'How can you cut your flesh open and join it with the other person?'
(F. Bacon interview with G. Miller (dir.), Francis Bacon: Grand Palais, BBC TV, 1971, quoted in M. Harrison, In Camera Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London, 2005, p. 216)
'I sensed that for once Francis was deeply content, possibly as satisfied with his work as he had ever been, yet overwhelmed too, and possibly frightened' (D. Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, New York, 1993, p. 158)
'His work impressed me, his personality affected me. He talked a great deal about the paint itself, carrying the form and imbuing the paint with this sort of life. He talked about packing a lot of things into one single brushstroke, which amused and excited me the idea of paint having that power' (L. Freud quoted in W. Feaver, 'Beyond Feeling', Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 1993, p. 13).
'I do work very much more by chance now than I did when I was young. For instance, I throw an awful lot of paint onto things, and I don't know what is going to happen to it. I throw it with my hand. I just squeeze it into my hand and throw it on. I can't by my will push it further. I can only hope that the throwing of paint onto the already-made or half-made image will either re-form the image or that I will be able to manipulate this further into, anyway, for me, a greater intensity' (F. Bacon interview with D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1993, p. 90).
'Francis always said that Lucian was the most entertaining and stimulating person he knew. And whatever ambivalence, he made no pretense that he very much minded the gap in his life when in later years Lucian stopped ringing up' (D. Sylvester, 'All the Pulsations of a Person', The Independent, October 24 1993).
The best of Bacon and Freud: A Unique Self-Portrait
Extremely rare in the artist's oeuvre, Study for Self-Portrait is a poignant and exceptionally intimate painting by Francis Bacon, which marries the artist's face to the figure of friend and fellow painter, Lucian Freud. It represents one of only twelve, floor-length self-portraits ever to be realised by Francis Bacon, four of which are now held in international museum collections including: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, National Museum Wales, Cardiff and Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal. The present work is the only of these appointed 'self-portraits' to undertake the all-consuming, almost devotional act of conflating the two artists' physiognomies. Deeply contorted, Bacon's piercing eyes, fleshy lips and rounded jaw are still instantly recognisable, while the lean, sculpted limbs and lithe serpentine of the body is unmistakably Lucian Freud. Bacon never painted from life, preferring instead to use the still photographic image; in Study for Self-Portrait, these elements are plucked and fused from John Deakin's renowned photo shoot of both men undertaken in 1964. Painter to painter, Bacon and Freud greatly impacted one another, the present work arriving at the very height of their relationship. Arguably the moment of greatest personal and professional contentment in Bacon's career, Study for Self-Portrait was painted shortly after the artist's breakthrough retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London in 1962, and the year after his first major American exhibition at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. At the end of 1963 Bacon also formed a close attachment to George Dyer, the ill-fated yet remarkably charismatic Eastender who inspired much of the artist's greatest work. A sense of this atmosphere is imbued into the very fabric of Study for Self-Portrait , the pronounced confidence translated into the work's bold composition.
In this powerfully resolved painting, the artist has combined sensational colour with raw flashes of canvas and an impulsive, dynamic face with a perfectly realised muscular figure. The smooth curves of the calf and trouser leg are reflected in the fluid swathes of paint used to capture the face. Colours abound, with orange and green highlighting the powerful forearm. Soaked into the deepest recesses of the painting, Bacon has applied a layer of inky blue, which closely traces the contours of the human figure. A function of Bacon's unique practice of priming the reverse of his canvases, this saturated pigment recalls the landmark suite of Man in Blue paintings embarked upon in 1954. On top of this sea of midnight blue, Bacon has applied a nude tone, which nevertheless betrays its under-painting: dark brushstrokes rising up like shadows from the depths and creeping around each painterly threshold. Flanking the face itself is a geometric frame rendered in dark burgundy, scumbled using a cutting of corduroy fabric. Under the artist's feet appears a carpet of kingfisher blue, almost tactile with its highly stippled relief. It is this perfected balance between serene blocks of liquescent colour, luxuriant texture, and the drama of the figure that gives the painting such force.
