Please note that this work has been requested for the exhibition The Artist's Eye. London Artists Working from Life, 1950-1980, at the LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Westflisches Landesmuseumin Münster, November 2014-February 2015.
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN MASTERS
An undeniable icon of twentieth century art, the masterpiece triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) marks the epic culmination of Francis Bacon's relationship with fellow painter and chronicler of the human condition, Lucian Freud. Glowing in a palette of sunshine yellow and carried out in Bacon's celebrated triptych format, the towering, life-size painting pulses with vitality. With each masterful sweep of the brush, Bacon has animated his friend, Freud being seen to restlessly reposition himself, pivot his raised foot, kneed his hands in his lap and rotate his head from canvas to canvas. Reincarnated in paint, we are invited to get up close and personal with Freud.
In Three Studies of Lucian Freud, Bacon has combined with characteristic alacrity, a vital human form with a precise description of the architecture of space, and explosive, stochastic outbursts of thick texture. One of the greatest artistic friendships and rivalries of the twentieth century, the trajectory of their relationship over nearly half a century, from the moment of their introduction through Graham Sutherland in early 1945, goaded each man to greater levels of excellence in the field of figurative painting. Painter to painter, their practices impacted one another, as did their characters: Bacon finding a compliment to his own charismatic but capricious nature in Freud's confident and considered manner. Just as Freud's intimate portrait of Bacon painted in 1952, tragically stolen from the Tate collection while on display in Berlin in 1988, stands as one of the artist's greatest achievements, so Three Studies of Lucian Freud an be understood to be one of Bacon's greatest masterpieces.
Rarely matched in history, the powerful dialogue between Bacon and Freud recalls the energetic sparring between Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, Titian and Tintoretto, each great painter forever shaping the artistic canon. By the time Three Studies of Lucian Freud was made in 1969, the relationship between Freud and Bacon was at its apex, only to grow more distant throughout the 1970s.
A golden masterpiece, the three paintings of Three Studies of Lucian Freud form a near-devotional trinity to Freud: friend and foil, confidant and rival. Each exceptional in their own right, the paintings are spectacularly resolved and harmonious in unity, from left to right teaming with life in every brushstroke. Bacon has animated every one of his figures: the lean, sculpted limbs and lithe figure of Freud flowing with smooth gestures of the brush, while each face courses with energy and attitude lent by impulsive, staccato dashes of color. The scene for each painting is set up with precision, Bacon carefully establishing the radiant colored ground and building clean, crystalline prisms, to then rapidly establish the figure, using his free but controlled hand with extraordinary facility. It is along this fine knife's edge of calculated contingency that Bacon operates, balancing his fury and his flair with the paintbrush to 'clinch the image'. In each image, Freud is wearing a white shirt rolled up to its sleeves. His hands disappear into his lap as Bacon's attention turns to the flowing contours of the forearm and smooth curve of the thighs and calf. In every painting, the soles of Freud's leather-clad brogues turn up to confront the viewer, while in two paintings, left and center we catch a glimpse of bare skin, as the artist's trouser leg rises above the tidal mark of his navy blue sock. The cane-bottomed chair belongs to Bacon's studio, but he has also incorporated the headboard from the bed in John Deakin's photo shoot, to create a clean, linear backdrop to the drama of the figure.
Remarkably, the three panels of the work were separated for around fifteen years of their history. The complete work was exhibited first in 1970 at Galleria Galatea, Turin and later in the now renowned retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris and Kunsthalle Dsseldorf in 1971-1972. Somehow divided in the mid-1970s, the three works were later reunited in all their splendor. Exhibited side by side at The Yale Center for British Art, New Haven retrospective in 1999, the painting has stood as a gilded triptych, just as Bacon intended, ever since. Three Studies of Lucian Freud stands as one of only two existing, full-length triptychs of Lucian Freud; the other titled Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud, painted in 1966. A third triptych of Freud painted in 1964 was permanently dismantled; its right canvas, Study for the Portrait of Lucian Freud 1964) now belongs to the Israel Museum, Jerusalem and the central panel to Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
Arguably two of the greatest figurative painters of the twentieth century, Bacon and Freud greatly impacted one another. Meeting in 1945, they imbibed the spirit of post-war London, sharing a fondness for Soho and its newfound freedoms after the privations of wartime. In the 1950s, the two were inseparable; the young Freud finding great inspiration in Bacon's spontaneity and impulsive painterly skill. Later, in the 1960s, Freud painted Bacon's lover George Dyer twice, while Bacon painted Freud a number of times.
