Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror
- signed, titled and dated 1976 on the reverse
oil on canvas
Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1977
Paris, Galerie Claude Bernard, Francis Bacon: Recent Works, January - March 1977, p. 15, illustrated in color
London, Tate Gallery; Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie; Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Francis Bacon, May 1985 - April 1986, cat. no. 99, n.p., illustrated in color (London only)
Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Francis Bacon, October 1989 - August 1990, cat. no. 45, illustrated in color
Lugano, Museo d'arte moderna, Francis Bacon, March - May 1993, cat. no. 49, p. 109, illustrated in color
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, Bacon-Freud Expressions, July - October 1995, cat. no. 21, p. 73, illustrated in color
Paris, Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, Passions privées: Collections particulières d'art moderne et contemporain en France, December 1995 - March 1996, cat. no. A41:1, p. 367, illustrated
Paris, Centre national d'art et de culture Georges Pompidou; Munich, Haus der Kunst, Francis Bacon, June 1996 - January 1997, cat. no. 72, p. 197, illustrated in color
John Russell, Francis Bacon, New York, 1979, pl. 106, illustrated
Michel Leiris, Full Face and in Profile, New York, 1983, fig. 110, illustrated in color
Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York, 1986, pl. 80, p. 81, illustrated
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, Barcelona, 1987, fig. 100, illustrated in color
Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, Cambridge, 1993, fig. 30, p. 58, illustrated
Cercle d'Art, ed., Découvrons l'art du XXe siècle, Paris, 1994, no. 23, illustrated
Christophe Domino, Bacon Monstre de Peinture, Paris, 1996, p. 80, illustrated in color
Christophe Domino, Francis Bacon 'Taking Reality by Surprise', London, 1997, p. 80, illustrated in color
Exh. Cat., The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, Francis Bacon, 2001, p. 144, illustrated (as exhibited at Galerie Claude Bernard, 1977)
David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York, 2007, fig. 131, p. 173, illustrated
Martin Harrison, ed., Francis Bacon: New Studies: Centenary Essays, Göttingen, 2009, pl. 140, p. 201, illustrated in color
"Bacon's mirrors can be anything you like - except a reflecting surface... Bacon does not experience the mirror in the same way as Lewis Carroll. The body enters the mirror and lodges itself inside it, itself and its shadow. Hence the fascination: nothing is behind the mirror, everything is inside it." Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, London and New York, 2005, p. 13
"Each day in the mirror I watch death at work"
Francis Bacon quoting Jean Cocteau in, Hugh M. Davies, 'Interviewing Bacon, 1973' in, Martin Harrison, ed., Francis Bacon: New Studies, Göttingen, 2009, p. 96
"The paintings, I venture, begin in words, not in pictures. He was really a poet... When Bacon said he didn't draw, he really meant it. The graphic works are not Bacon's 'sketches.' The real sketches are his notes." Brian Clarke in David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 208
Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror ranks among the most painterly, thematically and emotively outstanding works of Francis Bacon's extraordinary oeuvre. Via a stunning dissemination of color and line, in tandem with magnificent force of physical and imaginative execution, Bacon's principle subjects and most significant leitmotifs are readily present. At once, the iconic nude effigy of Bacon's ill-fated muse and lover George Dyer is conflated with a self-portrait of the artist, whilst the pivotal conceit of reflection and the act of writing incites a stimulating dichotomy between vision and language. As delineated by the eminent art historian and Bacon authority David Sylvester, this painting stands as testament to the extraordinary corpus of poignant canvases produced during the years 1971-1976, following George Dyer's tragic suicide on the eve of Bacon's prestigious retrospective opening at the Grand Palais in January 1971.
