Counting among the handful of new paintings created before the Tate show in May 1962, Portrait accompanied the artist’s first great large-scale triptych, Three Studies for a Crucifixion and prestigiously graced the Tate’s walls. Both of these works deploy an exhilarating painterly treatment in which flesh and bone are turned outwards while writhing bodies are located within increasingly resolute interiors. The hallowed ‘spaceframe’ is largely abandoned; although the faint ghost of its linear outline burns through the cool greys and taupe shades that demarcate floor from ceiling in Portrait, Bacon’s drama now takes place upon a raised curvilinear platform and within a defined claustrophobic room. Recalling Bacon’s memories of a country house in Abbeyleix, Ireland, in which he lived as a boy, curving walls and arced space became the quintessential Baconian stage-set from this moment on. Of the latter, Portrait shares a remarkable compositional congruence with Study from Innocent X (one of Bacon’s most inventive and very last Pope paintings executed in 1962, also exhibited in the Tate show) and in many ways these works are pendant pictures. The use of arcs intersecting and dividing the background to create the sense of a curving room and raised platform – or dais – are almost identical in both works; while their corkscrewing bodies and contorted and grimacing features confer an unmistakable reading of the bestial. The very cruciform pose of Bacon’s subject in Portrait – with both arms spread-open above interlaced legs that appear to hover as though suspended in midair – formally echoes the pictorial trope of Christ’s crucifixion. This is a religious construal that carries through from the present work – which has been suggested was painted early in 1962 – into the red Pope that comes next in Ronald Alley’s 1964 catalogue raisonné, and finally through to the Three Studies for a Crucifixion which was famously completed only days before the Tate show opened in May. The confluence between the far right panel of this triptych (which has been suggested is a re-working and inversion of Cimabue’s canonical altarpiece) and the present work, thus imparts a striking conceptual link. However, counter to the hot inferno and vicious animalism of these two paintings, the palette for Portrait is considerably cooler and presents a voluptuous male body that in its very contortion activates a louche yet inviting scenario ripe with phallic charge. It is worth noting as well that where the figure of the Pope and armature of the Christ’s crucifixion were symbols of Bacon’s rise to prominence during the 1950s, the proven success of this symbolic ‘crutch’ began to give way for, to quote John Russell, ‘the maximization of risk’ at stake within his practice of portraiture. (John Russell, Francis Bacon, Greenwich, 1971, p. 165) Having said this, where Portrait may at first appear to be the sedate and composed counterpoint to the blood-curdling despair of Study from Innocent X or Three Studies for a Crucifixion, this painting’s quintessential Baconian violence is concentrated within the corkscrewing body, phallic power, and virtuoso facture of the face: scraped into a wide grimace, a row of bared incisors underlines a viscous stratum of corrugated oil paint that coalesces to form this painting’s locus of psychological torment. Herein, Portrait of 1962 can be seen to anticipate the artist’s remarkable pictorial inventions and career-defining body of portraiture that was soon to emerge following the supreme success of the Tate show.
When it opened in May 1962, the contemporary press lauded this exhibition with glowing reviews. “It would be both unwise and unjust to write briefly about the retrospective exhibition of work by Francis Bacon at the Tate Gallery” wrote Eric Newton for The Guardian, “beauty is there throughout. A casual glance into any of the five rooms in which these pictures hang, reveals shapes that are noble in themselves, and color schemes that are enchanting. It is only when we begin to examine them for subject matter that one begins to experience the frisson that is Bacon's special gift.” (Eric Newton, "Mortal Conflict," The Guardian, 24 May 1962) The high praise continued in an indepth profile of Bacon in The Observer which celebrated the painterly virtuosity on view at the Tate: “few people will visit the Tate without being stunned by Bacon’s really tremendous power to convey the underworld of tension and suffering – humanity with the lid off.” (Anon. "The Observer Profile" in: The Observer Weekend Review, 27 May 1962, p. 23) While Nigel Gosling’s review declared Bacon as “the most interesting” of “all the living painters I know.” (Nigel Gosling, "Report from the Underworld," Ibid., p. 27) Significantly, Gosling’s piece accorded special recognition to Bacon’s new work by referring to “the exciting new paintings which crown this splendidly chosen and displayed exhibition.” (Ibid.) As part of the retrospective’s dramatic climax, these new works (which included Portrait, Study from Innocent X, and Three Studies for a Crucifixion) announced Bacon’s latest innovations in portraying the human condition. Boasting geometric simplicity, sumptuous use of color, a heightened sense of painterly spontaneity and fleshy voluptuousness, the originality of these works would directly renew his approach to the human body as a site of exuberant excess, pain, and brutal release.
