"For me, realism is an attempt to capture the appearance with the cluster of sensations that the appearance arouses in me...Perhaps realism is always subjective when it is most profoundly expressed...we are rightly forced to invent methods by which reality can force itself upon our nervous system in a new way, yet without losing sight of the model's objectivity."
The artist in a letter to Michel Leiris, 20th November 1981, in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Gagosian Gallery, Francis Bacon: Triptychs, 2006, p. 30
Executed shortly after Francis Bacon had entered the eighth decade of his life, Study for Self-Portrait of 1980 ranks among the most intensely dramatic self-portrayals of the artist's career. Deeply meditative and profoundly reflective, the present work significantly preserves one of the very final depictions of Bacon's likeness in this scrutinising, intimate and crucial single-canvas format. In his authoritative monograph on the artist, John Russell pointedly outlines the central importance of these works: "The single head, fourteen inches by twelve, was from 1961 onwards the scene of some of Bacon's most ferocious investigations. Just as a gunshot sometimes leaves an after-echo or parallel report, so these small concentrated heads carry their ghosts within them" (John Russell, Francis Bacon, London, 1993, p. 99). Belonging to the corpus of only a dozen Self-Portraits in this size, whilst directly preceding the very last in this sequence executed in 1987, Study for Self Portrait hauntingly eulogizes the penultimate occasion of Bacon's searing self-analysis. Intriguingly, where the last example evokes a ghost-like death mask, the present portrayal radiates with the vibrancy and exuberance of youth. Wielding the full force of a life's worth of retrospect, evinced by the artist's own worn physiognomy in 1980 (documented in Jane Bown's photograph), the 71 year old Bacon here looks back at himself as a young man. In a searching translation and recapitulation of his own physical likeness, Bacon revisits the starched collared and suited figures from his 1950s via a mature, and almost luminescent, mastery of paint. Closely aligned to the captivating and penetrating examples prestigiously housed in the Pompidou Centre, Paris and the Musée Cantini, Marseille, the present work delivers a remarkable exemplification of the principle engagement of Francis Bacon's oeuvre: the Self-Portrait. What's more, having been selected by Stanley Seeger as a long term resident of his revered collection, this extraordinary painting offers a very special insight into one of the greatest artistic minds and talents of the Twentieth Century.
The canon of self-portraiture within Bacon's oeuvre is one of the great threads of twentieth-century Art History, and readily parallels that of other masters whose focus of artistic enterprise finally arrived in the mirror of self-analysis. From Durer to Rembrandt to Bacon, truly great self-portraiture reveals an incommunicable essence of the artist that speaks directly to the viewer and transcends the distance between the work's execution and the present day: in short, an incontrovertible dissection of the author's real self, a psychosomatic x-ray. While addressing the age-old, pervasive dilemma of self-portraiture – how to portray an outward appearance that is, to its possessor, essentially and ironically unfamiliar – Bacon's Study forSelf-Portrait furthers a more existential line of enquiry addressing concepts of perception and the artist's ontological relationship with the viewer. As he himself stated, ultimately the self-images are most revealing because "one always has a greater involvement with oneself than anybody else" (the artist in conversation, David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 241). This painting mines the depths of absolute self-presentation that Bacon had sought for decades before and acts like strata of an archaeological survey of his previous guises compounded together. Amid the spectacular colour and virtuoso brushwork Bacon here presents an ethereal and unearthly form that, while undoubtedly depicting the artist, is manifestly not the wizened visage of a septuagenarian. Bacon's appearance is simultaneously youthful through its broad swathes of pearlescent flesh, yet also resigned and contemplative through its downward-looking gaze. This portrait could represent the version of appearance that Bacon saw in the mirror during any of his preceding three decades, and thus can be viewed as a self-consciously distinct compilation of the various stages of his life.
Like revered masters that had preceded him from Rembrandt to Picasso, Bacon was driven by an incessant compulsion to forge an artistic legacy for the experience of his time. Such motivation coursed violently through his body and soul, utterly oblivious to the vicissitudes of advancing years, and thus many of the most ambitious and brilliantly executed works of his career were created towards the end of his life. For the genius of Bacon's art stemmed in most part from the extraordinary conditions of his existence, marked by times of elation and times of endurance filled with relationships of love and hate. Since banished as a teenager from his family home in Ireland by his father in the 1920s, Bacon had careered through the highs and lows of life for almost sixty years by the point of this portrait, frequently left as the only and last man standing. Indeed, from the trauma of early experience in Paris and Berlin before the war, Bacon's life had been starkly punctuated by tragedy. From the suicide of his friend John Minton in 1957 to the death of his decade-long lover Peter Lacy in 1962; the tragic suicide of his lover George Dyer in 1971 and the death of his mother, Winnie Bacon in the same year to the demise of Muriel Belcher, his good friend and owner of his beloved Colony Room drinking den, in 1979. Even his youngest sister, Winifred, was by the time of this painting seriously ill with Multiple Sclerosis, and Bacon visited her regularly until she died in 1981. Hence there was plenty of cause behind Bacon's explanation for his increasing propensity for self-portraiture: "People have been dying around me like flies and I've had nobody else to paint but myself ... I loathe my own face, and I've done self-portraits because I've had nothing else to do" (Francis Bacon in David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, pp. 129-133). In the present work Francis Bacon confronts us square on as the sole witness to his life: his instantly recognizable visage acting as coda to this remarkable existence.
