'I think art is an obsession with life and after all, as we are human beings, our greatest obsession is with ourselves.' (Francis Bacon in David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, p. 63)
Three Studies for a Self-Portrait is a rare self-portrait triptych that Bacon painted in his Paris studio on the Rue de Birague in 1975. One of only relatively few paintings known to have been painted by Bacon in the French capital, it is an important work that, like his much admired portraits of his friend Michel Leiris from this period, stands as a testament to the special relationship Bacon enjoyed with France and its capital city.
Throughout his career, Bacon's reputation always stood higher in Paris than anywhere else in the world and for much of his life it had been an unfulfilled dream of his to maintain a studio there. In 1974, after years grieving and commemorating his dead lover George Dyer, who had died in Paris at the time of Bacon's great retrospective there in 1971, Bacon, out of what his friend and biographer Michael Peppiatt has described as 'a mixture of morbidity, guilt and a masochistic desire to suffer more,' became increasingly drawn to Paris. (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London, 1996, p. 257)
A frequent visitor to city, where his natural gregariousness and charm gained him many friends, Bacon finally asked Peppiatt who was living in the Marais, to find him a studio in the city. 'He was looking for a Parisian equivalent of Reece Mews,' Peppiatt recalled, 'an uncomplicated space where he could lock himself away and paint whenever the sterner side of his personality dictated it.' (Ibid p. 258.) Finding a flat nearby on the rue de Birague, 'as close to a mews as one might find in Paris' Peppiatt showed it to Bacon who said that he ' knew from the moment I walked in it was a place where I could work' and eagerly set about moving.
Initially, Bacon's enthusiasm was unbounded and, as Peppiatt recalled, he quickly set to work, soon recreating in Paris, the very same chaotic conditions of his Kensington mews studio. 'He separated the room into a sleeping area and a studio, which he equipped with an easel, a stack of large, stretched canvases and a painting table on which a coagulated heap of half-used paint tubes, brushes and rollers, sponges and rags grew with each working session. He also located a good-sized dustbin lid to help him trace large circular shapes, and a couple of T-Squares. Paint-soaked socks and cashmere sweaters, the latter much prized by Bacon for the delicate ribbing effect they produced when pressed on the canvas, also appeared on the heap, alongside brilliantly daubed dinner plates and frying pans which the artist had seized on for want of a more traditional palette.' (Ibid, p. 259)
Painted in 1975, Three Studies for a Self-Portrait is one of an outstanding series of stark, piercing and highly analytical triptych self-portrait paintings that Bacon was to make in the mid-1970s. These paintings were, for Bacon, ultimately connected to his own very strong awareness of mortality at this time, of his isolation and the presence of death within everything in life. 'One of the nicest things that Cocteau said,' he remarked to David Sylvester in 1975, 'was: 'Each day in the mirror I watch death at work.' This is what one does oneself.' (Francis Bacon in a 1975 Interview with David Sylvester. reproduced in David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, p.130-133) As it did for Rembrandt, for Bacon, the self-portrait provided a fascinating window onto this process. It was 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, 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, he then embarked, in the mid-1970s, on what was to become 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 at this time, 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'. But, as contemporaneous portraits of his friends Peter Beard and Michel Leiris testify, this was not strictly true. There were many close friends around to provide him with alternate subject matter if he had so wanted, but the proximity of death in his life, allied to his own encroaching mortality seems to have made Bacon, always very conscious of the temporality of man's existence, even more reflective on this subject.
Echoing in some respects the forms of his recent portrait paintings of the American photographer Peter Beard, Three Studies for a Self-Portrait is less a progression of three sequential images than one cohesive portrait consisting of three very different and interdependent images. From the outset Bacon has clearly conceived of this work as a triptych composed, almost like a sequence of police mug-shots, of two side panels looking slightly inwards, and acting as a kind of frame to the haunting and slightly melancholic face in the central canvas. The mixing of the clear, analytic and illustrative facticity of such documentary police images and of Eadweard Muybridge's famous sequential photographic studies of the figure in motion, with the essentially more abstract and mercurial medium of paint, was one of the consistent aims running throughout Bacon's art.