Three years prior to this, Bacon had begun to explore the classical theme of the reclining nude in a number of anonymous, androgynous, yet erotically charged "Lying Figure" paintings created during a three-month stay in the Cornish seaside village of St. Ives. Indeed, the composition and color palette of the present work finds its genesis in this small corpus. Presaging the contorted and provocative nudity of Portrait these upside-down figures lie prostrate on a sofa and form corporeal fleshy jumbles that languorously writhe. Although short, Bacon’s time in St. Ives would have a dramatic impact and would furnish the transition away from the grisaille half-light and tank-like interiors of his previous 1950s output. Immersed in a local artistic milieu that was predominantly centered on contemporary debates surrounding abstraction, Bacon, who had previously dismissed this branch of contemporary art as merely “decorative”, nonetheless began to apply Newman and Rothkoesque fields to engender a new kind of spatial depth through color (the artist cited in Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London, 1996, p. 223). Pitched against these enlivened and increasingly flattened planes, which, as in the present work, imbued his paintings with a heightened environmental presence and actuality, Bacon’s treatment of the human form underwent a correlative transformation. The ghost-like pallor of his figures fell away and was replaced by a depiction of human flesh as living and bleeding: muscle and bone turned inside out.
A more immediate developmental stage in the creation of Portrait can be traced to a sketch published in Martin Harrison’s In Camera: Francis Bacon, Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting (published in 2005). Although Bacon famously never admitted to drawing or premeditating his works, it is widely known that he did write lists and, more infrequently, made rapid short-hand studies for potential compositions. Dated to 1962, and etched onto frontispieces of Eadweard Muybridge’s The Human Figure in Motion (1955 edition), a quickly worked thinned-oil sketch of a figure reclining on a sofa/chaise faces a list in Bacon’s typical hand of ideas for future works. At the top of the list ‘Portrait of Peter as opposite’ seems to confirm that this sketch – and by association the present work which contains an almost identical pictorial schema, pose, intimation of a dais or raised platform, and intersecting pattern of background curves – depicts the object of Bacon’s first and greatest love affair, Peter Lacy (Martin Harrison, In Camera: Francis Bacon, Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London, 2005, p. 181). In Portrait, the outstretched arms and seated position, the structure of the head, the contortion of the facial features and the sinister grimace, are all characteristics familiar to Bacon’s portrayal of Lacy. An older man and ex-RAF pilot with a tendency for violent outbursts, Lacy was Bacon’s romantic ideal. It was a destructive relationship that fed equally upon Lacy’s appetite for sadism and Bacon’s masochistic cravings. Although their turbulent relationship had come to an end in 1958, Bacon, who had also continued to frequently visit Lacy where he had settled in Tangier, continued to conjure his likeness in paint. Having titled the work Portrait Bacon leads us to believe that this painting is indeed a rendering of someone, and considering the phallocentric eroticism and subtle menace on show, it can be inferred that Lacy is most probably the subject of the present work. Lacy appears in a number of guises throughout Bacon’s production; he is the model for Bacon’s terrifying Papal father figures in the 1950s, the dominant lover in the violently sexual Two Figures of 1953, and subject of countless portraits including the first official small canvas triptych in the 14 by 12 inch size, Study for Three Heads of 1962. Of the latter, this painting was executed in mourning of Lacy’s death in Tangier, news of which reached Bacon on the very first day that his Tate retrospective opened to the public. Herein, Portrait is arguably the last painting of Lacy executed whilst he was still alive. Ultimately however, that the identity of Portrait is left anonymous leaves interpretation entirely open to reading a host of disparate linkages.
