‘I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them … leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events.’ (F. Bacon, 1955, quoted in Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art, exh. cat., Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna, 2004).
Shrouded in silence amidst a deep black void, Study for a Head (1955) occupies an outstanding position within Francis Bacon’s celebrated series of Papal portraits. A deeply human portrayal of Bacon’s most enduring subject, it stands as one of only a handful of works depicting Pope Pius XII; the current, living incumbent at the time of the painting, who reigned from 1939 until 1958.
Where Bacon’s previous Papal portraits had given birth to screaming, agonised phantoms, bordering on caricature in their formal contortions, Study for a Head presents a figure submerged in existential contemplation, riddled with the same quiet dignity and introspective tension that was to define Bacon’s first self-portrait the following year.
‘We have lived very closely together since we met in 1958. We hardly spend any time apart. So I am always around.’ (E. Baselitz, quoted in M. Auping, Georg Baselitz: Portraits of Elke, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth, 1997-1999).
Painted with a lyrical passion in a brilliant array of vibrant colours, Elke (1965) is a romantic celebration of the enduring love between Georg Baselitz and his wife, Elke Kretzschmar Baselitz, a definitive relationship in the artist’s life. Composed as a tender love letter to a beloved wife, here Baselitz recalls Elke as a young woman in the early years of their marriage.
Married to the artist for over 50 years, Elke remained a prevailing subject within her husband’s portraiture, a mark of the love Baselitz holds for her and evidence of the support she has offered him throughout his career. In many ways, for Baselitz painting Elke is a form of self-portraiture; she represents as important a subject as himself.
Looking back on that important year of 1982, Basquiat remarked: ‘I had some money: I made the best paintings ever’ (J.-M. Basquiat, quoted in C. McGuigan, New Art New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist, The New York Times Magazine, 10 February 1985).
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Three Delegates is one of only a handful of canvases which features three of the artist’s dramatic yet superbly accomplished heads. The title Three Delegates refers to a childhood visit made by Basquiat to the United Nations Headquarters building in New York, where the father of a friend was working at the time. The multicultural membership of the organisation resonated with the artist’s own diverse ethnic heritage.
The human head was one of Basquiat’s most distinctive recurring subjects, and represented a particular source of fascination for him during the crucial years of 1981 and 1982. As a child, the artist was entranced by a copy of Grey’s Anatomy given to him by his mother, and his obsession with the structure of the human skull was to become a key driving force behind much of his work.