1949 was a seminal year for Francis Bacon: it marked the full inauguration of an artistic vision that drew back the veil on the human condition with a rawness and violence never before witnessed. This was the year of Bacon’s very first one-man exhibition in which the extraordinary and historically important group of six Heads powerfully proclaimed his critical arrival. Designated as third in this crucial series, Head III was conceived as part of the most ferocious corpus of Bacon’s early career; a sequence of paint encrusted, starkly monochromatic pictures that navigates an evolution from the innate animalism of Heads I and II (housed in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Ulster Museum, Belfast respectively) to culminate in Head VI (Southbank Centre, London) as the very first in Bacon’s groundbreaking and iconoclastic pantheon of screaming Popes. Viewed as part of a metamorphic sequence, Head III is an extraordinary vision of abject and ‘all too human’ man arrested at an evolutionary stage between base animal instinct and howling patriarch. In context of this seminal revelatory moment, Head III is itself of great precedential significance. Preempting the gaping mouthed shriek of Head VI, this painting denotes the first explicit occasion in which the obsessively quoted broken glasses, or pince-nez, fully appear; Bacon famously lifted both glasses and scream from Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece of silent cinema, Battleship Potemkin. This work also significantly embodies the first irrefutable human likeness of Bacon’s professional career. Though not a portrait, the painting bears a resemblance to Bacon’s first significant benefactor and long-term companion, Eric Hall, and thus anticipates the way in which Bacon would later look to his social circle for principal inspiration. Having been exhibited in some of the most important museum shows of Bacon’s career, including the seminal 1985 Tate retrospective held during Bacon’s lifetime, alongside countless others at the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; Pompidou Centre, Paris; Hamburg Kunsthalle; Haus der Kunst, Munich to name but a few, the historical importance and museum pedigree of Head III is utterly beyond reproach. Further beyond doubt is the power and technical brilliance of this early work. Extensively commented upon in contemporary reviews and admired in influential critiques of the Hanover exhibition, Head III was the first painting sold by the Hanover Gallery in advance of the private view in November 1949. The notable Californian collector Wright S. Ludington (1900-1992), who shared a mutual friend with Bacon in Graham Sutherland and is notable today for his crucial involvement in the foundation of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, was the first to own this painting: he bought it on 28 October 1949 for £150. Possessing rich provenance, a profound history and a deeply evocative subject, Head III certainly holds a place of utmost importance within the arc of Bacon scholarship.
Following the intermittent early success of the first two masterworks, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944 (Tate Collection, London), and Painting 1946 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), of which the latter was acquired for The Museum of Modern Art only two years later, the emergence of the Heads in 1949 indefatigably announced the arrival of Bacon’s genius and primary subject – the human-animal as unadorned, despairing, godless and alone. Though comprising only ten works in total, the Hanover Gallery’s now legendary 1949 exhibition reads as a roll call of Bacon’s early masterpieces. Alongside the series of Heads, the aforementioned Three Studies and the Tate owned Figure in a Landscape, 1945 (works both donated to the Tate in the 1950s by Eric Hall), were displayed alongside two larger scaled new paintings, Study from the Human Body and Study for Portrait housed in the collections of The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Apart from Heads IV and V, the inventory from this crucial exhibition rightfully resides across the world’s most prestigious museum collections; together these works embody a significant historical turning point in the development of perhaps the most important artistic career of the late Twentieth Century.
