'He managed in the course of 1953 to produce over twenty pictures in an annus mirabilis as inventive as it was prolific'
(M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich 2006, p. 33)
Situated between the seminal first series of Popes in 1953 and the landmark suite of Man in Blue paintings in 1954, Study for a Portrait represents a highly significant moment in Francis Bacon's oeuvre. Its vast scale makes it larger than most of the aforementioned, with Bacon making full use of the painting's extraordinary atmosphere to comment on the state of man in existentialist post-war Europe. Study for a Portrait is the last painting that Bacon created in his studio at the Royal College of Art, which Rodrigo Moynihan lent to him between 1951-53. It is imbued with all the pioneering works he created there including the Papal portraits and his first ever triptych portrait realised in 1953, Three Studies of the Human Head. All of these works were cast against the exquisite backdrop of his unique, ethereal liquid blue paint so expertly applied in Study for a Portrait. The painting has a distinguished and exclusive heritage of artistic ownership. Rodrigo Moynihan was the first owner and it later belonged to Louis Le Brocquy, the renowned Irish painter, who was the last to keep it before its acquisition by the present owner in 1984.
Enshrouded by a sea of midnight blue, Bacon artfully depicts a besuited man, seated on a gilded armchair evocative of a Papal throne. With his disdainful gaze cast through lightly rimmed, pince-nez glasses, the man imports an aura of authority, isolated and enclosed within the cage of Bacon's architectural spaceframe. His atmosphere is dark, rendered through washes of blue-black oil and turpentine saturated on canvas. The twilight of the painting is broken up by striations of pale parallel lines, evocative of the folds of rich drapery depicted in the artist's studies of Velazquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X. Highlights adorn the man's armchair with flashes of ochre tracing its contours like some golden throne for a ruling leader or the corporate seat of the trenchant capitalist. As David Sylvester has described, '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). In Study for a Portrait, Bacon imports a sense of the era's European post-war existentialism, cutting through the veneers of civilised society to distil the raw and visceral qualities of the human character onto 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).
The early 1950s was a time of great interaction between the artist and his friends and peers Rodrigo Moynihan, Lucian Freud and David Sylvester. Indeed as David Sylvester recalls, '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 Saville Row suit, plain shirt, plain dark tie, brown suede shoes)' (D. Sylvester, 'All the Pulsations of a Person', The Independent, 24 October 1993). The shadows of all of these men, including the artist's caustic lover Peter Lacy can be found in the face of this extraordinary portrait. KA
Francis Bacon's Study for a Portrait, 1953
By Martin Harrison
'Study for a Portrait (1953) relates to the 'Pope' paintings that preceded it, and it is clear that it anticipates the Man in Blue series commenced in 1954, yet in some decisive respects it conforms with neither of these categories, nor with his other contemporary portraits of seated men, and stands as a unique work'
(M. Harrison, May 2011).
In evaluating Francis Bacon's entire oeuvre it is evident that between 1948 and 1963 he had a strong tendency to paint in series. These series - several of popes, heads, studies from the life-mask of William Blake, the seven Man in Blue paintings, the seven men in glasses - were sometimes identified as such and each painting numbered, while others constituted, in effect, a series, such as the three dog paintings dating from 1952. In some of these Bacon appears to have been exploring the cumulative impact of a group of paintings in which he made incremental shifts around the formal matrix, adjusting the mood, gestures and emotion of the 'sitter'. As Bacon explained to Ronald Alley, he saw the images 'in a shifting way, and almost in shifting sequences. The pictures are painted one after the other, the last one suggests the next.' 1 This explanation was appended to Alley's entry for Study for Portrait 1 (1953), the first painting in what became a notable series of eight papal portraits, which Bacon completed shortly before commencing the present painting.2
Conversely, other important paintings that Bacon made in this period appear to have been conceived as discrete statements: he may have regarded subjects such as Elephant Fording a River (1952), for example, as too specific to be susceptible to further development. Study for a Portrait (1953) relates to the 'Pope' paintings that preceded it, and it is clear that it anticipates the Man in Blue series commenced in 1954, yet in some decisive respects it conforms with neither of these categories, nor with his other contemporary portraits of seated men, and stands as a unique work.
