‘You know I also made love to Isabel Rawsthorne, a very beautiful woman who was Derain’s model and Georges Bataille’s girlfriend’ (F. Bacon quoted in Paris Match, May 1992).
‘Not an hour goes by when I don’t think about George’ (F. Bacon, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p. 260).
‘A compact and chunky force of nature, with a vivid and highly [unorthodox] turn of phrase, [George Dyer] embodied pent-up energy. As a spirit of mischief, touched at times by melancholia, he had been the subject, and the inspiration of some of Bacon’s greatest images’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1971, pp. 160-65).
‘[Rawsthorne had an] animal exuberance a magnetism and a mobility of expression that captivated Bacon...her face would assume a look of extreme indignation, followed by one of raucous good humour, and then a glance of seduction, all dropped like masks and as rapidly replaced’ (M. Peppiatt quoted in F. Laukötter & M. Müller, ‘Paintings 1945-1991’, A. Zweite & M. Müller (eds.), Francis Bacon: The Violence of the Real, London 2006, p. 148).
The first of only ten diptychs painted by Francis Bacon throughout his lifetime, Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne and George Dyer commemorates two of the artist’s most profound and intimate relationships: with his great lover and muse, George Dyer, and with his lifelong friend and confidante, the artist Isabel Rawsthorne. Painted in 1967, it is the first of just two works portraying Rawsthorne and Dyer together. Central figures within the cast of charismatic characters that touched Bacon’s life, Rawsthorne and Dyer came to occupy the artist’s greatest decade in paint: the 1960s. Individually, their faces defined Bacon’s output at the height of his powers, featuring in landmark works including Study of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1966 (Musée National d’Art Modern, Paris), Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing on a Street in Soho, 1967 (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie), Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror, 1968 (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) and Three Studies of George Dyer, 1969 (Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek). Pitting his subjects face to face, Bacon’s double portrait pays tribute to the central importance that Rawsthorne and Dyer held in his career. Yet within the colourful pageant of Bacon’s ‘gilded gutter life’, they played very different parts. While Rawsthorne remained a devoted friend to the artist for the rest of her life – Bacon outlived her by only a few months – Dyer’s relationship with Bacon was cut tragically short when, on the eve of the artist’s long-awaited retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris in 1971, he took his own life. This event was to have a devastating impact on Bacon, giving rise to his celebrated series of black triptychs, executed in grief-stricken memory of Dyer. In the present work, Bacon captures him in his prime, together with Rawsthorne, during the opulent heyday of the artist’s Soho social circle. Rendered with impassioned brushstrokes against a regal, emerald background, it is a work that conveys the triumph and richness of those golden years.
United by the definitive role they played in Bacon’s personal and professional life, Rawsthorne and Dyer are presented in a manner that recalls the early Renaissance convention of double-profile marriage portraits – in particular Piero della Francesca’s masterful Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, 1465-72. Indeed, the two works depicting Rawsthorne and Dyer together are the only diptychs in which Bacon captured two separate subjects. Yet, in a contemporary twist on the tradition, the significance of their relationship is not with each other, but rather with the artist. Though Bacon had never taken a husband or wife, Rawsthorne and Dyer were his two closest companions: Dyer as his lover, Rawsthorne as his friend and, allegedly, the only woman with whom he ever attempted physical intimacy. Here, they are portrayed in Bacon’s signature intimate portrait format, each twelve by fourteen inches, set against a sumptuous jewel-like palette that recalls the accomplished single panels Study for a Head of Lucian Freud and Study for Head of George Dyer, both completed that year. In a flurry of near-sculptural brushstrokes, Rawsthorne and Dyer emerge through pale, luminous tones, like spectral apparitions, each swirling contour of their distorted faces articulated with rapid, impulsive gestures. Facing the viewer, Rawsthorne peers sideways, glancing at Dyer who is painted in profile, a gaping chasm sweeping across his face. The aura of dignity that pervades this diptych is at odds with the doomed atmosphere that emanates from Bacon’s second portrait of the pair together, Studies of George Dyer and Isabel Rawsthorne, executed two years later in 1969 when the tumultuous relationship between Dyer and Bacon had begun to show signs of strain. In this later work, black shadows spread under Dyer’s chin; opposite, they seep into the outer edge of Rawsthorne’s profile, threatening to engulf the subjects completely. Free from the darker currents of this latter diptych, the present work is a vibrant ode to his greatest companions, a visceral, tactile eulogy that strives to capture their living, breathing presence. In the void that exists between them, we can almost sense Bacon himself: the missing part of an incomplete trilogy.
