The first portrait Bacon painted of Lacy after his death in 1962, this work is both posthumous eulogy and sustaining memento mori to the artist’s recently departed friend and lover. The striking facial features and convoluted body of the sitter are the main focus of the composition, heightened by Bacon's virtuosity of dramatic brushwork and exuberance of color. Painted in the year of Lacy's death, this devotional portrait stands as a surviving eulogy to the artist’s ill-fated lover, the manifestation of pure emotional honesty, or what Bacon called the ‘brutality of fact.’ Initially based on a photograph taken by Bacon of Lacy outside the Prado Museum in Madrid when they were en-route together to Tangier, it is one of just a tiny handful of paintings that the then 53 year old Bacon had produced by this time to bear a title that explicitly identifies its subject.
The first of Bacon’s posthumous homages to Peter Lacy, the present work conveys the immediate memory of the man who dominated the artist’s life for the prior decade. In 1952, having met Peter Lacy in Soho’s Colony Room, Bacon embarked on what was to become “the most exalted and most destructive love affair he was ever to know.” (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, London, 2006, pp. 57-58) The former Battle of Britain pilot was described by Bacon as always being “in a state of unease...this man was neurotic and almost hysterical.” Bacon had fallen in love in large part because Lacy knew how to dominate and hurt him. Tough, to the point of cruelty, Lacy’s demeanor held Bacon perpetually in an emotional and physical vice and although Lacy was the love of his life, this tempestuous affair was ultimately calamitous. Bacon later lamented in conversation with Michael Peppiatt that “Being in love in that way, being absolutely physically obsessed by someone, is like an illness.” (Ibid., p. 40)
Described as “the greatest and most disastrous love of his life,” their tempestuous and often violent relationship was dominated by obsessive love and passion, by aggression, disdain and excessive abuse of alcohol, lasting until Lacy died alone in Tangier, where he had moved in the mid-1950s. While Bacon kept his studio in London he made extended trips there every summer from 1956 onwards, and they also went to the South of France together on a number of occasions in the late 1950s. The lifestyle of Tangiers was perceived as exotic and had a more tolerant attitude towards homosexuality, offering an escapism that, compared to the scene of social and physical claustrophobia suffered by homosexual men in 1950s Britain, was liberating to them both. Yet ultimately it was a fatal arena for Lacy as a man trapped in the grasp of alcoholism. News of Lacy’s death came among the many telegrams of congratulations that Bacon received on the eve of his major retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1962. Somewhat poignantly, it was on the eve of his next major retrospective ten years later at the Grand Palais, Paris, that Bacon received news of the suicide of George Dyer, famously a subsequent lover and muse. Whereas Bacon commemorated Dyer in his monumental ‘Black Triptychs’ of 1972-1974 - portraying his last moments, slumped lifelessly on a hotel bathroom floor - the present work is all the more subtle and relays a compelling narrative. A crisp ellipse of zinc white and deep claret-red describes a glass of wine, cupped in the palm of Lacy’s hand, as a visual epitaph. Here, not only did Bacon eulogize the lasting memory of his former lover with the void of claret-red in Lacy’s palm, but he also further marked the sitter with stigmata - the manifestation of psychosomatic wounds of a tortured soul. Wonderfully capturing Lacy’s nervous and elusive personality, this emotionally tense painting unravels the sitter’s psychological and emotional essence. As Hugh Davies and Sally Yard have noted, “Bacon searched the surfaces of his friends for some intimation of their inner lives [and] concludes that mind, nervous system, and body are one.” (Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York, 1986, p. 50)
Among the many striking features of Bacon’s breathtaking art is the silent aura of anonymity that frequently shrouds his subject matter. During the 1940s, 50s and early 60s the spectacular troupe of characters that violently courses through his canvases are afforded little identification by his famously elusive titles. ‘Study for Portrait,’ ‘Head,’ ‘Figure in a Landscape,’ ‘Figure Sitting,’ ‘Two Figures’: Bacon purposefully obfuscated his subjects, cloaking them in obscurity. Yet Bacon’s extraordinary oeuvre is frequently celebrated precisely because of its profound interrelationship with his life: how those closest to him catalyzed his painting, and how in turn his existence as an artist dictated the terms of his relationships. Lucian Freud, Muriel Belcher, George Dyer, John Edwards, and Peter Lacy: at various points across four decades each of these was a major presence in Bacon’s life, and each became a recurring phantasm in his portraits. Indeed, within the era of Modern Art just a handful of other figurative artists – perhaps van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso and Giacometti above all – have so thoroughly integrated their art and their life to such spectacular effect. While van Gogh portrayed his friend and physician in Portrait of Dr. Gachet; Cézanne’s Cardplayers were farmhands who worked on his family’s estate; Giacometti’s Grande Figures were inspired by his muse and lover Isabel Rawsthorne; and Picasso’s Le Rêve and La Lecture depicted his young mistress Marie-Thérèse. For decades these masterpieces have resided in the pantheon of art historical paradigms, each having given new perspective to the mysteries of the human drama. Yet far from glorifying mythical or historical figures, or even wealthy patrons, all these began as intimate depictions of people who were personally significant to the artist. Similarly, Study for a Portrait of P.L. is both an intimate portrayal of the then most important figure in the artist’s life, and a masterpiece of Modern painting that consolidates Bacon’s unique perception of human psychology and emotion.
