centre panel: signed, dated 1980 and inscribed 3 Studies for Self-Portrait, Centre Panel
right panel: signed, dated 1980 and inscribed 3 Studies for Self-Portrait, Front Right Panel
Private Collection (acquired from the above in 1980)
Thence by descent to the present owners
Today considered the most introspective and inwardly scrutinising of his career, Bacon’s 1970s production is characterised by the searing self-images that emerged following the sudden death of Bacon’s former lover, George Dyer, in 1971. Bacon never truly relinquished the guilt and responsibility he felt in fuelling Dyer’s tragic juggernaut of a life, and the suite of ‘black triptychs’ painted between 1971 and 1973 offer exorcising lamentation over his death. In tandem with these works, Bacon’s self-portrait practice proliferated and became increasingly complex. Within these often mournful paintings the artist appears as a modern day allegory for melancholia leaning on a washbasin, with facial features violently mutilated, or with his wristwatch prominently insisting upon life’s transience. Whether heroically scaled or intimately proportioned, the self-portraits echo Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: where Bacon’s grief was stoically concealed from life, the canvas became the face of his suffering and pain. Although the major work of Bacon’s mourning had come to an end with the black triptychs, the spirit of George Dyer and practice of self-portraiture endured, fed by an ever-increasing number of friends whom Bacon lost. Not long after George Dyer in 1971, the artist’s Soho companion and Vogue photographer John Deakin passed away, followed by the Colony Room’s famous matriarch, Muriel Belcher in 1979, and in 1980 Bacon’s decisive link to the French intelligentsia, Sonia Orwell, died after a long battle with cancer. Indeed, the ever proliferating sequence of bereavements famously led Bacon to proclaim: “I’ve done a lot of self-portraits, really because people have been dying around me like flies and I’ve had nobody else to paint but myself” (Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester, 1975 in: ibid., p. 129). By the decade’s midpoint however, the opening of a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, his growing success in Paris, and the increasing prominence of two younger men in his life, Peter Beard and John Edwards, ushered in a tonal change that signalled the beginnings of a late style.
Chronologically, the first of the two works is a dramatic 14 by 12 inch single canvas from 1975. Framed by a thickly applied deep purple ground, Bacon’s three-quarter-turn profile is articulated in an auroral palette of green blending into purple and pink; pastel tones that are interwoven and offset by corduroy swipes of orange, and alabaster accents of white that work to illuminate the entire painting. In evidence is the artist’s distinctive forelock of hair, those inimitable diagonal brushmarks which the esteemed French poet, and friend of Bacon’s, Michel Leiris described as “a reckless comma staunchly inscribed across his brow” (Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon Full Face and in Profile, New York 1983, p. 12). The artist’s mackintosh – a wardrobe staple evident in self-portraits of 1969, 1970 and 1976, alongside countless photographs of the artist – is here overlaid with fragments of illegible Letraset, a pictorial “sampling” that first appeared in Studies of the Human Body of 1970 (Martin Harrison, In Camera – Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, p. 190). Significantly, this painting marks the only instance of its use across the entire pantheon of small portrait heads. Typically employed to enhance the suggestion of discarded newspaper sheets in his larger canvases – perhaps a reference to the chaos of his studio or the powerfully atmospheric descriptions of T.S. Eliot – the presence of Letraset seems to function in a more abstract manner in this painting. Untied to any representational form, it is a superimposition that appears to operate on a formal level to fix, or pin down, the effervescence of Bacon’s brushwork. Its broken typography clearly echoes the collages of Synthetic Cubism, while Martin Harrison suggests the influence of Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara and Max Ernst’s non-linear typographical montages, as well as the ‘cut-up’ technique developed by the Beat Generation’s Brion Gysin and Williams Burroughs (Ibid.). Indeed for Bacon, words were as powerful as images – if not more so. He read extensively and returned endlessly to the phrases and passages in Aeschylus, James Joyce, Yeats, Proust and T.S. Eliot that unlocked ‘the valves of sensation’ most powerfully. Where these influences fed most directly into his large triptychs, in its unique formal echo of the fragmentation and compression that Bacon prized in Eliot’s work, Self-Portrait of 1975 emphasises the importance of literature and poetry for breeding images in his imagination.