Pared down to a grisaille execution and stripped bare of the theatrical trappings witnessed in the first masterworks, Painting 1946 and Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, Bacon concentrated his depiction of humanity on visceral animalistic drives: “no sides of meat, no bandages, no umbrellas or other props; simply a glimpse of mankind reduced to basic instinct, the mouth gibbering in fear or bared in attack, with the rest of the senses (and often, literally the rest of the head) obliterated” (Michael Peppiatt, Anatomy of an Enigma, London 2008, p. 153). The technical brilliance of Bacon’s ability to elucidate the instantaneous flicker of film noir or the granular blur of newsprint in the Grand Manner of oil on canvas mark these works as extraordinary feats of artistic creation. In this regard, Head III powerfully delivers great technical resolve, forcefully encapsulating Bacon’s professed desire from this early moment: “to paint like Velázquez with the texture of hippopotamus skin” (the artist cited in: ‘Survivors’, Time, 21 November 1949, p. 44). Unlike any works previously and in contrast to the extant works in the series, Head III delivers an extraordinarily unsettling depiction of man: out of a thickly painted pock-marked complexion a haunting and disarmingly human stare pierces the downwards drag of a diaphanous curtain. Dimly lit and dissolving into darkness, this turning bald-headed figure meets our gaze through shattered glasses - the notorious Baconian motif obsessively quoted from the screaming nurse of the Odessa steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Potemkin. Though dispossessed of the nurse’s ensuing scream that would come to define Bacon’s iconic corpus of Popes after Velazquez’s 1650 Pope Innocent X, Head III depicts a terrible moment of silence in which this anonymous man’s disturbing countenance and penetrating glare projects directly out of the black abyss to meet with our own. Not only does Head III possess the first fully formed pair of eyes in Bacon’s work since the 1930s, it also represents the first recognisably human facial study in Bacon’s mature expression. At once evoking the frail physicality of a cleric or hunchbacked civil servant, Head III foreshadows the nameless businessmen of the landmark Man in Blue paintings whilst inaugurating the defining subject of Bacon’s career - the unadorned translation of human presence. In this regard such was the arresting power of Head III in 1949 that esteemed critic Robert Melville was impelled to comment in his influential review of the Hanover exhibition: “how did this man come to get a skin of such a disquieting texture? I cannot divorce the facture from what it forms. I am prevented from going through my usual routine of art appreciation. Modern painting has suddenly been humanized” (Robert Melville, ‘Francis Bacon’, Horizon, December 1949, p. 423).
The 1949 Hanover Exhibition
Situated off Hanover Square at 32a St George Street, the Hanover Gallery was established by the visionary gallerist Erica Brausen in 1947. Having escaped the rise of Nazism in her native Germany during the early 1930s, Brausen developed a prominent profile in Paris among the elite of the contemporary artistic milieu. Arriving in London penniless after fleeing Fascist occupation of Mallorca, Brausen began working as a dealer at the Redfern Gallery before setting up her own enterprise with financial backer Arthur Jeffress in 1947. During this very year Brausen became Francis Bacon’s first dealer. Introduced by their mutual friend, Graham Sutherland, at Bacon’s 7 Cromwell Place studio in South Kensington, artist and dealer formalised a relationship that would prove instrumental for Bacon’s career. Possessing an unimpeachable artistic eye, Brausen advised many of the world’s most influential curators and important collectors; after acquiring Painting 1946 during her first studio visit, Brausen wasted no time in securing this painting within the equally progressive and prestigious permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The significance of Brausen’s promotion and support during the first formative decade of Bacon’s career cannot be overstated and it was the prestige of obtaining this significant museum acquisition so early that cemented Bacon’s ascent to international renown. Following their first meeting Bacon agreed to produce for Brausen a body of new work in preparation for his first one-man exhibition to be held at the Hanover Gallery. With the £200 received from the sale of Painting 1946, a substantial amount for a little known and unrepresented artist, Bacon left almost immediately for Monte Carlo where he predominantly spent the next four years. Extravagantly languishing in the Mediterranean climate and indulging at the glamorous casinos - Bacon famously loved to gamble - very little work was produced until he returned to Cromwell Place in 1949. Nonetheless, that Bacon had conceived the premise for, and even started work on his next body of paintings is revealed in a letter to Arthur Jeffress sent from Monaco in 1948: “The pictures seem to be going well. I am at the moment working on some heads which I like better than any I have done before, I hope you and Erica will like them. I shall come back in November or December” (Francis Bacon, letter to Arthur Jeffress, 1948, Tate Archive, London, 822.214.171.124). Back in London in late 1948, the ensuing months of furious creativity leading up to the exhibition not only produced Bacon’s most formative and powerful early images, but also crucially established the serial working method that drove his mature practice.
