"The single head, fourteen inches by twelve, was from 1961 onwards the scene of some of Bacon's most ferocious investigations. Just as a gunshot sometimes leaves an after-echo or parallel report, so these small concentrated heads carry their ghosts within them." (John Russell, Francis Bacon, London, 1993, p. 99)
“Confronted by Bacon’s paintings we are compelled by sensations. We are affected viscerally and physiologically, and they act on the nervous system before the intellect: we feel them before we analyze them, but they remain open to diverse modes of interpretation, resisting conformity with any one philosophical system.” (Martin Harrison, ‘Painting, Smudging,’ in Martin Harrison, Ed., Francis Bacon: New Studies, Germany, 2009, p. 166)
“Of course we are not certain that the depths really do harbor something—but whatever it may be, we each of us have in us that brutal gesture, that hand movement that roughs up another person’s face in the hope of finding, in it and behind it, a thing that is hidden there.” (Milan Kundera, ‘The Painter’s Brutal Gesture’ in Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, New York, 1996, p. 10)
“Bacon’s portraits are the interrogation on the limits of the self. Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself? To what degree of distortion does a beloved being still remain a beloved being? For how long does a cherished face growing remote through illness, through madness, through hatred, through death still remain recognizable? Where lies the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?” (Milan Kundera, ‘The Painter’s Brutal Gesture’ in Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, New York, 1996, p. 12)
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, 1915
In 1970, Francis Bacon found himself at the pinnacle of his personal and professional lives. Months before the opening of his groundbreaking career-defining retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1971, the artist was 61 years old and in the throes of his torrid, passionate love affair with George Dyer. The breathtaking creative fecundity of the years up to and including 1970 was owed predominantly to the impact of Bacon’s relationship with Dyer, which began in 1964 when Dyer broke into Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews with the intent of burgling the place. Through the studio’s famous skylight, Dyer tumbled into Bacon’s life like a piercing ray of light, truly falling from above and forever altering the course of the artist’s work. Their relationship was marked by a polarity of extremes: ardent infatuation and enchanted desire, foiled by the progressive impatience Bacon felt towards the increasing aimlessness and erratic behavior that exacerbated his lover’s worsening alcoholism. This intensity of emotion resulted in paintings that wield the full force of Bacon’s vigor and pictorial authority, which reached its absolute crest in 1970—just one year before tragedy would strike Bacon once again, with Dyer’s death in 1971 driving him into a spiral of grief. The artist’s exhilarating 1970 diptych, Two Studies for a Self-Portrait, however, meets Bacon at a critical juncture before Dyer’s imminent death would consume him entirely. In these two portraits, we happen upon the artist caught in a transitional mental state, wrestling with the rapturous emotional depth and psychological complexity of his relationship with Dyer, all the while in the full swings of preparation for the most important milestone of his career.
Two Studies for a Self-Portrait is indisputably the singular icon of the artist’s legendary canon of self-portraiture, having graced the covers of Milan Kundera and France Borel’s definitive 1996 publication Francis Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, and John Russell’s seminal 2001 monograph Francis Bacon. A treasure of inconceivable rarity, not only is this painting the lone work painted in 1970 ever to appear publicly for sale, but it is one of only three Self Portrait diptychs executed in Bacon’s famed 14 by 12-inch format. Exhibited only twice—first at the Grand Palais, and then in an exhibition of the artist’s Small Portrait Studies at Marlborough Fine Art in London in 1993, for which it was selected as the poster image—this unparalleled masterwork has remained out of the public eye in the same esteemed private collection for the past 46 years since having been acquired in the year of its creation. An exceptional work, therefore, that possesses an equally exceptional exhibition history, Two Studies for Self-Portrait was hand chosen by the artist for inclusion in the single most important exhibition in Bacon’s lifetime: the grand scale retrospective held at the Grand Palais in 1971 (an accolade only previously afforded to Pablo Picasso among living painters). Directly following this exhibition, the critic for Le Monde Michel Conil Lacoste, praised the “perfectly selected and installed masterworks”: “It’s more than a successful exhibition. Everything has come together for this retrospective, in preparation for the past two years, an event marked by exceptional signs: the power and the radical originality of a painter… the renewal he draws from an exploration of the human and the quotidian and the classical métier one thought was exhausted...” (Michel Conil Lacoste quoted in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Britain (and travelling), Francis Bacon, 2008, p. 36)
