Self-portraiture has played a role of unparalleled importance in the work of Francis Bacon. More so than any artist since Rembrandt, Bacon’s implacable self-portrayals weave an autobiographic thread through the exigent vicissitudes of an extraordinarily dramatic life. Lived with the deepest commitment to brutally seizing the vulnerable, vital and violent conditions of human existence in both his work and day-to-day being, Francis Bacon was an artist for whom the searing reality of life itself was the purpose. Nowhere is this more forcefully evident than in the haunting opus of Self-Portraiture. Executed in the artist’s eighth decade at the age of 71, Three Studies for a Self-Portrait, richly surmises a life’s worth of retrospect locked within an emphatically urgent scrutiny of Bacon’s iconic features. Belonging to a corpus of eleven triptych self-portrayals in Bacon’s standard 14 by 12inch format, the present triptych counts among the ten executed following the death of Bacon’s closest companion, George Dyer. The profound trauma of this event would precipitate an onslaught of searing self-analyses executed across the extant years of Bacon’s life. Painted in 1980, nine years following Dyer’s suicide, these three portraits collectively embody among the most elegiac in this intimate and somewhat commemorative triptych format. The sequence of effervescent works exude muted melancholia accented with the violent facture of Bacon’s inimitably physical painterly assault. Herein, these works utterly encapsulate the strength of burning sensation and direct emotion telescoped in Bacon’s astounding corpus of portrait heads. A series and format first settled upon in 1961 and sustained in practice until the very end, these extraordinary portraits form the very staple of Bacon’s mature practice, acting as the primary locus for the “brutality of fact” and most immediate site for loosening the “valves of sensation” so frequently spoken of by the artist. Professing profound reflection accompanying the artist’s entry into old age, Three Studies for a Self-Portrait significantly preserves one of the very final depictions of Bacon's likeness in this unflinching, intimate and crucial format. Following the 1979 Three Studies for a Self-Portrait residing in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and directly preceding the very last small Self-Portrait sequence from 1984 belonging to the Honolulu Museum of Art, this work hauntingly eulogizes the penultimate occasion of Bacon's searing and intimate self-analysis in his favourite format: the triptych. These human-scaled portrait heads are translucent, air-like apparitions of an ephemeral spirit dissolving into the black ether of the void. Enshrouded in shadow and ethereally effervescent, de-formulation and re-formulation of likeness moves from one image to the next; in series as though caught in the flash of a photo booth, these fully frontal and in profile depictions glow like votive icons of an artist who himself is an icon of his age.
Suited in a white collar like an echo of the anguished early portraits of anonymous male sitters from the 1950s, this ethereal triptych represents one of the most quintessential translations of Bacon’s legendary likeness. Resembling a distorted and existential mirror image of the artist’s own psyche, the three portraits compound the immediacy and unsurpassed power of the small studies. As William Fever has explained: “‘Studies’ or exercises though they are, these small paintings are central to Bacon’s art. The scale of a bathroom mirror-image makes them one-to-one, and when they are paired, or grouped in threes, the differences animate them. No rooms, no thrones, no perfunctory landscape settings are needed. Without context or posture, the heads have nothing to do but look, sometimes at one another, and wait” (William Feaver, ‘That’s It’, Exhibition Catalogue, London, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., Francis Bacon 1909 – 1992 Small Portrait Studies, 1993, p. 6). These works exude the nervousness of existence so cherished a part of Bacon’s artistic vision. Exuding endurance, suffering and involuntary mannerisms, the artist’s likeness emerges from underneath the surface of the paint. In Three Studies for a Self-Portrait, we witness Bacon pushing the boundaries of representation to their limits, deriving a new vocabulary of amorphous, inscrutable forms that, despite their ostensible abstraction, render with unequivocal certainty the instantly legible physiognomy of the artist with outstanding and somewhat surprising tranquillity. Charged with unparalleled melancholic beauty and framed within abyssal black grounds, these portraits combine masterfully scumbled, scraped and diffused handling of paint with arresting intensity and consummate psychological depth.
