Francis Bacon (1909-1992) <BR>
Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail) <BR>
Francis Bacon (1909-1992)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE NEW YORK COLLECTOR
Francis Bacon (1909-1992)

Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail)

Francis Bacon (1909-1992)
Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail)
oil on canvas
77½ x 54 in. (196.9 x 137 cm.)
Painted in 1952.
The Estate of Francis Bacon, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
D. Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, pp. 63 and 268 (illustrated in color).
L. Ficacci, Francis Bacon 1909-1972, Cologne, 2003, pp. 41-42 (illustrated in color).
A. Zeite, Francis Bacon: The Violence of the Real, London, 2006, p. 128, no. 22 (illustrated in color).
New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Francis Bacon: Important Paintings from the Estate, October 1998-January 1999, pp. 40-43 (illustrated in color).
Dublin, Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Francis Bacon in Dublin, June-August 2000, pp. 59 and 63, no. 16 (illustrated in color).
Porto, Fundação de Serralves, Francis Bacon: Caged.Uncaged, January-April 2003, no. 108 (illustrated in color).
New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Picasso, Bacon, Basquiat, May-July 2004, pp. 3, 24, 28 and 29 (illustrated in color).
Düsseldorf, K20 Kunstsammlung, Francis Bacon: Die Gewalt des Faktischen, September 2006-January 2007, p. 128 (illustrated in color).
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Robert Manley
Robert Manley

Lot Essay

"Bacon is unquestionably the greatest painter of the human flesh since Renoir, but the intense beauty of the color and texture of his flesh painting is at the same time horrifying, for it discovers a kind of equation between the bloom and elasticity of sensitive tissue and the fever and of iridescence of carrion. He is the painter of flesh considered as a communal substance, as the guinea-pig of senses, the trap of the spirit, the stuff of which murderers cannot get rid, the legitimate prey of pain and disease, of ecstasies and torments; obscenely immortal in renewal" (R. Melville, "World Review" 1951, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon Anatomy of an Enigma, London, 2008, p. 176).

The startling vision of live, human flesh, twitching and throbbing, while seemingly trapped in a cage or impaled on a cold steel armature - a vision of man as meat on a hook, or as an ape in a cage - was one that fascinated Bacon throughout much of his life. A powerful existential image of the imprisonment of the flesh, Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail) of 1952, is one of the first of these great works. It is an extraordinarily painterly and expressive painting belonging to an important series of pictures of a lone and huddled human figure crouching naked and isolated in an apparently hostile environment that Bacon made in the early 1950s and which, periodically the artist was to revisit time and again.

Closely related in both its theme and subject matter to the painting Study for Crouching Nude in the Detroit Institute of Arts, Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail) is one of several early masterpieces that were discovered in a London arts storage space where Bacon had left them in the mid-1950s including one of his greatest Popes, Study after Velázquez, 1950. Leading Bacon authorities determined the discovery as one of the great finds of the 20th century. As David Sylvester wrote of this painting, soon after its rediscovery, the energy and vigour that Bacon has brought to this picture, make it "a more poignant" work than the "more controlled and more conventional" version in the Detroit Institute of Arts. With its shimmering "background cerulean blue ... (covering) ... a much wider area", Sylvester asserted, "its unabashed lyricism creates a violent contrast with the ungainly figure" (D. Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 60). This color, "mixed with a chalky white thinned paint, and the shimmering pinkish flesh tints, so elegantly applied to the surface," gives the work "a Matissean sensuousness that evokes the flesh, in a mood," that Sylvester described as "combining eroticism and melancholy." Here, he continued, "the vertical 'curtain' lines commingle at the base of the railed structure with slanting, more vigorous, elongated brushstrokes that merge the interior space with the striated curtains of a more exterior one ...the essential lump of flesh asserts itself, in an apparently headless state, dramatically imprisoned but still performing despite its vital, missing parts.