Charged with sublime beauty and framed within an electric arena of brilliant color, these two portraits masterfully combine Bacon’s twisted, scraped, and gushed handling of paint with arresting intensity and consummate psychological depth. Exquisite pastel tones are entwined and offset by lush, electric swathes of orange, pink, and blue squeezed directly from the tube, further punctuated by alabaster accents that work to illuminate the entire painting. Alternating between thick smears of abstracted color and precise, naturalistic renderings of the artist’s own physiognomy, the present work sees the artist tussling with his own appearance. Here he oscillates between realism and the artifice of self-presentation; John Richardson remarked of Bacon’s faces, “Those strange revolving brushstrokes, that are so familiar from his pictures, would be rehearsed with Max Factor pancake make-up. He had a series of these Max Factor pots and he would take one and do a sort of smear across his face, and these are the smears that you see on so many of the faces of those early paintings.” (John Richardson quoted in Francis Bacon: Taking Reality by Surprise, London, 1996) Bravura brushwork and whipped impasto share the picture plane with elegant impressions of corduroy and torn cloth that imprint vigorous pattern onto the surface of the face; the striped passages weave around the curvature of Bacon’s head and extend seamlessly into his ruffled coiffure. In thrilling evidence is the artist’s distinctive forelocks of hair, those inimitable diagonal brushmarks which the esteemed French poet, and friend of Bacon’s, Michel Leiris described as “a reckless comma staunchly inscribed across his brow.” (Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon Full Face and in Profile, New York, 1983, p. 12)
Unlike other examples of Bacon’s small-format portrait studies, Two Studies for a Self-Portrait does not convey an entirely mangled appearance: the savage brushstrokes and riotous color connote a dislocation of facial features, but the tenderness with which Bacon approaches his own face in this buoyant self-portrait evades utter disfigurement. Captured brusquely mid-motion, Bacon’s faces conjure a restlessness of inner thought and intense concentration, but avoid the bruised lacerations and wounded defacements that mark his more tragic self-portraits. With sumptuous inflections of paint, Bacon’s facial distortions interrogate the limits of the self. Amid the spectacular color and virtuoso brushwork, Bacon presents an ethereal and unearthly form of his visage that, while undoubtedly depicting the artist, is manifestly surreal. In the left panel, the artist’s right cheek is smeared with a single stroke of searing orange that swoops across his jawline, his entire visage reverberating with the velocity of the brush as if recovering from a blow to the face; in the right panel, the center of his head tremors with violent smudges. But, this is not a mark of pure brutality. While the pulpy arcs and swoops of oil paint rough up Bacon’s features, the artist’s insistence on chance, play, and radiant prismatic color invoke what Kundera refers to as ‘joyous despair’: a counter-balance between the artist’s serious confrontation with mortality and the intense desire and enchantment that these effusive pictures set forth. Two Studies for a Self-Portrait approaches the physical materiality of human existence in its insistence on the corporeality of flesh as real and concrete; Bacon expresses this pure, indisputable fact as enduringly in tandem with an inner, metaphysical essence. Kundera explains, “It is neither pessimism nor despair, it is only obvious fact, but a fact that is veiled by our membership in a collectivity that blinds us with its dreams, its excitements, its projects, its illusions, its struggles, its causes, its religions, its ideologies, its passions. And then one day the veil falls and we are left stranded with the body, at the body’s mercy…” (Milan Kundera, ‘The Painter’s Brutal Gesture’ in Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, New York, 1996, p. 17) What makes the present work so special is its insistent disavowal of pessimism: Bacon accesses his own mortality while privileging the magical quality of dream, chance, and the imagination, which surpass the evanescence of the physical body.