DYER AND RAWSTHORNE: THE TWO SIDES OF FRANCIS BACON
Rawsthorne and Dyer were part of a select group of individuals who, between them, populated Bacon’s canvases during the 1960s and 1970s. Together with figures such as Peter Lacy, John Edwards, Henrietta Moraes, Lucian Freud and Muriel Belcher – friends, lovers and rivals mainly drawn from his bohemian Soho haunts – they were the vehicles through which Bacon produced some of his most raw exposures of the human condition. In Dyer, Bacon found a fragile spirit to whom he was intensely attracted. The two men had met in the autumn of 1963. As Bacon recalled, ‘Iwas 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’ (F. Bacon, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p. 259). A handsome man who took meticulous care of his appearance, Dyer wore a uniform of clean-cut suits and narrow ties tightly knotted around the neck. Yet beneath this sharp exterior was a troubled, emotionally fraught character; often anxious and constantly smoking, he frequently found himself crippled by a sense of purposelessness. Raised in the East End of London, he had fallen into petty theft at a young age – though to little avail. Bacon would joke, ‘I think in a way [George] was too nice to be a crook’ (F. Bacon, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p. 259).
Over the next eight years, Dyer became Bacon’s lover, muse and dependent. His distinctive good looks and classical proportions reminded Bacon of the lithe figure studies undertaken by Michelangelo, whilst Dyer’s innate vulnerability provided the artist with a fascinating character study. ‘A compact and chunky force of nature, with a vivid and highly [unorthodox] turn of phrase, [George Dyer] embodied pent-up energy’, wrote John Russell. ‘As a spirit of mischief, touched at times by melancholia, he had been the subject, and the inspiration of some of Bacon’s greatest images’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, pp. 160-65). Around thirty years old at the time of their meeting, Dyer looked up to Bacon as a mentor and guardian. Towards the end of the 1960s, however, Bacon’s mercurial character and Dyer’s own bleak prospects gave way to a tumultuous existence, punctuated by sharp mood swings and fits of emotion. The intensity of their relationship became a source of both deep personal sadness and important artistic stimulation for Bacon. As Michael Peppiatt has observed, ‘however great the liberties Bacon had taken in pulling apart and remaking the appearance of his other friends, with Dyer he reached a maximum intensity, not only paint pummelling his features into near-extinction but creating complex visual conceits, brilliant puns on seeing unlike anything he had attempted before’ (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p. 261). Bacon’s prodigious portraits of Dyer from the mid to late 1960s, now mostly held in museum collections, reached a level of painterly fervour unrivalled within the rest of his oeuvre. Dominating all of Bacon’s important exhibitions from the period, and continuing to reverberate through his art long after the fateful events of 1971, his depictions of Dyer were both brutal and devotional, driven by a complicated mixture of love, lust and disdain.
Whilst Dyer swept Bacon along a turbulent rollercoaster of passion and despair, Rawsthorne had a very different impact upon the artist. Where Dyer exuded a dark melancholy, Rawsthorne embodied a fiercely spirited independence. Where Dyer brought tragedy and pain, Rawsthorne was a constant, dependable source of friendship, a strong-willed character with a powerful zest for life. Where Dyer’s past was littered with wayward stories of violence and futile crime, Rawsthorne’s was a sensational whirlwind of illustrious affairs and artistic escapades. A talented painter, she had studied at the Royal College of Art in London, where she sat for Sir Jacob Epstein, and subsequently, through his recommendation, had attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. Mistress and muse of the 1930s art scene, she had modelled for André Derain, Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso. She had been married three times: to the journalist Sefton Delmer, and later to the composers Constant Lambert and Alan Rawsthorne. She had designed sets for the ballet at Covent Garden, and had entertained close relations and romantic trysts with the Parisian intellectual elite, including Tristan Tzara and Georges Bataille. Indeed, Bacon, who had first met Rawsthorne in 1947 via the gallerist Erica Brausen, later bragged to Paris Match ‘You know I also made love to Isabel Rawsthorne, a very beautiful woman who was Derain’s model and Georges Bataille’s girlfriend’ (F. Bacon, quoted in Paris Match, May 1992).
During the 1960s, Rawsthorne became Bacon’s most important female subject, appearing in three magnificent large-scale paintings between 1964 and 1967 and, alongside the two diptychs with Dyer, at least fifteen small portraits and five triptychs up until 1983. During this time, Bacon surmised that he had painted more small portrait heads of Rawsthorne than he had of himself. His enduring admiration and respect for her character was matched by his fascination with her physiognomy: her high forehead and sweeping hairline, her arched brows and prominent cheekbones. Daniel Farson recalls how her face wore the ‘surprised expression of someone who has just heard a marvelous joke and wishes to share it’ (D. Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 166). Commenting on her relationship with Bacon, Michael Peppiatt asserts that an ‘In many ways, Isabel was a … natural ally for Francis, resembling him in her animal exuberance and the resolute sense of her individuality … She had a magnetism and a mobility of expression that captivated Bacon ... Her face would assume a look of extreme indignation, followed by one of raucous good humour, and then a glance of seduction, all dropped like masks and as rapidly replaced’ (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, pp. 204-5).
