Francis Bacon Exhibition Moscow 1988

In March 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became First Secretary of the Soviet Union. Things were beginning to change. In December 1985 I was running a gallery in the King’s Road showing young artists, including Grayson Perry and the Neo-naturists. I wanted to show my stable of young artists in New York. At a party a friend of mine suggested I take them to Moscow instead. I rang him the next day and he suggested I go to the Soviet section of UNESCO in Paris. In Paris, I met the UNESCO representative, a Mr Klokov. Over lunch he gave me the name of the one person who could be of assistance within the Union of Artists of the USSR, which dealt with the work of living painters. Six months later I received a telegram inviting me to Moscow to discuss my proposal– this was July 1986. I went with the delegation of other persons interested in doing negotiations with Russia as at the time that was the only way in. Within a couple of days of arriving in Moscow I realised it was impossible to show my stable of artists but the protocol was that I had to visit many artist’s studios. Over the course of discussions and much vodka I asked, which artist they would most love to see from the UK. They all replied “Francis Bacon”. I asked Klokov if an exhibition of Francis Bacon would be acceptable and popular in the USSR– he thought it would be. A few months after returning to London, I opened a new gallery on Dean Street Soho (Birch & Conran) showing an exhibition of British Pop Art. That evening Francis Bacon arrived with Denis Wirth-Miller. Over dinner later, I asked Francis if he would like to have an exhibition in Moscow, and he said “Oh I would love to”, he had just had bad reviews in the USA. The next day I rang Klokov in Moscow- which you had to book a call five hours in advance to do.

Initially Bacon was worried about obtaining works from private owners who might object to an exhibition in the USSR but this seemed not to be a problem. The exhibition was a small retrospective comprising of 22 paintings including diptychs and triptychs from all periods of his work. His gallery, Marlborough Fine Art, London, were delighted. The selection was made largely by Bacon and Miss Beston of the Marlborough Gallery, although a few of the works were rejected by the first secretary of the union of artists as they were thought to be too pornographic.

It opened on the 22nd of September, 1988, at the Union of Artists’ hall in Moscow (A similar sized venue to the Hayward Gallery in London). This was the first time that a living Western artist of the first rank had been exhibited in the USSR. The convoluted processes by which this came about, sheds an interesting light on prevailing, very different, current Soviet attitudes towards art and its organisation.

Francis himself was looking forward to the opening as he always acknowledged the work of Eisenstein’s films; notably the nurse on the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, which was one of his sources for his portraits of the Screaming Popes, he was also learning Russian on a language course by cassette. He could have pulled the plug on this exhibition at any moment, due to various costs and health issues, but he was determined for it to happen, and had full trust in my project as I had known him since I was a child. Sadly, due to ill health, he never came to it but wanted to hear all about it when I returned from Moscow.

The exhibition was a huge success.

James Birch

Crowds outside exhibition hall in Moscow. Photo and © James Birch
John Edwards in front of Francis Bacon’s Study for a Self-Portrait – Triptych (1985-86) at the Moscow exhibition. Photo and © James Birch
John Edwards in front of Francis Bacon’s triptych Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards (1984) at the Moscow exhibition. Photo and © James Birch