Firstly, Study for a Portrait (1953) is the most rigorously grisaille among Bacon's paintings of the period. The ground is painted in a dark, stygian register, the deeply-saturated, inky, Prussian blue-black contrasting with the greys of the inner image. The monumental figure, bespectacled and wearing a dark suit and neatly starched (and somewhat constricting) white collar and purple tie, is pictured from a quite low viewpoint. Strictly speaking the 'spectacles' are pince-nez, and thus refer to the film still of the screaming nurse from the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin that Bacon had grafted onto his Pope figures since 1949; this is further indicated by the extra 'falling' lens that Bacon painted under the man's right eye. Frontal, imperious, head raised, he is among the most magisterially aloof of all Bacon's 'authority' figures, be they popes or 'businessmen'. The atmosphere of hieratic indomitability is emphasised by the formal armature - the inner 'spaceframe' that interrupts the ground of vertical 'shuttering' (and secondary traces of curtaining) is virtually symmetrical and eschews the playfully 'incorrect' diagonals of which Bacon was so fond. The confined space that the figure occupies is delineated in pale blue paint, and its darker, receding planes mark this as one of Bacon's most coolly dramatic arenas, the spatial recession and the unlined dark 'roof' intensifying the isolation of the resolutely impassive man.
'Frontal, imperious, head raised, he is among the most magisterially aloof of all Bacons authority figures, be they popes or businessmen' (M. Harrison on Study for Portrait, 1953).
'Study for a Portrait (1953) shares some fundamental characteristics with the paintings of Mark Rothko, conspicuously its soaring abstract planes and subtle chromatic juxtapositions'
(M. Harrison, May 2011).
'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).
Comparisons have often been made between Giacometti and Bacon, both figurative modernists committed to finding new ways to capture appearance and to represent the human body in space; for example, the the open cage construction of Giacometti's early sculpture The Palace at 4 a.m. (1933; Museum of Modern Art, New York) has been posited as a source for Bacon's spaceframes. The strong influence exercised on Britain's 'Geometry of Fear' sculptors by the gaunt, attenuated figures Giacometti evolved about 1946 was manifested in London in several of the entries to the competition for a 'Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner' in 1953 - contemporaneously, that is, with Study for a Portrait (1953). Bacon professed indifference to Giacometti's sculpture but greatly admired his paintings and drawings and called him the 'greatest draughtsman of our time'.3 In their unflinching frontality, monochrome palette and the device of the rectangular inner frame, Giacometti's Portrait of Peter Watson (1953; Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Bacon's Study for a Portrait (1953) have marked affinities; Bacon was closely acquainted with the art patron and collector Peter Watson, and probably knew this painting. But Bacon must have been familiar with the portrait busts in spaceframes that Giacometti had been painting since 1947, and it is likely that his own portraits were informed by them.
The chair in Study for a Portrait (1953) establishes continuity with the eight Popes that Bacon had painted a few months earlier in that despite being stripped down to a simplified, geometrical shape (it is shorn of the finials, for example) its edges are picked out in running lines and dabs of gold paint that refer back to the papal throne. In fact this was the first painting in which the legs and arms of the chair were painted in this more elaborate manner, and the immediate pictorial inspiration for this treatment was probably the studded armband worn by the king in Velázquez's Philip IV of Spain (c. 1656; National Gallery, London). Similarly, the man's purple tie was doubtless, like the vestigial tassel at the top of the painting, an atavistic reference to a leading motif of his pope paintings: Bacon initially believed, erroneously - he had only seen Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X in black and white reproduction - that the Pope's surplice was purple. The man's mouth is neither open in anguish nor baring teeth, but firmly closed, self-contained. Georges Bataille's observations in 'La Bouche' seem especially relevant here: Bataille claimed that 'human life is concentrated bestially in the mouth',4 and he evoked 'the magisterial aspect of the face with its mouth closed, beautiful as a strong-box'.5
The fleshy pink lips of Bacon's protagonist are unusual, and if they do point to an individual characterization it is possible they refer to David Sylvester, to whom Bacon was very close at the time the painting was made. The artist and critic briefly shared accommodation in 9 Apollo Place at the end of 1953 and lived in the same house at 19 Cromwell Road at the beginning of 1954; Sylvester was lecturing at the Royal College of Art while Bacon was painting there, and also dealing privately in Bacon's paintings during this period. Furthermore, Study for Portrait I (1953) had begun as a portrait of Sylvester 'who sat about four times for it until it turned into a pope'.6 Peter Lacy was possibly in the mix, too, but given Bacon's habit of merging and transposing the representations of individuals the identity of the 'sitter' will probably have to remain conjectural. A more definite comparison with the prominent lips is provided by Velázquez's portraits of Philip IV of Spain; besides the reproductions that Bacon owned of Velázquez's various versions of this subject, the National Gallery, London, held originals of not only the c. 1656 head-and-shoulders portrait, referred to above, but also Philip IV in Brown and Silver, c. 1631-32.