Five years after Dyer's death, Bacon returned to Paris in January 1977 with an exhibition of extraordinary new works at the Galerie Claude Bernard. Prestigiously chosen as the poster for this seminal and now legendary exhibition - the single most important commercial gallery show of Bacon's career - this painting belongs to the very highest tier of the outstanding works specifically selected by the artist. Of the intimate group of twenty works exhibited in 1977, a significant number of these now reside in prestigious museum collections: while two belong in the Tate Collection, examples also belong to the Fondation Beyler, Basel, and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Caracas. Furthermore, the sale of Triptych, 1976, the centerpiece of the Claude Bernard show, at Sotheby's New York made auction house history when it achieved the highest price for any Contemporary work of art ever offered at auction. Created during the very same year as Bacon's record-breaking triptych, Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror triumphantly echoes Bacon's operation at the very zenith of his creative powers.
As the headline work for Bacon's pivotal exhibition in 1977, this painting bore witness to an unprecedented amount of publicity and eager anticipation; as Michael Peppiat, friend to Bacon and author of the biography Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, describes: "with the mixture of intellectuals and collectors, art groupies and sensation seekers, aesthetes and layabouts, the gallery quickly became half sideshow, half shrine... Bacon was on hand in the middle of the throng, pink-cheeked and immaculately dressed, greeting friends, signing posters and catalogues, laughing appreciatively and generally behaving as if nothing could have been more normal than the single-minded mobbing of which he and his pictures had suddenly become the object." (Michael Peppiat, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London, 2008, pp. 344-45). The police notoriously cordoned off the Rue des Beaux-Arts to limit the immense crowds coursing towards the gallery from the Boulevard Saint-Germain; an incredible 8,000 people squeezed and pushed their way down the narrow street and into the restricted gallery space. In an interview with Richard Cork in 1991, Bacon fondly remembered the heightened intensity given to his paintings by the claustrophobic conditions and affirmed that the installation at Claude Bernard stood as his favourite among the many museum retrospectives prestigiously afforded him (Richard Cork in: David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 214).
Exuding unrivalled intellectual and painterly command, Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror represents a stunning summation of the intensely introspective years that preceded its creation and the prevailing triumph that shortly followed with Bacon's legendary exhibition at Claude Bernard. As a feat of imaginative sophistication, this painting embodies one of the finest single canvases by the artist ever to be presented for public sale - a superlative testament and outstanding tribute to the irreproachable eminence of Francis Bacon within Art History.
With his muscular back turned and deeply immersed in the act of writing, Francis Bacon's nude figure radiates melancholic absorption. Exuding the refinement in line, coolness in palette and haunting grandeur inimitable to Bacon's post-Dyer opus, the second peak of the artist's career according to David Sylvester, this highly psychological and thematically complex painting radiates an atmosphere of elegiac contemplation. In Paris 1971, on the eve of Bacon's Retrospective opening at the Grand Palais - an honour only previously awarded to Picasso among living painters - George Dyer died from an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol. Found slumped on the toilet in their hotel room at the Hôtel des Saints-Péres, this tragic event, to which Bacon initially reacted with an outwardly stoic callousness, affected the artist profoundly. The degree to which Bacon was consumed with guilt over Dyer's death would find equal measure only in the posthumous paintings of Dyer and the event of his suicide. Collectively known as the 'Black Triptychs', these harrowing epic eulogies powerfully speak of the intense loss and guilt that remained with Bacon until his death: "Time does not heal. There isn't an hour of the day that I don't think about him." (Artist quoted in Exh. Cat., Lugano Museo d'Arte Moderna, Francis Bacon, 1993, sv. 44). Bearing the irrevocable trace of a sombre mind set following such a tragedy, the present work offers a remarkably quiet deliberation on the voluptuous male back - a prominent fascination indissolubly coupled with Bacon's almost obsessive portrayal of Dyer.