Powerfully evincing Bacon’s essential artistic aim, the present triptych fulfils a compelling visual counterpart to the artist’s own desire for his work: “I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime” (the artist, cited in: David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 33). Vaporous, ghost-like, yet dramatic physiognomies emerge out of an abyssal black ground; amorphous forms trail a presence through each image, leaving the viewer as vividly witness to some lingering apparition. In full consciousness of the waning years Bacon here paints himself in the dim-light of inexorable transience. Four years after the creation of this work Bacon mentioned to David Sylvester: “Life is all we have. I mean we are here for a moment” (the artist, cited in: Ibid., p. 231). Where the small portrait heads translate this eschatological communion most powerfully, it is Bacon’s own self-portraiture that punctuates the most exceptional moments of his oeuvre. With particular reference to the present work, Michael Peppiatt explicates: “…he was never more brilliant, more incisive or more ferocious when it came to depicting himself. In this he helped revive a genre, and Bacon’s Self-Portraits can now be seen as among the most pictorially inventive and psychologically revealing portraits of the Twentieth Century” (Michael Peppiatt in: Exhibition Catalogue, Rome, Galleria Borghese, Caravaggio Bacon, 2009-10, p. 210).
In his authoritative monograph on the artist, John Russell pointedly outlines the central importance of Bacon’s small portrait format: "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). Russell’s descriptive conjuring of spirits and ghosts here pinpoints the powerfully enduring impact of the small portrait heads. Initiated in 1961, the very first triptych in this format was painted directly in response to the death of Pater Lacy, the object of Bacon’s first major love affair. A former RAF pilot with a self-destructive nature prone to furious outbursts, Lacy embodied a magnetic force for Bacon whose finely-tuned and receptive proclivity for the violence of existence drove all aspects of his life. By the mid-1950s Lacy had ended the tempestuous relationship and moved to Tangier, where he began to slowly and surely drink himself into oblivion. Upon hearing of his death the grief-stricken Bacon painted Lacy’s emanation as a commemorative act of resuscitation and atonement. Three Studies for a Portrait (1961) powerfully lays bare the harrowing introspective quality intrinsic to the intimately scaled triptychs: struggling to the surface of the outer panels, Bacon’s phantasmal memory of Lacy is here comingled and conjoined with the artist’s own self-portrait, present in the central canvas. As noted by Peppiatt: “For Bacon, Lacy himself had become part of the artist’s own myth of guilt and retribution. He could recapture him at his most vital by foreseeing the death that would dissolve his appearance” (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: An Anatomy of an Enigma, London 2008, p. 236). Significantly, it was this event in Bacon’s life that precipitated the production of his first acknowledged Self-Portraits. That tragedy forcefully induced a mode of self-reflection in Bacon’s work was made emphatically clear following the second and most profound tragedy to beset Bacon’s life: the death of George Dyer. Ten years following Lacy’s demise and on the eve of Bacon’s Retrospective opening at the Grand Palais in Paris 1971, George Dyer - Bacon’s companion, lover and principle artistic subject since 1964 - was found dead. Marred by progressive alcoholism, suicidal desperation and a waning sense of purpose in the Bacon’s shadow, Dyer’s eight-year relationship with the artist was as fractured as it was passionate. A compelling force in life, in death Dyer’s absent-presence took on the weight of Bacon’s loss and melancholic regret; a profound grief that resonates throughout Bacon’s post-1971 opus and specifically the elegiac last paintings of himself. Echoing the posthumous depictions of Peter Lacy, where the late paintings of Dyer represent ruminations on his lost companion, they simultaneously represent deeply introverted self-reflections. What’s more, the constancy and significance of Dyer’s appearance in Bacon’s late oeuvre is surpassed only by the wealth of Self-Portraits, which from 1971 onwards, greatly increased in number. Bacon’s searching and intensely haunting self-images at once exorcise accusatory demons whilst offering deeply mournful inquiries in the face of profound bereavement: today the suite of heart-rending self-images executed during the last two decades of Bacon’s life stand among his very best works. These harrowing epic eulogies powerfully speak of the intense loss and guilt that remained with Bacon until his death.