The interlacing and corkscrewing limbs, the voluptuous flesh and ample musculature in Portrait invokes the importance of Michelangelo in Bacon’s imagination. Of the many artifacts excavated from Bacon’s Reece Mews studio were countless leafs taken from books on the Renaissance master, particularly of drawings depicting the male body which was his primary focus as an artist. The tangible bulk of Bacon’s subject in Portrait is fundamentally Michelangeloesque: the undulating curves of the arms, the sculpting shadow that defines the right pectoral and the hefty posterior emulate the muscled tension of Michelangelo’s idealized male forms. However in Bacon’s imagination the work of Michelangelo was tied up with images by the pioneering documentary photographer Eadweard Muybridge. “Actually Muybridge and Michelangelo are mixed up in my mind together” explained Bacon, “and so I perhaps could learn about positions from Muybridge and learn about the ampleness, the grandeur of form from Michelangelo.” (the artist cited in Margarita Cappock, Francis Bacon’s Studio, London and New York, 2005, p. 116) Published in the late Nineteenth Century, Muybridge’s pseudo-scientific photographic treatises on human and animal locomotion presented for the first time an aid for artists in capturing split-second images of moving bodies. Sold as plates and eventually published in volumes, Muybridge’s motion studies were populist, voyeuristic, and undeniably eccentric; the gratuitous display of nude and well-muscled male bodies climbing stairs, running, jumping, boxing, playing tennis and cricket, fencing and wrestling appealed massively to Bacon, not only for their vital authenticity as documenting the human body in motion, but also for their undeniable homoerotic content. For Bacon, Muybridge and Michelangelo represented two sides of the same coin; although separated by centuries and entirely different objectives, these two were bound in Bacon’s mind owing to the wealth of taut muscled poses prevalent in the work of both. For Bacon, these images of the male body were libidinous and unlocked ‘valves of sensation’ that acted as a key cipher onto which he could apply and improvise his own painterly record of impassioned embodiment. That Bacon outlined this preliminary working through of Portrait on a copy of Muybridge’s Human Figure in Motion further emphasizes the fact.
Furthermore, as images presented in sequence the latent sense of the cinematic within Muybridge was not lost on Bacon; indeed, film was of massive consequence and truly formed him as a painter. As explained by art historian David Alan Mellor: “From almost the time of the first critical writing on Bacon, in 1949, film was seen to be the indispensable point of reference for any understanding of him.” (David Alan Mellor, “Film, Fantasy, History in Francis Bacon” in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Britain (and travelling), Francis Bacon, 2008, p. 50) From Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (1967) through to Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959), the powerful imagery of film fed directly into Bacon’s “pulverizing machine” and symptomatically emerged in his painting; the most famous example of which is the screaming nanny motif from Potemkin which finds almost endless repetition in Bacon’s early work (the artist cited in John Russell, Ibid., p. 71). A true cinephile, Bacon immersed himself in film’s burgeoning history, its developing field of critical literature, and its exciting contemporary development. As Mellor has explained, in parallel with the ascent of creative film-making “something in painting withered as a result. Bacon’s purpose has been to bring that something back to life.” (Ibid.) From the work of Fritz Lang, D.W. Griffith and Abel Gance, through to the more novel and experimental trends in popular culture, Bacon was open to every development in this new and exciting genre. Indeed, the red and green accents outlining the body in Portrait seem to reflect the contemporaneous craze for 3D images and film, which beginning in Hollywood in 1953, had swept across Britain by the late 1950s. Martin Harrison alludes to this fact in In Camera and points to the concurrent appearance of red and green combinations in a number of works from the 1960s (Martin Harrison, ibid., p. 150). However, as the history of Portrait’s ownership relays, the direction of this stream of influence has since changed current.
Within the last 50 years or so, the influence of Bacon’s work on the arena of film is undeniably palpable. As opening testament to this, the first owner of Portrait was the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, who alongside Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Goddard, and Alain Resnais pioneered a new wave of European art-house cinema that emanated a distinctly contemporary ennui. Subversive and influential in equal measure, Antonioni had made his name by 1960 with L’Avventura (1959), which along with a further two films (La Notte and L’Eclisse) released in 1960 and 1962 respectively, explores the thematic of modern day alienation and emotional abandonment through narrative disjoint and striking camera work. It is for the 1966 Blow-Up however that Antonioni is best known; set within swinging London, the film loosely follows a fashion photographer who believes he unknowingly captures evidence of a murder when photographing two lovers in a public park. Fittingly for Bacon’s work, this film scrutinizes how our perception of reality and fact is increasingly channeled through the proclaimed ‘truth’ of a photographic image. That Portrait, and largely Bacon’s work in general, would have struck a chord with Antonioni is therefore unsurprising: chilling renderings of distinctly modern and alienated human beings reside at the very core of both artists’ work. Whether Bacon influenced Antonioni or vice versa is undocumented, however, evidence of Bacon’s impact on a host of more recent cinematic heavyweights affirm the truly epic scope of Bacon’s remarkable creative vision.