Two years following the sale of Painting 1946, Bacon’s first solo show finally opened on 8 November 1949. This decisive exhibition (which he shared with a small installation of watercolours by Robert Ironside in the upstairs gallery) courted widespread controversy in the press, a considerable degree of attention that in turn precipitated the artist’s first significant critical appraisal. The reviews responded directly to the frightening nature of Bacon’s subjects, commenting on the disquieting evocation of “cruelty being committed out of sight”, and describing his pictures as “so repellent” they “leave in the mind precisely the same long-continued feeling of disquiet as a thoroughly bad dream” (Anonymous, ‘Art Exhibitions: Mr Francis Bacon’, The Times, 22 November 1949). In recounting “dismemberment by bomb splinters” these early critical appraisals identified Bacon’s work as a sensationalism of war’s horror, denoting “the high watermark of contemporary morbidity” (Neville Wallis, ‘At the Galleries: Nightmare’, The Observer, 20 November 1949, and, Maurice Collins, ‘Art’, Time and Tide, 26 November 1949). Nonetheless, positive criticism was substantial and Bacon’s technical mastery was universally acknowledged. The superb handling of grisaille punctuated with flashes of pink, blue or green was considered a painterly achievement likened to that of the Old Masters. In sum, the 1949 Hanover show was a triumphant critical debut bolstered by the successful sale of all but three of the pictures on offer. According to the Hanover Gallery’s ledgers and daybooks presently held in the Tate Archives, Head III is notable as the very first work from the exhibition sold by Brausen. Bought for £150, Head III was originally acquired by the California-based collector Wright S. Ludington. Before the war Ludington cultivated an exceptional collection of Modern art including works by André Derain, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Miró, and Dalí to name a few; however it was military service in London that first exposed Ludington to the cutting edge of British art and sparked a friendship with Graham Sutherland. A staunch early supporter instrumental in Brausen’s introduction to Bacon, that Sutherland directed Ludington towards Bacon’s gallery debut here seems likely. Ludington’s acquisition of Head III shortly before the opening of the exhibition reflects the powerful intrigue cast by this very painting, a work of profoundly compelling nature contemporaneously verified in two of the most influential critical reviews of Bacon’s first exhibition.
Renowned critic Robert Melville wrote at length on the artistic success of the 1949 exhibition in Horizon, in which he poetically described the Heads as possessing “the colour of wet, black snakes lightly powdered with dust” (Robert Melville, Op. cit., p. 421). Directly in response to these works, Melville cited Bacon as “the only important painter of our time who is exclusively preoccupied with man”, concluding his article by recognising in Bacon a new hope for painting (Ibid., p. 423). This influential review devoted particular attention to an analysis of Head III: “A man turns his head and stares out of a picture through pince-nez; I am more conscious of the stare than of the eyes; the play of intervals between the eyes, the rims of the glasses and the shadows of the rims is further information about the stare – the man is ‘holding something back’; I do not think about spatial concepts when examining the relationship between head and curtain – I am too subdued by the fact that the curtain is sucking away the substance of the head; the subtle pinking beige paint that dabbles and creates the face is an exquisite foil to the greys” (Ibid., pp. 422-23). Similarly attuned to Melville, celebrated writer and painter Wyndham Lewis published his review in The Listener on 17 November 1949, praising the Hanover show for its “exceptional importance” (Wyndham Lewis, ‘Round the London Art Galleries’, The Listener, November 17 1949, p. 860). Describing an artist “perfectly in tune with his time”, Lewis prophetically assigned Bacon the status of “one of the most powerful artists in Europe today” (Ibid.). In this article, Head III was once again singled out. Recounting the “baleful regard from the mask of a decayed clubman or business executive - so decayed that usually part of the head is rotting away into space” Wyndham Lewis continued, “… these faces come out of the blackness to glare or shout. I must not attempt to describe these amazing pictures” (Ibid.).
In May 1949, some months prior to the exhibition, Wyndham Lewis enthusiastically published a preview of the show which announced the presence of Head III at the gallery some months ahead of the extant works in the series. Describing “a man with no top to his head”, Lewis noted the distinctive “cold-crumbling grey of the face” and “glittering white mess of the lips” particular to this remarkable painting (Wyndham Lewis, The Listener, 12 May 1949, p. 811). The early arrival of Head III perhaps hints at Bacon’s rare satisfaction with a finished work. Indeed, during these formative early years before the routine of frequent exhibitions motivated a prolific work ethic, Bacon was destructively self-critical. Though he maintained a deeply self-effacing stance throughout his lifetime, the ruthlessness with which Bacon liberally destroyed finished works during the late 1940s and early 1950s marks the survival and early exhibition of any work from this period as remarkable in itself. The Times review sensationally reported that over seven-hundred canvases were maimed in preparation of the Hanover exhibition; though undoubtedly an embellishment, during the seven years between 1944 and 1950 only fifteen works survived Bacon’s scrupulous working practice. In light of such critical reception and the artist's ruthless early practice, the significance of the works included in Bacon’s very first exhibition is truly seminal.
