- Two Studies for Portrait of Clive Barker
- Each panel signed Francis Bacon and titled and dated 1978 on the reverse
- Oil on canvas, in two parts
- Each panel: 14 x 12 inches
Private Collection, Switzerland
Brook Street Gallery, London
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, May 5, 1986, lot 41A
Acquired at the above sale by A. Alfred Taubman
London, Thomas Gibson Fine Art, Francis Bacon, 1985, illustrated in color
John Russell, Francis Bacon, London, 1993, p. 99
Among the many remarkable aspects of Francis Bacon’s extraordinary oeuvre, his capacity to capture so exactly the unmistakable likenesses of his human subjects is legendary. As his career progressed through the 1950s, 60s and 70s, he developed his prodigious and uncanny skill to manipulate the many guises of a now-famous cast of characters into single physiognomies: images formally rooted in memory and photographic record, yet expanded through imagination to become psychosomatic X-rays that attest to the entire human drama. Bacon enlisted a specific coterie of friends and acquaintances, encountered in the pubs, nightclubs, and casinos of London’s Soho and the West End, as a template to evidence enduring themes of the human condition. Indeed, Bacon’s revered paintings of portrait heads belong to the great exemplars of art history in which a face depicted becomes both portal and mirror for profound contemplation and are no less than timeless in their impact. Superbly combining both a dazzling display of painterly bravura and a multi-layered psychological intensity, Two Studies for Portrait of Clive Barker from 1978 exemplifies the salient features of Francis Bacon's tremendous output. Here, Bacon renders with his distinctive penetrating intelligence the visage of Clive Barker—a fellow artist with whom Bacon had a close working relationship in the 1960s and 70s. Barker and Bacon met in the 1960s, and the British sculptor also captured the likeness of Bacon by casting a gilt-bronze life mask of the painter in 1969, an example of which is today in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Exploiting familiarity to his advantage, Bacon freely manipulated and wrestled with the physiognomy of those closest to him to engender an elemental painterly distillation in which facture and expression are resolutely interlocked. Representation is deconstructed to the point where features become indiscernible and physical states are superimposed. Nevertheless, the end result is unmistakable in subject. As outlined by John Russell: “[A]lthough the features as we know them in everyday life may disappear from time to time in a chromatic swirl of paint or be blotted from view by an imperious wipe with a towel, individual aspects of the sitter are shown to us, by way of compensation, with an intensity not often encountered in life” (John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 124). In 1977 Bacon’s tremendous outpouring of pain and melancholia, fused with grand poetic and painterly ambition, culminated in the hugely successful one-man show at Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris, just a year prior to painting the present work. The smaller portrait studies provide the introverted counterpart to the cycle of extroverted and elaborate triptychs executed during this period and exhibited in the 1977 exhibition. Operating on an almost 1:1 scale, these works represent the most immediate and all-too-human aspect of Bacon’s practice: drama and brutality are enacted within the vicissitudes of an existential physiognomy. Bacon’s two portraits of Barker “…exude nervousness, they embody bafflement, they have the marks of endurance, the mannerisms of suffering bitten in… Each one is a sort of trophy. Each has the air of being won. The faces seem to come from underneath the paint” (William Feaver, “That’s It,” in exhibition catalogue, London, Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., Francis Bacon, 1909-1992: Small Portrait Studies, 1993, n.p.).
Barker’s bespectacled visage connotes Bacon’s obsessively quoted pince-nez: Bacon famously lifted the motif of broken glasses from Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece of silent cinema, Battleship Potemkin. Robert Melville described Bacon’s preoccupation with glasses: “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 glasses and the shadows of the rims is further information about the stare—the man is ‘holding something back’…” (Robert Melville, “Francis Bacon,” Horizon, December, 1949, p. 423). Here, the doubled canvases formally evoke the optical synthesis of two ocular points of view, further amplified by Barker’s emphasized glasses. Moreover, the diptych presents another clear binary between the white t-shirt worn in the left portrait and the black t-shirt in the right. The two portraits echo one another in similarity but maintain their individual difference, tricking the eye into a riveting game of close-looking. Furthermore, the pink and purple coloration and effervescence of paint handling somewhat recall the artist’s much earlier animations of William Blake’s life mask from 1955. Herein this bruised palette is in keeping with the very best works from this decade, in which pink, purple, and blue accents feature heavily.
In both portraits the mouths are the site of further violence and incredible painterly invention. The arcs of blue obscuring the lower part of his face telescope our attention on the elongated and mangled jaw line in both pictures. Whether tooth-bearing and screaming as in his earlier work (most notably the corpus after Velazquez’s Pope Innocent X) or as a compressed impression of lips as in the present portraits of Clive Barker, 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 19th century book on diseases of the mouth for its explicit and viscerally colorful hand-painted illustrations. In the present work, the lasting influence of this book, paired with Bacon’s erotic fascination with the mouth, is formalized 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 revealing 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.
As Michael Peppiatt illustrates, Bacon’s portraits are an enactment of his own thoughts on the nature of real friendship; the artist is famously quoted saying: "I’ve always thought of friendship as where two people really tear each other apart," indeed, in his portraits Bacon mercilessly pulls, rips and cleaves the intricacies of his friends’ likenesses until their flayed countenances distill some essential physical and pictorial truth” (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London, 2009, p. 257). Moreover, very much related to Picasso’s reworkings of the human head initiated in 1907, this diptych combines a translation of successive movement inspired by Muybridge’s The Human Figure in Motion, as well as Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Emulating mug-shot proportions of a photobooth portrait, the unadorned immediacy of Bacon’s small portraits radiate endurance, nervousness, and involuntary mannerisms: these heads truly embody Bacon’s desire to paint as close to the ‘nervous system’ as possible. To quote William Feaver: “‘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… 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 in Op. Cit., n.p.). A series and format first settled upon in 1961 and maintained until the very end, these intimately scaled works 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 feeling’ so frequently referred to by the artist. Unaccompanied and isolated within a dark ground, with Two Studies for Portrait of Clive Barker our sight is rapt by the visceral and psychological charge of Bacon’s distorted yet searingly honest vision of humanity.