In the controversial Last Tango in Paris (1972) starring Marlon Brando, director Bernardo Bertolucci juxtaposed the film’s opening credits alongside two of Bacon’s paintings, one of Lucian Freud reclining in a manner that echoes the pose in Portrait, and another of Isabel Rawsthorne sitting on a chair; both were painted in 1964. During the filming of Last Tango in 1971 Bertolucci visited Bacon’s retrospective in Paris at the Grand Palais multiple times, even taking Brando, whom he encouraged to look at Bacon’s provocative portrayal of male flesh as inspiration for his character Paul – an older man who enters into an anonymous and sado-masochistic relationship with a young woman. The writhing, straining, and tormented quality of Bacon’s figures, whose provocative flesh is hungover with aggressive sexuality, is carried across to the psychologically perturbed and sexual abandon of Bertolucci’s protagonists. Indeed, there is even something of the sadistic/seductive tone of Portrait inherent within Brando’s character. On a more holistic level however, it was the color of Bacon’s paintings that affected the overall look of Last Tango in Paris: the cinematography is characterized by a predominance of orange, icy white, cool grey and flashes of red, a palette that was sourced directly from hues found in Bacon’s work.
Where for Bertolucci the influence of Bacon was specific to Last Tango, Bacon’s incredible arena, at once grand and claustrophobic, resonates throughout the entire career of David Lynch. The importance of Bacon for Lynch is undeniable: from the heavily curtained room of the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks (1990-91), the pig carcass hanging outside the butchers shop in The Elephant Man (1980), the unconstrained primal shrieks of Dennis Hopper’s sadistic Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (1986), not to mention the body horror of Lynch’s first critical success, Eraser Head (1977), there is a Baconian menace that infiltrates every pore of this director’s production. As explained by Lynch: “Francis Bacon is, to me, the main guy, the number one kinda hero painter. I saw Bacon’s show in the 1960s at the Marlborough Gallery and it was really one of the most powerful things I ever saw in my life… The subject matter and the style were united, married, perfect. And the space, and the slow and the fast and, you know, the textures, everything.” (David Lynch cited in Erica Sheen and Annette Davidson, Eds., The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions (Directors' Cuts), New York, 2004, p. 139) Intriguingly, where David Lynch had first started as an artist before his foray into film-making, Bacon reflected upon a similar reversal of his own ambitions: “You know, I’ve often said to myself that I would have liked to have been a film director if I hadn’t been a painter.” (the artist cited in Margarita Cappock, Op. Cit., p. 117) The filmic dimension of Bacon’s art is thus entirely beyond reproach and continues to profoundly impact the vision of filmmakers today. Perhaps the most famous and recent example of which is Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, for which Heath Ledger’s Joker makeup in The Dark Knight (2008) was directly inspired by the “worn through [and] sweaty” quality of Baconian flesh. (Christopher Nolan in conversation in “Film meets Art – Chris Nolan inspired by Francis Bacon”, Tate Video, 02.19)
Ambitious in scope, theatrical in scale, and foreboding in presence, the sense of a majestic cinematic entity is played out powerfully across the large-scaled golden-framed triptychs and single paneled paintings that would send Bacon’s reputation into the stratosphere during the coming decade. Having first resided with one of the most pioneering visionaries in the history of film, Portrait is utterly indicative of the very beginnings of this ambitious project, which following the 1962 retrospective and the innovative works that Bacon made for it, would set the standard and format for the rest of Bacon’s long and illustrious career. Furnishing the very incipit of this transition, Portrait is an extremely passionate and accomplished piece of painting. Conferring unrestrained intensity of feeling, this painting is a lustful soliloquy to Peter Lacy that is a simultaneous masterwork of compositional balance: steamy eroticism is cooled by a sedate chromatic palette. Muscular, powerful and sexually charged, inviting and yet simultaneously menacing, this is an image that extends far beyond the simplicity of its title.
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