‘All the pulsations of a person’: Bacon’s Figure in Movement

Held for 41 years in the prestigious collection of Magnus Konow and offered in London on 4 October, this 1972 painting — shot through with the memory of Francis Bacon’s muse and lover, George Dyer — is a poignant meditation on the human condition

Executed in 1972, Figure in Movement  takes its place among an extraordinary group of works — including the celebrated Black Triptychs — painted in the aftermath of George Dyer’s tragic death the previous year. Dyer had taken his own life shortly before the opening of Bacon’s triumphant retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. In the decades that followed, his likeness would come to haunt the artist’s work more powerfully than ever before.

With nods to Michelangelo and Muybridge, Figure in Movement  transforms Dyer’s distinctive features into a commentary on the fleeting nature of life. The newspaper, demonstrating the artist’s early use of Letraset, functions as a memento mori  of sorts. As the figure’s writhing form threatens to dissolve into oblivion, he clasps it to his face, as if desperately trying to remain in the present. Scrambled letters, evocative of Picasso’s Cubist collages, spill onto the floor beside him, like fragments from a discarded novel.

Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Figure in Movement, executed in 1972. 77⅞ x 58⅝ in (198 x 148 cm). Estimate: £15,000,000-20,000,000. This lot is offered in Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 4 October 2018 at Christie’s in London © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2018

For Bacon, who devoured literature and mythology, the story of Dyer’s death was as epic and profound as any of the great tragedies he read. Set against a geometric abyss, the present figure is captured in a state of transition: from the realm of reality to that of fiction, memory and legend.

Magnus Konow, a Norwegian collector based in Monaco, purchased Figure in Movement  on 5 May 1977 — just five years after its creation — and it was to be the first of four significant Bacon canvases that he acquired as a young man during the 1970s.

Dyer’s spectral likeness is an ode to carnal pleasure: Bacon revels in the act of caressing, deforming and moulding his pigment

Konow had first encountered Bacon’s work on the cover of Esquire magazine, and was struck by its ‘sense of chaos’. His fascination with the artist would ultimately develop into a friendship. Bacon would regularly travel from Paris to visit him in Monaco, where he indulged in his passion for gambling in the casinos of Monte Carlo.

Included in Bacon’s 1983 touring retrospective in Japan, as well as his 2016 exhibition at the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco, Figure in Movement  demonstrates the new artistic directions he pursued during the 1970s. The period following Dyer’s death saw him move away from the portraits of his Soho circle that dominated his practice during the 1960s, gravitating instead towards dark, existential meditations on mortality. Channelling the influence of sculpture, photography and film, his figures took on a new intensity, captured in states of contortion and transformation.

In Figure in Movement, Dyer’s spectral likeness is an ode to carnal pleasure: Bacon revels in the physical act of caressing, deforming and moulding his pigment, as if modelling clay with his bare hands. Piercing flashes of white and pink chart the contours of his body, while swarming passages of black propel his quivering form into three dimensions. While the upper half of the figure exudes the solid presence of a marble bust, his lower half blurs into a dizzying, holographic whirl that flickers like a moving image. In counterpoint with this brushwork, Bacon constructs an abstract chamber from flat, intersecting blocks of colour, creating a complex spatial interplay.

Also from Magnus Konow’s collection, Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Study for Portrait, painted in 1977. 78 x 58⅛ in (198.2 x 147.7 cm). Sold for $49,812,500 on 17 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2018

The endurance of Dyer’s form in Bacon’s art is a testament to the vital, complex nature of their relationship. The pair had met almost exactly eight years previously in a pub in Soho, where the artist was drinking with the photographer John Deakin. A troubled character, Dyer was physically commanding yet emotionally vulnerable, and provided Bacon with a fascinating character study, becoming both his lover and his muse.

Their relationship was tempestuous, punctuated by bouts of violence and anger. Towards the end of the 1960s, their affections became increasingly strained: a source of great sadness to Bacon, particularly in the immediate aftermath of Dyer’s death.

Tragically, Deakin also passed away in 1972: another great loss for the artist, who was called upon to identify his body. Bacon had always been fascinated by the camera as a means of engaging with reality, preferring to work from Deakin’s snapshots rather than from life.

Seen in the context of the photographer’s death, as well as Dyer’s, Figure in Movement  takes on subtle new layers of meaning. The interior apparatus recalls that of a studio, or perhaps the inside of a camera. The space-frame, used throughout Bacon’s oeuvre, resembles the chinagraph markings used by photographers to indicate areas for enlargement.

‘When I look at you across the table, I don't only see you but I see a whole emanation which has to do with personality and everything else’ — Francis Bacon  

From the time of his earliest depictions of screaming popes, Bacon had been fascinated by the human figure in motion. Movement, he felt, allowed him to glimpse the ‘emanation’ of the human spirit — the innate physical expressions that make up ‘all the pulsations of a person’.

Mining hundreds of photographic and filmic sources, Bacon repeatedly sought to capture these revelations in paint. ‘When I look at you across the table, I don’t only see you but I see a whole emanation which has to do with personality and everything else,’ the artist explained.

Perhaps due to the physical nature of their relationship, Bacon’s portraits of Dyer frequently captured him in the midst of dynamic activity: riding a bicycle, talking, turning, crouching and — in the black triptychs — caught in the final, gruesome throes of death.

Figure in Movement  sheds critical light on Bacon’s understanding of the human condition during this period. Laced with allusions to photography, literature, reportage and film, it is not only an attempt to trap his subject’s ‘emanation’, but to visualise the ways in which figural traces continue to live in the mind. It speaks to the architecture of memory itself, and captures the perilous precipice upon which our very existence is poised.

Related departments

Related lots

Related auctions

Related content