When asked by Sylvester in 1979 why there are so many self-portraits, Bacon explained: “People have been dying around me like flies and I’ve had nobody else to paint but myself… I loathe my own face and I’ve done self-portraits because I’ve had nothing else to do” (the artist, cited in: David Sylvester, Op. cit., p. 129). Anathema to such a postulation, Bacon's purported reluctance to paint his own image is largely trivialising. The artist very rarely painted from life and did not require the presence of sitters to translate a likeness in paint, instead relying upon memory and the detritus of photographs and books famously strewn across his South Kensington studio as aesthetic triggers. Alongside the countless photographs of his friends Bacon commissioned from John Deakin, hundreds of photos of himself taken over the years, comprised a core visual compost for his pictorial imagination. While the intensity of Bacon’s Self-Portrait practice undoubtedly deepened following the death of George Dyer, throughout his life Bacon maintained an abiding fascination with his own appearance. A wearer of make-up and keen subject of the photographers lens Bacon had learned the nuances of re-invention and self-presentation from a young age, spending hours scrutinising and tracing the particularities of his own appearance in the mirror. Such a reading of the mirror image is extraordinarily present in the almost 1 to 1 scale of Three Studies for a Self-Portrait. “This is how we see what we feel like in the morning”, describes William Feaver, “examining the image in the mirror that corresponds so remotely with the sense we have of ourselves. This is the face that gets worse (more ‘lived in’) over the years, the face that betrays. These heads are what we are stuck with: unsentimentally ours. Bacon dealt with his… knowing that the best he could do was to effect a phantom, a rasping whoosh of characteristics” (William Feaver, Op. cit., p. 6). Though evoking in effigy a residual and unrelenting guilt over George Dyer’s death, Bacon's self-reference and proliferation of self-portraiture during this period somewhat confirms a statement made to Sylvester in 1975: "One always has 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" (the artist, cited in: David Sylvester, Op. cit., p. 241). Where for Bacon the act of painting is tantamount to a divulging of the self into the physical matter of paint, the presence of the artist’s own features within many paintings based on Dyer, Lacy or other members of his social circle simultaneously represents a form of psychological transference and an act theatrical artistic licence. That Bacon would translate his own features into portrayals of Dyer amongst others in his close circle of friends, both male and female, is not only testament to his pluralistic technique of working from visual ephemera and memory, but also to a compulsion that can be traced back to the seventeenth-century masterpieces of Caravaggio.
For an illumination of the present work, it is the theatrical way in which Caravaggio pioneered the contemporaneously non-existent genre of Self-Portraiture by gratuitously transfiguring into his work autobiographical narrative that chimes with Bacon. Self-Portrait as Bacchus (1593) and David with the Head of Goliath (1610) both purport such an autobiographical reading; whether it be an expression of illness, poverty and existential distress in the artist as Bacchus, or as persecutor and persecuted for which Caravaggio is both David and Goliath, scholars have identified the artist’s own physiognomy as surreptitiously present throughout his oeuvre. That Caravaggio would cast himself as the grotesque beheaded Goliath and as the youthful victor David speaks very much to the fugitive lifestyle undertaken after killing a man in Rome in 1606. Though far from casting himself in biblical character or mythological role, Bacon’s own beheaded likeness in Three Studies for a Self-Portrait conflates young with old, life and death in much the same self-analytical way as Caravaggio. This juxtaposition was explicitly brought to the fore when the present work was shown as part of the 2009 exhibition, Caravaggio Bacon, held within the theatrical Baroque environs of the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Alongside other major paintings from Bacon’s canon, Three Studies for a Self-Portrait was set in visual dialogue with Caravaggio’s most iconic works. Taken down from the chapels of Rome’s churches and borrowed from the most prestigious of collections, the bold and dramatic conflation of Caravaggio with Bacon revealed a parity of violent tension and relishing of bloody corporeality between artists separated by over 300 years.