“The History of Europe in my lifetime”
John Russell described this series as conveying “what it feels like to be alone in a room… we may feel at such times that the accepted hierarchy of our features is collapsing, and that we are by turns all teeth, all eye, all ear, all nose… our person is suddenly adrift, fragmented, and subject to strange mutation” (John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 2001, p. 38). These extraordinary variants of human drives and animalistic embodiment form a catalogue of fear, anguish and internal suffering - a “zone of indiscernibility” that Giles Deleuze defined as the “becoming-animal” in Bacon’s work (Giles Delueze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, London 2002, pp. 15-19). As Bacon outlined in Time magazine in November 1949, “They are just an attempt to make a certain type of feeling visual… painting is the pattern of one's own nervous system being projected on canvas” (the artist cited in: ‘Survivors’, Time, 21 November 1949, p. 44). From the existential disintegration of bestial drives and impulses redolent in Heads I and II, through to the pallid frailty and troubling human spectacle of Head III, and ending in the harrowing papal scream of Head VI, this series established a mythology for the contemporary moment. With these works and the magnum opus of Popes that shortly followed, Bacon inaugurated a modern-day revivification of the Tragic genre. Highly receptive to language, particularly the Greek tragedy of Aeschylus and the fusion of mythology with contemporaneity of T.S. Eliot, Bacon imbued his work with an elevated grandiosity absorbed from the realm of literature. In synthesising quotations from film, duplicating the out-of focus immediacy of news imagery, and loading a wealth of associations drawn from both contemporary visual culture and his most admired art historical Masters, Bacon thought of himself as a “pulverizing machine into which everything I look at and feel is fed” (Francis Bacon cited in: John Russell, Ibid., p. 71).
Head III and the series at large command an immediacy of sensation derived very much from a visual parity with film - a burgeoning artform in the 1920s of crucial import during the artist's impressionable years as a young man. Executed in series like a chain of film stills, these paintings are infused with the palette, striking composition and flickering light effects of early cinema. Though Bacon obsessively mined the emotive potential of the iconic screaming nurse in Eisenstein’s Potemkin, it was the pioneering filmmaker’s high-impact deployment of montage that strongly informed Bacon’s practice. As outlined by Martin Hammer, Bacon, akin to Eisenstein’s approach to film, was committed “to painting as a vehicle of expression that operates in terms of immediate sensation rather than narrative” (Martin Hammer, Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda, London 2012, p. 31). Bacon’s serious interest in silent-film melodrama insinuates the transposition of film techniques, such as superimposition, double exposures and dissolves, into paint. David Alan Mellor explains that the series of Heads in particular owe much to the innovation of Fritz Lang, the forefather of film noir and director of the groundbreaking Metropolis (1927): “Bacon’s 1949 depictions of semi-transparent portrait heads and later, in 1955, his reworkings of James S. Delville’s cast of William Blake recall a similar motif in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922), in which a murderous patriarchal head is superimposed on the floor of the Stock Exchange in the vast room’s perspectivised space” (David Alan Mellor, ‘Film, Fantasy, History in Francis Bacon’, in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Britain, Francis Bacon, 2009, p. 52). The way Head III appears to hover and disintegrate as though superimposed or projected onto a curtain parallels the sinister floating head of Lang’s Dr. Mabuse. Echoing these dramatic techniques Bacon employed the visceral charge of such filmic effects and motifs, not for their narrative suggestions, but for their strength and immediacy of expression.
Behind this absorptive association-led process, Bacon’s overarching impetus to capture in a single image “the History of Europe in my lifetime” illuminates a will to visually distil the self-destructivity of the Twentieth Century; an impulse at once symptomatic of the dismal post-war climate in which these early images came to light and accountable for the repetitive, serial inference of particular historical events (the artist cited in: Hugh M. Davies, ‘The Screaming Pope: Past Art and Present Reality’, in: Exhibition Catalogue, Lugano, Museo d’Arte Moderna, Francis Bacon, 1993, p. 60). Sam Hunter’s photographs of the visual compost found in Bacon’s studio at 7 Cromwell Place affirms the prominence of Nazi imagery in Bacon’s early work. The frequency with which figures appear behind microphone banks, mouths agape, in front of or disappearing behind heavily pleated curtains invokes the totalitarian imagery of Hitler, Goebbels and Goering in full oratory swing. However, alongside the open-mouthed scream and Eisenstein’s pince-nez stare, it is the isolating and confining presence of the vertically striated curtain or disintegrating veil that unite these early pictures. Drapery and the diaphanous effect of veiling denote a prominent early obsession for Bacon: the powerful downward brushstrokes that permeate Bacon’s fresh works for the 1949 exhibition continue with heightened vigour into the subsequent Pope paintings and beyond. Undeniably evocative of Titian’s half-veiled Portrait of Cardinal Filippo Achinto (1558), in Head III Bacon seems to combine this cutaneous dissolution with the enshrouding effect of shadow as apparent in Rembrandt’s early self-portrait from 1629. Not only are these effects evocative of dimly-lit and curtained interiors, the likes of which could also be found in Bacon’s own Cromwell Place studio (heavy curtains originally installed for blackouts during the war), these backdrops echo photographs of Albert Speer’s Cathedral of Light, the spectacular expanse of vertical light-architecture devised for the Nuremburg Rallies. Such allusions to troubling historical spectacles do not dictate meaning in Bacon’s work, but instead act as vehicles through which these paintings draw their gravitas and pictorial power. Employed as a formal trope, the powerful erosive potential of the curtain disintegrates the top of the figure’s skull in Head III under which piercing melancholic blue eyes glare through Eisenstein’s broken glasses, a precursor to the series’ screaming climactic conclusion and the realisation of Bacon’s subject par excellence.