Bacon and Freud became close friends towards the end of the Second World War, introduced by painter Graham Sutherland. As Freud later recounted, "I said rather tactlessly to Graham 'who do you think is the best painter in England?' he said 'Oh, someone you've never heard of; he's like a cross between Vuillard and Picasso; he's never shown and he has the most extraordinary life; we sometimes go to dinner parties there" (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2002, p. 26). Sutherland made arrangements for the painters to visit him and his wife in the countryside in early 1945, the two traveling together from Victoria Station. "Once I met him, I saw him a lot" Freud remembered - Bacon being both "really admirable" and audacious, vacillating on impulse (L. Freud, interview with S. Smee and D. Dawson, 'Lucian Freud on Francis Bacon: In conversation with Sebastian Smee', in B. Bernard and D. Dawson (eds.), Freud at Work: Lucian Freud in Conversation with Sebastian Smee, London 2006, p. 26).
The pair became firm friends and regular companions. Bacon particularly appreciated Freud's quick wit, vitality and his consummate risk taking. Together they shared a fascination for the "human comedy", and were capable of a perceptive reading of people - both men enjoying a garrulous exchange of gossip between games of roulette and poker. Soho at the time provided a fertile ground for them both, able to enjoy their vices at leisure, passing between the comfortable settings of Wheeler's, the Gargoyle and the Colony Room. The Colony Room owned by Muriel Belcher was the stage upon which many of Bacon and Freud's personal stories were played out. Meeting almost daily, the two painters were in and out of each other's emotional trials and tribulations: Freud's faltering marriage with Lady Caroline Blackwood and Bacon's own tumultuous affair with Peter Lacy. As Caroline Blackwood recalled, "I had dinner with [Francis Bacon] nearly every night for more or less the whole of my marriage to Lucian We also had lunch" (C. Blackwood, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p. 192-193).
During this period, Bacon began to paint the cast of characters that surrounded him. As he explained, "when I was "younger, I needed extreme subject matter for my paintings. Then as I got older, I realized I had all the subjects I needed in my own life." (F. Bacon, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at University of East Anglia, Norwich, 2006, p.62). For the painter who avidly read the Greek tragedies, the poetry of W.B. Yeats, the philosophy of Paul Valéry and Jean-Paul Sartre, he found that his friends were as "vivid and transmutable" into art as any great literary hero or heroine. As Michael Peppiatt suggests, "the Orestes and Othellos, the Clytemnestras and Lady Macbeths, were all around him in the bars and clubs of Soho. If you had the power and conviction to raise them into myth, then Lucian Freud and George Dyer, Isabel Rawsthorne, Murie Belcher and Henrietta Moraes, with their striking looks and strange trajectoiries through life, were very literally the stuff of which legends are made" (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, 2006, p. 62).
Throughout the 1970s, the friendship between Bacon and Freud 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 David 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 AND FREUD: A FRIENDSHIP IN PORTRAITS
Friends and in later years, artistic rivals, Freud and Bacon developed a similar talent for depicting the human subject. While Freud's relentless accummulation of information and feeling through close focus painting differed to Bacon's highly contingent, ejaculatory and violent mark making, "[both] images were on the edge, born of tension, frenetic in Bacon's case, drawn out in Freud's. Bacon's chance effects betoken exhilarated despair, whereas Freud's hard-won image is patinated with angst" (D. Cohen, in S. Wilcox and D. Cohen, Lucian Freud: Etchings from the PaineWebber Art Collection, exh. cat., Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1999, p. 15).