This painting also narrates a phase of Bacon’s life in which he strengthened his ties to the Parisian art world. On the one hand Bacon relished the unvarnished company of his Soho drinking clique, whilst on the other there was a great need for refuge amongst intellectual peers. Sonia Orwell – the widow of George Orwell – played a significant role in this regard, and during the many soirées held at her house on Gloucester Road during the 1960s, Bacon encountered a number of leading lights from the Parisian avant-garde. These connections meant a great deal to an artist for whom Paris remained the epicentre of the artistic world: home to the birth of Modernism, it was in Paris at the end of the 1920s that Bacon, inspired by a Picasso exhibition, first nurtured his ambitions to become a painter. Amongst le tout Paris of the arts and letters it was his friendship with the writer Michel Leiris that proved most influential. At first daunted by Bacon's work, Leiris’ enthusiasm was crucially piqued by the small portrait studies. Thereafter not only did Leiris bring about top-level recognition of the artist’s work in France, it was he who would pen the introduction to the feted retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1971 and thus herald Bacon’s entry into the cultural pantheon of Paris (Michael Peppaitt, ibid., p. 287).
Many aspects of Self-Portrait – it’s chromatic subtly and luminous brilliance (a quality shared with the magnificent Portrait of Michel Leiris from 1976), the prominence of Letraset and its literary connotations – anchor it to the increasingly extended periods Bacon spent living and working in Paris during the mid-1970s. No doubt driven by a masochistic impulse to inhabit his guilt more intensely, Bacon was drawn back to the site of Dyer’s suicide, to the very hotel in which he had died only 48 hours prior to the opening of his Grand Palais retrospective. Paris, the very centre of Bacon’s artistic aspirations, was thus forever cast under the tragic and fantastical shadow of Dyer’s demise. With the length of his stay increasing each time, Bacon’s need to paint demanded a proper place in which to work, and in 1974 he took up a studio in the Marais district at 14 rue de Birague. Indeed, owing to the absence of exhibition history at Marlborough during this year, it is very possible that it was here, and not the famous 7 Reece Mews, in which Self-Portrait was executed.
Contra to the fallacy that he could only work amongst the chaos of his West London studio, Bacon very successfully painted in a number of different locations throughout his career; from Eric Hall’s cottage in Petersfield and then Monte Carlo in the 1940s, through to Tangier in the 1950s. His working conditions however were particular, and over the years he unsuccessfully tried numerous other spaces in London, from the house in Roland Gardens off the Old Brompton Road which he deemed too grand and therefore castrative, to the purchase in 1970 of the house in Limehouse on Narrow Street which was duly sold in the 1980s. Herein, the studio in Paris proved most conducive and became the artist’s second home until the end of his life. With one large room at the top and a kitchen on the lower level, the Parisian studio possessed the same creative portent and atmosphere as the claustrophic environs of the now famous 7 Reece Mews; as explained to David Sylvester: “I am very influenced by places – by the atmosphere of a room, you know. And I just knew from the very moment that I came here [Reece Mews] that I would be able to work here. And I felt the same thing about the place in Paris. It’s only one room, but I knew from the moment I went into it that it was a place I could work in” (Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester, 1989 in: David Sylvester, op. cit., pp. 189-90). Bacon’s increasing success and growing legendary status in Paris, fuelled by his ease at work at 14 rue de Birague and set in stone by his wildly successful show in 1977 at Galerie Claude Bernard, truly characterise the period: many of the mid-to-late 1970s works exude a curious mix of the intellectually stimulating and exhilarating ambience of Paris with the melancholic introspection that typifies the decade.
Although a sense of captured movement is readily apparent in the 1975 Self-Portrait, Bacon’s features remain remarkably intact. This painting does not possess the carved tangle of physiognomic forms or time weariness evident in self-portraits from the immediate years post George Dyer, instead, it emanates youthfulness. Alert and smooth-skinned, Bacon’s painted face belies the age of its author. Michael Peppiatt explains: “… Bacon continued to take great care of his appearance as he grew older, dyeing his hair subtle shades of reddish brown and applying liberal amounts of ‘pancake’ makeup to his face, even though it had not become deeply lined” (Michael Peppiatt, op. cit., p. 364). Bacon was obsessed with his physical appearance and those of others, and was increasingly pre-occupied with the effect of time on the body: “I’ve always liked bodies that function perfectly… But of course old age cancels those things out. There it is… ‘la vieillesse est horrible et sans reméde’ – old age is ghastly and incurable” (Francis Bacon quoted in: Michael Peppiatt, op. cit., p. 354). This sense of rejecting the ravages of time is notably apparent in the second Bacon from Figure and Form, Three Studies for Self-Portrait of 1980.