The deeply striking instantaneity of the present work can be attributed greatly to the manner in which Bacon very deliberately painted the background. Bacon was a compulsive revisionist and very often traces of differently hued layers are visible underneath the final background coat. The individual panels of Two Studies for a Self-Portrait, however, reveal no such underpainting. Instead, the bright, flat lilac background follows closely the extemporaneous articulation of Bacon’s head and shoulders, leaving areas of grazed pigment that reveal the raw canvas beneath. Against this purposeful background, the interplay and great choreography of agitated brushstrokes in white, blue, and red posit this as a work of extraordinary elegance and vibrancy. The rich density of oils that comprise the facial forms are amplified in intensity against the flatness of the background and simplicity of his black jumper.
Cut off from the natural world by its searing, pungent tonal spectrum, Bacon’s palette occupies the realm of the imagination. With dropped eyelids perched against his muscular cheekbones as if closed, and lips tightly pursed in deep contemplation, Bacon’s heads appear to be captured in a liminal state of mental reflection. His severely introspective expressions coupled with the enchanting color palette indicate a dream-like state nestled within his subconscious psyche. Martin Harrison discusses this crucial connection between Bacon’s technique of turbulent smudges and its greater philosophical resonance. Harrison in fact quotes Gaston Bachelard to suggest the smudged features in Bacon’s portraits indicate a state of transition: “Gaston Bachelard discussed the phenomena of dreaming and transitional states thus: ‘if it is true that the psychology of the imagination neither can nor should work upon static figures—if it can only learn from images that are in the process of deformation, it will be agreed that this most amorphous of objects must be one of the most valued oneiric themes. For does it not give access to a world of shapes in movement and deformed by movement, and lend itself to constructions whose constant mutations bring the formal powers of dreaming fully into play?’” (Martin Harrison, ‘Painting, Smudging,’ in Martin Harrison, Ed., Francis Bacon: New Studies, Germany, 2009, p. 166)
If Bacon’s portraits are indeed meant to affect a level of sensation beyond the purely physiological, there is perhaps no more intimate an investigation of the artist’s psyche than Two Studies for a Self-Portrait. Bacon was quoted at length describing how he instinctually pushed paint around to get as close as possible to a “deep well from which things are drawn out, a reservoir of the unconscious.” (Francis Bacon quoted in Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York, 1986, p. 110) It is perhaps Milan Kundera, however, who best described Bacon’s painterly triumph in his introduction for the publication Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, on whose cover the present work is featured. Kundera wrote: “Of course we are not certain that the depths really do harbor something—but whatever it may be, we each of us have in us that brutal gesture, that hand movement that roughs up another person’s face in the hope of finding, in it and behind it, a thing that is hidden there.” (Milan Kundera, ‘The Painter’s Brutal Gesture’ in Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, New York, 1996, p. 10) When faced with his own image, Bacon turned to the brush as a tool by which to excavate and discover a hidden layer of meaning from within his nervous system. Bacon explicitly declared his disavowal of religion and any existence of a soul, maintaining the uniform conclusion that mind, nervous system, and body exist as one. While delicately imprinted, the parallel lines that score Bacon’s doubled heads appear as scratches across his face, marking a state of deformity that perhaps best visualizes Kundera’s concept of “the brutal gesture”: it is as if the viewer bears witness to the artist clawing at his own corporeal being to dig out his inner essential subconscious. As Bacon remarked, “When talking about the violence of paint, it’s nothing to do with the violence of war. It’s to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality itself.” (Francis Bacon quoted in Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York, 1986, pp. 109-110) Rather than setting out to represent fact, Bacon’s self-portraiture approached distortion as a means by which to unlock what lies beneath the surface of appearance—a vehicle for observation into human nature.
