46

Details & Cataloguing

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Francis Bacon
1909 - 1992
HEAD
oil on canvas
83 by 66cm.; 31⅞ by 26in.
Executed circa 1949, this work will be included in the upcoming catalogue raisonné being edited by Mr. Martin Harrison.
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Provenance

Robert Buhler, London
Piccadilly Gallery, London
Luca Scacchi Gracco, Milan
Galleria La Medusa, Rome
Private Collection, Italy
Private Collection, New York
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

Exhibited

Milan, Galleria del Credito Valtellinese, L'anormalità dell'arte, 1993, n.p., illustrated
Malmö, Konsthall; Turin, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Castello di Rivoli, Francis Bacon, Marlene Dumas: The Peculiarity of Being Human, 1995, p. 29, illustrated, p. 83, illustrated in colour

Literature

John Rothenstein and Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon, London 1964, n.p., no. A7, illustrated
Martin Harrison, Ed., Francis Bacon: New Studies, Centenary Essays,  2009, p. 239, no 163, illustrated in colour

 

Catalogue Note

Essay by Michael Peppiatt

This painting has been recorded in the Alley/Rothenstein catalogue raisonné (1964) as belonging to a certain R.B., before being bought by the then avant-garde  Piccadilly Gallery in London and subsequently by the Italian dealer Luca Scacchi Gracco.

R.B. refers to Robert Buhler (1916-1989), a landscape and portrait painter of Swiss parentage who taught painting at the Royal College of Art. In 1949 Bacon was living and working at 7 Cromwell Place, now known as Millais House (after the pre-Raphaelite painter), just round the corner from where the RCA was then situated. Bacon himself taught at the RCA in the autumn term of 1950. Bacon had been sharing the ground floor of the large Victorian house since 1943 with his lover, Eric Hall, and his elderly nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, who was a key figure in his early life and considerably closer to him than his own mother. When the nanny died in 1950, the eccentric ménage came abruptly to an end. In his grief Bacon decided to leave the Cromwell Place flat altogether. He sold the lease to Buhler, leaving a considerable number of abandoned canvases behind. Most of these works have subsequently come on to the market.

After years of doubt and frustration as a painter, by the late 1940s Bacon had come triumphantly into his own. 'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion', his breakthrough work of 1944, had led to the even more impressive 'Painting 1946', purchased by Alfred Barr for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. By 1949 (when he turned 40) Bacon, who always referred to himself as a 'late developer', might be regarded as having served his long apprenticeship and successfully absorbed numerous influences while forging his own, highly individual style. His work had attracted the attention of both the more perceptive critics and the more adventurous collectors, particularly after his first show at Erica Brausen's Hanover Gallery in London in 1949. Generously supported by his older, wealthy lover, Bacon was enjoying a period of relative stability and ease, moving with growing confidence between the demands of his burgeoning career and the allure of the French Riviera and its casinos.[1]

Having begun his series of Heads in 1948 (Head I), Bacon worked intensely on the subject throughout the following year, completing no fewer than five further versions on the theme (Heads II to VI). Within this series Bacon moves from the clearly animal (Heads I and II reveal bestial fangs) to the recognizably - if alarmingly - human. And, with its overt references to Velázquez, Head VI turned out in fact to be the first of Bacon's great Pope paintings, thereby announcing a theme which was to obsess the artist right through the following decade and beyond.

If 1949 has been advanced as the date for the work discussed here, it is because it clearly belongs to the whole series that Bacon painted that year.[2] The picture shares not only the same palette of cool greys and cold whites, dragged dryly over the canvas weave, but also certain formal preoccupations, notably the effects of a curtain forming the background or even half-obscuring the head portrayed. Bacon was in fact fascinated by pleated drapes (an interest dating back to his early career as a designer/decorator), and he used them as a backdrop to his figures throughout his career. He was also fascinated by the 'shuttering' effect that transparent drapes created; and taking Titian's famous portrait of Cardinal Filippo Archinto as a precedent, he delighted in experimenting with the ways a diaphanous 'veil' of this kind could both distort and intensify the features of a sitter by half-obscuring them.[3]

One of Bacon's great strengths as a painter lay in conveying the ambiguities of perception: how a chance gesture or a trick of the light could entirely alter the implications of a figure or a scene. In this sense, the complex interplay of fabric and feature is the real subject of Head (c. 1949).  What would otherwise have been a conventional portrait (quite conceivably of Eric Hall) in skilfully delineated jacket and tie – immediately reminiscent of his friend and mentor Graham Sutherland's emphatically outlined forms [4] - has turned into a ghostly exploration of the human form, caught half in its own fleeting phosphorescence and half behind the gauzy uncertainty of a curtain. Fragmented and spectral, Head (c. 1949) powerfully evokes a sensation central to all Bacon's imagery: the vulnerability and inevitable transience of human life.


[1] I have given a full account of these years in 'Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma' (revised edition), London, 2008.

[2] Wyndham Lewis wrote a memorable review of the 'Heads' when they were first exhibited (quoted in full in 'Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma', op.cit., p.157).

[3] This brings to mind a remark that Bacon made to me on more than one occasion. 'When I'm dead,' he used to say rather grandly, 'people will see how absolutely simple my distortions really are.'

[4] Sutherland's portraits of Somerset Maugham and Konrad Adenauer – influential men in suits – waft up through the dissolving veils of Bacon's image. In full subversive form, Bacon cannot resist the temptation to take the familiar features of a well-known, powerful personality (be it famous writer, prominent statesman or Pope) and allow it to slowly corrode in the acid bath of the deep scepticism he reserved for 'public figures' or anyone – notably his own father – 'in authority'.

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