LONDON – Sotheby’s sold a large format triptych by Francis Bacon today at auction for $84.6 million to an online bidder from Asia.
Inspired by Aeschylus’s trilogy of Greek tragedies, Oresteia Aeschylus, dating to the fifth century B.C., Bacon’s triptych stands as one of the most ambitious, enigmatic and important works of the British artist’s oeuvre, and a landmark of 20th century art. Executed in 1981, it is one of 28 large-format triptychs that Bacon created between 1962 and 1991, and only the sixth example ever to appear at auction.
Acquired in 1984 by the Norwegian Collector Hans Rasmus Astrup, the triptych has been in the care of Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo since its founding by Mr. Astrup in 1993.
Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus was most recently on view in the Centre Pompidou’s celebrated exhibition “Bacon: Books and Painting.”
A masterpiece of the first order, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus provokes a range of interpretations, matching the tragic grandeur of the Greek playwright Aeschylus in a 20th century setting.
Bacon’s theme of divine punishment is found in Aeschylus’ most famous trilogy, The Oresteia, in which Clytemnestra murders her husband Agamemnon in revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia. When the son Orestes finds out, he kills his mother to avenge his father’s death, provoking the avenging Furies, also called the Eumenides, who determine to drive Orestes insane as punishment.
Bacon received a copy of William Bedell Stanford’s Aeschylus and his Style: a Study in Language and Personality soon after it was published in 1942. Aeschylus’s imagery provided Bacon a vehicle for expressing “something very powerful and very fundamental about existence.” From Aeschylus’ imagery, Bacon compiled motifs that struck a chord with his own experience and filtered into his art. As he explains, “I’ll tell you what I really read: things which bring up images for me. And I find that this happens very much with the translations of Aeschylus … they open up the valves of sensation for me.”
Bacon used literary references to jolt his own imagination, having no interest in the lofty goals of narrative history painting. The goal of Greek tragedy was to incite catharsis in the viewer – in appropriating its iconography, Bacon exorcised something in himself. The enduring appeal of his work is its power to endlessly provoke the most fundamental of human emotions. Although Bacon frequently cited Aeschylus as an inspiration, this was the only instance where the Greek dramatist was referred to in the title of a painting.
Matching the epic grandeur of the progenitor of tragedy, Bacon recorded something primal about the 20th century in Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus. In doing so, he created a masterpiece of the modern age.