Martin Harrison, Ed., Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume IV 1971-92, London 2016, p. 1070.
Self-Portrait, 1975, is undoubtedly one of the best iterations within Francis Bacon’s acclaimed pantheon of self-images; a body of work that is today considered one of the artist’s greatest achievements, sitting him squarely among the ranks of art history’s celebrated masters of the discipline: Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Picasso. Startling in colour, bold in gesture, and unmistakably Baconian in effect, this painting is a masterwork of self-interrogation. Framed by a thickly applied deep blue-purple ground, Bacon’s three-quarter-turn is articulated in an auroral palette of green blending into purple and pink; pastel tones that are offset by a single corduroy swipe of orange across the mouth and illuminated by accents of white. In evidence is the artist’s distinctive forelock of hair, those inimitable diagonal marks which Michel Leiris, Surrealist writer and friend to Bacon, once described as “a reckless comma staunchly inscribed across his brow” (Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon Full Face and in Profile, New York 1983, p. 12). The artist’s mackintosh – a wardrobe staple evident in self-portraits of 1969, 1970, and 1976 – is here overlaid with fragments of dry transfer lettering, or Letraset: a pictorial “sampling” that Martin Harrison traces back to Bacon‘s Studies of the Human Body of 1970 (Martin Harrison, In Camera – Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, p. 190). Importantly, Self-Portrait, 1975, is the only example from Bacon’s extensive corpus of small portrait studies that features Letraset. Typically reserved for his large-scale paintings to give expression to tumbling sheets of newspaper within the artist’s stark environments, in the present painting these jumbled letters instead tumble from the artist’s mouth and, in doing so, imbue the painting with complex metaphorical meaning that sets it out as a truly unique and remarkable work.
Considered the most introspective and inwardly scrutinising phase of his career, Bacon’s 1970s production is characterised by the searing self-images that emerged following the sudden death in 1971 of Bacon’s former lover, George Dyer. Bacon never truly relinquished the guilt and responsibility he felt in fuelling Dyer’s tragic juggernaut of a life, and the suite of large-scale ‘black triptychs’ painted between 1971 and 1974 offer exorcising lamentation over his death. Produced in tandem with these works, Bacon’s self-portraits proliferated and became increasingly complex. Across these mournful paintings, both large-scale and in the intimate 14 by 12 inch dimensions, the artist appears as a modern-day allegory for melancholia leaning on a washbasin, with facial features violently mutilated, or with his wristwatch prominently emphasising life’s transience. Whether heroically scaled or intimately proportioned, the self-portraits form a link to Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray: where Bacon’s grief was stoically concealed from life, the canvases became the face of his suffering and pain. Although the major work of Bacon’s mourning came to an end with the black triptychs in ‘74, the spirit of George Dyer and practice of self-portraiture endured, fed by an ever-increasing number of bereavements as Bacon grew older. Not long after George Dyer in 1971, the artist’s Soho companion and Vogue photographer John Deakin passed away, followed by the Colony Room’s famous matriarch, Muriel Belcher in 1979, and in 1980 Bacon’s decisive link to the French intelligentsia, Sonia Orwell, died after a long battle with cancer. These losses famously led Bacon to proclaim: “I’ve done a lot of self-portraits, really because people have been dying around me like flies and I’ve had nobody else to paint but myself” (Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester, 1975 in: David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 129). However, by the time of the present work’s execution during the decade’s midpoint, the opening of a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and his growing success in Paris ushered in a tonal change that signalled the beginnings of a great late style.
Although a sense of captured movement is apparent in the 1975 Self-Portrait, Bacon’s features remain remarkably intact. This painting does not possess the carved tangle of physiognomic forms or time weariness evident in self-portraits from the immediate years post-Dyer; instead, it emanates an alert youthfulness. Smooth-skinned and vibrant, Bacon’s painted face belies the age of its author. Michael Peppiatt explains: “Bacon continued to take great care of his appearance as he grew older, dyeing his hair subtle shades of reddish brown and applying liberal amounts of ‘pancake’ makeup to his face, even though it had not become deeply lined” (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 2008, p. 364). In contrast to those produced immediately following Dyer’s death, the composition is far less abject; the tone is contemplative and, as conveyed by the jumble of letters and ersatz words, metaphorically rich.