Significantly, Rawsthorne allowed Bacon to strengthen his ties with Paris – the city where he himself had undergone some of his most important formative experiences. She was friends with the French poet and writer Michel Leiris, who became one of Bacon’s closest allies and, later, an important authority on his work. It was also through Rawsthorne that, in 1965, Bacon first came to meet Alberto Giacometti – an artist whom he once declared to be ‘the greatest living influence on my work’. Both artists were fascinated by the existential properties of the human figure, and it is therefore no surprise that both had found inspiration in Rawsthorne. Having modelled for Derain after being spotted at the Dôme café near the Boulevard Montparnasse, it was in this same location that Rawsthorne first caught the attention of the Swiss sculptor. As she later recounted ‘from that moment on, [Giacometti and I] met daily at five p.m. Months went by until he asked me to come to his studio to pose. I already knew he had changed my life forever’ (I. Rawsthorne, quoted in V. Wiesinger, ‘Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers’, in Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers: Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2008, p. 216). According to Giacometti’s biographer James Lord, the artist recalled Isabel standing at midnight on the Boulevard Saint-Michel – remote and imperious – and it was this image that gave rise to his iconic sculptures of tall, thin, unreachable women. In addition to this, Giacometti created many direct portraits of her, including Portrait d’Isabel, c. 1947, and two sculptures entitled Tête d’Isabel of 1936 and 1937-8. Through Giacometti, Rawsthorne later came to sit for Picasso, joining a line-up of celebrated muses including Dora Maar and Jacqueline Roque. For Bacon, Rawsthorne provided a link to his distinguished forbears: the great twentieth-century exponents of the human form, whose lineage Bacon was to carry forward.
BACON THE PORTRAITIST
Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne and George Dyer represents Bacon’s portraiture at the height of its development. Throughout his life, the artist worked obsessively from pictures of his friends, commissioned from the photographer John Deakin. A posthumous excavation of Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews revealed 129 photographs of Dyer and 22 photographs of Rawsthorne, along with contact sheets and multiple negatives. Bacon, who operated via a vast visual archive of secondary images, explained to David Sylvester how working from photography allowed him a ‘slight remove from the fact, which returns me onto the fact more violently’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, p. 30). As he went on to elaborate, ‘Even in the case of friends who will come and pose, I’ve had photographs taken for portraits because I very much prefer working from the photographs than from them … I think that, if I have the presence of the image in there, I am not able to drift so freely as I am through the photographic image. This may be just my own neurotic sense but I find it less inhibiting to work from them through memory and their photographs than actually having them seated there before me’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, p. 38). The violence that Bacon enacted upon his subjects was the product of an intense process of visual filtration, the collision of multiple images within the artist’s psyche. Many of the photographs of Rawsthorne and Dyer rescued from Bacon’s studio were creased, torn, ripped apart and cut away, as if these destructive acts would reveal the true heart of the subjects.
Although Bacon was committed to using source material as a starting point for his work, the artist adamantly affirmed that it was in fact the after-image – the after-glow of the subject – which would emerge from his paintings. It was largely because of the intense and specific nature of Bacon’s practice that the artist only felt comfortable painting those individuals he knew well. They were people and faces he had not only seen, but had observed and scrutinized in everyday life, taking in their variety of expression, their gait and their mannerisms in a perpetual series of mental snap-shots. From 1961 onwards, the fourteen by twelve inch canvas became the prized vehicle through which Bacon recorded these visceral impressions. As John Russell has explained, ‘The single head, fourteen inches by twelve, was from 1961 onwards the scene of some of Bacon’s most ferocious investigations. Just as a gunshot sometimes leaves an after-echo or parallel report, so these small concentrated heads carry their ghosts within them’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 99). As a painter who avidly read the Greek tragedies, the poetry of W.B. Yeats, the philosophy of Paul Valéry and Jean-Paul Sartre, Bacon found that his friends were as ‘vivid and transmutable’ into art as any great literary hero or heroine. Indeed, as Peppiatt has written, ‘Bacon once said that he thought of real friendship as a state in which two people pulled each other to pieces – dissecting and criticizing mercilessly. This is the act of “friendship” that Bacon perpetrates in the portraits: a pulling apart of the other until he gets to an irreducible truth – or “fact”, as he liked to call it, in a pseudo-scientific fashion – about their appearance and character’ (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p. 209).
It is this very dynamic that is captured in Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne and George Dyer. Bacon’s intensely-worked handling of paint ultimately reduces his subjects to their animalistic essence: pieces of flesh animated solely by the electrical pulse of their nervous system. In his hands, Rawsthorne and Dyer become living, breathing specimens of a generic humanity. As Bacon himself explained, ‘Whether the distortions which I think sometimes bring the image over more violently are damage is a very questionable idea. I don’t think it is damage. You may say it’s damaging if you take it on the level of illustration. But not if you take it on the level of what I think of as art. One brings the sensation and feeling of life over the only way one can’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, p. 43). For Russell, writing several years after the present work was completed, Bacon’s approach to his subjects set a new benchmark not just for portraiture, but for painting as a discipline. In Bacon’s work, he writes, ‘the image is nowhere fixed, finite, descriptive; and yet it tells us more fully and more truthfully than any conventional portrait what it is like to be a human being. It suggests to us that earlier images have been unwarrantedly bland in their presentation of human nature; and it also suggests that this particular new kind of presentation is something that only painting can do. Painting here reclaims its rights’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1971, p. 132). Nowhere is this right more powerfully asserted than Bacon’s enduring depictions of Dyer and Rawsthorne.