Tate Revamps as $142 Million Bacon Puts Spotlight on U.K.

There were several astonishing aspects to the sale of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud’’ by Francis Bacon at Christie’s International in New York.

One of course was the price it fetched on Nov. 12: $142.4 million. Another was the fact that this -- the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction -- is a modern British figurative painting.

Lastly, though a fine specimen it is far from being the artist’s masterpiece, or even particularly well-known.

Such a development would have been unimaginable when the picture was completed in 1969, or even a couple of decades ago. Suddenly, the market has placed a work made in London within the last 45 years in -- at least financially -- No. 1 place.

This adds an additional interest to the opening tomorrow of an architecturally revamped and enhanced Tate Britain in London. Most reporters get to see the transformation this morning.

The venerable building first opened in 1897 as the National Gallery of British Art. It isn’t quite as we used to know it. The architects, Caruso St John, have deftly opened up the old structures -- sometimes taking it back closer to its late Victorian origin, sometimes making new spaces and connections.

The most striking is a new spiral staircase leading down from the rotunda near the entrance to the lower floor. There is also a new cafe, less sepulchral than the old one.

The restaurant is reopening newly brightened, with decades of dirt removed. Its murals by Rex Whistler make it among the most visually splendid places to eat in London.

Natural Light

More important to the experience of the actual art is the improvement to 10 of the galleries, opened earlier in the year, which allows in more natural light, all the better for viewing paintings. This is one clear advantage the century-old galleries at Tate Britain have over the much newer ones at Tate Modern.

All of this constitutes a job well if unobtrusively done, and puts more of a focus on the collection. That in turn raises the question, how good, really is British art? For most of the century and a bit that Tate Britain -- under one name or another -- has been in existence many people, especially in international art centers such as Paris or New York, would have said that that it was minor and provincial stuff.

Quite often, that was true of late-19th-century and early-20th-century work. There were numerous artistic glories in the Georgian period, peaking with Turner and Constable, fewer in the following periods. It was Bacon, more than anyone, who elevated postwar British art to a world class level, and he did it by resolutely ignoring fashion.

Bacon’s Reputation

Even at the time of his death in 1992, he was dismissed as a marginal and eccentric figure by prophets of abstraction such as the American critic Clement Greenberg.

Still, Bacon has won his point. Figurative painting by Bacon, Freud, David Hockney, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Patrick Caulfield has turned out to be one of the great strengths of British cultural achievements of the last half century. Another strength has been has non-representational sculpture by Anish Kapoor and Richard Long among others.

The national collection has damaging gaps, such as almost nothing from Freud’s last two decades, for example. It remains unquestionably the world’s best array of British art. Tate Britain has a very interesting story to tell, and now has a building that can show it to better advantage.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His books include works on Freud, Hockney and Constable, and the latest is “Michelangelo: His Epic Life.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Warwick Thompson on theater, Scott Reyburn and Katya Kazakina on auctions, Elin McCoy on wine and Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater.

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