Richard Feigen Gallery, Chicago
World House Galleries, New York
Charles Williams, London
Piccadilly Gallery, London
Erik Estorick, London
Sale: Finarte Milan, Anon, 22 November 1961, Lot 102
Galleria d’Arte Galatea, Turin
Private Collection, USA
Galleria Cafiso d’Arte, Milan
Sale: Christie’s London, Anon, 30 June 1988, Lot 583
Private Collection, Geneva
Galerie Fayt, Belgium
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1990
Chicago, Richard Feigen Gallery, New Acquisitions, 1959-60, n.p., no. 3, (text)
Milan, Galleria d'Arte Galatea, Francis Bacon, 1962, n.p., no. 8, (text)
Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon, London 1964, n.p., no. 144, illustrated
Exhibition Catalogue, New Haven, The Yale Center for British Art, (and travelling), Francis Bacon: A Retrospective, 1999, p. 114, (text)
Martin Harrison, In Camera, Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, p. 205, no. 229, illustrated in colour
The work is characterised by a single male torso that emerges from a swooping background of grey blue and black; his visage is blurred with colour that although cool in hue is fiery in application. Across the cheek, a ruddy scumble of scarlet jars with blue and grinds against a glint of chalk white cheek bone, while the nose is finished in a lurid green pallor, on one level recalling the thickness of a drunken stupor, and on another seeming to indicate a slow turn of the head, a turn upwards to face the viewer from the present slumped semi-profile. Against the pushes and pulls of these thick impastoed blows, and the diffuse washes of the black jacket that almost seems to merge with the shadowy background, the deliberately sharp delineation of the crisp white shirt collar is striking. It seems a motif with inherent contradictions; at once formal, even business-like in implication, and yet imbued with unmistakable intimations of clandestine intimacy in the sharp ‘V’ of its descent.
The wisps of greenish yellow across the right side of the sitters face seem to recall the photographic illustrations from Baron von Schrenk Notzing’s book, Phenomena of Materializations (1924), which investigated spiritual mediums. Bacon kept a copy in his studio and was fascinated by the images that purported to show spirits materialised in the form of physical ectoplasmic emanations from the mouth or head. This in turn reminds us of something that Bacon later said about what he sought to capture from a work of this type: “In painting a portrait, the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person. The sitter is someone of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their emanation” (Francis Bacon quoted in: David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 105). Others have suggested that these faint forms emerging from the head are the ghostly remnants of a hand that Bacon might have begun to paint in, only to change his mind afterwards, thus leaving its veil-like outline behind. Indeed, the pensive gesture that this would create would align this work directly with Self-Portrait (1958), in which the artist shows himself in an identical pose, but in full-length.
In many ways, Head I seems to condense the best of Bacon’s 1950s praxis. The close-up seated pose and the drama of the facial distortion are particularly redolent of the artist’s celebrated series of Popes from this decade. Indeed, Painting (1958), the only Pope to be completed in the same year as the present work, features an almost identical turn of the head, and a strikingly similar mood of queasy admonishment. Meanwhile, in the clammy intensity of the stolid closed off atmosphere, as well as in the jarring formality of the sitter’s outfit, we are reminded of the celebrated Man in Blue series, completed in 1954, where unidentified male figures emerged out of heavy monochrome backgrounds in order to fill each work with a sense of closeted unease.
However, this work is also a departure from those early machinations of gloom; the brief pseudo-architectural backgrounds that Bacon had previously favoured are here abandoned in favour of monochrome blocks of blue and black, punctuated by a single faint white line but otherwise unabashed in their curvilinear blankness. In this way, the artist seems to be anticipating his trip to St. Ives the following year, where he would immerse himself in the hive of British abstraction for several months. During this time, contact with practitioners such as Patrick Heron inspired blockish abstract backgrounds of this type and provoked an influx of colour to Bacon’s praxis. By the late 1950s, abstraction had also boomed in popularity in international circles; the influence of American Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko on the cool simplicity of the background of the present work should not be underestimated.
As well as some deference to contemporaneous abstraction, the present work also relies on a slew of art-historical references. We know that the Post-Impressionists were weighing heavily on his mind in the late ‘50s; in the same year as the present work he created the Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh series, which entailed works directly based on those by the nineteenth-century master. Moreover, in the present work, we can see much influence taken from Van Gogh’s self-portraiture, not only in the slight hunch of the semi-profile pose, but also in the raw intensity of the sitters gaze, firing straight out of the picture plane. The work of Paul Gauguin also seems important; we are reminded of his tendency towards presenting flesh tones of a greenish pallor, and his trademark facial distortion of chunky protuberant jawline and high sloping forehead. Pablo Picasso was the artist who originally inspired Bacon to paint and his influence can also be felt in this work, particularly in the sharpness of delineation around the eyes. Bacon used the precedent of these art-historical heavyweights not as direct source material, from which he could recreate or reproduce motifs, nor as aesthetic goals which he might seek to emulate, but rather as vague creative stimuli, primed to charge and characterise any single detail of his work at any stage in the executive process.
Alongside its sister painting, Head II, the present work was the very last painting that Bacon sent to Erica Brausen, who had represented him at the Hanover Gallery for over ten years, before he switched over to be represented by Marlborough Fine Art. Thus this pair of paintings was the culmination of a relationship that had truly established this artist on the international scene, and garnered him the attention of critics and collectors alike. They were executed in the borrowed rooms that Bacon occupied in Overstrand Mansions in Battersea in 1958 and the subject is demonstrably his lover during those years, Peter Lacy. He is recognisable not only through his slicked back hair and bulbous flared nostrils, but also through the aforementioned white collar, which becomes a reliable recognisable trait for the sitter during this period of production, when the face is so often obscured in a haze of violent rosacea. The intense relationship had begun in 1953 and ended finally with Lacy’s death some three years after the present work was created. Bacon loved the elder man with an almost obsessive passion, but Lacy was a debilitative alcoholic and was, as a result, fiercely abusive throughout their companionship.
The likeness in the present work was probably based around a series of photographs taken contemporaneously by John Deakin – the artist’s favourite photographer. That Bacon was able to use these images to inform his likeness alongside the host of Post-Impressionist influences that have already been mentioned is both typical of, and tribute to his idiosyncratic working method. Bacon loved to fill his studio with huge stacks of visual stimuli of every sort: photographs, plates torn from monographs and catalogue raisonnés, illustrated books of every type, and even reproductions of his own work. It was almost up to chance which shred of aesthetic information emerged from the midden to inspire the painting he was working on. Indeed to Bacon, chance was the divining force of life, be it in the casinos of Monte Carlo, or in perennially painting on unprimed canvas, so that each mark he made was indelible – capable of ruining his efforts or inspiring a masterpiece.
Head I is a work of powerful drama and dramatic cloistered intensity. It should be viewed as a milestone within Francis Bacon’s career; a turning point that not only distils the mood of his 1950s praxis whilst simultaneously looking forward to his best work of the 1960s, but a work that also heralded change within his personal life, and even his commercial backing. Within the brusque modelling of this momentous likeness, we can not only detect the influence of diverse extraordinary external stimuli, but also sense the passion of the painter, and the depth of the emotional background to this singular work.
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