The sale at auction of Two Figures at a Window, 1953, offers an exceptionally rare opportunity to acquire a seminal painting by Francis Bacon from his most highly esteemed and consequential early period. While the cardinal breakthrough of his career came in 1944 with the exhibition of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion at the Lefevre Gallery, London, it was not until the intellectually and stylistically fecund period of 1952-1953 that his idiosyncratic approach to composition and painterly ingenuity were harnessed, honed and refined to this unprecedented degree of cogency. Painted in the same year as the first major Pope series (fig. 1) – universally acclaimed as Bacon’s most accomplished series and a momentous landmark of twentieth-century art – Two Figures at a Window embodies the same brilliance of painterly flair that makes paintings from this period the most recherché of his entire oeuvre. Almost without exception, the canvases from the late 1940s and early 1950s are housed in prestigious public and private collections - among them the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice - from which they will never be released, making this a truly remarkable auction moment.
One of his most original investigations into pictorial representation to date, Two Figures at a Window evinces a keen sense of experimentation and inquiry that is typical of the period, the product of sustained periods of concentration as he prepared for regular shows at Erica Brausen’s Hanover Gallery. Brausen visited Bacon’s studio in 1946 at the suggestion of Graham Sutherland, mounting his first significant solo show in 1949 and launching his international career by successfully placing Painting 1946 – another early masterpiece – in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His growing international recognition fuelled an intensely fertile period of productivity and an acuteness of focus that the present work shares with series with the 1953 Popes which were sent to New York for Bacon’s first solo show outside Britain later that year. Although prolific, few works survive from this period – fewer still in private hands – in part a consequence of Bacon’s exacting self-criticism and practice of destroying works that he deemed imperfect.
Continuing to explore the theme first evolved in his 1949 exhibition of Heads, Bacon here interrogates the human form and its relationship and interaction with an economically depicted interior space. Bacon approached the interiors of his paintings not as portraits of a specific room, but as a vehicle of enhancing the human form: “I want to make the interior so much there that the form will speak more eloquently.” (cited in John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1971, p.75) Unlike the earlier series of tightly cropped Heads, here the figures are located at a distance from the picture plane inhabiting a more expansive, abstract space which presages the subsequent Men in Blue series of 1954 (fig. 2). Reiterating the internal framing device of the Popes series, in Two Figures at a Window negative space adopts a new, profound significance; just as the tragic moment is preceded by a tranquil interlude in the Shakespearean tragedies that so often inspired his painting, so in the present work the open expanse of deep cerulean blue that engulfs the figures serves as a hiatus that bestows a full visceral intensity on the human drama within.
This intensity of focus is enhanced further by the marked formal rigour of the composition which employs with devastating aplomb the device of the spaceframe and the motif of the curtains. Serving both a formal and narrative function, Bacon had been interested in the motif of curtains for some time: “I’ve always wanted to paint curtains. I love rooms that are hung all round with just curtains hung in even folds” (Ibid p. 35). At times diaphanous, veiling the entire figure, in Two Figures at a Window the drapes form two vast vertical swathes that crop and frame the figures, simultaneously shielding and unveiling them, exposing and concealing their equivocal activity. As a formal device this is reminiscent of Study for the Human Body of 1949 (fig. 3), which, in terms of composition and treatment of the figure, is a direct precursor of this work. In Two Figures at a Window the spaceframe – a formal device increasingly employed by Giacometti, another artist in Brausen’s stable of talent – is superimposed on top of the curtains, the cube-like space adumbrated by faintly drawn pale grey lines, evoking a theatrical space redolent of a proscenium and bestowing on the protagonists all the gravitas and pathos of Greek tragedy. The suggestion of the shutter, whose repeated horizontal striation fills the right flank of the composition, lends solidity and weight to the ostensibly architectural yet ultimately abstract space.
