Francis Bacon (1909-1992)
Seated Figure
signed, titled and dated 'Seated Figure 1979 Francis Bacon' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
77¾ x 58 1/8 in. (197.5 x 147.6 cm.)
Painted in 1979.
Marlborough Fine Art, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
M. Leiris, Francis Bacon: Full Face and in Profile, Barcelona, 1983, no. 125 (illustrated in color).
Francis Bacon, London, 1985, p. 17 (illustrated).
W. Schmied, Francis Bacon, Commitment and Conflict, Munich, 1996, p. 199, no. 51 (illustrated in color).
D. Sylvester, et al, Francis Bacon, Paris, 1996, p. 47, (illustrated).
New York, Marlborough Gallery, Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, April-June 1980, no. 8, pp. 22-23 (illustrated in color).
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Francis Bacon Paintings, May-July 1985, no. 13, pp. 31, 30 & 43 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

Painted in 1979, Seated Figure is a searing representation of the human condition that shows the intense power of paintings from Bacon's mature period. Trapped in a rigid suit, encompassed by the strict geometry of the room, the mania of the mouth with its gnashing teeth distills the screaming anguish of Bacon's existentialism, and his belief in the agony and violence of life. The intensity of the sitter, the fearsome clenched teeth and their implication of pain and insanity engage the viewer directly. This is what Bacon described as art that passes directly 'from the eye to the stomach without going through the brain' (Bacon, quoted in F. Giacobetti, 'Exclusive Interview with Francis Bacon: I painted to be loved', The Art Newspaper, June 2003).

Bacon's much-quoted minimalist take on the human condition, that 'You are born, you fuck, you die' (Bacon, quoted in Giacobetti, ibid, 2003) is made all the more powerful and poignant by the realisation that the silhouetted features of the Seated Figure resemble those of his former lover George Dyer. Bacon's art had often featured Dyer's image after his death in 1971, and his posthumous portraits comprise some of Bacon's strongest paintings. Seated Figure would be a particularly late recurrence of Dyer's features, coming almost a decade later.

Bacon was fascinated by the magnetic, tortured physicality of the East End petty criminal, and found it perfectly suited to his depictions of male figures. This tension came to flavour almost all Bacon's depictions of males for the rest of his career, and is again vividly evoked in the overtly gangster-ish men depicted in the related painting, Two Seated Figures. This underlying sense of violence, barely restrained in the Seated Figure by the rigid suit and sanitised surroundings, perfectly embodies Bacon's belief that life is a violent experience.

Bacon's art hinges around this existential anguish. In his world view, most human beliefs are simple distractions allowing us to hoodwink ourselves into believing that life means something. Bacon believed that Man resorts to concepts such as love, science and religion in order to lend life a framework, trying to fit it into a rational straightjacket. Seated Figure illustrates these trimmings in the surroundings and the suit, which are the accoutrements of the unstable and extraneous world of reason. To Bacon, humanity's insistence on a quest for reasons was a flawed and delusional, concealing the random and terrifying pointlessness of existence. The room and the suit in Seated Figure reflect this man-made attempt at control, but piercing it is the violent, thrashing and gnashing head, an irrepressible manifestation of the true essence of life. The solitude of the Seated Figure makes this intensely potent and personal. Where Two Seated Figures appears to show a pair of hoodlums in hats straight out of Capone's Chicago or the Krays' East End, the businessman in Seated Figure is emphatically alone, elevating him to the position of an everyman. Isolated on a dais, he appears to be the victimised subject of sadistic dentistry or medical tests. He is an existential guinea-pig, a martyr to life.

Bacon extends the contrast between the reality of life and Man's imposed thirst for reason extends to the composition of Seated Figure. The clinical sparseness of the surroundings, which accentuates the smeared flesh of the head while simple geometrical shapes, a few lines here and a few lines there, form the surrounding room. All this is in stark contrast to the distorted whirlpool of oils in the head. Bacon has left the opening behind the sitter as bare canvas, emphasising the painterly head, whose meat-like qualities, with the strange flesh-tones pierced by the mouth, are quintessentially Bacon. In order to capture life on canvas, even Bacon's painting process involved chance and violence. Any semblance of a literal depiction would be attacked, in order to create something that is not distractingly descriptive, but pulses with life.

Bacon almost never worked from life, but instead took images from his imagination and melded them with a wide array of assorted source pictures scattered throughout his studio. Bacon's reliance on source images was in part due to the discomfort that he felt in the presence of his sitters whenever he inflicted these violent distortions to their likenesses on the canvas. He felt that he was abusing his friends. This ability to work from photographs came to the fore especially in the increasing number of posthumous portraits that Bacon painted. At the same time, he liked to work from source images and photographs. These would not be used literally, but instead as springboards, as seedlings of ideas, little kernels of inspiration. When the contents of Bacon's litter-strewn studio were catalogued after his death, a John Deakin photograph of Dyer in profile was found that appears to haunt the dark silhouetted features of Seated Figure. Meanwhile, the pain-racked grin recalls the images of oral disease from a book entitled Diseases of the Mouth with hand-colored plates that Bacon had bought in Paris in 1935. Images from this book in particular were to recur throughout Bacon's strongest paintings, as it was through these that he was best inspired to capture the anguish of existence, embodied in the 'cry'. This outpouring of existential angst, a universal scream for release, fills Seated Figure with what Bacon referred to as 'The whole coagulation of pain, despair...' (quoted in D. Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London, 1994, p.106).


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