Article first published in Forbes Monaco June/July 2020 issue.
Majid Boustany's secret cultural gem in Monaco.
It was what the French call un coup de foudre - an electrifying jolt that compels you to follow a sudden attraction, wherever it may lead.
Back in the 1990s, when Majid Boustany was studying business and international relations in London, he decided to enroll in a course in art history. Little did he imagine that a class visit to the Tate Gallery would have a profound impact on his life.
While viewing a triptych by British artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) entitled Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), Boustany already sensed that this “enigmatic and alarming” work would trigger the need to delve deeper into the artist’s world and explore his creative process.
Majid Boustany, founder of the Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, has a connection with the Principality that dates back to the early 1980s when his family moved to Monaco.
“My father bought the Hotel Metropole,” says the Swiss-Lebanese property developer, “and thanks to the crucial support of Prince Rainier, he renovated it and added a shopping center, offices and a residential area to complete the project, which my brother and I are now running.” (One of a handful of independent hotels in Monaco, the Metropole reopened on June 19 after a three-month closure due to Covid-19.)
“My family and I were immediately made to feel at home in this welcoming, multicultural country offering an unrivalled quality of life. By opening a Foundation dedicated to Francis Bacon in Monaco, I wanted to offer something in return to this Principality which has given me and my family so much, and to contribute to Monegasque cultural development.”
Now in his early fifties, Boustany has become an avid collector and scholar of Francis Bacon, with more than 3,000 items dedicated to the British artist.
His extraordinary private collection, housed in a white 1897 Belle Époque villa on boulevard d’Italie, is one of Monaco’s secret cultural gems: the Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, a non-profit institution, which, among its various missions, supports artists and art historians through its scholarships program, documentary film production and publications devoted to the artist. Inaugurated in October 2014 with the active support of Prince Albert, it is neither a museum nor a gallery— rather, a research center on Francis Bacon.
“The Foundation,” explains Boustany, “includes the largest collection of Bacon’s early paintings, rare items from his furniture and rug designer period, a unique photographic archive on the artist, a compilation of his exhibition catalogues, a selection of graphic works, and the most important range of items and working documents sourced from his Paris studio, as well as several working documents from other studios.” Add to that an extensive library that is a faithful re-creation of Bacon’s personal library.
Fortunately, for the general public, there are also free tours by appointment only where you can view over 100 pieces in an intimate setting that feels like the artist’s home.
Francis Bacon on the terrace of the Trocadero residence in Monaco by photographer John Edwards
As he looks back at the painter’s highly controversial career, can Boustany pinpoint what he most admires about Bacon?
“Perhaps Bacon’s genuinely uncompromising attitude both in his life and in his work,” Boustany muses. “A great observer of his time, he produced monumental images that have an extraordinary power to fascinate, disturb, shock or haunt you.
“Bacon was full of contradictions,” he adds. “He was a loner who loved parties, an atheist obsessed with religious subjects, and a generous and charming man who could also turn cruel to his closest friends. I’ve always admired the fact that this self-taught artist had as many facets as his tortured pictures, often described by him as ‘a concentration of reality."
This is no coincidence. Early on, once Majid Boustany began poring over biographies about Bacon’s life, he discovered that the artist began visiting Monaco in the early 1940s.
“In 1946, after selling Painting 1946—which is in the permanent collection of the MoMA— Bacon immediately left London to settle in Monaco. The Principality became his main residence from July 1946 to the early 1950s and was to become his home away from home for over fifty years,” Boustany says. “I chose the Belle Époque Villa Élise for its similarity to the various Monaco residences the artist inhabited in the 1940s.”
Indeed, the Monte Carlo lifestyle and Bacon’s powerful tortured canvases may not strike immediate parallels, but the artist’s notorious predilection for gambling was part of the appeal.
“In 1949, the artist won at the Monte Carlo Casino the then colossal sum of £1,600 and with the proceeds he rented Villa Frontalière in Monaco and invited his friend Graham Sutherland to a memorable dinner at the Hotel de Paris.”
Yet, despite Monaco’s many distractions, Bacon began to concentrate on painting the human form, which was a crucial step in his career,” Boustany points out. “He approached painting as he approached gambling—both activities depending on the elements of luck, chance and accident. For him, the practice of painting was perceived as a gamble in which every gain made had to be risked for further gain.”
But a businessman he was not. Although Bacon returned to London in the 60s and remained there until his death, it wasn’t exactly the high life. “Bacon lived in a very modest studio-apartment situated at 7 Reece Mews in South Kensington which he described as a ‘dump,’” Boustany says with a smile. “He spent most of his money on his circle of friends in his favorite Soho restaurants, bars and clubs where he enjoyed hanging out from midday to late at night.”
Figure Crouching (1949). Photo: The Estate of Francis Bacon ( Imbart Collection)
Boustany recently became a patron of the Musée du Louvre, whose artworks were greatly admired by Bacon. He has also embarked on a major project with the École du Louvre, with whom the Foundation is already in partnership for research grants.
And for sheer pleasure—when the collector isn’t swimming or hiking in the South of France or the French Alps with his daughter—Boustany continues to look for rare items for his collection.
“I recently enriched my photographic archive with the only surviving photograph of Bacon by the renowned photographer Helmar Lerski, taken in Berlin around 1929,” Boustany says. And perhaps, more than ever, in these challenging pandemic-fraught times, Bacon’s representation of reality seems particularly pertinent.
“He remained, throughout his career, committed to exploring the dark corners of existence. His paintings represent for me a huge affirmation of human vulnerability countered by human vitality.”