'I see every image all the time in a shifting way and almost in shifting sequences' Bacon once said, 'So that one can take it from more or less what is called ordinary figuration to a very, very far point.' (Ibid, p.21.) In Three Studies for a Self-Portrait Bacon depicts his own face as a sequence of shifting almost spectral images isolated against a dense, flat, matt-black background of apparently infinite space. Using strong sweeping brushstrokes that appear to both mould and invade the artist's features, Bacon has created a series of apparently wounded images that in the restless nature of their distortion seem to suggest a pervasive and shifting atmosphere of psychological unease. The heads in the left and right hand images are hollowed out in places so as to reinforce the suggestion of the motion of turning inwards, while the 'centre panneau' as Bacon inscribed the centre canvas, reveals the artist's brooding features emerging from the black shadows and pierced or overshadowed by two strange, black lens-like ellipses.
These harsh regular geometric forms are a kind of sterile anatomical highlighting device derived perhaps from Bacon's book on positioning in radiography that here bestow upon the image all the nightmarish atmosphere of the laboratory, the hospital or the medical appliance. Used frequently in many of Bacon's paintings of this period, these shadowy oval lenses appear to suggest the cold analytical viewpoint of an unseen, perhaps even medical, authority and convey a profound sense of the artist himself being laid out on the slab or fixed under the microscope.
Throughout his life, Bacon worked mainly from photographs. His self-portraits were also often drawn from photo-booth portraits that he made of himself, but Bacon 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 make-up to rehearse the brush strokes and distortions he intended to make in the painting on his face in front of the mirror. Three Studies for a Self Portrait is the product of just such a prolonged and intensive process of self-examination and self-exploration. As with portraiture, when it came to his own face, 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 his subject. It was an elusive feature reflecting the visual effect of a person's unique inner energy that Bacon sought. An element he referred to, for want of better word and in completely non-mystical terms, as a person's 'emanation'. It was this mysterious quality that he sought to depict in his portraits and self-portraits.
It is in this respect that Bacon's self-portraiture most closely resembles Rembrandt's genius for conveying the psychological intensity and life of his subjects using only the magical and essentially 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 the fluid abstract and material qualities of paint to render more vividly the vital living nature of his subjects. Indeed, Bacon 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. He explained the unique quality of the Dutch master's self-portraiture by pointing to a Rembrandt Self-Portrait he knew well, in Aix-en Provence. 'If you analyze it,' he said, '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 brought more life, realism and energy to an image than any painstaking scrutiny or representational copying of appearances could do, and it was this quality, what Bacon described as the 'anti-illustrational' nature of painting, that he had observed in and most admired about many of 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 as well as the psychology and existentialism of Rembrandt's late self-portraits, Three Studies for a Self Portrait reveals Bacon's almost visionary eye conveying the extraordinary vitality and uniqueness of its subject in the manner of a kind of psychic X-Ray. Still recognizable, despite the sometimes brutal deformation Bacon has brought to bear on his own face, this triptych 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 of the fact of its existence 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 a Self-Portrait flesh and nothingness meet in what appears to be three very different flash-bulb moments which seem to throw something of the essence and life of Bacon's psychological and physical presence onto the bleak matt surface of each canvas with all the animation and vitality of a splash. Collectively, the radiating lines, smudges and blurred distortions of all three of these very different images have been made in such a way as to communicate with one another so that something of Bacon's living presence, his 'emanation' perhaps, seems to be magically recorded by the work. In the left and right-hand panels, the two heads look slightly inward towards the central panel. Each head has one ear and one shoulder that effectively bracket the work and lend the three images a collective and cohesive unity. This conscious building of three different images into a unity is a unique and powerful feature of Bacon's art that reflects his belief that a combination of images merges together in the mind to form a stronger and more accurate picture of hard factual reality than a single one. 'Of course,' he once said, '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)