LONDON - The artist and his muse; it sounds seductively simple. Someone – perhaps even a lover – attracts the attention of an artist, who sees in them something extraordinary. Think, for example, of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, Pablo Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter or Salvador Dalí and Gala. One individual becomes an inexhaustible well of inspiration.

The image of the muse may both embody ideas of beauty and religiosity, but it also encapsulates the concerns of the time. Picasso’s The Weeping Woman (1937), for example, is both a portrait of his lover Dora Maar and a homage to those who were dying in the Spanish Civil War. This is muse portraiture vivified and animated by anger.

Can we talk of Francis Bacon in such terms? Did he have his muses too? Yes and no. Two paintings offered by Sotheby’s this June are key works. The first is number three in a series of six Heads produced for his show at the Hanover Gallery in 1949, which established Bacon’s reputation as a young and controversial artist. The other is a triptych of studies of Isabel Rawsthorne painted in the mid-60s, by which time Bacon had had his first retrospective at the Tate Gallery.

Francis Bacon in his studio. PHOTO: © CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE.

The word muse partially conceals the presence of a particular human identity. Head III may be a portrait of Eric Hall, Bacon’s lover during the 1950s. Isabel Rawsthorne was a lifelong friend, whose beauty and sophistication seemed, for Bacon, to embody the spirit of Paris, where she had once been lover of Alberto Giacometti and friend to André Derain, amongst others. But nothing is quite that simple with Bacon.

For a start, Bacon was not a portrait painter as we understand that term, and to describe him as a painter of muses, which can carry a sweet and almost awe-struck yieldingness, seems slightly jarring. He was fundamentally a painter of images. Hard and pitiless images though they were, they were often – in fact, most often – sifted from other people’s images, both painted works of art from centuries ago and photographs of contemporary subjects, which were then layered in his work. The nature of Bacon’s image-making included a lifelong fascination with images of himself. Even in his eighties, he could be seen in Soho, leaning on his cane, in a black leather jacket with rouged cheeks and manicured quiff, every inch an antique version of the same old roisterer. He commissioned photographs of himself from John Deakin, who also photographed members of Bacon’s Colony Club circle – such as Henrietta Moraes – who all became sources for his own paintings.

Still, the atmosphere of Bacon’s paintings seems to be working against the received idea of portraiture as an intimate engagement with the sitter. They often have an air of claustrophobic anxiety. They lack solidity and can be ghostly after-images, hanging in a void. What is more – and unlike, say Lucien Freud – Bacon did not paint from life. He looked hard at the human beings that he painted, but what he achieved in the end was not so much a likeness as an essence of memory traces, informed as much by the heaps of photographic detritus on the studio floor as his observation of a particular human being.

The Hanover Gallery show of 1949 was a key moment in Bacon’s progression as an artist. It was at this point that he began to develop a forensic interest in the human head. Much of his earlier work had to do with creeping or partially concealed things, beings that were part animal and part human, as he was significantly under the influence of Picasso’s farouche paintings of the early 1930s. From this point on Bacon was keen to dissect the human animal, often concentrating on head and shoulders or a head alone. However, there is often a careful distance in his choice of titles: in his Head paintings, only the third and the sixth in that series come close to being what might commonly be understood as an act of portraiture. In the majority of these works, he is not so much dissecting a particular person as examining the psychologically pulverised rawness of the human condition itself. Those early heads are acts of brutal re-making. They dissect and re-fashion the human head, pushing it about like clay on a potter’s wheel, and all in a shallow, void-like space, defined at best by curtain-like striations or lines indicative of the confines of a corner.

By the middle of the 1960s, things had moved on. The bleak, near-monochromatic impulse has faded somewhat. Bacon was out in the world a little more, painting his London friends and companions, showing identifiable female subjects almost for the first time, naming names: Muriel Belcher, Isabel Rawsthorne, Henrietta Moraes. And yet even in these cases, he often allows himself a slight disclaimer. This is a study of Isabel, as the title Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne emphasises. It is deliberately not laying claim to be a portrait, let alone a definitive portrait. For all that, the colour gives it warmth and human proximity, while the triptych form encourages looking from one image to another and the degree of distortion suggests the animation of movement. In short, it shifts in the direction of muse-like portraiture.

Bacon’s male muses included his lovers, who also became subjects of later paintings. He had a particularly violent, sadomasochistic relationship with the ex-RAF pilot Peter Lacy, whom he lived with in Tangier from 1956 onwards and was the man who once threw Bacon through a plate-glass window. Lacy is memorialised with a surprising degree of restraint and even tenderness. Perhaps the male muse and lover who had the greatest and most wide-ranging impact upon Bacon’s work was George Dyer. The paintings made of Dyer after his death in particular have an unusual degree of starkness and grandeur. “Not an hour goes by,” Bacon confided to Michael Peppiatt in 1972, “when I don’t think about George.” Dyer haunts and resonates in just about equal measure. The French anthropologist Michel Leiris seems to have had a profound intellectual influence upon Bacon the portraitist. Bacon’s images of Leiris possess a kind of intense, cerebral density – it is as if the painter is re-living their thought-provoking conversations as he paints.

These portraits of the middle 1960s break new ground in other respects too. Colours strengthen as this was Pop Art’s moment; Colour Field painting was in the air. Bacon moves beyond the pictorial confinement of the studio. Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho (1967) shows her as commandingly self-possessed, while Moraes, on the other hand, looks rawly sexualised in painting such as Henrietta Moraes (1966). No mention of Bacon carousing at the Colony Club would be complete without its formidably rude and spittingly camp hostess, Muriel Belcher, whom Bacon immortalised as a kind of gloriously savage and creepingly predatory beast in Seated Woman (1961).

These two moments in Bacon’s tumultuous career speak to collectors today with a continuing sense of urgency. The first phase seems to be both the embodiment of the postwar spirit of Existentialism, with its scrutiny of the godless human predicament, and a contemporary witness to the enduring power of the tragic spirit. In the second, later phase, a more humanised Bacon finds himself both re-energised by the practice of that modern master Pablo Picasso, and nodding in the direction of the colouristic wildness of some of the paintings emerging from New York, a place that would overtake his beloved Paris as the new capital of painting during his lifetime. At least in part though, he seems to be in thrall to the idea of the muse.

Michael Glover is a poet and art critic of The Independent.

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