Sale: Sotheby's, London, Contemporary Art: Part I, 2 December 1993, Lot 32
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Tokyo, The National Museum of Modern Art; Kyoto, The National Museum of Modern Art; and Nagoya, Aichi Prefectural Art Gallery, Francis Bacon, Paintings: 1945-1982, 1983, p. 69, no. 36, illustrated in colour
London, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., Francis Bacon, 1985, p. 29, no. 12, illustrated in colour
London, Ordovas, Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt, 2011, pp. 45, 69 and 82, illustrated in colour
Milan Kundera, Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, London 1996, pp. 74-75, illustrated in colour
In Two Studies for Self-Portrait Bacon appears as a double death mask of translucent and scumbled marks; air-like apparitions of an ephemeral spirit dissolving into the black ether of an enveloping void. The pink and purple colouration and effervescence of paint handling somewhat recall the artist’s much earlier animations of William Blake’s life mask from 1955. Appearing to wear a turtleneck jumper in these portraits, Bacon’s head and neck are similarly disembodied, with heavy eyelids and unseeing eyes closed shut by the corrugated scrape of textured fabric. Intriguingly the left panel seems to echo the earlier Self-Portrait with Injured Eye from 1972 in which Bacon’s battered eye socket is portrayed as triumphantly swollen, purple and enlarged. Herein this bruised palette is in keeping with the very best works from this decade, in which pink, purple and accents of orange, yellow and blue feature heavily. In both portraits the mouths are the site of further violence and incredible painterly invention. The ellipses and circular outlines telescope our attention on the elongated and mangled jaw-line in both pictures, with heightened confusion occurring in the right panel. Oval voids and shadows eat away at painted flesh whilst circular windows reveal a jumble of blurred masticatory movement. Whether tooth-bearing and screaming as in his earlier work (most notably the corpus after Velazquez’s Pope Innocent X) or as a muddle and mess of lips as in the present self-portraits, Bacon maintained an abiding obsession with mouths throughout his lifetime. Prior to the execution of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1944, Bacon had studied a nineteenth-century book on diseases of the mouth for its explicit and viscerally colourful hand-painted illustrations. In the present work, the lasting influence of this book, paired with Bacon’s erotic fascination with the mouth, is formalised by compositional elements that echo the diagrams in K.C. Clark's Positioning in Radiography (London 1939) – another highly influential source for Bacon owing to its encyclopedic illustration of X-ray photography. These medical and biological fascinations paired with a revelling of the moribund and violent all form a part of how Bacon existentially dissects what it is to be human, that existence is purely flesh and physicality; in his paintings he flays and undoes corporeal boundaries and pokes at our fleshy make-up with his brush, transcribing, dissecting and pinning it back in place. In full consciousness of the waning years Bacon here paints himself in the dim-light of inexorable transience: “I myself want to go on living as long as I can… After all, there’s nothing else… we can just go on living, even though we know something terrible will happen” (Francis Bacon quoted in: Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 2008, p. 309). Nihilistic and resolved to the inevitable oblivion of mortal flesh, Bacon stoically transcribed the psychological wounds of his life through his extraordinary opus of self-portrait studies.
The very first self-portrait created in this intimate 14 by 12 inch format was painted in 1962 directly in response to the death of Peter 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 masochistic proclivity for violence drove all aspects of his life. By the mid-1950s the tempestuous relationship had ended and Lacy and moved to Tangier, where he began to slowly and surely drink himself into oblivion. Upon hearing of Lacy’s death the grief-stricken Bacon painted his own self-portrait flanked by Lacy’s emanation as a commemorative act of resuscitation and atonement. The triptych, Study for Three Heads (1962) powerfully lays bare the harrowing introspective quality intrinsic to the intimately scaled canvases: 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-image in the central canvas. Indeed, it was this first major tragedy in Bacon’s life that precipitated the first acknowledged self-portraits. That tragedy had the power to induce a mode of self-reflection in Bacon’s work was made emphatically clear following the artist’s second profound trauma: 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 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 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 late paintings of himself. As evinced in the present work, 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 following Dyer’s death stand among his very best works. These harrowing epic eulogies powerfully speak of the intense loss and guilt that eternally remained with the artist.
