"One of the nicest things that Cocteau said was: 'Each day in the mirror I watch death at work.' This is what one does oneself" (F. Bacon in a 1975 Interview with David Sylvester, reproduced in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1990, p.130-133).
Francis Bacon's uniquely disturbing and timeless art seems, in many ways, to be more strongly connected to the traditions of the Old Masters than to 20th Century Modernism. As such, self-portraiture was intrinsically connected to his very strong awareness of time's passage and death's presence within everything in life.
For Bacon, like Rembrandt before him, the self-portrait provided a window onto this process -- a mirror of mortality that reflected an undeniable truth about the existential nature of the human condition. Excepting his earliest self-portraits, which were Expressionist portrayals of himself as an artist in the guise of Vincent Van Gogh -- one of the very few artists with which Bacon openly identified -- all of Bacon's other self-portraits are highly objective and dispassionate portrayals of himself as a seemingly ordinary and unremarkable man.
With a few exceptions, Bacon only really began to paint self-portraits with any frequency in the late 1960s. After suffering a spate of deaths among those close to him, Bacon began, in the mid-1970s, a prolonged series of self-portrait heads, painting his own face almost obsessively. "I loathe my own face but I go on painting it only because I haven't got any other people to do," he told David Sylvester in 1975, suggesting that he was only painting these self-portraits because people had been "dying around me like flies" and he had "nobody else left to paint." This was not strictly true. He had enough close friends to provide him with alternate subject matter if he had wanted, but death's proximity all around him allied to his own encroaching mortality seems to have made Bacon, always very conscious of the temporality of man's existence, even more reflective. It also seems to have proved a highly cathartic exercise for Bacon during what was, in the wake of his former lover George Dyer's suicide, clearly a difficult time filled by periods of grief, guilt and reflection.
Three Studies for Self-Portrait is among the finest of this outstanding series of self-portraits. Executed in 1976, in triptych format, it depicts the distorted but recognizable features of Bacon's owl-like face in three degrees of twisted mutilation. The sequential effect of these three contrasting depictions endows the complete work with a sense of motion, fragility and life that is seldom achieved in Bacon's single panel portraits. Drawn perhaps from Eadweard Muybridge's photographic sequences analyzing the motion of animals and human beings, the cinematic, slide-like progression of images in a triptych format appealed to Bacon because, as he once explained, "I see every image all the time in a shifting way and almost in shifting sequences. So that one can take it from more or less what is called ordinary figuration to a very, very far point." (ibid, p.21.)
The triptych format also recalls a sequence of police mug shots, a subject which also captivated Bacon. Mixing the clear, analytic, imagistic facticity inherent to both these and Muybridge's photographs with the more abstract and mercurial medium of paint was a consistent aim of Bacon's art. In Three Studies for Self-Portrait Bacon depicts himself as a substantial and very material presence, flash-lit, almost like an apparition, set against a flat, dark, somber background of apparently infinite space. Using strong sweeping brushstrokes that both mold and invade the artist's features, Bacon creates a series of images that, in their restlessness distortions, suggest a series of alternating moods and an atmosphere of shifting psychological unease. Bacon punctuates these with the progression of a lens-like ellipse -- a kind of anatomical highlighting device derived from Bacon's book on positioning in radiography -- that appears to move and cast a shadow across Bacon's face. This device, used frequently in Bacon's paintings suggests the cold analytical view of an unseen, perhaps even medical authority, here conveys a sense that the artist himself is under the microscope.
Throughout his life, Bacon worked mainly from photographs. He often drew self-portraits from photo booth portraits, but he would also spend hours studying his own features in the mirror. According to John Richardson, he would even deliberately let his stubble grow for three or four days and then, using Max Factor pancake makeup, rehearse the brush strokes and distortions he intended to make in the painting. Presenting three seemingly sequential images of Bacon's face illuminated against an empty black background, Three Studies for Self-Portrait is the product of such prolonged and intensive process of self-examination and self-exploration. Bacon was able to bring all his emotional experience and familiarity with his own features to bear on what he once described as the attempt to "capture" and "trap" a true and revealing image of a portrait subject. Bacon sought an elusive feature reflecting the visual effect of a person's unique inner energy. This element he referred to, for want of better word and in completely non-mystical terms, as a person's "emanation."
In this, Bacon's self-portraiture most closely resembled Rembrandt's genius for conveying the psychological intensity and life of his subjects using only the magical and abstract materiality of paint. While Rembrandt never set out to "deform people into appearance," as Bacon once described his own aims, he did (as Bacon was well aware), use chance, accident and paint's fluid, abstract and material qualities to render more vividly his subject's vital living nature. Bacon, who often referenced Rembrandt's self-portraits as a source of inspiration -- keeping a book of them in which they were sequentially illustrated, rather like his own self-portrait triptychs, close at hand in his studio -- explained this quality of the Dutch master's self-portraiture by pointing to a Rembrandt Self-Portrait he knew well, in Aix-en Provence. In this painting, he said, "if you analyze it, you will see that there are hardly any sockets to the eyes, that it is almost completely (an) anti-illustrational" work. I think that the mystery of fact is conveyed by an image being made out of non-rational marks. And you can't will this non-rationality of a mark. That is the reason that accident always has to enter into this activity, because the moment you know what to do, you're making just another form of illustration. But what can happen sometimes, as it happened in this Rembrandt self-portrait, is that there is a coagulation of non-representational marks which have led to making up this very great image. Well, of course, only part of this is accidental. Behind all that is Rembrandt's profound sensibility, which was able to hold onto one irrational mark rather than onto another" (Ibid p.59).
Chance, accident, and distortion often bring more life, realism and energy to an image than any painstaking scrutiny or representational copying of appearances could do. It was this anti-illustrational nature of painting, that Bacon had observed in and most admired about Rembrandt's self-portraits. "Great art" he said, "is deeply ordered. Even if within the order there may be enormous instinctive and accidental things, nevertheless I think that they come out of a desire for ordering and for returning fact onto the nervous system in a more violent way" (Ibid p.59).
Echoing the humility, the psychology and existentialism of Rembrandt's late self-portraits, Three Studies for Self-Portrait reveals Bacon's visionary eye conveying the extraordinary vitality and uniqueness of its subject as a psychic x-ray. Still recognizable, despite the sometimes brutal deformation Bacon has brought to bear on his own face, this self-portrait exudes a naked existential quality that speaks in simple and universal terms not just of mortality and of the fleetingness of human life, but also somehow of the unique miracle that life exists at all.
"I think of life as meaningless," Bacon said, "but we give it meaning during our own existence. We create certain attitudes which give it a meaning while we exist, though they in themselves are meaningless, really" (ibid, p. 133). In Three Studies for Self-Portrait the material and the non-material meet in three fleeting flash-bulb moments that hauntingly capture in paint the very essence and vitality of Bacon's psychological and physical presence. Although each portrait differs from the others, the radiating lines, smudges and blurred distortions of all three communicate with one another between the paintings so that something of Bacon's living presence, his "emanation" perhaps, seems to be magically recorded by the work. "Of course," Bacon once commented, "what in a curious way one's always hoping to do is to paint the one picture which will annihilate all the other ones, to concentrate everything into one painting. But actually in the series one picture reflects on the other continuously and sometimes they're better in series than they are separately because, unfortunately, I've never yet been able to make the one image that sums up all the others. So one image against the other seems to be able to say the thing more." (ibid, p. 22)