For many years Study for Self-Portrait formed part of the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation; a collection that championed contemporary British painters such as Bacon, Bridget Riley, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Graham Sutherland and Peter Blake. In 1967 Study for Self-Portrait was exhibited in the Tate Gallery's Recent British Painting: Peter Stuyvesant Foundation Collection, celebrating the pantheon of great British contemporary art.
Francis Bacon & Lucian Freud: A Defining Relationship
In Study for Self-Portrait, Bacon has wed his own face with the figure of his friend Lucian Freud, sitting upon the edge of a bed, his sleeves rolled up and trouser leg riding high to show a glimpse of bare skin. In Double Portrait of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach carried out the same year, Bacon similarly joins the angular face of Freud with the soft, rounded torso, arms and thighs of his own physique. It is a deeply revealing practice, suggesting Bacon's affinity and perhaps even his desire for Freud. As the artist explained, 'people go to bars to be closer to each other. The frustration is that people can never be close enough to each other. If you're in love you can't break down the barriers of the skin' (F. Bacon quoted quoted in M. Harrison, In Camera Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London, 2005, p. 216). In a televised interview with Gavin Miller in 1971, he went on to elaborate, 'how can you cut your flesh open and join it with the other person?' (F. Bacon interview with G. Miller (dir.), Francis Bacon: Grand Palais, BBC TV, 1971, quoted in M. Harrison, In Camera Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London, 2005, p. 216). In Study for Self-Portrait, Bacon seeks this proximity and intensity, achieving in paint what remains impossible in life.
Bacon and Freud became friends shortly after the Second World War, introduced by painter Graham Sutherland. Freud was deeply impressed by Bacon's ineluctable skill. As the photo of the two men taken in Bacon's studio at the Royal College of Art in 1952 tellingly reveals, Bacon would expound forth on his principles of painting and Freud would attend, deferential, readily listening to his mentor. As David Sylvester later recalled, 'in those early days Lucian clearly had a crush on Francis, as I did. (We both copied his uniform of a plain, dark grey, worsted double-breasted Savile Row suit, plain shirt, plain dark tie, brown suede shoes)' (David Sylvester, 'All the Pulsations of a Person', The Independent, 24 October 1993).
The relationship between Freud and Bacon rapidly developed, both artists thriving off the other's intellectual and creative curiosity. For Freud, the decade, which elapsed between their first acquaintance in the 1950s and the 1960s, saw him rapidly transform his technique: from a smooth, Ingriste appreciation of contour and line, to the rich, impasto modulation of paint that was to become his hallmark. This transformation was greatly influenced by his interaction with Bacon, who was devoted to the process of transmitting the raw, visceral reality of the figure to canvas, what he called 'the pulsations of a person' (Francis Bacon interview with David Sylvester, quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1987, p. 174). As Bacon went on to elaborate, in a portrait 'you have to record the face. But with their face you have to try and trap the energy that emanates from them' (Ibid.). For Freud, these were profound musings, which contributed to his growing conviction as a painter, evidenced in the remarkably loose and impulsive Self-Portrait he carried out in 1963. As Freud later said of Bacon, 'his work impressed me, his personality affected me. He talked a great deal about the paint itself, carrying the form and imbuing the paint with this sort of life. He talked about packing a lot of things into one single brushstroke, which amused and excited me the idea of paint having that power' (L. Freud quoted in W. Feaver, 'Beyond Feeling', Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 1993, p. 13).
Over the course of his career, Bacon undertook a number of portraits of Freud; the first in 1951 realised from memory and later from 1964-1973 based upon commissioned photographs by fellow Soho denizen and feted photographer John Deakin. Deakin's now renowned black and white photographs became the basis for the majority of Bacon's portraits throughout the sixties, capturing not only Lucian Freud, but also subjects including George Dyer, Isabel Rawsthorne, Peter Lacy, Muriel Belcher and Henrietta Moraes. In Study for Self-Portrait, the assembly of the figure and room is arguably derived from Deakin's photo shoot of Freud. From the numerous shots taken, Bacon has selected Freud's arms resting in his lap from one image, interpolated with the crossed legs of another. The head itself is most likely drawn from a contemporary Deakin portrait of Bacon. In the photograph, Freud appears wearing a white shirt rolled up to its sleeves; the latent symbolism of the bared forearm projecting an attitude of 'getting down to work', Freud ready to delve into the day's tasks. It is perhaps an incongruous image, the white shirt worn by a man bound to despoil its pristine cloth with smears of oil paint in his studio.