Although it has been noted that Bacon rejected Abstract Expressionism, the thick bands of exuberant and alternating color that he utilized in the present work unquestionably reveal the influence of the expansive color-field canvases of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, which Bacon would have seen at The New American Painting exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1959. Furthermore, this was undoubtedly heightened by his time spent in St. Ives in late 1959 to early 1960, where he would have been keenly aware of the horizontal stripe paintings that Patrick Heron was making at the time. The adoption of these broad, horizontal bands of bold colors corresponds to the stone wall and iron balustrade behind Lacy in the Madrid photograph, and demonstrates a new solution to the creation of depth within Bacon's composition. It is particularly intriguing to note that the colors in the background of the present painting concord closely with those of Mark Rothko’s painting Number 10 of 1950, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and which was included in the 1959 Tate exhibition that Bacon saw. This coloristic composition clearly held enduring appeal for the artist, as demonstrated by a similarly constructed self-portrait with comparable ground hues, executed in 1963 and apparently based partially on the sister-photograph of Bacon outside the Prado. The illusion of depth in Study for a Portrait of P.L. is accentuated by the simplified geometry of the perspectival setting: a confined flattened space, the couch painted with swathes of rich indigo and cobalt blues, sits harmoniously amid pastel-green and golden-ochre bands. The horizontal line of the couch meets the eye line of the sitter, defining the pictorial space. Lacy’s left foot points elegantly downward toward the sand-like floor, referencing his final resting place in the sparse landscape of Tangier. Bacon’s rich hues have been soaked into the absorbent unprimed canvas, which contrasts brilliantly with the explosive plasticity of the impasto head.
Bacon, as was his usual practice, has reserved his most intense application of paint for the head of his subject. The sheer intensity, detail and controlled violence of Lacy’s visage in the center of the composition are an immediate beacon for the mastery of paint handling. Akin to the greatest small portrait heads he produced, the animalistic features of the sitter are carved out with an incredible mixture of sensuous delicacy and gargantuan brutality. This ferocious profile 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 of robust flesh tones, Lacy’s unmistakable presence emerges with each loaded stroke, offering bold relief against the rich bands of blue, unraveling the sitter’s psychological and emotional core. 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. Having initially distanced himself from Picasso in 1945, the physiognomy of Lacy’s head with its arching cranium and circled eyes is highly reminiscent of Picasso’s ‘primitive heads’ of the early 1900s. Indeed Bacon had spoken of “a whole area, suggested by Picasso, which in a way has been unexplored, of organic form that relates to the human image but is a complete distortion of it.” (the artist cited in Martin Harrison, Francis Bacon New Studies, Göttingen, 2009, p. 164)
Peter Lacy’s cross-legged pose is yet another distinctive feature of this composition, and as so often with Bacon’s art, this pictorial device harbors diverse interpretation. As attested by many witnesses and documented in extensive photographs, Bacon himself often sat this way, with the calf of one leg jauntily resting on the knee of the other, and crossed-legs is a readily identifiable theme through his oeuvre. From the terrifying chimera under an umbrella in Painting, 1946 that hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, through the famous Self-Portrait of 1956 that shows Bacon hunched over in a grey suit, his legs entangled and seemingly knotted together, to later self-portraits of the 1970s right up to 1990 and portraits of John Edwards, this bodily configuration reappears time and again in his corpus. Of course in the early 1960s he commissioned John Deakin to take photographs of George Dyer in his studio, stripped to his underwear, sitting with one leg slumped across the other, and this photo-shoot was effectively recreated with Peter Beard a number of years after Dyer’s suicide. Speculation about the thematic implications of this pose is highly subjective. However, conventionally recognized as a posture of elegance, refinement and sophistication, in the context of 1950s and 60s Britain it could be deemed a trait more reflective of the upper echelons of that hierarchical society and therefore more closely aligned to attributes of wealth and power. In the context of Bacon’s painting of Peter Lacy and the relationship between them, any inference to a power balance would inevitably carry further connotations of sexual dominance. It is important not to hypothesize too far or extrapolate too much, but there can be no question that the figure’s pose in this painting, while apparently conservative and socially acceptable, also carries an aura of threat and aggression.
The copious smearing of paint used to delineate the face attains a rich texture; the heavy black line defines the cheek and sweeps across the right eye socket, leaving a cavernous dark space, further enhancing this compelling and emotive image. Bacon’s work of this period placed a decided emphasis on forces rather than forms. "The living quality is what you have to get. In painting a portrait the problem is to find a technique by which you can give all the pulsations of a person…The sitter is someone of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their emanation." (the artist cited in David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 98) It is often noted that Bacon’s portraits reveal their sitter’s inner essence because he painted people he knew closely. In Study for a Portrait of P.L., Bacon resurrected his ill-fated lover, capturing Lacy’s character as he observed him over years, and thus the painting holds within it time, experience and the shadows of memory itself. In the first years of his relationship with Lacy, the sense of danger had excited him. He had always sought out adversity, in his life as in his art, impelled by his own vitality and the conviction that the closer you get to it, the more clearly you saw the reality of existence, itself forever hovering on the brink of extinction. As the artist ruefully concluded, “I couldn’t live with him, and I couldn’t live without him.” (the artist cited in Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, London, 2006, p. 42) The psychological and physical forces conveyed by Bacon's unique handling of paint and by his expressionistic treatment of the human figure, decisively mark the direction of his work until his death over a quarter of a century later. Obsessive and impassioned portraits of the following decade of Bacon's close social circle of friends and lovers – none more so than his next fated lover George Dyer – are unquestionably derived from the present work and the emotional resonance that lies between the artist and sitter.
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