'Bacon's genius was to have found a single image through which he could express the whole range of his most extreme emotions: fear, disdain, hate, lust, and even a fierce kind of love' (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 26).
'Man in Blue I (1954), and the 6 extant variations on the themes, continued this sustained monochrome phase. The figures, painted from a man Bacon met at Henley-on-Thames, are isolated in the deep space of his internal framings, like museum specimens displayed in vitrines. They were Bacon's most sardonic comments on the phenomenon of the tycoon in a sharp suit, white collar and tie, anticipating both the incipient Kennedy era in the USA, in which men in blue suits who played tennis wrested power from the men in grey who played golf, and the 'Executive' satirized in John Betjeman's poem' (M. Harrison, In Camera Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, p. 106).
'In these claustrophobic curtained settings, there loom up before us beings whose shadowy, ambiguous, unexpected presence takes command of any setting they survey, making real beings seem like shadows. They are as appalling as they are compelling, for these are creatures faced with their tragic destiny' (D. Sylvester, 'Francis Bacon', The British Pavilion: Exhibition of Works by Nicholson, Bacon, Freud, Venice XXVII Biennale, Venice 1954).
'What [Bacon] communicates, he conveys in the paint. The last image in the triptych of three heads whose sequence might depict a politician's rise and fall portrays a 'shattered' man: but we are left in doubt whether the wrecked features of the face are a terrible wound or have only been obscured by a hand lifted in grief: it does not matter, the disintegration of the form acts directly upon our nerves, suffices without explanation to realise the tragedy. And, whether there is this ambiguity or not, this avoidance of the descriptive is sustained consistently, if less spectacularly, in all the more recent paintings Bacon has mastered the problem, which is the essential problem of painting, of trapping a reality without naming it' (D. Sylvester, quoted in The British Pavilion: Exhibition of Works by Nicholson, Bacon, Freud, XXVII Venice Biennale, Venice 1954).
'Most of those pictures were done of somebody who was always in a state of unease, and whether that has been conveyed through these pictures I don't know. But I suppose, in attempting to trap this image, that, as this man was very neurotic and almost hysterical, this may possibly have come across in the painting' (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 48).
MAN IN BLUE: A TRIUMPH OF FIGURATIVE PAINTING
The penultimate painting in Francis Bacon's seminal suite of Man in Blue paintings (1954), Man in Blue VI is a stirring and profoundly perceptive portrait of existential, Post-War Europe. Enveloped in a deep sea of saturated, Prussian blue, the small figure of a man is seen cast into darkness, isolated, trapped in obscurity. The twilight of the painting is broken up by highlights of pink and alabaster white, the man's anguished, grimacing face, white starched collar and clenched fist, piercing the darkness. Bacon's moment of profound genius lies in the man's face, the painstakingly perfected features violated with an impulsive sweep of his paint brush. Allowing chance and contingency to enter the fate of his composition, Bacon achieved the perfect expression, the paint conveying what the artist once described as the 'brutality of fact'. The series was executed between March-June 1954 in the build up to Bacon's exhibition at the Hanover gallery in June-July of that year which included I-VI of the Man in Blue series, Sphinx III (1954), (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.) and Study for a Running Dog (1954) (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.), and rounded off a key moment in Bacon's development on the international scene. That summer the artist also represented Britain at the Venice Biennale XXVII, with a celebrated show that was in essence a miniretrospective of his work of the previous ten years and included many of the paintings that have come to define Bacon as an artist.
The Man in Blue series presents the triumphant continuation of the artist's themes that were so powerfully conveyed in his now iconic first series of Popes (Study for a Portrait I-VIII) from the previous year, 1953. In the same way that he took these powerful figures of religion, isolated them from society, encaged them and depicted them dwarfed within a sea of deeply mysterious blue, here Bacon was taking these burgeoning symbols of Post-War capitalism, the businessmen, and giving them a similar treatment. Here, the gilded robes are swapped for perfectly starched white shirts and meticulous tailoring, but in neither series can the clothing hide the bodily and facial expression as it yearns to break free. Three of this landmark series are now housed in museums including Man in Blue I, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Man in Blue IV, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna and Man in Blue V, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen, Dusseldorf. According to Ronald Alley, Man in Blue VI is one of very few paintings undertaken from life, painted of some anonymous businessman met at the Imperial Hotel in Henley-on-Thames, where Bacon was hauled up close to his caustic lover Peter Lacy. Ronald Alley once poignantly described these paintings as both Bacon and his lover, stranger and friend: 'it is symptomatic of the ambiguity of much of his work that the man has been interpreted both as a victim (one of the pictures was exhibited in New York under the title 'Trapped Man' [Man in Blue II]) and as a kind of ruthless interrogator' (R. Alley, F. Bacon, London 1964, p. 86).