Having first met the previous autumn, by 1964 Dyer was established as Bacon's companion, lover and principal artistic subject; for the eight years leading up to his death, Dyer and Bacon shared a fractured relationship marred by Dyer's progressive alcoholism and waning sense of purpose in Bacon's shadow. A petty-thief from London's East End possessing insalubrious criminal connections and a muscular build, Dyer embodied a physical ideal and refreshing intellectual counterpart for Bacon. In the present work, the heroic muscularity of the male nude's voluptuous back is strongly reminiscent of a triptych painted a year prior to Dyer's death. Described as "that hymn to George Dyer's virility" by David Sylvester, Three Studies of the Male Back features the well-defined silhouette and round shouldered posture synonymous with John Deakin's famous photographs that had been commissioned by Bacon and record Dyer sitting in his underpants among the detritus of the artist's studio (David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 134). What's more, in their depiction of the masculine form, both of these paintings elucidate a hybrid of correlative source imagery inexplicably related in Bacon's mind to Dyer's physicality. To be found strewn, crumpled and heaped on the floor of Bacon's chaotic studio, evidence of his fascination with how the spine in Degas's Nude After the Bath "almost comes out of the skin altogether" is comingled with Michelangelo's hyper-masculine and heroic backs and Eadweard Muybridge's motion-photographs of male wrestlers. (Artist quoted in Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York,1986, p. 79). What's more, inimitable to Dyer's likeness, the physiognomy of the writing figure suggests the same iconic profile that proliferated in Bacon's creation from 1964. Compounded with the suggestion of a suit collar - Dyer was always immaculately turned out - and the underpants ubiquitous to Deakin's photographs, the congruency of signifiers indeed affirms that the present work is a posthumous portrait of George Dyer. He is here depicted writing indecipherable words on a blank sheet, perhaps also recalling one of Dyer's previous suicide attempts during a holiday they had taken together in Greece, when Dyer left a short suicide letter which read: "We all have to go, it's not so bad." (Michael Peppiat, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London, 2008, p. 295). While on that occasion he had arrived in time to stymy Dyer's half-hearted suicide attempt, Bacon heartrendingly lamented Dyer's passing in the summer of 1972: "I feel profoundly guilty about his death. If I hadn't gone out that morning, if I'd simply stayed in and made sure he was alright, he might be alive now." (Artist quoted in Ibid., p. 303).
Embodying a powerful force in life, in death Dyer's absent-presence took on the weight of Bacon's loss and melancholic regret. As much as these last paintings of Dyer represent ruminations on his lost companion, they simultaneously encompass deeply introverted self-reflections. Indeed, the constancy and significance of Dyer's appearance in Bacon's oeuvre is rivalled only by the self-portraits, which from 1971 onwards, greatly increased in number. Somewhat disingenuous, Bacon explained: "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." (the artist quoted in David Sylvester, Francis Bacon, London, 1975, p. 129). Anathema to Bacon's trivialising postulation, the suite of self-portraits executed during this period offer deeply mournful meditations on transience and death. As magnificently exemplified in Self-Portrait, 1973, Bacon's adoption of the archetypical pose of melancholia, made iconic by Dürer's eponymous woodcut, in combination with the wristwatch and the mirror as vanitas symbols, together confer a cognitive fixation on grief and mortality. Thus, to once more return to the identity of the Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror, the manner in which the hair is depicted falling across the forehead bears a striking affinity with Bacon's characteristic fringe or "forelock," which, according to the eminent French intellectual and friend to Bacon, Michel Leiris, "is well in evidence in all his self-portraits" (Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, New York, 1983, p. 12). In this sense, whilst evoking the effigy of George Dyer, Bacon's self-reference confirms his statement to Sylvester recorded one year prior to this painting's execution: "One always has greater involvement with oneself than with anybody else. No matter how much you may believe that you're in love with somebody else, your love of somebody else is your love of yourself." (Artist quoted in David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, Op. Cit., p. 241).
