Study for a Portrait is a powerful and surprisingly tender portrait made in the second half of the 1980s that relates closely to an important series of paintings Bacon made of his friend and companion John Edwards. Originally intended as part of a larger work, perhaps a triptych, it is one of a relatively small number of portraits that Bacon, a well-known destroyer of his work, clearly considered worthy of keeping in its own right.
John Edwards (1950-2003) was Bacon's closest companion, confidant and friend from the mid-1970s until the artist's death in 1992 when he became the sole beneficiary of Bacon's will. An illiterate East-End barman who first met Bacon in 1974 and impressed the artist, forty years his senior, with his frankness and straightforwardness, Edwards became like a son to Bacon and the subject of several of his most important late paintings including two major triptychs in 1985 and 1986-7.
Much of Bacon's work from this period is distinguished by the artist's strong simplification of his subject matter in favour of a starker concentration on the singularity of the image itself. 'With experience', Bacon told Michael Peppiatt at this time, 'you're more conscious of the fact that nine-tenths of everything is inessential. What is called 'reality' becomes so much more acute. The few things that matter become so much more concentrated and can be summed up with so much less.' (Francis Bacon cited in Michael Peppiatt, 'An Interview with Francis Bacon: Provoking Accidents, Prompting Chance', Art International, Paris, Autumn, 1989, pp. 28-33)
John Edwards' no-nonsense character and straightforward manner may have been an influence on Bacon in this respect, and, perhaps in reflection of this overriding aspect of Edwards' character, and the tender, even paternal, nature of his feelings towards the man, Bacon's portraits of him are, for the most part, also notable for their directness and simplicity. Study for Portrait seems to be such a case in point and bears a strong resemblance to a photograph of Edwards standing in front of his cameras wearing a dark sweater and shirt circa 1980 that Bacon himself may well have taken.
Regularly asked to cook breakfast for Bacon and to accompany him on his late-night gambling sprees, Edwards, though not Bacon's lover, became an integral part of the artist's daily life and as important to him as anyone had ever been. He soon became, like Bacon's former lover George Dyer before him, one of only very few people whom the artist allowed not only to watch him paint but also encouraged to sit for him. These parallels between Dyer and Edwards even came to be invoked in the style and manner of Bacon's work who, like many great artists, began in his later years to re-explore the motifs, compositions and themes of some of his earlier work.
Bacon had first met Edwards in 1974 while still in the process of obsessively painting out his grief over Dyer who had committed suicide on the eve of his Paris retrospective in 1971. The comparative comfort, ease and apparent stability of Bacon's non-sexual relationship with Edwards seems to have proved an antidote, if not a cure, to the trauma and guilt he felt over Dyer. In the mid-1980s, Bacon began to incorporate portraits of Edwards into his work depicting him wearing only underpants and sitting in exactly the same pose on a chair with one leg raised on the other, as he had painted Dyer. It is possible of course, that Bacon was perhaps still interested in the strange dynamics of this pose, but his ability to effectively replace the figure of his dead former lover with that of Edwards also surely reflects the degree to which his relationship with Edwards had helped to exorcise this distressing ghost from the past.
As in Triptych, August of 1972, for example, in most of Bacon's portraits of Edwards', the features of the sitter are presented isolated against a stark black rectangular background, not unlike the tormented face of Dyer in the so-called 'black triptychs'. It was of course, a common practice of Bacon's to depict his subjects in this seemingly existential life-versus-death manner, as if highlighting the contrast between living flesh and the black inert emptiness of the void. It is also in this respect that Study for Portrait relates closely to these works and to such major paintings of the 1980s as Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards of 1984, the Triptych of 1986-7 and Portrait of John Edwards of 1988. In each of these paintings, as in this work, one of Bacon's primary concerns has been with the isolation of the figure against a rectangular frame-like background. In the triptych Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards this frame was rendered solely with a graphic outline around Edward's head and shoulders, while in the central panel of Triptych and in the 1988 portrait, the figure is powerfully backed by a solid black rectangle. Here, in Study for Portrait Bacon has combined the effect by drawing a frame in flesh-coloured paint around the portrait head which itself seems to emerge in half-light out of the darkness of a black rectangle that here constitutes the entire portrait. Echoing the kind of diagrammatic frame drawn by a magazine editor as an instruction to crop the image, this box-like structure regularly appears throughout Bacon's oeuvre as a pictorial device aimed at intensifying the singularity of the image and the vitality and uniqueness of its living presence.
Whereas in many of his portraits of George Dyer and in other portraits of Edwards, it was with the direct contrast of the figure and its clear outline set against the emptiness of the black background that Bacon seemed to be interested, in this painting its figure seems to emerge from the darkness as if briefly illuminated by a passing light. In this, this remarkably straightforward portrait recalls the more intimate and inquiring manner Bacon often used in painting his own face and is reflective of much that he admired in Rembrandt's self-portraiture as well as of his own early 1950s portraits of the haunted almost ghost-like faces of lone besuited men sitting in empty boxes.
Surprisingly gentle and tender in its portrayal of the sitter slowly turning his head, with this slight movement anchored by the sharp white curvature of his shirt collar, the vitality of the image is made real by the fine blood-red mist Bacon has sprayed using an air brush over its surface. Splattering the more illustrational image beneath, the spray of red over the surface of the sitter's face, bestows the image with all the essential immediacy and vitality of life that Bacon considered so necessary for a successful image. Effectively replacing the throwing of paint that Bacon practiced for a while in the late '60s and early '70s, here the combination of chance in the blown spray of paint invigorates the portrait with a subtle violence that is both simple and devastatingly effective.