Freud was deeply impressed by his older friend's skill and approach to painting and looked to him as a mentor, as the photo of the two men taken in Bacon's studio at the Royal College of Art in 1952 suggests. Thinking back on that period of his life, Freud said: "I realized immediately that [Bacon's] work related immediately to how he felt about life. Mine on the other hand seemed very labored. That was because it was a terrific amount of labor for me to do anything - and still is. Francis on the other hand, would have ideas, which he put down and then destroyed and then quickly put down again. It was his attitude that I admired. The way he was completely ruthless about his own work I think that Francis's way of painting freely helped me feel more daring" (L. Freud, quoted in R. Calvocoressi, Lucian Freud on Paper, New York, 2009, p. 11).
From as early as 1951, Freud and Bacon began to capture their friendship in portraits - one undertaking a painting or a drawing of the other. Bacon's first Portrait of Lucian Freud (1951) (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester) was his first portrait, which acknowledged the name of its sitter. It shows a young Freud in a navy suit lent up against a street lamp, undertaken by the artist from memory and recalling a photo of Franz Kafka. As David Sylvester recounted, "the manner of the Freud portrait's realisation was odd but typical. Bacon had asked Freud to come and pose. When the model arrived at the studio he found an almost finished painting of himself which had been based on memory and on a snapshot of Franz Kafka reproduced in a book" (D. Sylvester, Looking back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 66). Freud's first drawings of Bacon date from the same year, in which Bacon is seen bare-chested, trousers un-zipped and standing in his shirttails. As William Feaver recounted "Francis Bacon, one evening in 1951, undid his shirt buttons and flies, stuck his stomach out, flexed his hips and said 'I think you ought to do this because I think it's rather important here.' Freud drew him three times in that catwalk pose: three sketches latching on to the quips of body language that Bacon was so brilliant at swiping from newspaper photos and the like. Bared hips, the deferential nape of a neck, flinching eye contact, the inertia of despair or deep sleep were Bacon's forte; for Freud such inroads of vision and expression were enticing potential" (W. Feaver, Lucian Freud: Drawings, exh. cat., Blain Southern, London, 2012, p. 14-15).
The following year Freud carried out an intense portrait of Bacon in oil on a small copper plate. Executed on a miniature scale, the work exuded intensity and closeness and is now considered to be one of his greatest works. Originally intended for the wall of Wheeler's restaurant, the work was later destined for the Tate. Freud and Bacon sat knee to knee for two or three months until the painting was finished.
The painting proved to be a great success, even to Bacon, the toughest of critics. Enthralled, Lawrence Gowing described it as "quite unobtrusive, yet biting like a serpent when it caught you, exerting the transfixing spell of an image that is tantamount to the thing itself" (L. Gowing, Lucian Freud, London 1984, pp. 67-68). In 1988 the painting was stolen during Freud's major retrospective in Berlin. Telephoning Robert Hughes, Freud expressed how shocked he was: "Well," Hughes said to Freud, "'at least there's someone out there who's really fanatical about your work.' 'Oh, d'you think so?' he replied. 'You know, I'm not sure I agree. I don't think whoever it was, took it because he liked me. Not a bit of it. He must have been crazy about Francis. That would justify the risk'" (R. Hughes, 'Francis Bacon's fame is best assessed retrospectively,' The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2008/aug/30/bacon.art [24 July 2013]).
For Freud, the decade, which elapsed after his joint exhibition at the 1954 Venice Biennale with Bacon and Ben Nicholson, saw him rapidly transform his technique. Evolving from a smooth, Ingriste appreciation of contour and line, Freud developed the rich, impasto modulation of paint that has since 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" (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1987, p. 174).
Following the first fertile years of paintings and drawings in 1951 and 1952, Bacon and Freud did not paint each other again for another 12 years. Initially Bacon painted Double Portrait of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach (1964), the only existing work of the two contemporaries, which now hangs in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Bacon would next embark on only his second large-scale triptych using Freud as his exclusive subject. This triptych now forever disassembled exists between the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and a private collection. In comparison to the artist's earlier work, these paintings were marked by an increased confidence and strength of color and line, becoming the hallmark for Bacon's most accomplished and important period.
Freud's portraits of 1964 and 1965-66 are equally marked out by their looser and impasto applications of paint. The exactness of the early years is replaced by an intense, physical use of medium for which he acknowledged the influence of Bacon.