Study for a Portrait (1953), together with the painting that immediately preceded it, Portrait of a Man (1953), in which this detail is more cursorily delineated, represents the first occasion on which Bacon painted a man with his legs crossing. This pose, which recurred frequently in his paintings subsequently, was habitually adopted by Bacon himself when seated. In Study for a Portrait (1953) the suited body is painted quite thinly, with a broad brush, and evidently very rapidly, its energy providing an agitated, abbreviated counterpoint to the calmness and composure of the figure's general demeanour. The high reflectance of the oil-rich pigments in this passage is in marked contrast to the dominant low key of the painting. There is also implied movement in the positioning of the body, which twists round in the diagonally-positioned chair to confront the viewer directly.
Study for a Portrait (1953) was, then, a quintessential Bacon painting of the kind in which the leading art writers of the day found such compelling evocations of the existential zeitgeist. Their critical reception, and the resonance of Bacon's powerful (and powerless) figures, is clearly demonstrated in contemporary descriptions of them. Robert Melville thought Bacon's paintings fulfilled Nietzsche's gloomy prophecy to epitomise 'an age in which the breakdown in values has been completed', and he described Bacon's isolated figures as 'incarcerated' in glass boxes.7 The American critic Sam Hunter commented that Bacon's art was 'thoroughly contemporary in its vitality' and that 'No one has interpreted the acute postwar moods more vividly.'8 David Sylvester might have been addressing Study for a Portrait (1953) specifically in his remarks on Bacon's 'Settings which are luxurious and simple: lush velvet curtains and a gilded armchair. Like prison cells for highborn traitors.' 9
As a consequence of his peremptory departure from his flat at 7 Cromwell Place, South Kensington, in about April 1951, following the death of his former nanny and companion Jessie Lightfoot, Bacon had no access to a regular studio until the Autumn of that year, when Rodrigo Moynihan lent him his painting studio at the Royal College of Art. Moynihan had been appointed Professor of Painting at the college in 1948, and he was central to the drastic overhaul of its aims and syllabus initiated by Robin Darwin; it was in this studio that Moynihan painted the striking Portrait Group (1950; Tate Britain), which featured nine members of the Royal College's teaching staff. Bacon had already spent some time at the college deputising for John Minton in Autumn 1950. Although Bacon refused to teach any classes on either occasion, Albert Herbert was one of several artists who recalled the students' intoxication with Bacon's 'emotional realism' as well as his unconstrained attitude towards making art. These events serve as a reminder that at this stage in his career Bacon's interactions with London's cultural scene and its artists (Isabel Lambert, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, Victor Willing and Michael Andrews) were of reciprocal significance.
Paradoxically, considering he was working in a borrowed space, Bacon had embarked on a creatively extremely fertile period. He began a passionate if turbulent love affair with Peter Lacy in 1952, and although their relationship eventually became problematical at first it undoubtedly acted as a stimulus for new paintings. Bacon was able to use the studio at the Royal College for two years, and Study for a Portrait (1953) was in fact the last painting that he finished there, in about October 1953. He apparently made a gift of it to Moynihan, a gesture of thanks he would repeat in 1969 when he presented the college with Study for a Bullfight No. I (1969), having been loaned a studio there for seven months while repairs were carried out on his house at 7 Reece Mews.10 Study for a Portrait (1953) was subsequently acquired by Louis le Brocquy, and was thus also unique in having been owned by two of Bacon's distinguished artist peers and friends.