Bacon's statement on love and the self here evinces a certain envelopment and effacement of identity that resonates throughout his oeuvre. In Bacon's violent portrayal of copulation, animalistic aggression invokes a conflation of self and other, engenders a loss of bodily boundaries. This was repeatedly given verbal expression by Bacon in countless interviews: "The frustration is that people can never be close enough to one another. If you're in love you can't break down the barriers of the skin." (Artist quoted in Hugh M. Davies Op. Cit., p. 107); whilst on another occasion Bacon also referred to this more explicitly as being unable to "cut the flesh open and join it with another" (Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, London, 1992, p. 125). Such a jubilant and violent surrender of hermetically sealed corporeality is evident in the second triptych Bacon painted after Dyer's death. Following the deeply elegiac In Memory of George Dyer of 1971, Three Studies of Figures on Beds, painted in 1972, represents a veritable celebration of his life (David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, Op. Cit., p. 136). In the present image, where identity is ambiguous the boundary of the body is also extended and blurred via a mysterious wound or umbilical cord across to the figure's incongruous reflection. However, this offers none of the paroxysm or violence present in other physical pairings in Bacon's oeuvre. Rather, with their backs turned against each other, this work speaks of the withdrawal and loss which continued to haunt Bacon throughout the 1970s. Herein the role of the mirror in Bacon's work takes on an important metaphoric function: connected to the myth of Narcissus in Ovid's metamorphoses, mirrors are traditional symbols of vanitas and death. Described by the artist as an "infinite thing", in Bacon's work they represent existentialist empty spaces, serving the same function as the deathly black voids which permeate and give name to Bacon's 'Black Triptychs'. Thus, at once a reflection of the self and George Dyer, this painting gives unique visual expression to Bacon's melancholic citation of Jean Cocteau: "Each day in the mirror I watch death at work." (Artist quoted in Hugh M. Davies, 'Interviewing Bacon, 1973,' Op. Cit., p. 96).
Conspicuously present in his work as well as his studio, mirrors and the premise of reflection signify a dominant theme and powerful engagement throughout Bacon's career. As apparent within Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror, the depiction of a tall mirror converging with a large table in the corner of a stark anonymous room, shares significant visual affinities with the large wall-mirror and pine table located in Bacon's bedsitting room in his Reece Mews studio in South Kensington. The congruency of wall fixings and positioning in both this painting and documentary photographs of Bacon's flat, underlines the imaginative importance of Bacon's studio: "I am very influenced by places - by the atmosphere of a room, you know. And I just knew from the very moment that I came here that I would be able to work here." (Artist quoted in John Edwards, 7 Reece Mews Francis Bacon's Studio, London, 2001, p. 112). In the same way Bacon endeavoured to harness chaos and accident in the execution of his work, he also liked to preserve unforeseen phenomena in his working environment. The very same mirror in Bacon's bedsitting room possesses a spectacular star-like fracture, the pitted impact of a heavy glass ashtray reputedly thrown at the artist during a row - perhaps the vestiges of one of George Dyer's drunken rampages. Indeed, very much aligned to the shattered and distortive reflection borne of Bacon's smashed mirror, the mirror image depicted in Bacon's painting is not a true reflection of reality.
In the present work, although an ostensibly mimetic image is relayed, close scrutiny reveals a dislocation of the viewer's seat of focus. The angle of reflection is incongruous with the figure before the mirror; as explicated by Ernst Van Alphen, "a phenomenon has occurred that is at odds with the act of looking" (Ernst van Alphen, Op. Cit., p. 61). Rather than mirroring the figure's profile in line with traditional laws of pictorial perspective, Bacon disrupts, confuses and dismantles the logic of sight. By acting as a means of distortive intensification, the mirror compounds a blurring of corporeal and spatial boundaries. The employment of a curving arabesque and precise yellow outline of an ellipse draws our attention to the locus of this transgression: the conceit of 'reflection' forges a kind of magnetic field that violates verisimilitude. Bacon wields the mirror as a weapon against an illustration, or indeed reflection, of reality. Instead, the mirror is employed as a tool to call forth "images which are a concentration of reality and a shorthand of sensation" (the artist in an interview with Melvyn Bragg, Francis Bacon: The Southbank Show, Dir. Michael Hinton, Illuminations Media, 1985). As established in Gilles Deleuze's pivotal text, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation: "Bacon's mirrors can be anything you like - except a reflecting surface... The body enters the mirror and lodges itself inside it, itself and its shadow. Hence the fascination: nothing is behind the mirror, everything is inside it." (Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, London, 2005, p. 13).
