The story of Bacon’s first meeting with Dyer has gained a legendary status: Dyer, aged twenty-nine, attempted to break into and burgle Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews. Through the studio’s famous skylight, Dyer tumbled into Bacon’s life, truly falling from above and forever altering the course of the artist’s work. Their relationship was marked by a polarity of extremes: ardent infatuation, enchanted desire, the artist’s intellectualism, Dyer’s rough innocence, passion and love. This full range of emotional and psychological heat seethes beneath the juxtaposition of richly textured paint and spare geometry of the present work. A tenderly executed male nude dominates the composition, his arms and legs crossed in abstractions of pale pink, complemented by rich tones of lustrous black, deep crimson, and lilac. Elegant impressions of corduroy and torn cloth imprint patterns onto the surface of the face, lending texture to this indelible work and acting as an almost tender caress against Dyer’s face and calves. The swipes, smears, and smudges against Dyer’s visage are not marks of brutality, but rather reflect an artist exploring the variation of his color palette. With sumptuous inflections of pigment, both delicately applied and heavily worked up, Bacon’s distortion yet insistence on the physical materiality of Dyer’s body interrogates the limits of the self, presenting an ethereal and unearthly form of his muse that, while undoubtedly grounded in a very real person, is manifestly surreal. John Russell described: “Bacon wrenched, reversed, abbreviated, jellified and generally reinvented the human image. The paint-structure was by turns brusque and sumptuous, lyrical and offhand, pulpy and marmoreal. Swerving, pouncing, colliding with itself, taking for granted the most bizarre conjunctions of impulse, it produced a multiple imagery which was quite new in painting.” (John Russell, Francis Bacon, New York, 1971, p. 168) And yet, the solitary nature of this figure, isolated in an empty geometrically organized space creates a psychological distance the viewer can barely begin to traverse, as if this image of Dyer exists solely as a memory in Bacon’s mind.
The present work is among the most drastically reworked paintings that Bacon ultimately kept, rather than destroyed. A relentless self-editor, Bacon not only destroyed many of his paintings, but he also reworked and continually altered what had originally been dubbed ‘completed.’ The most striking formal change that was made to the present work was Bacon’s addition of a light blue rectangle slanted toward the lower right corner of the composition, as if refracted light; similarly, a pale blue disc hovers at the right hand edge of the painting, eclipsing a mirrored outline of the black halo behind the head of the spectral male figure. According to Harrison: “The pale blue ‘folded rhomboid’ is another of Bacon’s atavistic self-quotations, for its first manifestation dated back to Man Kneeling in Grass, 1952; here, however, it is employed not so much as an element of Bacon’s presentational dynamics but to create a chasm (in time as well as space) across which Dyer’s image is cast.” (Ibid., p. 246) The pinned-up newspaper against which Dyer’s flesh-colored profile is silhouetted was also not present in the first version of the painting; rather there was a larger organic form less relatable to the main figure. In the present work, Dyer’s reflection obscures this printed material, affixed to the wall with a small pin – a subtle nod to the Cubist tradition of not only incorporating newsprint into collage, but also using the trope of a nail to assert the work’s flatness.
The velvety black passages, deep maroon chair, and violet and charcoal tones sweeping across Dyer’s figure create a mournful aura, struck through with a luminous pale blue and bright spots of turquoise corduroy – an emotional ode in color to the tempestuous nature of Bacon’s relationship with his muse. Moreover, Harrison argues, the reconfiguration of this canvas could have been in reaction to the tenth anniversary death of Bacon’s lover. Towards the end of the 1960s, the already unsteady and tumultuous relationship between these two men became destructively marred by Dyer’s waning sense of purpose in Bacon’s overwhelming shadow. Indeed, Bacon reached the culmination of his career at the beginning of the 1970s, honored with a one man show at the prestigious Grand Palais in Paris. Bacon had inadvertently fueled Dyer’s paranoia of inadequacy by providing his ‘kept’ existence, and on the eve of the artist’s opening in Paris, Dyer died from an overdose. The degree to which Bacon was consumed by grief, loss, and guilt would find equal measure only in the posthumous paintings of Dyer, whose presence is at once the most pervasive, libidinal, and inventive of Bacon’s entire oeuvre.
The creative fecundity and emotional and psychological depth searing across the canvas of the present work exemplifies the very best of Bacon’s career. For centuries, portraiture was a means by which to reach an absolute representation of an individual: direct, unambiguous statements of a person’s character and statehood, categorized by identifiers of dress, ownership, and other iconographic markers. At the turn of Modernism, however, artists displayed their doubt in the truthfulness of this structured view of human personality, turning away from a monolithic view of human nature defined by power, and instead to a variable, contingent expression of individuals characterized by flaws and ambiguity. As Dyer’s visage refracts like a prism across the present work, the flickering copy of his face reveals entirely uncharted emotional depths and psychosomatic complexities obscured by an empty expression. Study for Portrait emerges as a touchstone work, the final painting of Bacon's lover George Dyer and a dramatic farewell to what was an all-consuming obsession and what has remained a beautifully tragic romance.
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