The image is derived from one of Muybridge's motion studies, an image which seems almost purposely to deny the figure its defining crown and glory, the head. Muybridge's animalistic transformations of the human image are related to his fascination with malformed or paralytic children, which he also photographed in motion ... Bacon's powerful version of this imagery suggests his own overriding curiosity about the abnormal and the impaired physical shell of man, underscoring a darker view of humanity only partially evolved from an ignoble animal condition. The psychiatrist Bruno Bettleheim has suggested that the malformed and or half-animal, half-human creatures of folk myth may be fantasy projections of parental rage or discord, a condition that is usually corrected in the benevolent, stereotypical fairy tale resolution with the restoration of positive feeling for the child on the part of the parents. "In fairy tales and dreams," he writes, "physical malformation often stands for psychological misdevelopment" (D. Sylvester, "The Supreme Pontiff," Francis Bacon Important Paintings from the Estate, exh. cat, New York, 1998, p. 47).

Bacon painted Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail) in 1952 during a period when he had been making repeated visits to Africa to see his mother and sister. In South Africa and also in Kenya he became captivated with much of the imagery he saw there, beginning a lifelong fascination with wildlife photography, with the observation of large mammals moving through the long grass of the savannah. Of particular impact for him, for example was the image of a solitary baboon, (which he later painted) housed alone in a large wire cage in one of the wildlife parks. "I ... look at animal photographs all the time" Bacon later told David Sylvester, "because the animal movement and human movement are continually linked in my imagery of human movement" (F. Bacon quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon London, 2000, p.66).

On his return to London, Bacon's art from this period centred on three closely connected themes: 1) the human scream - which at this time was primarily rendered in the form of his Pope pictures, 2) animal paintings - usually of dogs or monkeys though he also attempted paintings of an elephant and a rhinoceros in the savannah - and, 3) the male nude. Each of these three themes came to be rendered in a very similar manner in which the central figure, be it lone pontiff, animal or nude, was contrasted, pinned and isolated in direct conjunction with its environment, usually, a severe, cold and impersonal, geometric structure. In his human portraits particularly, this geometry often took the form of a cage-like grid (borrowed from Muybridge as in the Detroit Institute painting) or a strange metal armature of the kind used in gymnastics or found in animal cages at the zoo. Often reminiscent of both the modernist furniture that Bacon made in the early 1930s and of the contrast between nude and rail found in Matisse's 1911 painting Bathers by the River that Bacon so admired, these armatures had made their first appearance in Bacon's "butcher's shop" Painting of 1946 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) in which the association between man and meat was also first made plain. Subsequently these devices remain at their most sinister, severe and evocative in Bacon's depictions of the lonely, naked and seemingly fragile, isolated and defenceless human figure.

In Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail), in which the armature forms something close to a pair of parallel bars between which the hunched mass of heavy-pasted human flesh appears to be suspended, these metal bars are once again employed to provide a clear material contrast to the animate, living flesh of the figure. It is with the figure as a crouched seemingly headless, near-abstract but living carcass that Bacon seems fascinated in this and other works from this period such as the Detroit picture or Study for Nude of 1951, Man Kneeling in Grass of 1952, Study for figure in a Landscape of 1952 and the later Study of a Figure in a Room of 1953. In all these works Bacon's concentration is on the animate sense of life pulsating through the huddled and isolated ball of meat that is the human being. In Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail) in particular, Bacon has attempted to render this animate physicality through an intensely material surface, mixing sand and earth into his paint and creating an almost informel Fautrier-esque paste of flesh color that lends a distinctly animalistic quality to its surface. Recalling his heavy impasto of this period Bacon asserted that it was around this time that he discovered how, for him "one image can be deeply suggestive in relation to another. I had an idea in those days that textures should be very much thicker, and therefore the texture of, for instance, a rhinoceros skin would help me to think about the texture of the human skin" (F. Bacon quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon London, 2000, pp. 66-7).

In the same way, Bacon found that in his thinking about the human nude - as evidenced in this series of works - his deep knowledge of the imagery of Muybridge and Michelangelo seemed also to have become irrevocably fused in his memory and imagination. "Michelangelo and Muybridge are mixed up in my mind together," he once admitted, "and so I perhaps could learn about positions from Muybridge and learn about the ampleness, the grandeur of form from Michelangelo, and it would be very difficult for me to disentangle the influence of Muybridge and the influence of Michelangelo" (F. Bacon quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 60).