Bacon was greatly fascinated in how others can look directly at you through the mirror, as France Borel propounds, "does Bacon not insist on placing his canvases behind glass precisely in order to create a certain mirror effect?" (France Borel, 'Francis Bacon: The Face Flayed' in: Milan Kundera and France Borel, Francis Bacon Self Portraits, London, 1996, p. 193). Such optical effects and tricks of illusion, present throughout Bacon's oeuvre, form an intriguing tribute and dialectic with the significant role of mirrors in the history of Western art. In acknowledging and revering a dialogue that stretches back to Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage (1434), Velázquez's paradigmatic Las Meninas (1656-1657), through to Manet's uncanny meditation on the gaze in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-82) and René Magritte's surreal disjuncture of the mirror in Reproduction Prohibited (1937), Bacon critiques and augments the canon of reflection in art history. Through conflating the theme of sight with bodily sensation and perception, Bacon invites corporal fragmentation and a dislocation of the viewer's gaze. Within Bacon's remarkable oeuvre and as masterfully prescient within the present work, sight, at once a powerfully metaphoric and physical device, "is no longer to be conflated with the 'mind's eye', but with the 'body's spasm.'" (Ernst van Alphen, Op. Cit., p. 81).
In a further contravention of tradition, rather than being preoccupied with the act of looking, the figure reflected does not look in the mirror nor meet our gaze: his lack of interest or incapacity to regard his own likeness is usurped by the act of writing. As confirmed by the performance of writing itself, arguably the only instance Bacon ever depicted this action, alongside the prominent use of Letraset towards the bottom edge of the composition, the theme of language is as important as vision. Indeed contemplation of the present work led van Alphen to postulate: "Is this specific unexpected occupation in front of a mirror a hint at a polemic between language and vision, between narrative and perception?" (Ibid., p. 59). Herein, Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror offers a powerful rumination on the dichotomy between vision and language, and the profound significance of the written word for Bacon's extraordinarily evocative painterly invention.
In an interview with Sylvester in 1975, shortly predating the execution of the present work, Bacon articulated his feeling for the restrictive tension of writing in comparison to painting: "Painting is really a very unique thing in the sense that writing is not, because writing and common speech are very near to one another, whereas painting is something totally removed. It's the most artificial of the arts." (the artist in David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, Op. Cit., p. 248). Highly articulate and meticulous in his choice of phrase and expression, Bacon paid careful attention to the literal scrutiny and criticism of his work. He would frequently revise interview transcripts and edit exhibition texts to maintain an enigmatic and elusive interpretation removed from any sense of narrative or illustration. Indeed, very much in thrall to the emotive capacity of language, Bacon was an immensely erudite and literary individual who set great store by the power of the written word. He read widely and boasted a host of literary notaries within his circle of friends. Among these was the acclaimed French belletrist, or Man of Letters, Michel Leiris. Where Bacon painted his portrait in 1976 - one of the most remarkable likenesses of Bacon's oeuvre - Leiris reciprocated in 1983 with the finest 'word-portrait' of the artist perhaps ever to have been penned: "His forelock, which is well in evidence in all his self-portraits, like a reckless comma staunchly inscribed across his brow, appears to be there as an emblem showing that, inside his head, nothing proceeds according to the lazy norms of some already accepted pattern, but that everything is liable to be called into question, cut short or left in suspense." (Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, New York 1983, p. 12).
