The impact of Francis Bacon’s most powerful portraits is in direct proportion to the intensity and conviction of his brushstrokes. The energy and dynamism of the paint projects the meaning of the paintings directly outwards onto the viewer’s psyche, as demonstrated in a serial portrait of a man under extreme pressure, Three Studies of George Dyer, 1966. Indubitably one of the most impressive of Bacon’s small triptychs, it is a passionate and incisive representation of a close (and emotionally troubled) companion.
In 1962 Bacon had arrived at a format for painting portrait heads which subsequently remained constant, and which formed a distinct and significant category of his work. Invariably painted on relatively small, 14 x 12 inch canvasses, he produced these subjects as single panels and diptychs, as well as triptychs. In contrast to the large canvasses, in which the spatial settings and more complex pictorial schemas of full-length figures afforded greater scope for variation, the portraits are remarkably consistent in their formal conception. Consequently, it is particularly impressive when, working within ostensibly limited parameters, Bacon was nonetheless able to create several of his masterpieces, including Three Studies of George Dyer, 1966.
With the catalogue raisonné published last year, I no longer have to search for ‘lost’ paintings, or their historiographies. Neither is there a requirement to maintain objectivity or detachment in assessing Bacon’s oeuvre. Hence I sometimes find myself thinking about whether there is a common factor, among the nearly six hundred extant paintings, linking those which ‘came off’, as Bacon used to put it. The answer would appear to be as unfashionable, in art-historical terms, as the notion of a qualitative hierarchy: that is, after 1952 the most potent paintings tend to be those of, or inspired by, Bacon’s lovers. This is manifestly true of the paintings of Peter Lacy, made between 1953 and 1963, and those of George Dyer painted from 1963 to 1976. Of course Bacon was projecting himself into, and out through, other subjects, the Popes for example, but the trajectory of his art was definitely in the direction of the intrapersonal.
Recently I have been writing in what was Bacon’s studio in Reece Mews, South Kensington, albeit in its later guise as a neutral, white space, stripped of all the legendary clutter and aura. I wonder at Bacon’s valiant drive to rise at daybreak and engage in a tussle with the canvas, a performance that would leave him, as his friend the photographer Peter Beard observed, literally breathless with nervous excitement as he emerged from an experience that was simultaneously physical and trance-like.
With virtually no conventional training, Bacon was forced to invent a technical repertory attuned to his expression. This is often characterised as painting in a thick impasto, but he developed a much more elaborate range than that. When appropriate he painted with subtlety and even delicacy; he also applied paint quite thinly – in what Georges Bataille memorably described as ‘brusque’ treatments. In the right panel of Three Studies of George Dyer, 1966, leaving Dyer’s jacket as background wash and under-drawing is a marvellous example of his wilfulness in this respect, his defiance, as well as his layered approach to representation. Bacon sought immediacy – he was keenly aware that boredom of execution would translate as apathy in the mind of the beholder: in this sense the shorthand techniques he developed are analogous to his determination to convey sensation in his paintings and avoid overt narratives.
Three Studies of George Dyer, 1966, exemplifies succinctly Bacon’s mid-career mastery of his craft. The grounds of each panel are rich in linseed oil, dense black voids that, contradictorily, also oscillate with light reflected from their textured surfaces. The palette of the three heads is reminiscent of two of Bacon’s early inspirations, late Monet and Degas’s pastels, but he pushes these stimuli into another dimension. The paint is applied in rapid, enervated sweeps, in arcing strokes of slippery, mixed colors, flicked from the wrist, that partly obliterate the hot skin tone. Arbitrary patches of coagulated black paint have been impressed with a variety of fabrics – to form a textured substance that is a classic Bacon anti-illustrational shorthand device. The outer panels, which vibrate with the restless motion of the paint, flank a pitiless frontal view of Dyer. In the center Dyer’s features are collapsing, the lubricious flesh and facial features are twisted, distorted: we may be sure that Bacon equally identified with these ‘wounds.'
Thus Three Studies of George Dyer, 1966, explodes from the picture plane: across a gap of more than fifty years Dyer appears to us as a living, pulsating presence. Transformed through paint applied with vigour and élan, it is a revelatory image of his friend and muse. Bacon was motivated to paint by love (however elusive or transitory) and sex, which were underpinned by a personal philosophy that can be partly defined as anti-religious, nihilistic, Nietzschean. And he was resolute about being a great artist: disingenuous about the importance of his reputation, when he excelled without compromise, as in the present triptych, he fulfilled with force and audacity his stated aim ‘to get on to the nervous system.'