Indeed, the source of the pose Bacon has used in Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail) as for many of the crouching nudes from this period, seems to derive from both Muybrdge and Michelangelo. Specifically, it derives from an image of Muybridge's called Man Performing Standing Broad Jump and Michelangelo's sculpture of a Crouching Boy circa 1530-34 now in the Hermitage, St Petersburg. Fused together in the artist's imagination these two images form the basis of several of the crouching figures that perpetually reoccur throughout Bacon's oeuvre. Heavily worked with layers of paint smeared and pasted onto the surface of the raw canvas and even mixed in places with sand to give a further sense of material texture, the huddled nude in Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail) is a compact and seemingly indistinct figure. As in the Detroit painting and the 1953 Study of Figure in a Room the bowed head of this nude is almost invisible, lending the rippled blob of flesh that comprises the rest of the torso a near-abstract appearance that brings the shock of its animate nature more into focus. It is this shock of reality, what Bacon once referred to as the "brutality of fact" that the artist has attempted to concentrate in this work through the juxtaposition of flesh and its seemingly hostile, alien and near-mechanical environment. "I hate a homely atmosphere," Bacon explained, and, following what he learned from the films of Luis Bunuel and also with particular relevance to this work, the beach-scene nudes that Picasso painted in 1929-30, he preferred what he described as "the intimacy of the image" to be set "against a very stark background. I want to isolate the image" (F. Bacon quoted in D. Sylvester Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 120).

In addition to this clear isolating of the image against a stark and alien background, Bacon has attempted to integrate his scene through the technique he called "shuttering." This was a striated use of brushwork that veils both image and background in a sequence of blind-like stripes that here extend down the picture from the top and also radiate out from the central figure across the plane of the floor at the bottom. This dramatic, painterly and highly expressive technique is one that Bacon used to greatest effect in what are probably his two finest Pope paintings, the 1950 Study After Velasquez (rediscovered along with Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail), and the 1953 Study after Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X now in the Des Moines Art Center, Iowa. Aimed at conveying a sense of the electric nature of living matter and what Bacon once called "all the pulsations of a person," this "shuttering," along with the pastel-like effect of the dry paint that Bacon has used in Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail), derives from Bacon's love of Degas' pastels and specifically, several works which he knew well in London's National Gallery.

Degas' similar use of striated form and color in his pastels, lent a dynamic quality to the surface of the flesh of his figures in a way that Bacon greatly admired. It also meant that the "sensation" produced by the image, "doesn't come straight out at you but slides slowly and gently through the gaps," Bacon told Sylvester" (F. Bacon quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon London, 2000, pp. 49 -50).

Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail) displays a dramatic extension of this technique into all areas of the canvas. Here, the shock and stimulus of Bacon's profound but also strange imagery now seems to shimmer and radiate throughout the picture in a way that holds and fascinates the viewer's attention for longer than perhaps otherwise they might wish to be the case. For, presenting the fleshy mass of a spectral human presence seemingly radiating a terrifying electric energy, Bacon has here, through the predominant use of radiant strips of cerulean and cobalt blue, created a powerfully persuasive image of agony or human suffering. It is an image that could well have served, for example, as a pictorial equivalent for the "Monument for the Unknown Political Prisoner" - a famous sculptural competition launched around the same time as this work in 1951 and eventually won by Reg Butler a sculptor whose work was in some degree inspired by Bacon's pictures. Indeed, Bacon himself may even have thought at some stage of this work in sculptural terms. It was, after all, exactly this subject - of a distinctly fleshy human presence somehow suspended on polished steel bars - that Bacon wanted in later years to turn into sculpture, and, for this ultimately never realized project that he kept copies of the Detroit painting close by him. As he told David Sylvester, "I've thought about sculptures on a kind of armature, a very large armature made so that the sculpture could slide along it and people could even alter the position of the sculpture as they wanted. The armature would not be as important as the image, but it would be there to set it off, as I have often used an armature to set off the image in paintings. I've felt that in sculpture I would perhaps be able to do it more poignantly" (D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, p. 108).

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