in secret (as was the case of Munch’s Scream and Cezanne’s Card Players).

      Thank for the great Australian example! I am always on the lookout for art that generated exchange of ideas that, in its turn, leads to societal changes. This just may be a very good example of it.

  2. I agree that a move like this must be ego driven. I’ve lived in the Persian Gulf and traveled/dealt professionally with all the countries you mention, including Saudi Arabia which is practically closed for foreign women. It is far more complicated than it seems. The only country where women cannot drive or be employed is Saudi Arabia. Girls education is big in allof the Gulf states (don’t mix them up with Afghanistan and Taleban ruled areas), though in some cases the family may decide to stop the girls from education further than the obligatory minimum and the state cannot interfere. Among the tribal aristocracies which rule those countries there are some extremely educated and sophisticated individuals – men and women, including Saudi women. There is also the aspect of amassing wealth before the oil runs out. It is a long and complicated story … bottom line – do not underestimate these dudes.

    1. Thank you. You give me a lot to think about – regarding their culture of hoarding weath before it is too late. I would be very interested to learn what is their view of the future, like the world in 50 years from now.

      1. Like everywhere else, depends who you ask. The guys of the mini-skirts/earthquake block, who unfortunately are the majority, will read you a Koranic verse. The ones behind Masdar City – – who are a minority, but command insane amounts of money, will give you a different answer. I have found that one of the most difficult things in life is to remain non-judgemental when it comes to cultures based on values radically different than my own. Not that I am succeeding, but I keep trying.

  3. Great point! I think there is a connection between your analysis of the paintings and whoever bought them. If the triptych is indeed a representation of the idea of individual freedom that you describe then of course it’s the Saudi royals that should purchase the paintings and study them very closely. Unless of course they bought Bacon’s artworks to lock them up and not share with anyone these silly artistic representations of any kind of freedom.

    1. I am not sure the buyers understood what they were buying. I am quite sure of the opposite though. The caveman’s mentality can’t shake hands with art for it does not have the right hand.

      Thank you – I absolutely loved the logic of locking the paintings up so that no one could see them because of their message! ))

  4. Also, one no longer has to travel to see great art and be impressed by it. Bacon’s message is exactly the same whether I am viewing the triptych on my laptop screen or in person. And if I want to see great art in person and my country is lacking in in that department, I will travel somewhere I wont get stoned for walking down the street alone. Thank God there are plenty. The only people whose respect this kind of acquisition will buy are those whose respect is worthless.

    1. You need to take my word on this: Bacon’s paintings seen live create a very powerful impression. Not necessarily positive, but stong ))

      And yes, traveling to countries where a kiss in public is punishable by 3 months of prison is not recommended )

      1. No, I get it. Shishkin’s ‘Sunlit Pines’ (my most favorite painting of all time and place) is not the _same_ in a reproduction or on screen. Yes, Guernica takes on a life of its own when it takes up museum’s whole wall. But I bet that for the vast majority of the global population, the difference isnt a question of life vs death or enlightenment vs ignorance/death, and so forth. As for those striving for that kind of enlightenment, THAT hard – well, I’d hope they’d already be enlightened enough not to be lured into darkness by an expensive prop.

  5. love that title! very engaging. and actually, if i had the money i’d be buying it. though i wish those with money were doing it for the right reasons and with an artistic sensibility. i applaud your efforts at explaining art as you see it.

  6. Is it possible to buy respect? Yes, I think it is (I work in communication strategy). By doing – or investing – in something worthwhile. Spend that billion $$$ you plopped down on half a dozen canvasses building pro-bono hospitals in other countries, with YOUR country’s name on them. Don’t spend it on what’s basically the gaudiest diamond in the crown that’s too tacky to wear because it’s soaked in the blood of the slaves.

    1. Investing money in a good cause is gaining respect, not buying it. As much as I am not a fan of the oil rich conservative moslem countries, I know for a fact that they invest huge amounts in charity and development too – just that it doesn’t make headlines.

      1. yes, they do, but there is an interesting twist to charities funded by oil states. Some of their charitable investment has to be done becaue the Quaran tells them it has to be done, some of it promote causes that bring about more problems. Often, it does not make headlines because it may sparkle controversy rather than generate a healthy dose of respect. I am absolutely with you on money’s ability to earn respect. It is a long and risky process, never with a guaranteed result in the end. Bill Gates earned a lot of my respect for the charity work he’s doing – but that didn’t actually outweight my disrespect towards him for killing competition and talent along the way to the capital he is spending on charity ))

      2. Respectfully disagree. I googled ‘Qatar foundation builds hospital’ and found nothing outside of the region. Of course the counter-argument to that is ‘well, they’re investing in the region, it means more!’ But make no mistake, the billion or so spent on fine art isnt investment (aside from PR) in the region, It’s meant to impress The West, to gain good publicity in The West. Spending the same billion on a state of the art cancer hospital for underprivileged children of Europe in the center of Paris would attract a HELL of a lot of good publicity – and help people in the process.

It would be grand to hear from you now!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: