Painted in 1966, Head of a Man is one of only two oil portraits by Lucian Freud of George Dyer, the lover and companion of his friend and fellow artist Francis Bacon. The picture dates from a period when Freud and Bacon were seeing each other on an almost daily basis. Their friendship, which had been struck up during the 1940s following their introduction to each other by Graham Sutherland, was important to both men on a personal and an artistic level. Freud and Dyer featured in a great number of Bacon's paintings. However, Bacon and Dyer each appeared only in two of Freud's oils (his 1952 portrait of Bacon, formerly in the collection of the Tate, was stolen when on exhibition in London), making Head of a Man an extremely rare insight into their friendship.
Dyer has become one of the most legendary of Bacon's friends and companions; their relationship even inspired the 1998 film Love Is the Devil, starring Daniel Craig and Derek Jacobi. Bacon, himself an incorrigible spinner of exaggerated tales, claimed he had caught Dyer, a petty criminal, in the act when he attempted to break into the artist's home, and that this marked the beginning of their relationship. However, a more prosaic and more indicative explanation of their first meeting was included in Michael Peppiatt's biography of Bacon, who explained that in 1964:
I was drinking with John Deakin, who had just done some photographs for me, and lots of others. George was down the far end of the bar and he came over and said, You all seem to be having a good time. Can I buy you a drink?' And that's how I met him. I might never have noticed him otherwise (Bacon, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London, 1999, p. 211).
Dyer had been brought up in a family that had a history of petty crime, and it was in this vocation that he attempted to make his way. He was caught often enough that he spent time first in borstals as a young offender and then in prison. There was a physical presence to the man that implied strength and violence, and this, along with his crooked nose, has been captured in Freud's Head of a Man, where the sheer bulk of head and shoulders are emphasised. This serves to highlight the sensitivity of the eyes and facial expression which, according to memoirs, were often in stark contrast to the gangster image that he tried to project, mimicking the style of figures such as the Kray twins in his sharp suits and thin ties.
From the point of Dyer's first acquaintance with Bacon, he was seldom out of his company, and came to figure in many of his paintings too. Now Dyer, no longer actively embroiled in the criminal fraternity that had formerly provided his milieu, was in the company of a celebrated artist and bon vivant, a situation that meant that he and his friends seldom lacked for alcohol or company. Bacon's own recollections about Dyer provide some insight into the paradoxes and complexities of the man who tragically took his own life on the eve of the painter's 1971 retrospective in Paris:
His stealing at least gave him a raison d'être, even though he wasn't very successful at it and was always in and out of prison. But it gave him something to think about. When George was inside, he'd spend all his time planning what he would do when he came out. And so on. I thought I was helping him when I took him out of that life. I knew the next time he was caught he'd get a heavy sentence. And I thought, well, life's too short to spend half of it in prison. But I was wrong, of course. He'd have been in and out of prison, but at least he'd have been alive. He became totally impossible with drink. The rest of the time, when he was sober, he could be terribly engaging and gentle. He used to love being with children and animals. I think he was a nicer person than me. He was more compassionate. He was much too nice to be a crook. That was the trouble. He only went in for stealing because he had been born into it (Bacon, quoted in David Sylvester, Looking back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 135).
The strange tension between Dyer's criminality and his gentle, tender side is in evidence in Head of a Man.
In Head of a Man, even the brushwork owed its existence in part to the artistic relationship between Bacon and Freud. When they had first met, and indeed into the 1950s, Freud had painted in a meticulous style, usually seated at his easel, using extremely fine sable-hair brushes. It was with some justification that Herbert Read had referred to him as the "Ingres of Existentialism." However, in the early 1950s, in part through a feeling of the constraints of that style and influenced by Bacon's own handling of paint, Freud began to use larger brushes, standing behind his easel, allowing him more movement, more gesture, and therefore resulting in pictures that were more painterly, as is the case in Head of a Man. "His work impressed me but his personality affected me," Freud has explained of his relationship to Bacon.
It was through that and through talking to him a lot. He talked a great deal about the paint itself carrying the form, and imbuing the paint with a sort of life. He talked about packing a lot of things into one single brushstroke, which amused and excited me and I realized it was a million miles from anything I could ever do (Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, New York, 2007, p. 321).
Within a short time, Freud had developed the virtuoso painterly style for which he is so famed, and which is clear in the almost organic way that he has built up the sense of flesh in Dyer's features in Head of a Man. There is a pulsing impression of life, of vitality in the oils in this picture, that demonstrates his insistence that, "I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having a look of the sitter, being them. I didn't want to get just a likeness like a mimic, but to portray them, like an actor. As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does" (Freud, quoted in L. Gowing, Lucian Freud, London, 1982, pp. 190-91). It is for this reason that Freud continues to focus, in his portraiture, on those people who form a part of his family or his circle, people whom he knows and who can relax in front of him, while being scrutinized by him, for long enough for the painting to be complete.
This sense of life, captured in oils, perhaps reveals some artistic cousinship between Freud and the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Frans Hals. Discussing Hals, Freud celebrated that vivid sense of life that he managed to capture in his laughing cavaliers, banqueters and revelers:
They still shock people very much. I remember Francis had a friend called George (Dyer) who had never looked at any painting in his life. He'd been a sort of lookout man, a very bad one, and he saw a book of Hals, he looked at it and his face absolutely lit up. He said what a marvelous idea making people look like that. He thought they were modern. That's right really. I mean they are all talking, eating, grinning--I think of Shakespeare a bit--done from a kind of detached (and not all that detached) wit and observation" (Freud, quoted in Feaver, op.cit., 2007, p. 322).
In Head of a Man, while Dyer may not be talking, eating or grinning, Freud has nonetheless captured a similarly vivid sense of his subject's life and character.