- Study for a Portrait
- oil on canvas
- 66.6 by 54cm.; 26 1/4 by 21 1/4 in.
- Executed in 1954.
Sale: Sotheby’s, London, Other Properties, 27 March 1957, Lot 123
Acquired directly from the above by the late owners
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Divested of overt violence and removed from the bestial fang-jawed cry of Head I and II, depictions of soberly dressed men began to dominate Bacon’s practice from late 1953 onwards. Indeed, the close of this year marked a transition in Bacon’s treatment of paint to accompany the almost clinical depiction of businessmen in dark city suits. The palette remained mostly monochromatic and yet the works veer away from grisaille towards tonalities of deep midnight blue. In view of the artist’s earliest respect for Picasso, David Sylvester knowingly dubbed these years as Bacon’s “blue period” (David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 78). Of this moment, it is the Man in Blue series of 1954 that summate this transition most emphatically and relate most directly to the present work.
Consisting of seven paintings in total – three of which reside in the collections of Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna; Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf; and Museum Boijmans Van Beunigen, Rotterdam – this series was created in response to Bacon’s stay at the Imperial Hotel in Henley-upon-Thames; a location to which the artist was drawn given its proximity to his then lover, Peter Lacy. While these paintings are generally considered a likenesses of a man Bacon met, and was no doubt attracted to, at the Imperial, their underlying mood of disquieting detachment betrays the underlying fractious and troubled nature of his infatuation with the often hysterical and violent Lacy. In these large canvases the central figure appears seated or leaning over some unintelligible bar; faces are blurred as though caught in motion, while poses are stiffened by starched suits and tightly knotted ties. Bacon’s idiosyncratic painterly ‘shuttering’, a formal device used to imply a heavy curtain or diaphanous veil, is structured by the overarching geometry of an encasing ‘spaceframe’ – a constant structure throughout all seven pictures. So called by Sylvester, these lean architectural frames first appeared in the group of works exhibited at the Hanover Gallery in ’49. They were employed by Bacon as a way “to see the image” and focus attention upon the unsettling human-drama within. The pseudo-technical quality of these lines apply a formal rigour to the twisted and lacerated flesh of Bacon’s imagined sitters (Francis Bacon quoted in: ibid., p. 37).
In Study for a Portrait, an intimation of this framing device imposes a subtle geometric balance upon the intimate dimensions of the picture plane. Like a silver trail, this delicate formal line demarcates a perspectival space within the deep blue-black ground against which coagulated brushstrokes at once elucidate and blur physiognomy. Attuned to the individual countenances of each Man in Blue, and particularly the posture of Man in Blue III, sizable yet slumped shoulders support a head articulated in thick doses of palest pink and purple flesh-toned pigment. The fundamental difference however is marked by Study for a Portrait’s somewhat clearer enunciation of the sitter’s face; indeed, this piece possesses a heightened specificity that is denied, violently shuttered off, or disintegrated in these related works. In this way the painting seems to preface the masterful exercise in tonal variation and gestural economy prevalent in Bacon’s five-part portrayal of William Blake’s life mask.
Executed one year later and sharing the same dimensions as the present work, examples such as the Tate Collection’s Study for a Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake) harbour a deathly living presence described as “a phosphorescence on canvas” by Michael Peppiatt (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 2008, p. 201). Against a background that is closer to black than blue, the pallid visage of Blake’s powerfully reanimated life mask hovers in front of the subtle intimation of a spaceframe. Though ostensibly calmer, these works are no less disturbing than the pantheon of leering, grimacing, gurning or violently erased features of the Men in Blue. In the words of Robert Melville speaking in 1955: “broad strokes of pink and mauve, with which he establishes an equivocation between waxen mask and human flesh, drag pain and loneliness and imperturbable spirit in their wake” (Robert Melville, ‘Exhibitions’, Architectural Review, Vol. 118, No. 705, September 1955, p. 189). Indeed, the very same can be said of the present work. Marking a moment of transition between the Man in Blue cycle and the Blake life masks, Study for a Portrait wonderfully extols the myriad open-ended narratives of human experience unleashed by Francis Bacon during the early 1950s.
One of the leading exponents of modernist architecture in Britain following the Second World War, Eugene Rosenberg (1907-90) studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague and after graduating, worked with Le Corbusier in Paris. He set up his own practice in Prague in 1934 but left Czechoslovakia for Britain in 1939. Following the war, he established the firm Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall with F.R.S. Yorke and C.S. Mardall and they were responsible for a succession of the most innovative architectural projects in Post-war Britain including Gatwick Airport, St Thomas’ Hospital, London, the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford and Manchester Magistrates’ Courts. Rosenberg was passionate about contemporary art and in particular, about bringing it into architecture. For example, his firm’s designs for the Barclay Secondary School in Stevenage resulted in Henry Moore’s first large-scale commission in bronze, a family group to be placed in front of the school which was installed in 1950.