Where Bacon’s portrayal of the tyrannical father and ultimate patriarch found its finest incarnation in the 1953 Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, an alternate expression of this concern is very much at stake within a reading of Head III, particularly in relation to Bacon’s biography. Where this figure possesses the appearance of a bewildered clerk or aged politician, the austere suggestion of dress also implies the religious uniform of monastic robes. Here, Bacon’s portrayal of an aged father figure delivers an expression of waning power and weakness, a manifestation perhaps of the artist’s growing impatience and outgrowth of his long-standing partner of fifteen years, Eric Hall - a figure to whom Head III purportedly bears a likeness. As shown in a portrait by Roy de Maistre, this plump, balding and immaculately dressed man radiates a benevolence that bespeaks paternity, leaving in no doubt the father and son relationship shared between both men. Where Bacon’s brief upbringing had been far from nurturing (his father, Edward Bacon, was a retired Army Captain and horse-trainer with a weakness for military discipline) by the early 1940s Bacon had found a secure emotional and domestic foundation with Eric Hall and his devoted childhood Nanny, Jessie Lightfoot. A respected and prosperous businessman significantly older than Bacon, Hall scandalously left his wife and children to live in an openly homosexual relationship with the artist at 7 Cromwell Place. During these happy domestic years, Hall had an enormous impact on the young artist: not only an ardent early supporter and patron of his work, as a mentor Hall cultivated Bacon’s taste for fine dining, travel and the arts. He was the supportive father figure Bacon never had, and together with Nan Lightfoot, the trio lived happily together for some years as an unorthodox and peculiar family unit. By the late 1940s however, Hall was becoming an impeding presence for an artist gaining in stature and professional renown. Bacon became increasingly careless and a string of affairs undoubtedly eroded their relationship. Following the death of Nan Lightfoot in 1951, the last familial bond was severed and Bacon’s innate independence had finally, after fifteen years, outgrown this gentle father figure. Significantly it was around this time that he first met Peter Lacy, the violent, tortured lover whom Bacon purportedly loved most because he made him suffer the most. Intriguingly, Lacy’s bold features can be distinguished upon the obsessively painted pantheon of Papal figures executed following the 1949 show. Interpreted in this regard, if indeed this painting bears a likeness to Hall, Head III represents the disintegration of paternal authority, gentility crumbling in the wake of terrible cruelty.
Into the present work Bacon poured his fixation with corporeal mutilation and glistening mouths, his obsession with Eisenstein, his rapture with film-noir, his indistinguishable preoccupation with terrible patriarchy and the history of Twentieth Century conflict. Mediated by the vicissitudes of biography, Head III is an incredibly pioneering and unique work that marks the very formation of Bacon’s painterly genius. Signalling the terrible and silent metamorphosis from inchoate bestiality towards the realisation of nightmarish patriarchy, with these works Bacon made the transformation from mythological creatures and theatrical ornament to psychologically charged humanity: the Heads erected the pictorial scaffold by which Bacon took command of his greater artistic vision. Melding bravura command of tonality with the granular monochromacity of black and white news reportage, the remarkably powerful yet tragic Head III captures the instantaneous impact of film through a masterful manipulation of oil paint. Against a contemporaneously prevalent post-war milieu of conceptual abstraction following the horrors of two World Wars, Bacon’s astounding series of Heads bravely restored the relevance of figuration for a confrontation of our “contemporary nightmare” (Kenneth Clark in response to Bacon’s work, cited in: Michael Peppiatt, Op. cit., p. 135).