Plunged into penetrating blackness, both Caravaggio and Bacon share the theatricality of vision that stages human tragedy and violence as temporally dislocated, dissolving into and emerging from, the shadow-light. Though he never openly cited Caravaggio as an influence, instead privileging his Caravaggisti predecessor Velazquez, Bacon’s erudition and pluralistic absorption of Art History’s vicissitudes far from discounts a comparison. Claudio Strinati outlines the pivotal confluence between the two artists: “Bacon and Caravaggio are artists who conceived of and used painting to possess the image, as if they both thought of figurative art as a parallel, perfect world, unable to be touched by the risk of change or decay, both of which distinctive of the real world” (Claudio Strinati, ‘Bacon and Caravaggio: The Occasion for an Encounter’, Exhibition Catalogue, Rome, Galleria Borghese, Caravaggio Bacon, 2009-10, p. 48). Where Caravaggio’s theatrical lighting and penchant for dramatic mise-en-scene prefigures the filmic aesthetic of modern day cinema, Bacon’s own cinematic inclination for distributing images in threes voices simultaneity of effect. As Bacon commented in interview with Sylvester, it was this filmic deployment of images that he felt worked best: “I know the things I really like doing are the triptychs. They are the things I like doing most, and I think this may be related to the thought I’ve sometimes had of making a film. I like the juxtaposition of the images separated on three different canvases. So far as my work has any quality, I often feel perhaps it is the triptychs that have the best quality” (the artist, cited in: David Sylvester, Op. cit., p. 232). As uniquely brought to the fore in Three Studies for a Self-Portrait, that Bacon and Caravaggio shared a theatrical temperament and a lifetime fraught with pathos and tragedy is reflected in a confluence of violent immediacy between two entirely singular artistic voices utterly without parallel.
By 1980, the cumulative impact of Bacon’s changing visage clearly seemed to have compounded an assertion of mortality and a desire to indelibly inscribe his own likeness within the eternal grand arc of Art History. Ancestor to Caravaggio’s pioneering of the genre perfected by revered masters from Rembrandt to Picasso, Bacon was driven by an incessant compulsion to forge an artistic legacy 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 candour than in Bacon’s oeuvre as viewed in the light of Rembrandt’s influence. 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” (Ibid., p. 241). When viewed close up the Rembrandt’s heads seemingly disband into a mass of non-representational marks that were doubtless an inspiration to Bacon’s own savage expressivity. In Bacon’s description of the Aix-en-Provence Self-Portrait with Beret (1659), it is almost as though he is describing the very nuances, subtleties and techniques employed in the execution of Three Studies for a Self-Portrait: “… if you think of the great Rembrandt self-portrait in Aix-en-Provence, for instance, and if you analyse it, you will see that there are hardly any sockets to the eyes, that it is almost completely anti-illustrational. I think that the mystery of fact is conveyed by an image being made out of non-rational marks… what can happen sometimes, as it happened in this Rembrandt self-portrait in Aix-en-Provence, is that there is a coagulation of non-representational marks which have led to making up this very great image. Well, of course, only part of this is accidental. Behind all that is Rembrandt’s profound sensibility, which was able to hold onto one irrational mark rather than onto another” (the artist, cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Marlborough Gallery, Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, 1967, p. 28). Plunged into Caravaggesque tenebrism and built from one irrational mark scraped, daubed and smeared on top of the other, the diffused brilliance and shadow-like delicacy of Bacon’s Three Studies appear nervously held together by a masterful translation of pure sensation in paint. 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.
A portrayal so quintessentially synonymous with Bacon’s own distinctive character yet far beyond mere caricature, Three Studies for a Self-Portrait truly counts as a masterpiece of Bacon’s intimately scaled triptychs. As though witness to the artist’s mirror image reflected back at us, in these incredible works we are hauntingly reminded of Bacon’s emphatic quotation of Jean Cocteau: “every day in the mirror I watch death at work”. Startlingly powerful in execution and psychological affect, these works resemble a remarkably lyrical antecedent to Michel Leiris’ magnificent word-portrait of Bacon. Three years following the execution of this triptych the preeminent man of letters and close friend to Bacon poetically penned: “… Bacon’s canvases, at once so effervescent and so controlled, provide, for the spectator who looks at them as a whole and grasps them in their diversity, a striking image of this unique contemporary artist in all his complexity” (Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, New York 1983, p. 43).