Moreover, what makes Two Studies for a Self-Portrait indelibly rare is that in comparison to the 21 single panels and 11 triptych self-portrait studies in the 14-by-12 inch format canvases, Bacon executed a total of only 3 self-portraits in this diptych format. The diptych remains a significant composition for Bacon’s portrait heads, presenting a duality of views that is particularly resonant in its binary composition. The single portrait head became Bacon’s principal subject in 1964, the year he first met George Dyer. In the early part of this year, Bacon commissioned John Deakin to photograph himself, and the other protagonists of his Bohemian Soho enclave, and in so doing was provided with an instant repository of visual cue cards to use as photographic source imagery for his studies. The proliferation of the diptych and triptych format can be attributed to the organization of the contact sheets Deakin provided to Bacon, which arranged each roll of film in four rows of three. This lateral sequencing allowed Bacon to explore not only the nuances of movement, but to probe multiple views of the same subject: a distinctly Cubist device used to Bacon’s advantage in order to depict an emotional, metaphysical complexity. Across these multiplied formats, his portraits—and subsequently, the essence of his subjects—develop before the eye like a photograph. Bacon seems to make the case against any singular perspective on the individual, instead privileging a layered understanding of the human psyche. John Russell described: “Bacon wrenched, reversed, abbreviated, jellified and generally reinvented the human image. The paint-structure was by turns brusque and sumptuous, lyrical and offhand, pulpy and marmoreal. Swerving, pouncing, colliding with itself, taking for granted the most bizarre conjunctions of impulse, it produced a multiple imagery which was quite new in painting.” (John Russell, Francis Bacon, New York, 1971, p. 168) Possessing the ability to catch a subject’s shifting position through both the double format, and the sweeping vertiginous brushstrokes within each panel, Bacon’s portrait studies present a revisionist take on the precepts of Analytical Cubism.
Two nights prior to the opening of Bacon’s retrospective exhibition at the Grand Palais, Dyer was found dead of an overdose in a bathroom at the Hôtel des Saints-Pères. Following Dyer’s passing, Bacon launched into a series of epic eulogies that would lead into his Black Triptychs, which bespeak the artist’s immeasurable loss and grief. Bacon’s Two Studies for a Self-Portrait arrived on the cusp of this significant emotional transition. In the mid-1960s, Bacon was given a book written by Michel Leiris, where he underlined the following passage: “For Baudelaire, beauty cannot come into being without the intervention of something accidental… What constitutes beauty is not the confrontation of opposites but the mutual antagonism of those opposites, and the active and vigorous manner in which they invade one another and emerge from the conflict marked as if by a wound or a depredation… We can call ‘beautiful’ only that which suggests the existence of an ideal order—supraterrestrial, harmonious and logical—and yet bears within itself, like the brand of an original sin, the drop of poison, the rogue element of incoherence, the grain of sand that will foul up the entire system… On the right-hand side, a beauty that is immortal, sovereign, sculptural; facing it, the element of the left, sinister in the strict sense, since the left stands for misfortune, and for accident, and for sin.” (Michel Leiris cited in John Russell, Francis Bacon, New York, 1971, p. 142-3) Just like Leiris, Bacon saw two sides of beauty: both the stable and the unstable, the passion and the tragedy. It is from the tension between opposites and the struggle for balance between two sides that one finds true beauty. By very nature of a process of doubling, the diptych literally and formally articulates for Bacon the power of image and counter-image in dialogue. In two parts, Bacon fragments his appearance into two alike yet unlike images, heightening a plurality of self that is without restrictions.
