Offered for the very first time at auction, Francis Bacon’s Study for Portrait is a powerful eulogy to his greatest muse and lover George Dyer. Raised up majestically against a thickly stippled velvet black screen, his sculptural form casts a long dark shadow, reminiscent of the artist’s own silhouette.
Painted in Paris in 1977, and unveiled that year at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, this highlight of the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York comes from the distinguished collection of Magnus Konow, who acquired it from Bacon through Marlborough Gallery shortly after its creation.
Konow’s father was a celebrated Norwegian Olympic sailor, who competed in multiple Olympics between 1908 and 1948, winning two gold medals and one silver. His paternal grandmother, Dagny Konow, sat for Edvard Munch during the late 1880s.
As a young man based in Monaco, Magnus Konow built an impressive collection of works by School of London painters, and particularly admired Francis Bacon, with whom he became friends during the 1970s. He acquired a number of significant works by the artist, including the 1973 triptych Three Studies for a Portrait, which he donated to the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Bacon was a regular visitor to Monaco at this time, sometimes with Lucian Freud, and stayed with the collector for bouts of gambling in Monte Carlo.
Study for Portrait extends the language of the dark, cinematic ‘black triptychs’ made in the aftermath of Dyer’s death in 1971. This tragic event, which took place less than 36 hours before the opening of Bacon’s career-defining retrospective at the Grand Palais, had a devastating impact upon the artist, prompting him to take a studio in Paris.
By 1977, however, Bacon had been buoyed by the success of his major exhibition at Galerie Claude Bernard that year, and his grief had given way to a period of contentment, reflection and innovation. Study for Portrait sees the artist further developing elements from his 1968 masterpiece Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (Sara Hildén Art Museum, Finland), as well as his landmark Triptych of 1976.
‘The works produced in the wake of George Dyer's death remain some of the 20th century’s most vivid interrogations of the human condition’ — Francis Outred
Bracketed with raw linen, the central panel appears to hover before the viewer in three dimensions. Dry transfer lettering, inspired by Picasso’s Cubist collages, evokes the literary rubble of the artist’s studio floor, where John Deakin had famously photographed Dyer seated in his underwear.
‘Bacon would always talk about Dyer,’ recalled Magnus Konow. ‘I think that he was the only man he really loved in his life. I find this work is so powerful — for me it is probably one of the best paintings of their mystical love affair, and that’s what drew me to it.’
If the black triptychs had replayed the harrowing details of Dyer’s death, here Bacon imagines a new scenario. As his muse is restored to the flesh, he himself is reduced to a blood-spattered trace. For Bacon, who devoured Shakespeare’s tragedies and Greek mythology, it is an impassioned fantasy of reincarnation and sacrifice.
‘While Bacon would never fully come to terms with the death of his beloved George Dyer, the works produced in the wake of this tragedy remain some of the 20th century’s most vivid interrogations of the human condition,’ says Francis Outred, Chairman & Head of Post-War & Contemporary Art for Europe at Christie’s.