Study for Self-Portrait marks the apex of Bacon and Freud's relationship. In the years that followed, the friendship cooled, affected by the two men's differing fortunes. Well-known for his mercurial character and often prone to changes in loyalty, Bacon once mused: 'I'm not really fond of Lucian, you know, the way I am of Rodrigo (Moynihan) and Bobby (Buhler). It's just that he rings me up all the time', but as Sylvester recounted, 'Francis always said that Lucian was the most entertaining and stimulating person he knew. And whatever ambivalence, he made no pretense that he very much minded the gap in his life when in later years Lucian stopped ringing up' (D. Sylvester, 'All the Pulsations of a Person', The Independent, October 24 1993).
Bacon the Subject: Painting the Full-Length Self-Portrait
Carried out in 1964, Study for Self-Portrait was undertaken at a time of relative contentment for Bacon. Towards the end of 1963 he became acquainted with and formed a new attachment to George Dyer, a debonair if flawed Eastender. By 1964, the pair had become inseparable, Dyer becoming the recurrent subject of a wealth of paintings. Ultimately ill fated, the new relationship nevertheless reinvigorated the artist, who had been left deeply affected by the loss of his great love, Peter Lacy in Tangiers two years earlier. Professionally, Bacon was receiving great approbation from a public that now saw him less the maverick, than a master of figurative painting. This came on the heels of his first major retrospective at the Tate in London, which was followed in 1963 by a triumphant exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Bacon was both flattered and sanguine about the great accolades he was receiving. As his friend Daniel Farson recalled: 'I sensed that for once Francis was deeply content, possibly as satisfied with his work as he had ever been, yet overwhelmed too, and possibly frightened' (D. Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, New York, 1993, p. 158).
In Study for Self-Portrait, a sense of this professional achievement and full emotional life is distilled into the paint surface. Carried out on a near life-size scale, this rare, exceptionally resolved painting is one of very few full-length works ever to be realised. Often returning to his own image, Bacon frequently carried out small canvases of his head. As he remarked caustically, 'after all, as we are human beings, our greatest obsession is with ourselves' (F. Bacon quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1987, p. 116). However, he only completed twelve full-scale self-portraits between 1956 and 1985, arguably a reflection of how taxing yet enduring they proved to be. His earliest work, Self-Portrait was painted directly onto the canvas from the recesses of Bacon's imagination. A sense of the period's deep anxiety is palpable in the darkness of the inky, blue-black composition and the bent, defensive, crouched position of the artist's body. In Study for Self-Portrait and Study for Self-Portrait (1963) (National Museum Wales, Cardiff) by contrast, the artist appears relaxed, his body open, casual, sitting comfortably with his legs crossed. It is a sense of self-assuredness, which culminates in the resounding image of the present work; a condition not to return in later portraits such as Self-Portrait (1973), where the artist anxiously clasps hand to head.
Calculation and Contingency: Francis Bacon's Mastery of Paint
In Study for Self-Portrait, Bacon has established his composition over a saturated ground of midnight blue, recalling the dark atmosphere of his mid-1950s series of Man in Blue paintings. Furnished through the reverse priming of the canvas, Bacon's deep hue permeates the composition, only to be covered later in washes of pale, nude pigment. Traces of ink blue follow each geometric block, just as flurries of underlying brushstrokes radiate up through the paint surface. Dominating the lower half of the composition are two regions of intense colour: a matte shade of cerulean blue, flanked by a carefully stippled, aquamarine. Resting his foot on the floor, this radiant carpet is almost sculptural, the brushstrokes protruding like tiny barbs, forming a counterpoint to the smooth resolution of the remaining canvas.
