Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe was painted at No. 7 Reese Mews, Bacon’s home and studio for the last thirty years of his life, during what is considered to be his most fertile and canonical years of 1968 to1971. Photographs of his working space show a small room (13 x 26 feet) with the walls covered in paint (he used them as a palette for mixing colors, and jokingly referred to these as his only abstract paintings). The floor is hidden under a flood of papers, boxes, books and photographs, while every raised surface is crammed with paint pots and old brushes. After Bacon’s death, when the Dublin City Gallery catalogued and recorded the contents for removal (to be reconstituted in Ireland), they listed 570 books, 1,300 leaves torn from magazines or catalogues and 1,500 photographs. Like a magpie’s nest, Bacon had gathered round himself the images and sources that he assimilated and worked into his paintings (including the present work), picking and choosing from this horde of visual trophies. As a whole, his studio could be a metaphor for the constant visual bombardment of modern life. But the works that emerged are anything but cluttered: they bristle with an intensity that is both focused and stark.
The most fertile of these sources was his collection of photographs. In an interview with David Sylvester, Bacon commented that “99 percent of the time I find that photographs are very much more interesting than either abstract or figurative painting. I’ve always been haunted by them.” (David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London and New York, 1975) Sometimes the images were taken from magazines, medical journals or the chronophotography of Eadweard Muybridge, but often these were images of close friends and drinking companions, expressly commissioned. Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe is partly based on a photograph of Henrietta Moraes, a key member of Bacon’s coterie and a fellow regular at Soho’s Colony Club, where the owner Muriel Belcher gave Bacon free drinks and a £10 allowance since he brought in so much business. Moraes was the erstwhile wife of the Indian poet Dom Moraes, and claimed to have attended the Colony Club simply so that Bacon would paint her, which ultimately he did at least a dozen times. Moraes was also painted by Lucien Freud in the course of a year-long affair during the fifties. But unlike Freud, who spent hours analyzing and scrutinizing his models in his studio with forensic precision, Bacon preferred to paint in absentia, relying predominantly on the combination of photographic material and memory to inform his image production. Furthermore, he saw what he did as injurious, a violent paroxysm on the human figure that he did not want to practice before his subject. Painting in absentia freed the artist from the imperatives of empirical observation and allowed him to liberally reinvent the image in the sequestered isolation of his studio.
Typically, Bacon did not limit himself to just one source and it is hard not to place Henry Fuseli’s Nightmare among the antecedents of Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe. The thrown back arm, so eloquent of physical abandon, is a clear visual link between the paintings, as is the long flowing hair. The riotous body is not so much deformed as manifesting on its surface an inner turmoil, as she writhes in the grips of a very modern nightmare: a drug trip. Bacon claimed that the syringe had a purely visual purpose with no sinister connotations, as he also claimed about the Nazi armband in Crucifixion (1965), but in both these cases the allusive power of the objects is so loaded that it is disingenuous to deny their impact. Besides, the hypodermic syringe was to prove eerily prophetic, in that Henrietta Moraes became a heroin addict about a decade after the painting of this work. The swirling brushstrokes and rearranged features, as well as showing the influence of de Kooning, give a sense of captured movement over time, of film frames overlaid or a flipbook assembled into a single instant, like a writhing ghost within the flesh. Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe is one of Bacon’s few forays into that great proving ground of Western art: the reclining female nude. It brilliantly illustrates his almost sculptural approach to painting, his ability to mould the fleshy paint like clay, to be shaped and arranged on the armature of the human skeleton. The result, almost discomfortingly intimate and poignant, is a brilliant reminder of the vulnerability of the human condition.
Several other features of Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe are typical Bacon leitmotifs. The thin and schematic axonometric lines that enclose the reclining nude – as they do the subjects of many other works – frame the composition, enclosing her in an artificial and constructed environment. The nude becomes a specimen in a vivarium, an object enclosed and framed by its surroundings. Much of Bacon’s art is about indication, about framing; about noticing and capturing something essential. In many of the later works red and white arrows appear, pointing at some particularly meaningful area of the composition, just as here the hypodermic needle was inserted into the composition of this painting specifically to achieve – Christological connotations apart – what Bacon described as “a nailing of the flesh onto the bed”. Like a butterfly in a display case, the extended arm is fixed in place and indicated by the needle. “It’s less stupid than putting a nail through the arm” he explained.(Quoted in David Sylvester, The Human Body, Exh. Cat. London, Hayward Gallery, 1998, p. 31.)
The screen that curves around behind her, like sideways Venetian blinds, is derived from a Cinerama screen, which, according to the blurb on a fragment of a magazine advertisement found in Bacon’s studio, “looks like an unbroken flat surface to the audience but it’s actually made up of hundreds of overlapping vertical strips”. These strips, in various forms, appear as curtains in numerous works, enclosing and framing the subject as if on a stage set, or else as visual interference with the image itself, distorting further the subject’s features, as though caught in the disintegrating rush of a blast furnace (for example the Munchian Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953 ). In the foreground, the lines that bisect the canvas at a curve create the shape of an eye, while the female nude lies on an iris-shaped bed at the center. “I want to make the interior so much there that the form will speak more eloquently”, Bacon explained (Cited in John Russell, Francis Bacon, London, 1971, p. 75.). This carefully constructed spatial arrangement, and sensitivity for creating striking settings, betrays his short lived but successful first career as an interior designer.
Overall, Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe embodies and exemplifies every reason why Bacon was Britain's greatest post-war painter. The psychological and physical forces conveyed by his unique handling of paint and by his expressionistic treatment of the human figure place him clearly in what his first dealer, Helen Lessore, has called The Great Tradition. David Sylvester, the doyen of Bacon scholars, personally requested that Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe be included in the last Bacon show he curated, Francis Bacon: the Human Body. The show brought together a small and highly select collection of only twenty-three works, the highlights of a whole career. For David Sylvester, it crowned nearly fifty years of writing, analyzing and proselytizing Bacon’s achievements. Also included was the earlier Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe of 1963, which has a less complex composition and lacks the detailed and characteristic Baconian setting. The central figure is also not as vigorously rendered as in Version No. 2, and David Sylvester described the difference. In “Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe, 1968, Bacon performed the same operation in a much more abstracted form, so that he came closer to de Kooning there than in any other of his works.”(David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p.108) Sylvester is placing Version No. 2 at the peak of a defining tendency within Bacon’s style: his abstract expressionist inspired gesture, the abstract handling of flesh and the human form as well as the energy apparent in his vigorous brushwork.
It is not difficult to understand the importance that Sylvester ascribed to this work, especially in the context of a show dedicated to the human figure. The reclining nude figure of Henrietta Moraes treads a knife’s edge between contorted enervation and decomposition, barely containing both states at once. The animated brushstrokes are all that separate her flayed limbs from the crucified side of beef in Painting 1946, or the dissected fish of Chaim Soutine. Bacon manages to combine the pathos of an ecce homo with the harsh reality of a memento mori: ecstasy and overdose, pleasure and pain, sleep and death: they are nothing but opposite sides of the same coin, a gamble taken with each shot, each fix. Life can only be truly defined by its opposite, death, just as light is defined by dark; and Henrietta’s body walks the penumbra between the two. Bacon has achieved in this painting a level of pure mastery and a visual poetry that is both shocking and beautiful, brutally honest and yet profoundly empathic, making Version No.2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe a masterpiece with few equals in the whole of his long and stellar career.
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