Hamburg, Kustverein; Stockholm, Moderna Museet; Dublin, Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Francis Bacon,1965, no. 57
Acquired prior to the breakthrough travelling exhibition in 1965 and executed at the very height of Francis Bacon's phenomenal career, Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud serves as testament to one of the most impressive artistic relationships of the Twentieth Century. In the 1950s and 1960s Bacon and Freud, then widely recognised as Britain's pre-eminent painters, met incessantly and were considered inseparable. From 1961 Bacon employed this fourteen by twelve inches canvas size exclusively for an epic portraiture cycle that depicted a coterie of close friends in a project that occupied him until the end of his life. While his friend Frank Auerbach has likened these fantastic portrayals to "risen spirits" John Russell has commented that "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 and p. 152). Among these phenomenal character investigations, the brilliant colour, dramatic brushstrokes and analysis of facial landscape across the three canvases of the present work are truly exceptional. Highlights converge and dissemble to describe passages of light across the three versions of Freud's visage: just as our eye is attracted to the seeming organisation of one area it immediately shoots to the apparent dissolution of another.
Lucian Freud had first learned about Francis Bacon from Graham Sutherland towards the end of the Second World War, and the pair thereafter became close friends, even seeing each other on a daily basis for a time. Freud painted his extraordinary portrait Francis Bacon in oil on copper in 1952, conjuring an intangible air of distracted distance in the face of his friend which so perfectly narrates the dimensions of their unconventional friendship. Two years later in 1954 the pair represented Britain, together with Ben Nicholson, at the Venice Biennale, firmly cementing their reputations at the vanguard of contemporary painting. Having started with the large Portrait of Lucian Freud in 1951, Bacon created paintings that included Freud in their titles for over twenty years, and the shadow of his unnamed presence long after that. However, the present work contains an intensity and intimacy that is rarely seen elsewhere, together with the paint handling that defines Bacon's inimitable masterworks. It is archetypal of Bacon's seminal cycle of triptych portrait heads, capturing an intense presence in mid-movement. This is Bacon's detached yet doting depiction of one of his closest friends and a true artistic companion, and it confirms David Sylvester's description that "Bacon had something of Picasso's genius for transforming his autobiography into images with a mythic allure and weight" (David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 186).
Overlapping matrices of paint hatching, partly imprinted with Bacon's idiosyncratic use of corduroy material, describe the modulations of texture across the subject's faces, while Freud's stylishly dishevelled hair is variously presented with dragged streaks of dry pigment. Bacon's extraordinary aptitude to shift through different modes of execution, from exactitude to expressivity, from the diagrammatic to the painterly, is here exhibited at its instinctive best. Bacon's portraiture is critically-defined and world-renowned for achieving uncanny likeness via a seemingly chaotic assault of violent brushstrokes. Between the rich paint strata here he has buried a deep affection for Freud, which slowly reveals itself together with the gradual appearance of the sitter's character on the surface of the canvas.
The portrait is loaded with physicality, both literally with the weight of oil paint and as the material record of the artist's own brutal assault. Out of a flurry of swipes and blows Freud's unmistakable presence emerges: with each loaded stroke on the three canvases this most focused of portraits unravels the sitter's psychological and emotional kernel across the surfaces. It is almost as if Bacon has attempted to hide this face and to camouflage it in paint, yet suffers the burden of knowing it too well to conceal its true identity. It is often noted that Bacon's portraits reveal their sitter's inner essence because he painted people he knew closely, and at this time Lucian Freud was perhaps the closest that Francis Bacon ever had to a likeminded artistic equal.
The variegated textures of the surfaces recount the story of this work's creation: the artist has brushed, smeared, flicked, lifted and thrown paint in his drive to define likeness; scraping, reworking, and layering to impregnate the painting with both painterly and psychological depth. While the powerful scarlet reds introduce a radical charge of colour, the sinuous sweeps of highly viscous strokes define the topography of Freud's physiognomy in a rhythmic pattern of textural variety. All this is set against a backdrop of depthless black, coarsely woven canvas that results in the sculptural character of bitumen. Bacon's rich hues have been soaked into the absorbent unprimed canvas, which contrasts brilliantly with the explosive plasticity of the impasto.
While the renowned critic and Bacon's great friend Michel Leiris describes the artist's portraits in strictly corporeal terms; "his work carries the signs of his actions rather as a person's flesh bears the scars of an accident or an attack" (Michel Leiris in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Marlborough Fine Art, Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, p. 17), William Feaver appraises them as figures of speech: "Here we have the slap round the chops. Then a good seeing-to, followed by a succession of abrupt images; gobsmacked, browbeaten, dumped on, cold-shouldered" (William Feaver in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Marlborough Fine Art, Francis Bacon 1909-1992: Small Portrait Studies, 1993, n.p.). Because we see several aspects and angles of Freud's head all at once we are confronted by his character as a whole, rather than one specific snapshot. The representation is like an over-exposed photograph, or even some constantly adjusting oil-based hologram acting as a psychosomatic X-ray. Left on the canvas is the residue of the artist's impulsive action, simultaneously trapping different facets of facial expression and a sense of movement. However, rather than merely the few moments of a time-delayed photo, Bacon has caught Freud's character as he observed him over years, and thus the painting holds within it time, experience and the shadows of memory itself.
The celebrated Czech writer Milan Kundera has commented that "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?" (Milan Kundera, Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, London 1996, p. 12). Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud is an outstanding example of Bacon reaching that critical threshold between recognition and dissolution. He has navigated the precise point at which this head reveals both the character of Lucian Freud and the raw and seemingly arbitrary convergence of paint and brushstrokes. Indeed, within its extraordinary layers of execution lies the key to Bacon's portraiture project, as he defined to Hugh Davies in 1973: "In trying to paint a portrait I would like it to be all likeness – I would like it to be a universal image as well as a specific fact" (the artist interviewed by Hugh Davies, 7th August 1973, cited in: Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York 1986, p. 45).
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