All seven of the works in the series hold the same compositional frame, the curtain pulled in behind a carefully lined geometry. The same outline and configuration of walled space gives form to each of the seven paintings, while two types of desk or barman's counter pen the men in, preventing their escape. Three of the series: Man in Blue I and IV and the present work, see the figure leaning up against a bar, visibly straining in one to release himself from his confines. The cast of each man differentiates the works in the series. Just as the mood of the eight popes alternates from haughty, to malevolent, to despairing, the Man in Blue figures revolve from calm confidence, to quiet distraction, to wild desperation recalling Bacon's Three Studies for the Human Head (1953), the artist's first portrait triptych. This triptych was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1954 and was later united with the present work and Man in Blue IV, especially selected for Bacon's first major retrospective at the Tate, London in 1962.
The disconsolate expression read on Man in Blue VI, is one of the most feverish of the suite. The penultimate of the series, the man has been wound up from Bacon's first painting to the point of hysteria, silently shrieking in the last. It is a picture of modern anguish hidden behind a mask of dominance and respectability, evocative of the existential zeitgeist. Immediately following the Man in Blue suite, Bacon undertook another masterpiece, Sphinx III, which carries the same compositional conceit. Here the curtain and desk enclose a sphinx, mysticised as treacherous and merciless, carrying the haunches of a lion, the wings of a great bird and the face of a human. The myth suggests that those unable to answer a riddle are killed and devoured by this ravenous monster. Bacon articulates the evolution from Pope, to Businessman, to Sphinx as a seething commentary on society in the immediate Post-War period, recalling the oeuvre of his other great contemporary, Alberto Giacometti.
These were concepts being heavily pursued by contemporary leaders of European Existentialism, with the impact of Jean-Paul Sartre's influential text, L'Existentialisme est un Humanisme (1946) resounding widely. Sartre defined the state of angst and despair that meets a person when they accept their sole responsibility for their own destinies. He elaborated the story with the description of a waiter in a café, dressing himself in the trappings of his uniform and going about his work like an automaton. That costume and job had become his identity, although it was entirely of his own choosing. In short, for the waiter as with every person, there can be nothing beyond what one chooses to make of oneself. This doleful meditation, with its chilling atheism is perfectly expressed in Man in Blue VI, where the suited capitalist is confronted with his own destiny, unable to seek redemption, and artfully revealing the 'lonely pathos of the powerful' (C. Stephens, quoted in 'Apprehension', M. Gale and C. Stephens (eds.), Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 124).
FRANCIS BACON'S MASTERY OF PAINT
During the early 1950s, Bacon inhabited a unique moment, where his raw intensity and novel approach were to result in works of perhaps improbable brilliance. As Michael Peppiatt has suggested, 'Bacon's masterpieces of the late 1940s and early 1950s were produced: through constant trial and error, elation and destruction, technical awkwardness absorbed and made suddenly effective by sheer force of invention' (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 33). In Man in Blue VI, Bacon has established a brimming, vital figure, teeming with life and emotion. Established on the canvas with pure, intuitive brushstrokes, Bacon has animated pink, flushed skin, expressive hands and a face filled with agony, ecstasy, violence and fear. Unlike the laden paintwork of the 1940s, Bacon has in Man in Blue VI and its associated series of paintings, created an identity of flesh through suggestion rather than through application, the veiled surfaces of the canvas amounting to a triumph of figurative painting. As Bacon was to explain, this was part of a new process of 'opening up areas of feeling rather than merely an illustration of an object' (F. Bacon, quoted in 'On the Margins of the Impossible', M. Gale & C. Stephens (eds.), Francis Bacon, exh. cat., London, 2008, p. 18).
Using opaque, lead white paint, Bacon has painted the stiff starch of a white businessman's collar, interrupted by the tight knot of a corporate tie. Atop this flash of white, is the man's head with its squared-jaw, wide brow and angular physiognomy reminiscent of William Blake's Life Mask (1823) in the National Portrait Gallery, London. The moment of Bacon's real genius lies here in the face. Carefully painted with texture built up across the cheekbones and forehead, Bacon has created the curves of an ear, the dark hollows of two eyes, an open mouthed grimace surrounded by pink fleshy lips that Martin Harrison suggests might be redolent of Diego Velázquez's Philip IV of Spain (1656), or indeed the young visage of friend David Sylvester, who Bacon lived with at 19 Cromwell Road for a short time at the beginning of 1954. Crowning the head is a smooth coif of black hair, indicated with an economy of brushstrokes. These points of light in the darkness: the face, shirt collar and the pink fist resting on a counter create a triangle which anchors the composition. Along the broad shoulders of the man's blazer, royal purple illuminates the figure, Bacon's neat oil paint shimmering under light.