Throughout his career Bacon remained resolutely unmoved by the new and increasing forms of abstraction that were emanating from America, steadfast in his belief that art devoid of human content lacked resonance. Nonetheless, Two Figures at a Window belies an understanding – if not appreciation – of the principal tenets of spare abstraction and colour field painting that ostensibly, at least, were deemed to be the anathema of figurative painting. More than any painting to date, Two Figures at a Window shows Bacon experimenting with more reductive forms of composition and harnessing the semantic power of colour witnessed in the vast paintings of Barnett Newman. Although insistently figurative, Two Figures at a Window derives a disproportionately large degree of its emotional charge from the intense, inky blue canvas. The central vertical strip formed by the partition of the curtains – a corollary to Newman’s ‘zips’ – shows Bacon grappling directly with abstract modes of expression.
The treatment of the figures themselves, on the other hand, shows Bacon at the apogee of his early painterly maturity. The dominant flat blue background with its ethereal, velvety application sets off the pinkish-white flesh tones of the figures. As John Russell observes: “Bacon, when he wishes, is one of the great painters of human flesh and can give it a kind of creamy resonance, a fulfilled soft firmness, for which both Ingres and Courbet had also been searching”. (Ibid p. 75) The spontaneity of the treatment of the flesh and the beautiful dryness of the paint is reminiscent of Velasquez’s handling of flesh, while the sombre tonal range and severely restricted palette belies Bacon’s appreciation for the later paintings of Rembrandt. At the same time, however, the treatment of the figure is vapourously photographic, an effect evocative of the soft focus of the camera obscura image. Unlike traditional figurative painters, Bacon preferred to paint in absentia, relying predominantly on the combination of photographic material and memory to inform his image production. The figural painting in Two Figures at a Window betrays the primacy of one of Bacon’s preferred sources, a book of X-ray plates entitled Positioning in Radiotherapy. The figure is treated as a semi-transparent, spectral form, the figures’ atrophied forms condensing into something solid but not quite fleshly. This technique simultaneously captures the blur and flicker of transitional movement, like a blurred snap shot or film still depicting figures dissolving in and out of focus. A torn fragment from the artist’s studio (fig. 4) shows how Bacon used such photographic and filmic source material to compose and structure his paintings, democratically fusing photographic motifs with Old Master painterliness, translating the fragmentary, everyday images into modern high tragedy.
Ever since his debut, when Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was received with consternation by the public, Bacon was synonymous with violence and savage imagery. This haunting image, while continuing the prevalent air of claustrophobia, anxiety and unease nonetheless betrays a human tenderness rarely glimpsed in Bacon’s oeuvre. Despite the astringency of the surrounding atmosphere, one does not sense the neurotic angst that prevails in the Museum of Modern Art’s Study for Portrait VIII (fig. 1). The power of Two Figures at a Window resides in this poignant, fragile balance between the physical and emotional contact which lies at the heart of human relationships and the existential fear and impotent solitude, experienced in the writings of Nietzsche and Sartre, which pervades the contemporaneous Popes series. At the time of painting Bacon was involved in a passionate, if tempestuous relationship with Peter Lacy, an engagement often sited as the inspiration and impetus for the present work in autobiographical accounts of Bacon’s oeuvre which locate the figures in one of the hotel rooms and borrowed apartments through which Bacon passed during his relationship with Lacy. Yet the very indeterminacy of the figures surely stems from the desire to eschew any such prescribed narrative; unlike the pastels of Degas, for example, which Bacon admired immensely, the very incompleteness of Bacon’s forms is what makes them so powerfully suggestive. Bacon much admired Marcel Proust for his adroitness in analysing human passion and behaviour; like the Proustian notion of the ‘memory trigger’, Bacon’s indeterminate forms tap into a deeper recess of the human psyche, precipitating myriad open-ended narratives of human experience. Bacon’s paintings remain essentially ambiguous deriving potency from unanswerable questions. Like the ancient oracles they are open to quite contrary interpretations; that is their strength, the magic and power of their enigma.
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