The ebullient hues and vortex of energy within his sweeping marks in Two Studies for a Self-Portrait relate Bacon’s painting to the outburst of color associated with the development of color field painting, post-painterly abstraction, and the ascendance of the brightly colored Pop Art in the 1960s. In the vivid fields of prismatic color that swerve into one another, Bacon’s faces evoke the deeply saturated chromatic intensity of Mark Rothko’s abstract sectionals from the early 1950s, while their Impressionist vigor and sense of motion recall the most accomplished of Claude Monet’s landscapes. Bacon’s iridescent palette in the present work recounts a heightened exuberance and magnificent imagination from a painter who staunchly opposed idealization, facing humanity for its overwhelming burden of traumas and pain. The bejeweled pinks, blues, and lavenders that erupt from Bacon’s doubled visage are notably present in Perry Ogden’s famed photographs of Bacon’s home and studio on 7 Reece Mews in London’s South Kensington neighborhood, where he moved in 1961 and remained until his death in 1992. As the artist scraped clean the radiant hues of his brush, reworking the layers of his intricate canvas surfaces, we can see the vestiges of his painterly process lining the interior of his studio. This irrepressibly effusive palette demonstrably held a privileged place in Bacon’s repertoire, appearing in a number of Self-Portraits from the late 60s. The 1960s also spawned a proliferation of Technicolor in the public mass media, where color photography, film, and magazines ascended to the status of the norm. Fascinated by color photography and color reproductions in books, Bacon reveled in the heightened artifice and falsified spectrum that the medium enabled: the rich kaleidoscopic color present in Two Studies for a Self-Portrait creates a sense of fiction that shears Bacon’s depiction from the natural world, emphasizing its distance from a photographic reality.
Already the subject of major international retrospectives and critical scholarship across the globe by the time he painted Two Studies for a Self-Portrait in 1970, Bacon was deeply aware of his prominent status. A man of 61, time inevitably had its cumulative effects on his appearance, and yet in this depiction, Bacon’s features remain remarkably akin to those of a much younger man. This painting does not possess the carved tangle of physiognomic forms or time weariness evident in future self-portraits from the immediate years following the death of George Dyer in 1971; instead, it emanates youthfulness, a tone further embellished by the lively color palette. Alert, tightly jawed, and smooth-skinned below the impastoed sense of movement, Bacon’s painted face belies the age of its author. This indisputably favorable portrayal of his own appearance reflects Bacon’s deep concern with self-presentation, a factor further elaborated by Michael Peppiatt: “… Bacon continued to take great care of his appearance as he grew older, dyeing his hair subtle shades of reddish brown and applying liberal amounts of ‘pancake’ makeup to his face, even though it had not become deeply lined.” (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, New York, 2009, p. 364) Successor to a genre of self-portraiture perfected by revered masters from Rembrandt to Picasso, Bacon was undoubtedly driven by an incessant compulsion to forge and carefully deliver a well-manicured personal mythology for the experience of his time.
As a genre, self-portraiture purportedly reveals the private side of a public profession; nowhere can this be understood with such forthright candor than in Bacon’s oeuvre as viewed in the light of Rembrandt’s legacy. Rembrandt was the very touchstone of Bacon’s inventiveness in these small scale canvases; the endless variety and successive permutations of his own visage, which meld into almost abstract dissolving matter towards the end of his life, cast Rembrandt’s late self-portraits as a striking parallel to, and even art historical blue-print for, the present work. Bacon believed Rembrandt’s self-portraits to be “formally the most extraordinary paintings. He altered painting in a way by the method by which he dealt with himself and perhaps he felt freer to deal with himself in this totally liberal way… One always has a greater involvement with oneself than with anybody else. No matter how much you may believe that you’re in love with somebody else, your love of somebody else is your love of yourself.” (Francis Bacon quoted in David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 241) When viewed up close, Rembrandt’s heads seemingly disband into a mass of non-representational marks that were doubtless an inspiration to Bacon’s own savage expressivity. Like Rembrandt tallying his aged, lined and weary features with a congruent painterly treatment of disbanded corporeality, in the present work the vaporous dissolution of Bacon’s likeness tempers exigent facture with an intense yet reposed response to the concrete fact of mortality.
Until a certain point in history, portraiture was a means by which to reach an absolute representation of an individual—direct, unambiguous statements of a person’s character and statehood, categorized by identifiers of dress, ownership, and other iconographic markers. At the turn of Modernism, however, artists displayed their disbelief in this structured view of human personality, turning away from a monolithic view of human nature defined by power, and instead to a variable, contingent expression of individuals characterized by flaws and ambiguity. As Bacon’s likeness refracts like a prism throughout and across Two Studies for a Self-Portrait, the spectral mirror of his canvases reveal entirely uncharted emotional depths and psychosomatic complexities buried within the very philosophy of self-reflection.
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