“I loathe this old pudding face of mine… but it’s all I’ve got left to paint now” (Francis Bacon quoted in: ibid., p. 307). From the suicide of his friend John Minton in 1957, the aforementioned deaths of Peter Lacy and George Dyer, the death of his mother, Winnie Bacon, in 1971, through to the demise of his longstanding friend John Deakin in 1972, by 1977 Bacon's life had been starkly punctuated and beset by loss. Echoing the narrative traits of a Greek Tragedy, this trend would continue for the rest of his life: in 1979 Bacon witnessed the death of his good friend and owner of the beloved Colony Room drinking den, Muriel Belcher, while his youngest sister, Winifred, died in 1981 following a long battle with Multiple Sclerosis. Though he had suffered with chronic asthma since childhood and having been a dedicated drinker and lover of excess, Bacon lived into his ninth decade until he died in 1992. Feeling as if death had stripped him of all his friends, during the 1970s Bacon increasingly turned the brush on himself; in these works his visage can be viewed as a ghostly sentinel to the misfortune and loss of those closest to him.
While the intensity of Bacon’s self-portrait practice undoubtedly deepened following the death of George Dyer, Bacon had maintained an abiding fascination with his own appearance throughout his life and knew his own features intimately. He wore make-up and was a keen subject of the photographers lens; indeed, the artist had quickly learned the nuances of re-invention and self-presentation from a young age, spending hours scrutinising and tracing the particulars of his own appearance in the mirror. Such is the power of the small portrait studies; to quote William Feaver: “this is how we see what we feel like in the morning, 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, ‘That’s It’, in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., Francis Bacon 1909 – 1992 Small Portrait Studies, 1993, p. 6). Two Studies for Self-Portrait witnesses Bacon conjure the traits of his own appearance with facility and aplomb: the wide moon-like face and the deeply set yet extraordinarily round eye sockets are here framed by the quintessential fringe of hair swept across his forehead. Moving from one image to the next Bacon’s visage begins to waste and disappear; in the second canvas the idiosyncratic roundness is replaced by a wraith-like apparition, as wispy emanations cipher matter into the encroaching darkness that consumes the right-hand side of the artist’s face.
When asked by David 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” (Francis Bacon quoted in: David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 129). Although somewhat true, Bacon's purported reluctance to paint his own image is largely trivialising. The artist had 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 pictures of friends taken by John Deakin, hundreds of photographs of himself comprised a core visual compost for his pictorial imagination.
The subject of major international retrospectives and studies across the globe by the 1970s, Bacon was all too aware of his prominent status. When added to the cumulative impact of time on his own appearance, these factors clearly compounded a desire to not only indelibly inscribe his own likeness within the annals of art history but also to challenge its champions. Successor to a genre perfected by revered masters from Rembrandt to Picasso, Bacon was undoubtedly driven by an incessant compulsion to forge a 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 candour 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” (Ibid., p. 241). He would undoubtedly have intimately known the two self-portraits in the National Gallery’s collection and was familiar with the most ambitious self portrait of Rembrandt’s career Self Portrait with Two Circles (1665-69) in the collection of Kenwood House in North London – an interesting visual comparison to the present work for its prominence of circular elements – while his own celebration of the Aix-en-Provence self-portrait speaks for itself: “… 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” (Francis Bacon quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Marlborough Gallery, Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, 1967, p. 28). In this 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 the present work. 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.
Bacon once mentioned to David Sylvester: “Life is all we have. I mean we are here for a moment” (Francis Bacon quoted in: David Sylvester, op. cit., p. 231). Indeed, where Bacon translates this eschatological communion most powerfully is in the astounding body of self-portraiture that punctuates the most exceptional moments of his oeuvre. As outlined by Michael Peppiatt: “…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). Ethereally effervescent and partly enshrouded in shadow, de-formulation and re-formulation of likeness moves between these two remarkable visages; these depictions glow like votive icons of an artist who is today considered an icon of his age.
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