"Bacon has used his paint as if he were modelling the figure out of wet clay or as if he has forced his hands into the actual model and sculpted the bone structure in order to intensify the pliancy of the flesh. The result is an effect of sumptuous deliquescence"--Robert Melville. (R. Melville, quoted in M. Gale and C. Stephens (eds.), Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2009, p. 262).
Featuring one of Francis Bacon's iconic contorted figures, this striking portrait of a naked man is the physical manifestation of the artist's unique discourse between art, philosophy and the human condition. Chosen for inclusion in two of Bacon's most important retrospective exhibitions, Figure Turning demonstrates the powerful physicality inherent in Bacon's art, both in terms of his painterly prowess but also how he deconstructs and then reconstructs the human form in paint in order to examine what makes us who we are. Painted in 1962 during a pivotal point in the artist's career, Figure Turning marks the culmination of a period of intense innovation for Bacon, but also signposts several important strategies that would continue throughout his career. Through his virtuoso paint handling, his figures encompass not only a thoroughly modern way to display the body but he also dares to venture further into the human psyche than any other painter in modern history.
The single figure of a man commands the center of this evocative portrait that encompasses many of Bacon's tropes that came to define his career. In Figure Turning, the haunting figure of a naked man appears to be balanced on one leg, as if in the act of running or, as the title suggests, of pivoting his muscular torso from one direction to another. This animated sense of movement is created by Bacon's energetic use of different tones of flesh-colored paint that he twists and turns into a tumultuous blend of pigment that appears to delineate every strand of sinewy muscle. Here, Bacon weaves together wisps, trails and more substantial daubs of pink, red, yellow, blue and even black to give a tapestry of chromatic richness that is akin to the mottled appearance of bruised skin. In 1962, at the time Figure Turning was painted, Bacon was still recovering both physically and emotionally from the end of his relationship with Peter Lacy, one of the most turbulent and tempestuous relationships of his life. Although the bond had long since ended, Bacon still reacted terribly to the news of Lacy's death in Tangiers, which came on the opening day of Bacon's first major retrospective at the Tate gallery, an exhibition in which the present work was displayed.
The exemplary way in which Bacon depicts the subtle variances of human skin is fully on display here. In seemingly few brushstrokes he creates a myriad of color and tone. "The thick twists of paint in these portraits convey likeness with the most extraordinary precision while seeming to consist of only a few wild strokes and turns of the brush" (A. Bond, Francis Bacon: Five Decades, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2012, p. 146). This vibrant brushwork matches not only the contors of the body in exemplary fashion, it highlights the skeletal frame and various muscle groups as if he was building up the three-dimensional figure itself out of paint almost with almost a surgeon's eye. "Bacon has used his paint as if he were modelling the figure out of wet clay or as if he has forced his hands into the actual model and sculpted the bone structure or order to intensify the pliancy of the flesh. The results is an effect of sumptuous deliquescence" (R. Melville, quoted in M. Gale and C. Stephens (eds.), Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2009, p. 262).
Bacon was a keen student of human anatomy, due in part to his physical attraction to the male form but also he was interested in the way that it reacted to various forces, both physical and emotional, that are placed upon it. In addition to the detailed attention he lavished on the construction of the human frame, he uses the fusions of painterly tones to indicate the various blemishes that are inherent in all but the most perfect human specimens. In Figure Turning, Bacon lavishes most of his painterly attention on the body, leaving the head relatively anonymous and unadorned. The bald head, sunken eyes and relatively few facial features, save for the Roman profile, leave this figure more anonymous than many of his later portraits, and although his relationship with Lacy had ended by the time this work was painted, he still may have been haunted by its memory.
In contrast to the detailed rendition of the body, the prominent shadow it casts on the floor appears relatively benign. The muscular structure of the leg is transformed in a gracious silhouette comprising a series of nuanced curves that are highlighted by an iridescent glow of almost Fauvist quality. The outline, lying prostrate on the floor, has been likened to the ghostly shadows left after the atomic blasts at Hiroshima or the fallen figures of Pompeii. Bacon was deeply affected by the death and destruction he witnessed during the Blitz--the daily bombing raids launched by the German Luftwaffe on London during the Second World War--and distorted figures have been seen by some as part of Bacon's response to what Anita Brookner declared in Burlington magazine as painting "human traumas" (A. Brookner, quoted by G. Tinterow, "Bacon and his Critics," Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate, 2008, p. 36).