The body of Freud appears lean, taught, built up from confident brushstrokes, like the underlying bands of muscles that make the strong shoulders and sculpted forearms. The shirt that clothes the torso is rendered in rough gestures of pure white, which leave patches of raw canvas to shine through like naked flesh. The trousers covering each leg are built up from fluid strokes, the dynamic contours intimating the restless movement of Freud as he posed for his photograph. Behind his head and against the painted wall, Bacon violently throws black pigment across the composition, as if intoxicated by some sudden rage. In doing so, Bacon was taking a calculated risk. As the artist explained, 'I do work very much more by chance now than I did when I was young. For instance, I throw an awful lot of paint onto things, and I don't know what is going to happen to it. I throw it with my hand. I just squeeze it into my hand and throw it on. I can't by my will push it further. I can only hope that the throwing of paint onto the already-made or half-made image will either re-form the image or that I will be able to manipulate this further into, anyway, for me, a greater intensity' (F. Bacon interview with D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1993, p. 90).
Having painstakingly established the coloured background and the contours of the figure, Bacon rapidly established the face 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., Malborough-Gerson Gallery, New York 1968, p. 13). In Study for Self-Portrait, Bacon has elaborated these features rapidly and with extraordinary facility in a flurry of brush marks. The finish is violent yet remarkably controlled: the eyes, nose and plump lips dramatically contorted, yet still recognizably the artist's own. As a backdrop to the artist's face, Bacon has layered a deep papal red with textured black scumbling, undertaken with a sleeve of corduroy fabric to form a stark square. This square creates a pronounced focal point, pulling the eye to the head of the self-portrait as it emerges like a specter from the darkness.
The Violation of 'Likeness'
This motif of the dark, hatched, geometric frame foregrounding the head, recalls the small-scale, self-portraits Bacon undertook of his face and profile from 1967 onwards. Isolated within the confines of a dark ground, Bacon would paint his face with characteristic and unrelenting fervour, sweeping across the canvas and subverting all expectations associated with the genre. As Gilles Deleuze once emphatically and empathetically affirmed: 'yes, the face has a great future, but only if it is destroyed, dismantled' (G. Deleuze quoted in W. Seipel, B. Steffen & C. Vitali (eds.), Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel 2004, p. 219). In Study for Self-Portrait Bacon grasps beneath the veneer, violating the quintessence of the human appearance. Rendered in a red-bluish palette highlighted with white, the artist bares himself, stripped down to flesh and bone. With these powerful effacements, Bacon explores what he once described as the fine 'precipice' between abstraction and figuration, replacing 'likeness' with what he would later describe as the 'brutality of fact'.
In Study for Self-Portrait, Bacon takes distortion to its furthest logical point so that the face is rotated or twisted around a central axis. The rapid brushstrokes, confidently undertaken in a matter of seconds suggest a sense of movement, as if the head were turning from left to right. While Bacon's self-portrait triptychs offer a stereoscopic view of the face, turning each cheek as if in front of a mirror, and implying movement in consecutive frames, Study for Self-Portrait spectacularly achieves this in one. A great admirer of Eadweard Muybridge's time-lapse photography, Bacon has conflated the moving image; the resulting portrait recalling the angular physiognomy of Pablo Picasso's primitive Head of a Man (1907) or the dynamic futurism of Umberto Boccioni. As the artist once concluded, 'I have deliberately tried to twist myself my paintings are, if you like, a record of this distortion. Photography has covered so much: in a painting that's even worth looking at, the image must be twisted if it is to make a renewed assault upon the nervous system. That is the peculiar difficulty of figurative painting now. I attempt to re-create a particular experience with greater poignancy in the desire to live through it again with a different kind of intensity' (F. Bacon quoted in M. Peppiatt, 'From a Conversation with Francis Bacon', Cambridge Opinion (Special Issue: Modern Art in Britain), no.37, January, 1964, p. 48).
In spite of his signature, post-cubist distortions, there is a palpable sense of Bacon's character translated through the swirling rhythms of paint in Study for Self-Portrait. It is this ability to convey the essence of the subject that is so prodigious in Bacon's portraiture. As he once concluded, 'the living quality is what you have to get. In painting a portrait the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person the sitter is someone of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their emanation' (F. Bacon interview with D. Sylvester, D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1993, p. 174).