Executed across three canvases – Bacon’s preferred format – this triptych presents a succession of self-images in almost identical three-quarter turn profiles. Having typically chosen to portray his subject in full face and in profile, like a police record from left to right, this triptych is remarkable for its repetitious insistence. Painted on a scumbled pastel blue backdrop, with each likeness framed by a black border, these images evoke a classical portrait bust or life mask, in which refined and subtly differing features appear unmarred by age. The evidence of the artist’s characteristic nose and forelock make this ineffably Bacon, however, it is apt to note the physical implication of two younger men at this point in his life. In 1980 the only other portraits painted in this format were of Peter Beard and John Edwards – a fact that also rings true for 1975, during which Peter Beard first entered Bacon’s canon and was the only other subject to appear in a 14 by 12inch study. The present triptych thus appears as a fantastical distortion of the self in which the influence of other younger physiognomies seems to intermingle and mutate into Bacon’s own.
Peter Beard, an American photographer with model good looks, became friends with Bacon in the mid-1960s. His photographs of African wildlife, particularly aerial shots of animal carcasses, greatly intrigued Bacon; however it wasn’t until some ten years into their friendship that Bacon deigned to paint his likeness. No doubt at Bacon’s behest, Beard took a number of photographs of himself that were found among the detritus of 7 Reece Mews after the artist’s death. In a manner that echoes George Dyer in his underpants, Beard, with athletic physique on show, appears at ease in front of the camera. Close up shots of his face reveal his classic good looks, a trait that Bacon very much admired in a model: “I’m glad to say that two people, very good looking, have turned up, both of whom I’ve known in the past. They’re both good subjects. I loathe my own face, and I’ve done self-portraits because I’ve had nobody else to do… I like painting good-looking people because I like good bone structure” (Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester, 1975 in: op. cit., pp. 129-30). Intriguingly it is the very same year in which Bacon begins painting Beard – 1975 – that the artist’s own self-portraiture takes on a decisively youthful and less distortive mien.
The other ‘good-looking’ person mentioned by Bacon is undoubtedly John Edwards. Bacon came to know Edwards during his time spent drinking in East London pubs, and towards the mid-1970s they became firm friends. A ruggedly good-looking Eastender, Edwards undoubtedly reminded Bacon of Dyer whose working class roots and frankness had always appealed to his taste for unadorned reality. Unlike the intensely sexual nature of Dyer and Bacon’s relationship, the Bacon/Edwards dynamic was built on a paternal compassion that would last until the very end of the artist’s life. Indeed, it was Edwards who became Bacon’s sole heir after his death in 1992. The security of this quasi-familial companionship had a dramatically palliative effect on Bacon’s work, and the pictures of the 1980s are increasingly typified by, to quote Peppiatt, “an eery sense of calm” (Michael Peppiatt, op cit., p. 355). In this regard Three Studies for Self-Portrait chimes very much with a pendent triptych, and Bacon’s very first portrait, of John Edwards executed in the same year.
Possessing the same pastel background and youthful brow as the Edwards triptych, Bacon’s sequence of self-images are remarkably tranquil; offset only by the scumbled background, vigorous smudging swipes of ribbed pink paint and darkening orange shadows that creep across his pallid complexion. With his eyes downcast and apparently shut, these floating heads appear as disembodied apparitions that echo the deathly emanation of his William Blake life masks of 1955. Aged 71 by this point, Bacon was increasingly haunted by the inevitability of death above all else, frequently drawing attention to his age with such expressions as: “What’s unpleasant when you get to my age is that you know for certain you won’t live much longer”; or, “My life’s nearly over and all the people I’ve been fond of are dead” (Francis Bacon quoted in: Michael Peppiatt, op. cit., p. 358). In 1979 and 1980, the respective loss of Muriel Belcher and Sonia Orwell, proved a substantial blow and fuelled the artist’s ever prescient and intimate grasp of death’s finality – a quality increasingly reflected in the spare and unceremonious self-portraits of his final years.
The pale blue ground framed by abyssal black invokes Bacon’s fascination with reflections and divisive use of mirrors in his work. Imbued with metaphorical portent and often presenting the viewer with illogical reflections, these mirrors are widely indicated by a blue ground in works such as Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror (1976). In Three Studies for Self-Portrait, that Bacon is conceivably looking at his own reflection in a mirror on the wall is possible. Where he would undoubtedly have used photographs to recreate his own likeness in paint, he would also have studied his own reflection in the mirror. Thus in a league with his art historical forebears, particularly Velázquez (whom he held in the highest esteem) and others whose self-images play upon the concept of reflection in paint, Bacon presents a painting of a picture formed within a mirror. As a visual manifestation that combines his conceptual genius with a profound sentience with the inevitability of death, this piece, and more widely the entire pantheon of his self-portraits, profoundly echoes Bacon’s favourite maxim by Jean Cocteau: ‘Each day in the mirror I watch death at work’.
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