That such a major painting as Study for a Portrait (1953) has not featured more extensively in the Bacon bibliography can probably be accounted for by its having been in private hands throughout the fifty-eight years of its existence. Since it had been acquired by Rodrigo Moynihan shortly after it was completed it was never exhibited at the Hanover Gallery and its sole public appearance in the 1950s was in Bacon's first museum retrospective, held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in January and February 1955. Thereafter, prior to its spectacular reappearance in the Tate centenary retrospective in 2008-09, it was exhibited only twice during the next thirty years, at Fondation Maeght in 1966 and in Japan in 1983; it was even absent from Lorenza Trucchi's comprehensive monograph of 1975. Interestingly, however, it had been published in 1954 by Wyndham Lewis in The Demon of Progress in the Arts, in which it was illustrated under the title 'Man in a Chair'. Lewis, who was responsible for some of the most perceptive writing on Bacon at this time, considered him 'the most astonishingly sinister artist in England, and one of the most original'.11 Although, in The Demon of Progress in the Arts, Lewis compares him with Goya and Bosch, an analogy Bacon would have firmly repudiated, he observed that 'the ethical and literary impulses throughout the work of Bacon constitute him an artist at the opposite pole to the pretentious blanks and voids of Réalités Nouvelles.'12 Lewis's remark raises the question of Bacon's dialogue with abstract expressionism, about which he was also notoriously dismissive. In spite of his public statements, however, Study for a Portrait (1953) shares some fundamental characteristics with the paintings of Mark Rothko, conspicuously its soaring 'abstract' planes and subtle chromatic juxtapositions.13
Bacon's individual idiom generally precluded all but the most superficial imitations, but Graham Sutherland's controversial Portrait of Sir Winston Churchill (1954), which Churchill abhorred and his wife eventually destroyed, resembled Study for a Portrait (1953) in too many respects for a connection between them to be mere coincidence: in this instance the younger artist appears to have influenced Sutherland. The blurred, ethereal rendition of the man's head in Study for a Portrait (1953) is redolent of a plaster cast, and curiously prefigures the five variations he began in 1955 based on a life-mask of William Blake. The rapt expression and raised head suggest the self-possessed figure may have been involved in activity such as listening to music, or was otherwise deep in thought. Its spectral quality is also reminiscent of an early daguerreotype, as though the man were a sitter in a photographic studio a century earlier. As usual, the greatest attention is reserved for the head, its poignant, urgent brushwork recalling Robert Melville's contemporary remark that Bacon was 'unquestionably, the greatest painter of flesh since Renoir'.14
Study for a Portrait (1953) takes its place, then, in a pantheon of arresting images of male angst and seclusion, extending a lineage that embraces such disparate images as Durer's engraving Melancholia (1514), Rubens's Daniel in the Lion's Den (c. 1615; National Gallery of Art, Washington) and Blake's Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall (c. 1819-20; Tate Britain), to which Bacon added a modern image of unsettling power and distinction.
Martin Harrison, May 2011
Martin Harrison is editor of the Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné being published in 2013.
1. Sir John Rothenstein and Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon, 1964, p. 72.
2. See: Hugh M. Davies, Francis Bacon: The Papal Portraits of 1953, 2002.
3. David Sylvester, Looking back at Francis Bacon, 2000, p. 200.
4. G. Bataille, 'La Bouche', Documents 2, 1930, pp. 299-300.
6. Rothenstein and Alley, op cit, loc cit.
7. R. Melville, 'The Iconoclasm of Francis Bacon', World Review, January 1951, pp. 63-64.
8. S. Hunter, 'Francis Bacon: The Anatomy of Horror', Magazine of Art, January 1952, pp. 11-15.
9. D. Sylvester, 'In Camera', Encounter, April 1957, pp. 22-24.
10. In 1975 Bacon exchanged this painting, at the college's request, for Study from the Human Body: Man Turning on the Light (1973-74). See: 'Study from the Human Body: Man Turning on the Light', An essay by Martin Harrison, Christie's, London, Post-war and Contemporary Art, Evening Sale, 14 October 2007, pp. 20-25.
11. W. Lewis, 'Round the London Art Galleries', The Listener, 21 September 1950, p. 368.
12. Wyndham Lewis, The Demon of Progress in the Arts, 1954; in 'Explanatory Notes', (unnum.)
13. The broad, coloured planes in several of Rothko's paintings dating from 1948/49 are comparable with the ground of Bacon's Painting (1950; City of Leeds Art Gallery). Rothko stayed in London twice during a tour of Europe in 1950, although it is not know if he and Bacon met then; but Bacon would certainly have encountered Rothko's paintings by 1953.
14. Melville, op cit, p. 64.