Three Studies of George Dyer, 1966
Within the grand theater of Francis Bacon’s prolific career, George Dyer inhabits a position of tremendous importance. Appearing in over forty paintings, with as many created following his death as executed during his lifetime, Dyer possesses a commanding presence unlike any other. Charged with desire and framed within a seductive dark ground, Three Studies of George Dyer wields the full force of Bacon’s painterly bravura and pictorial authority with arresting intensity and consummate psychological depth. His portrayal encompasses the full range of human drama: at once vulnerable, brooding, romantic, heroic and tortured, Bacon’s stunning incarnations of Dyer reveal a multifaceted, tempestuous and passionate love affair. Between 1963 and 1969, an intensely busy moment in his career, Bacon would paint only five triptychs of Dyer in this intimate scale, two of which are in museums: the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Louisiana Museum of Art, Humlebæk. Of this jewel like size, John Russell has said, “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) Also unique to these rare triptychs, Bacon treated the characteristic profile from John Deakin’s famous source images of George Dyer (found ripped, torn and paint splattered among the debris in Bacon’s studio) in his unique visual vocabulary, abstracting them in dramatic gestural swaths of luminous color. Although Bacon would continue to render Dyer’s countenance after his death, he never again returned to a portrayal of Dyer in this highly charged and intimate format after 1969. Three Studies of George Dyer remains an incredibly rare gemlike triptych that exudes passion, vitality and a fervor that has immortalized both Bacon’s deep infatuation with his lover as well as his inimitable style.
The story of Bacon’s first meeting with Dyer has gained a legendary status: Dyer, aged twenty nine, attempted to break into and burgle Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews. Through the studio’s famous skylight, Dyer tumbled into Bacon’s life, truly falling from above and forever altering the course of the artist’s work. Their relationship was marked by a polarity of extremes: ardent infatuation, enchanted desire, the artist’s intellectualism, Dyer’s rough innocence, passion and love. This full range of emotional and psychological heat seethes beneath the richly textured surface of the present work. Beautifully sublime and framed within a dramatic background of a dense lustrous black, these three portraits masterfully illustrate Bacon’s twisted, torqued and scraped handling of paint. Exquisite tones of navy and violet sweep in graceful swaths and bold brushstrokes against a rich palette of brick red, apricot and lilac. Elegant impressions of corduroy and torn cloth imprint vigorous patterns onto the surface of the face, lending texture to and asserting the flatness of these indelible works. With sumptuous inflections of pigment, both delicately applied and heavily worked up, Bacon’s distortions of Dyer’s visage interrogate the limits of the self, presenting an ethereal and unearthly form of his muse that, while undoubtedly grounded in a photograph of Dyer, is manifestly surreal. Like a sequence of film stills, Dyer’s likeness eloquently unfolds from left to right, moving from asymmetrical three-quarter turn into full profile and back to three-quarter. Dyer’s suit collar provides a formal anchor to each canvas, an almost Matisse-like cut-out clarity that echoes Bacon’s physical manipulation and cutting up of Deakin’s photographs. Each of Dyer’s three portraits reverberates with violent smudges and a psychological profundity; however, these smears, swipes and blows to Dyer’s visage are not marks of brutality, but rather the artist’s insistence on chance, play, and radiant prismatic color. Bacon seems to make the case against any singular perspective on the individual, instead privileging a layered understanding of the human psyche. John Russell described: “Bacon wrenched, reversed, abbreviated, jellified and generally reinvented the human image. The paint-structure was by turns brusque and sumptuous, lyrical and offhand, pulpy and marmoreal. Swerving, pouncing, colliding with itself, taking for granted the most bizarre conjunctions of impulse, it produced a multiple imagery which was quite new in painting,” (John Russell, Francis Bacon, New York, 1971, p. 168)
Divorced from the natural world, the distorted and vivid tonal spectrum coalesces into an almost dreamlike picture. With obscured eyes, curved noses, hollowed jawlines and torqued lips, Bacon has portrayed a deep introspection in an arresting and raw color palette. An intensely amorous response to Dyer’s looks overwhelms this work; these three portraits relay unbridled enthusiasm and delight for the contours and landscape of his physiognomy. Bacon’s tremendous ardor for Dyer and his masculine good looks outweighed Dyer’s downward spiraling propensity for alcoholism and violent self-pity. Towards the end of the 1960s, this already unsteady and tumultuous relationship became destructively marred by Dyer’s waning sense of purpose in Bacon’s shadow. Indeed, Bacon reached the culmination of his career at the beginning of the 1970s, honored with a one man show at the prestigious Grand Palais in Paris. Bacon had inadvertently fueled Dyer’s paranoia of inadequacy by providing his ‘kept’ existence, and on the eve of the artist’s opening in Paris, Dyer died from an overdose. The degree to which Bacon was consumed by grief, loss and guilt would find equal measure only in the posthumous paintings of Dyer. Dyer’s presence is at once the most pervasive, libidinal and inventive of Bacon’s entire oeuvre. The creative fecundity of these seminal years, both the decade prior to and following 1971, is predominantly owing to the abiding and all-consuming impact of George Dyer. Painted obsessively, Dyer’s likeness utterly dominates Bacon’s production: as strongly present in this extremely rare triptych, George Dyer fueled the tortured and extraordinary talents of a master of modern art at the apex of his imaginative and technical powers.
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