In the Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné, Martin Harrison has explained the present work as a “denial of ekphrasis” in which “[t]he ‘words’ spill out from his mouth yet communicate nothing” (Martin Harrison, Ed., Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume IV. 1971-92, London 2016, p. 1070). “Bacon appears to acknowledge Plato’s character Phaedrus”, Harrison continues, “who observed that if one asks anything of painting, ‘they remain most solemnly silent’” (Ibid.). Characteristically taciturn when asked to explain his work, Bacon endlessly insisted his paintings were not expressing anything at all. Contra to this however is the tremendous body of scholarship through which art historians have unpacked an arena of multifaceted allusion and inference; lines of inquiry sparked by the immense repertoire of source material that Bacon used. From documentary photographs of news reportage, medical text books, photographs of friends and lovers through to art history books and tomes on poetry and Shakespeare, Bacon fused and melded a wide remit of visual and literary stimulus. Indeed, it is the importance of words that immediately comes to the fore in this painting. As can be gleaned from the famous interviews with David Sylvester, Bacon put huge store by the written word – he was immensely influenced by the images conjured by literary greats. For Bacon, words were as powerful as images, if not more so. He read extensively and frequently cited passages from Aeschylus, James Joyce, Yeats, Proust and T.S. Eliot, phrases he felt unlocked ‘the valves of sensation’ most powerfully. Where these influences fed most directly into his large triptychs, Self-Portrait, 1975, emphasises the significance of literature and poetry for breeding images in his imagination. In particular, owing to its unique composition, this painting notably echoes the fragmentation and compression that Bacon prized in T.S. Eliot’s work whilst also conjuring the ‘cut-up’ technique developed by Brion Gynsin and William Burroughs. Hovering over the lower part of the portrait, these fragmentary letters also operate on a formal level to fix, or pin down, the effervescence of Bacon’s brushwork. Clearly echoing the collages of Synthetic Cubism, these forms evoke Dada and Surrealism as exemplified by Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, and Max Ernst whose non-linear typographical montages Martin Harrison likens to Bacon's images (Martin Harrison, In Camera – Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, op. cit., p. 190).
Aptly, this painting narrates a moment in the artist’s life in which he strengthened his ties to the Parisian avant-garde. Where on the one hand Bacon relished the unvarnished company of his Soho social circle, on the other there was a great need for stimulation from high-minded intellectual peers. Sonia Orwell – the widow of George Orwell – played a significant role in this regard, and during the many soirées held at her house on Gloucester Road during the 1960s, Bacon befriended a number of leading lights from the Parisian avant-garde. These connections meant a great deal to an artist for whom Paris represented the artistic epicentre: home to the birth of Modernism, it was Paris that, at the end of the 1920s, first nurtured Bacon’s ambitions to become a painter. Herein, amongst le tout Paris it was a friendship with the French writer Michel Leiris that proved to be most influential and cherished for Bacon. Leiris’s tremendous enthusiasm for Bacon’s work was crucially piqued during the late 1960s by the artist’s small portrait studies. Thereafter, not only did Leiris bring about top-level recognition for Bacon in France, it was he who penned the introduction to Bacon’s fêted retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1971, an event which heralded the artist's full assimilation into the cultural pantheon of Paris. Indeed, many aspects of Self-Portrait – it’s chromatic subtlety and luminous brilliance (a quality shared with the magnificent Portrait of Michel Leiris from 1976), the prominence of Letraset and its literary connotations – anchor it to the increasingly extended periods Bacon spent living and working in Paris during the mid-1970s.
At first driven by a masochistic impulse to inhabit his guilt more intensely, Bacon was drawn back to the site of Dyer’s suicide, to the very hotel in which he had died only 48 hours prior to the opening of Bacon's Grand Palais retrospective. Paris, the very centre of Bacon’s artistic aspirations, was thus forever cast under the tragic and fantastical shadow of Dyer’s demise, and yet it became an incredibly successful location from which to work. With the length of his stay increasing each time, Bacon’s need to paint demanded a proper place in which to work, and in June of 1975 – shortly after the execution of the present painting – he took up a studio apartment in the Marais district at 14 rue de Birague. Bacon’s growing legendary status in Paris, set in stone by his wildly successful show at Galerie Claude Bernard in 1977, truly characterise the period: many of the mid-to-late 1970s works exude a curious mix of the intellectually stimulating and exhilarating ambience of Paris and a melancholic introspection.
The present work represents a moment of clarity and growing resolution for an artist emerging from the pain of mourning that had deeply afflicted his work of the past four years. Bacon’s features are here rendered with an exuberant chromatic palette and appear fully resolved; this painting exhibits the ebullient self-regard and virtuoso confidence of an artist operating at the very height of his creative faculties.
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