At this point the two were seemingly intertwined, with Freud painting Bacon's beloved George Dyer on a couple of occasions and Bacon painting Freud fourteen times between 1964 and 1971 in a mixture of two small panels, four large panels (one destroyed), two small triptychs, three large triptychs (one separated) and the rest as part of larger compositions. It was a time of great satisfaction and comfort in Bacon's life, his relationship with Dyer was at its peak, his paintings were gaining international recognition, he was being offered exhibitions at major museums around the world. This was reflected in the fact that in 1969, the same year of the present work, Bacon made arguably his two greatest small self-portraits. Huddled in his trademark trench coat against a luxurious aquamarine blue background, his face seems calm and at ease. These works are intense with scrutiny and intricacy but relaxed in manner, allowing Bacon to expose his most direct expression.
THE TRIPTYCH: THREE VISIONS OF FREUD
Although Bacon boldly marked his arrival on the world stage with the haunting triptych, Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1944 (Tate Collection), he did not paint another large-scale triptych until 1962 with Three Studies for a Crucifixion (Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection, New York). This work marked the onset of arguably his greatest and most ambitious period, in which Bacon undertook his largest scale works, finding new boldness and confidence with color, and perfectly calculated use of thick paint. His major retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1962 and subsequent exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York in 1963 were great triumphs, Bacon gaining sudden traction and celebrity within the contemporary art world. In an anonymous review of the Tate Gallery exhibition, Bacon's work was described as the shock of seeing Francisco de Goya's works: "This is the black night of the twentieth-century soul, images of man which are terrifying, violent and at times bestial. It was the most stunning exhibition by a living British painter since the War" (M. Gale and C. Stephens, Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 34).
A sense of Bacon's confidence during this period, of the artist at the apex of his powers, is evident in Three Studies of Lucian Freud. Eschewing all religiosity, Bacon fervently denied any association with the holy trinity in his triptychs, despite the titles of his Crucifixion scenes. As he quite simply explained to David Sylvester, "I see images in series. And I suppose I could go on long beyond the triptych and do five or six together, but I find the triptych is a more balanced unit" (F. Bacon, interview with D. Sylvester, in D. Farr, Francis Bacon: A Retrospective exh. cat., Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1999, p. 143). Never-the-less, the traditional "hallowed" format of the triptych and the strength of each successive canvas united in Three Studies of Lucian Freud, undoubtedly does take on an epic and near-devotional quality.
Bacon would go on to paint an unrivalled sequence of triptychs, one a year from 1964-1969, most of which are now in museums and subsequently the infamous and seminal black triptychs: Triptych - In Memory of George Dyer (1971) (Fondation Beyeler, Basel), Triptych. August (1972) (Tate Gallery, London) and Triptych. May-June (1973), which Bacon undertook in posthumous tribute to his lover George Dyer, the ill-fated yet remarkably charismatic Eastender who inspired much of the artist's greatest work. It is perhaps striking and significant then that Bacon was to conclude his suite of paintings of Dyer, and indeed Freud, with his bittersweet Three Portraits: Posthumous Portrait of George Dyer, Self-Portrait, Portrait of Lucian Freud (1973). In this great trinity, Freud is placed alongside Dyer, alluding to the significance of each man and the intimacy once held between friends.
IMAGES RECORDED IN PAINT
JOHN DEAKIN'S PHOTOGRAPHS
Bacon unlike Freud was always reluctant to paint his subjects from life, preferring instead to use photographs as visual triggers, as ways to unfurl personal and poignant recollections. From 1964-1973 he carried out portraits of Freud rendered from fellow Soho denizen John Deakin's commissioned photographs. Deakin's black and white images became the basis for the majority of Bacon's portraits throughout the sixties capturing, not only Lucian Freud, but George Dyer, Isabel Rawsthorne, Peter Lacy, Muriel Belcher and Henrietta Moraes. In Deakin's shots of Bacon, as the artist himself acknowledged, the posture of his head is inspired by Freud's 1952 portrait, Francis Bacon.
In Three Studies of Lucian Freud, the assembly of the figure and room is clearly derived from Deakin's photo shoot of Freud. From the numerous shots taken in the 1960s, Bacon has interpolated the figure of Freud from one familiar suite of photographs showing the artist sitting in a studio, and another group of images taken in 1964 reclining on a bed covered in a geometric patterned quilt. From left to right across each of the three canvases, Freud appears first with his shoulders turned gently towards us, then square on to centre and finally, gently hunched as if the shoulder blades were being pinched together.