Teeth bared, the man's mouth is itself spectacular, projecting a real sense of the character's emotional life. Emitting a silent cry, the perfected, expressive mouth recalls Bacon's oft-favoured film still of the screaming nurse on the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin. At the same time, the mouth appears reminiscent of images reproduced of proselytising fascist leaders speaking out at party rallies, copies of which Bacon had strewn amongst his belongings. In an impulsive, violent act, Bacon has defiled these features, swiping vertically down the face with a dry paint brush, as if intimating movement of the head. Having built up the wealth of dark blue for the ground, painstakingly articulated each of the narrow vertical bars of his protagonist's cell, and expertly rendered the physiognomy of the face, Bacon was taking a calculated risk. Acting with characteristic impulsion, Bacon was ready to despoil the perfected features of his figure's face in order to bring over a certain 'brutality', as if it were 'his own nervous system projected onto canvas' (F. Bacon, quoted in L. Gowing, 'The Irrefutable Image', Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, exh. cat., Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York, 1968, p. 13).
Much of the atmosphere imbued in Man in Blue VI derives from its Prussian blue-black canvas ground, the isolated figure at its centre surrounded by darkness. This deep, saturated blue arose from Bacon's unique practice of priming the reverse of his canvases, allowing the oil and turpentine to penetrate deep into its woven fabric. On top of this dense pigment, Bacon then created the diagonals of furniture using straight geometric lines lightly indicated in pale gold. Roughly unloading the pigment on his trouser leg, Bacon dragged his dry brush along the surface of the canvas, the coarse hog's hair bristles resulting in a wealth of shadowy bars. These bars confine the solitary man to his solitude, while the pane of glass in front of the composition, Bacon's prescription for all his paintings, acts to emphasise his vulnerability and desperate seclusion.
The confluence of these effects provides the painting with a 'clinical yet theatrical presentation' which Martin Harrison has likened to the 'long exposure torture to which sitters in early photographic portrait studios submitted, clamped into their chairs' (M. Harrison, In Camera Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London, 2005, p. 106). Recalling the account of writer Maria Edgeworth, sitting for daguerreotypes at the turn of the twentieth century, Harrison draws a perfect parallel: 'It is a wonderful mysterious operation. You are taken from one room into another up stairs and down and you see various people whispering and hear them in neighbouring passages and rooms unseen and the whole apparatus and stool on high platform under a glass dome casting a snapdragon blue light making all look like spectres and the men in black gliding about' (M. Edgeworth, quoted in M. Harrison, In Camera Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London, 2005, p. 106).
Sitting within his isolated chamber, Man in Blue VI also bears a striking resemblance to Alberto Giacometti's own dark cages. Although the two figurative modernists were only to meet in 1965 through their mutual friend Isabel Rawsthorne, Bacon had long-admired his continental colleague's work. Giacometti's gaunt, Spartan figures contained within strict geometries are often posited as a source for the British painter's spaceframes. Indeed with their limited palette, direct frontality, shoulders firmly squared to the viewer, there is much to commend the comparison between the two artists, the present work bearing real affinities with Giacometti's Portrait of Peter Watson (1953), housed in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
AN EXISTENTIAL ERA
In Man in Blue VI, Bacon imports a sense of the era's European Post- War Existentialism, cutting through the veneer of civilised society to distil the raw and visceral qualities of the human character on canvas. As Michael Peppiatt has suggested, 'Bacon's genius was to have found a single image through which he could express the whole range of his most extreme emotions: fear, disdain, hate, lust, and even a fierce kind of love' (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 26). This was a period of personal and public turmoil in Britain, marred by the legacy of the Second World War and stunned by the rising spectre of the Cold War, soon to meet its confluence in the brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the Suez crisis.
In Bacon's Study of a Nude (1952-53), now part of the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, University of East Anglia, Norwich, we see a heroic figure teetering on the edge of the abyss, preparing to take the existential dive into the black-blue deep below. This spectral image of a deathly pallid, solitary man poised to leap, importantly prefigures Man in Blue VI, as well as providing a chilling symbol of contemporary society. Peppiatt perfectly captures the essence of the times: 'London still in thrall to its memories of wartime fears and privations, was an almost unbearable fluency in new modes of suffering and humiliation. In that unwelcome, macabre revelation, not only the human figure but pigment itself had never before looked so naked and vulnerable - as if the skin of the paint had been peeled back to reveal the potential for pain beneath' (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 33).