As with the best examples of Bacon's work, the artist permeates Figure Turning with a distinct sense of haunting melancholy by placing his figure in surroundings that are foreboding at worst, and ambiguous at best. This deliberate attempt to upset the conventional narrative of figurative painting is what set Bacon apart from centuries of artistic expression. Here, he places the figure in an anonymous room, unadorned except for pale green walls and a maroon floor. The figure stands silhouetted by a large doorway that leads through to an ominous black interior. What appears to be a window to the right of the central figure might in fact turn out to be something akin to a chalkboard, as evidenced by the gold brocade tassel that hangs underneath. The sparseness of the setting mirrored Bacon's own environment during this formative period of painting, as during the early 1960s the artist moved into a new studio in London's Kensington district and although eventually it became filled with his painting paraphernalia, initially, at least, it was as sparse and empty as the settings of his paintings from this period.
The sparseness of the room is offset, if only slightly, by Bacon enclosing his figure in one of the artist's iconic "cages." Although the trial of the former SS officer Adolf Eichmann's had taken place the year before, complete with the blanket coverage from inside the courtroom of Eichmann encased in a similar looking white-framed bulletproof witness box, Bacon's motif dates back to the early 1950s and the genesis of his Pope paintings. In these paintings such as Study for crouching nude, 1952, (Detroit Institute of Arts), the rigid metal frame resembles the tubular metal International-style furniture that Bacon designed in his early twenties when he was pursuing his career as an interior designer. By the time Figure Turning was painted, this treatment had become one of his most iconic motifs and appeared in many of his most celebrated works.
Figure Turning is an important painting from the artist's oeuvre, as it appeared in two of the most important exhibitions of the artist's career. It was completed just in time for Bacon's first major retrospective at the Tate gallery in London in 1962. This event proved to be a pivotal one for the artist, as although he had been a fixture on the London art scene for a number of years, by 1962 many critics had begun to question his recent work. However, the phenomenal success of this Tate exhibition caused many of Bacon's doubters to reconsider their opinions. An anonymous reviewer at the time described the show as, "The most stunning exhibition by a living British painter that there has been since the war" (quoted by G. Tinterow, "Bacon and his Critics," Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate, 2008, pp. 33-34). That same reviewer noted that his new paintings seemed to have made a significant leap from his earlier work, extolling that, "Bacon's figures are essentially flesh (the quality of his paint and brushwork renders it with something of the same morbid sensitivity of Soutine's" (quoted by G. Tinterow,ibid, p. 33). When the show later traveled to the Guggenheim in New York in what was to be his first major exhibition in the United States, the curator, Lawrence Alloway, highlighted what would become a major aspect of Bacon's work going forward. "Alloway thought that Bacon, like Giacometti and de Kooning produced ambiguity by knowingly perpetuating time-honored forms while transforming them" (G. Tinterow, ibid, p. 34).
In 1971, Figure Turning was selected for inclusion in what was probably the pinnacle exhibition of Bacon's career and one that cemented his reputation as an artist of international repute. Opening in October at the Grand Palais in Paris (an event that was marred by the death of Bacon's then partner, George Dyer, the day before the opening), this exhibition was, at the time, one of the largest ever exhibition of Bacon's paintings. Michael Conil Lacoste, critic for the influential Le Monde newspaper described the show as, "perfectly selected and installed masterworks" (G. Tinterow, "Bacon and his Critics," Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate, 2008, p. 36), and Michael Leiris, the French intellectual who was asked to write the introductory text for the catalogue, summed up the conflicted reaction to Bacon's paintings when he said, "the spectator who approaches them with no preconceived ideas, gains direct access to an order of flesh-and-blood reality not unlike the paroxysmal experience provided in everyday life by the physical act of lovewhich makes it a sensuous delight, but one so intense that to some people it can appear wholly abhorrent" (M. Leiris, quoted by G. Tinterow, "Bacon and his Critics," Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate, 2008, p. 36). Bacon's achievement in Paris was cemented when, just before the opening, he was named in first position in the influential Connaissance des Artes's poll of the Top Ten artists in the world, beating even Matisse and Picasso.
Bacon was acutely aware of the long tradition he was entering into with his distinctive renditions of the human figure. He was a great admirer of the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, in particular the artistic licence with which the French artist painted the human body. He also admired the figural studies of Michelangelo and the masterful depictions of flesh by Thódore Gicault. Yet Bacon, in addition to producing these comprehensive investigations into the interplay of light and form, also used his distinctive painting style to reconstruct the body itself. Bacon believed that to understand something completely you first had to deconstruct absolutely. "I think if you want to convey fact, this can only ever be done through a form of distortion. You must distort to transform what is appearance into image" (F. Bacon, quoted by H. Davies and S. Yard (eds.)., Francis Bacon, New York, 1986, pp. 41-44).