Inherent to Bacon's rejection of, to use Leiris' phrase, an 'accepted pattern', was the compost of crumpled photographs, paint-splattered reproductions, and torn magazines that constituted his principle resource of visual stimuli. However, in equal measure, fragments of poetry and evocative cantos would also "bring up images" and "open up valves of sensation" in exactly the same aleatory, associative and chaotic way (the artist interviewed by David Sylvester in 1984, David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, Op. Cit., p. 236). Very much inspired by the grand melodrama and pathos of Aeschylus, Greek tragedy and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Bacon's figures are imbued with an intense Dionysian abandon countered by the Apollonian calm interiors and isolated stages upon which his tragic dramas unfold. This can be traced back to the three Eumenides depicted in his seminal 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, through to the mythical grandeur of Triptych 1976 centered on a complex musing and conflation of the Promethean and Oresteian myths. For Bacon, ancient myth represented the imaginative 'armature' upon which all kinds of sensations and feelings attuned to the violence of contemporary existence could be hung. Moreover, T. S. Eliot's modern-day poetic recapitulation of classical mythology greatly affected and inspired Bacon's work. The fragmentary and intensely concentrated emotive sensibility manifest in Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes and The Waste Land - literary works that would provide titles for two of Bacon's paintings in 1967 and 1982 respectively - find visual echoes throughout the artist's oeuvre. Indeed, according to Michael Peppiat, when Bacon repeatedly claimed not to know where his images originated, he spoke of them as materialising semi-consciously from the vast "memory traces" that had remained in his "grinding machine" - an analogy that Eliot had directly employed to define the "poet's mind" as a "receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite form a new compound are present together." (the artist and T. S. Eliot in Michael Peppiat, Op. Cit., p. 282). Bacon was also good friends with the American Beat poet and author of the cult novel Naked Lunch, William Burroughs, whose pioneering fragmentary and highly evocative 'cut-up' technique offers a great literary parallel to Bacon's harnessing of controlled accident: the indecipherable use of Letraset here in Bacon's painting offers the most immediate visual elicitation of Burroughs' enigmatic literary juxtapositions. For Bacon, poetry and words powerfully provided a direct link to sensation, breeding images and unlocking the valves of feeling in equal measure to the gamut of photographs and visual ephemera at his disposal. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that words furnished Bacon's incubatory imaginative process.
As is notoriously documented in numerous interviews, Bacon maintained a steadfast dismissal and denial of any necessity for, or practice of, preparatory drawing. Instead, he repeatedly cited chance or accident as the principal motor driving and directing his imagery. Nonetheless, contrary to such postulations and denials, following the artist's death a not insignificant number of preparatory drawings were uncovered alongside abundant lists of memoranda and written notes. In discussing these in a letter to Sylvester, the artist Brian Clarke insightfully proposed: "These notes are always precisely worded, to the point, and provocative of visual ideas. Bacon I think, was essentially a literary man for whom textural narrative, words and phrases triggered powerful visual images. Never a draughtsman, deeply vulnerable to the power of words, his most articulate and helpful 'sketches' took the form of the written word... the paintings, I venture, begin in words, not in pictures. He was really a poet... When Bacon said he didn't draw, he really meant it. The graphic works are not Bacon's 'sketches.' The real sketches are his notes." (Brian Clarke in David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, Op. Cit., p. 208). Thus, rather than the economically delineated compositional drawings which Bacon made a practise of destroying throughout his career, it is the notes that constitute the germinative foundations of Bacon's enigmatic, and intensely poetic, painterly invention.
With Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror we are presented with one of the most unique and thematically evocative paintings of Francis Bacon's career. Executed at the height of his imaginary powers and enshrined within a peak of painterly refinement, the contemplative act of writing here reinforces the importance of literary inspiration for Bacon's creative act. In a feat of painterly invention that echoes the reflective role of the mirror, Bacon approaches the conditions of the mise en abîme: where the Figure Writing is confronted with the blank page, perhaps we are witnesses to the act of creation itself.