A FIERCE KIND OF LOVE
Bacon himself was in the depths of a combustive, ill-fated relationship with former RAF pilot Peter Lacy, living between the spare room of a friend's house in Beaufort Gardens and Lacy's home in Hurst. The pair had met at the bar of Soho emporium the Colony Club, known as Muriel's after the eponymous and formidable owner Muriel Belcher, and entered into a relationship that would prove passionate yet deprave, violent yet addictive. While Bacon was known to have various indiscretions, Lacy was the great love of his life. 'Being in love that way, being absolutely physically obsessed by someone, is like an illness', Bacon was later to recount. 'It's like a disease, a disease so ghastly I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy' (F. Bacon, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 40).
At times, the horror of the violent rows with Lacy drove Bacon to flee Hurst and stay at the Imperial Hotel in nearby Henley-on-Thames. It was here at the hotel that Bacon met any number of passing, unnamed, well-suited businessmen, becoming engaged in a series of illicit affairs that were to become translated into the Man in Blue paintings. As the artist confirmed in a letter to David Sylvester, delivered from Ostia in November 1954, 'I am excited about the new series I am doing - it is about dreams and life in hotel bedrooms' (F. Bacon, quoted in 'On the Margins of the Impossible', M. Gale & C. Stephens (eds.), Francis Bacon, exh. cat., London, 2008, p. 122). The claustrophobic settings of these darkened hotel rooms were first detailed in a number of works created in 1953 including Study for a Portrait, previously owned by David Sylvester and now housed in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, as well as Three Studies for the Human Head (1953). As Sylvester so eloquently described on the occasion of the Biennale: 'what [Bacon] communicates he conveys in the paint. The last image in the triptych of three heads whose sequence might depict a politician's rise and fall portrays a 'shattered' man: but we are left in doubt whether the wrecked features of the face are a terrible wound or have only been obscured by a hand lifted in grief: it does not matter, the disintegration of the form acts directly upon our nerves, suffices without explanation to realise the tragedy. And, whether there is this ambiguity or not, this avoidance of the descriptive is sustained consistently, if less spectacularly, in all the more recent paintings Bacon has mastered the problem, which is the essential problem of painting, of trapping a reality without naming it (D. Sylvester, The British Pavilion: Exhibition of Works by Nicholson, Bacon, Freud, exh. cat., XXVII Venice Biennale, Venice, 1954).
The series of Man in Blue paintings certainly offer an autobiographical quality, Bacon himself being very partial to a well cut, navy blue suit. Spending some time holding seminars at the Slade School of Art in 1953, Andrew Forge recalled Bacon the elegant aesthete: '[Francis] came in...wearing a tremendously elegant dark blue chalk striped suit, absolutely beautifully cut, very minimal, his hair streaming out of his head like petals out of a flower...and a tartan shirt open at the neck...and somehow that combination of formality and complete informality and the quality of his voice and his whole presence in the room was just utterly glamorous' (A. Forge, quoted in M. Gale and C. Stephens (eds.), Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 124). Both impressed by power and irreverent to it, Bacon's paintings of the period are loaded with their own irony. Indeed as Martin Harrison has suggested, in Man in Blue we see the artist take a sardonic shot at the 'phenomenon of the tycoon in a sharp suit, white collar and tie, anticipating both the incipient Kennedy era in the USA, in which men in blue suits who played tennis wrested power from the men in grey who played golf, and the 'Executive' satirized in John Betjeman's poem' (M. Harrison, In Camera Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, p. 106).
Despite the apparent anonymity of the figures painted at this time, the abiding influence of Lacy is still clear in Man in Blue VI. As Bacon confessed, 'most of those pictures were done of somebody who was always in a state of unease, and whether that has been conveyed through these pictures I don't know. But I suppose, in attempting to trap this image, that, as this man was very neurotic and almost hysterical, this may possibly have come across in the painting' (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 48). Indeed, all of the ferocious fights with Lacy, and a sense of the peripatetic, subversive existence of the artist at this time, find their way onto the canvas. As he explained, his oeuvre was 'concerned with my kind of psyche, it's concerned with my kind of - I'm putting it in a very pleasant way - exhilarated despair' (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York, 1990, p. 83). Bacon relished the extremes of sensation, his 'nervous tension' allowing him to test the boundaries of painting. As he himself suggested, 'you have to go too far to go far enough - only then can you hope to break the mold and make something new' (F. Bacon, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2006, p. 22).