For Bacon, as he explained to David Sylvester, his preference for the for the photograph or reproduced image was because a friend before him in the studio inhibited his practice: "they inhibit me because if I like them, I don't want to practice before them the injury that I do to them in my work. I would rather practice the injury in private by which I can think I can record the fact of them more clearly" (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1987, p. 41)
Subjected to the vertiginous extremes of emotion that Bacon measured out, many of Bacon's models, George Dyer in particular, appear on the verge of succumbing to the furious "assault" of brushstrokes cast onto the canvas by the artist. In Three Studies of Lucian Freud however, we are met by a Lucian Freud, contorted yet confident, rising through the painterly onslaught. As Peppiatt has described, "trapped here in a series of Baconian cages, a contorted Freud hovers from panel to panel like a coiled spring about to shoot out of the flat, airless picture plane" (M. Peppiatt, quoted in Caravaggio-Bacon, exh. cat., Galleria Borghese, Rome 2009-2010, p. 198).
THE FIGURATIVE SUBLIME
In Three Studies of Lucian Freud Bacon has rendered each successive canvas in a palette of brilliant yellow, over a curved ground of golden ochre echoing the tall curved bow windows of his childhood home in Ireland. The golden ochre itself is carefully stippled by animations of thick paint revealing a series of under-layers. Forming a glowing carpet that is almost sculptural, the brushstrokes protrude like tiny barbs, forming a counterpoint to the smooth resolution of the remaining canvas. This compositional design and treatment of the ground very much reflects the devices used in Bacon's bullfight paintings made in the same year. Together these strong, resonant colors recall the bold and emotive chromatic fields created by contemporary artists such as Mark Rothko. The 1960s marked a major turn in Bacon's oeuvre towards color: lilac, cyan, kingfisher blue, orange vermillion and scarlet red all becoming dominant grounds in his major paintings. Yet Bacon was consistently scathing about Abstract Expressionism. For him, abstraction was to be restricted to the backgrounds of paintings, as complements to his figurative images. Notwithstanding, the Tate Gallery's 1959 exhibition, The New American Painting did leave a profound impression on the artist and it was in 1968, shortly before Three Studies of Lucian Freud was to be painted, that Bacon made his first visit to the United States for his exhibition at Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in New York.
It was during this time that Bacon encounterd Jackson Pollock's work at the Museum of Modern Art, and was characteristically scathing: "I'd heard so much about Jackson Pollock--and found that dribbling of paint all over the canvas just looked like old lace. (F. Bacon, quoted in M. Gale and C. Stephens, Francis Bacon, exh.cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 263).
This does not however belie the significance of these artists' practices to Bacon whose work began to bare certain similarities. Indeed in Three Studies of Lucian Freud we find Bacon applying thick, button-like blobs of paint to the canvas as if at random, by chance, but with the utmost control of his hand.
SPACE AND THE REVELATION OF THE HUMAN
Bacon's use of the space frame with its clean internal architecture in Three Studies of Lucian Freud acts to lock the figure of Freud to a certain time and space - the crystalline structure drawing the man into our immediate focus. As Wieland Schmied has described, "Bacon's space subverts our habit of seeing, abandoning perspective and breaking up the familiar appearance of our everyday surroundings All Bacon's spaces are conceived with human life in mind. Every corner of the space is related to a person, whose presence charges it with extreme tension. It is only through the figure that we really see the space and, in turn, it is only through the space that we learn to see the individual human being. That is its function. The purpose of space is the revelation of the human" (W. Schmied, Francis Bacon: Commitment and Conflict, Munich 2006, p. 31). Employed in many of the artist's greatest works including Bacon's 1953 suite of Popes the geometric prism surrounded by two clearly delineated fields of sunshine yellow over golden ochre in Three Studies of Lucian Freud, gives Freud a gilded, exalted and powerful appearance. Indeed a sense of Freud's character, his inner resolve, pride and vitality is communicated in paint, as his feet boldly breach the confines of each successive space frame.