Dressed in a formal white collar, Bacon emerges from the shadowed depths of a limitless darkness; the sheer jet-black emptiness that surrounds his features serving to heighten the haunted, blurred presence that emanates from the canvas. Here the confident, bold swathes of colour and exaggerated form of Bacon's paintings during the sixties and seventies have become knowingly clarified and subtly calmed. Yet within there is a poignancy to the haze which enshrouds his face. Over-brushed and scumbled, the ambiguity explored in this work brings a heightened reality to the image, a fact that is at once accentuated and governed by the slippage of the form. His head smears softly sideways into view, the exactness of the two faint white swirls surrounding his face indicating a rotation, not necessarily in the Cubist manner, but as though it has endured some terminal rearrangement by a form of painterly manipulation. The reflection that Bacon has found, doubtless mostly from memory and countless photographs, is fraught with contrasts: life versus death; self versus other; psychology versus physiognomy, together compounding to generate an image of immense raw energy that unites an exterior presence with an interiorized power. Outside, the shape retains an obstinate and familiar integrity, the precise result of a sudden movement. Within, the sheer concentration on his face transfixes the viewer. Behind the veil, the pensive sorrow in the piercing concentration of the eyes conveys a hidden turmoil and suffering which is at the heart of Bacon's genius.
An instinctual painter, who said he wanted to work as close to the nervous system and unconscious as possible, Bacon employed whatever was at hand in his infamously unkempt studio. As well as brushes, he used his hands, rags of wool and textile, newspapers and paint tubes to apply and manipulate the paint, exploiting the malleability and tactility of the nearly-dry oils to create chance visual effects, clearly visible in Study for Self-Portrait in the pigment that has been daubed with a corduroy rag creating ribbed seams of paint reminiscent of Degas' 'shuttering effect' with pastels. Bacon was greatly affected by Degas' technique: "in his pastels he always striates the form with these lines which are drawn through the image and in a certain sense both intensify and diversify its reality... you could say that he shuttered the body in a way, and then he put an enormous amount of colour through these lines". (the artist cited in David Sylvester, 'Francis Bacon and the Nude' in Exhibition Catalogue, London, Faggionato Fine Art, Francis Bacon: Studying Form, 2005, p. 30) This finds its corollary in Study for Self-Portrait in the vibrant striations which overlay the face so that "the sensation doesn't come straight out at you but slides slowly and gently through the gaps." (Ibid., p. 30). The head itself also owes much to Picasso's pioneering explorations in Cubism, in which multiple viewpoints are condensed into a single image in an attempt to further probe the emotional complexity of the self. Bacon spoke admirably of Picasso, especially his work of the 1920s and 1930s, in which he identified a new language of "organic form that relates to the human image but is a complete distortion of it." (the artist cited in Milan Kundera and France Borel, Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, London 1996, p. 10).
If Bacon's art sought the height of painterly expression as a reflection of life, then his self-portraits represented the heart of that exploration as mirror onto the turbulent extremes of his own existence. Through the prism of subjective experience he furthermore sought to disturb not only the viewer's sense of self but also the conventions governing Western culture and traditional artistic practice. Calling into question expectations of beauty, narrative, chiaroscuro, likeness, the body and truth, he put forward important propositions about the premises of figurative representation, setting in motion a process of narrative interaction between the viewer and the work. Bacon's oeuvre provides a self-conscious intervention into the history of Western art, challenging, complicating and undermining representation. Instead of the subject or reality, in Bacon's work, the process of looking itself is depicted, forcing the viewer to reassess conventional illusion and our role in the viewer-object relationship. "The eye, Bacon suggests, does not reveal but instead dissolves, does not produce but instead destroys, does not make but instead unmakes the object of looking." (Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, London, 1992, p. 13). In the present painting Bacon finally appears to have achieved his aim: "What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance" (Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester, Exhibition Catalogue, London, Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, 1967, p. 37)
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