Enveloped in darkness, the harried face of Francis Bacon stares out from the surface of the canvas. Half mired in shadow, and half bathed in strong raking light, this exceptionally rendered self-portrait reveals with striking detail the artist’s strong features. Painted in 1979, Study for Self-Portrait has been in the same private collection for nearly four decades and is one of the last small-scale single canvas self-portraits that Bacon completed, the result is a psychologically complex painting which provides an astute reading of both the artist and his art. Striking in its use of color, and in the dissemination of light and shadow, it stands apart as a striking example of his late oeuvre. Similar in composition to his 1979 triptych Three Studies for a Self-Portrait, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, this jewel-like painting captures the complexity of Bacon’s art as he journeys into the deep recesses of his own minds.
When Bacon painted Study for Self-Portrait he was nearly 70 years old, and his seven decades of experience can be seen etched across his face. From the deep creases that traverse his forehead, to his sunken eyes, this is the portrait of a man who has lived, seen, and experienced firsthand a life characterized by demons and traumas. His eyes appear haunted, or at least raw from a prolonged emotional outpouring, and staring off into the middle distance—with his eyes cast slightly downwards—he appears engrossed in his own memory. While the strong use of raking light blanches out the subtleties of the complexion of Bacon’s high cheekbones, bright bursts of crimson, ruby red, and purple open up the depths and recesses of the folds and furrows of his skin, together with his slightly pursed lips, revealing the hollow darkness of his mouth. This dramatic use of light also causes the (proper) right side of his face to fall into darkness, with features dissolving before disappearing into the blackness. Filling the picture plane, the extremes of Bacon’s life are clear, and with his expressive face pushed forward, it is there for all to see.
The artist gained his reputation as one of the 20th-century’s most innovative painters by producing dramatic canvases that featured people drawn from his own life. Friends, acquaintances, lovers and the various characters he came across as he spent his evenings in the pubs and clubs of Soho populate his early oeuvre. Building on Picasso’s earlier generation of Cubist figures, Bacon’s investigations into the ‘self’ take the form of images which he then dismantles in order to build up a deeply psychological portrait of the subject. In many ways writes Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “Bacon’s portraits are the interrogation on the limits of the self. Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself? To what degree of distortion does a beloved still remain a beloved being? For how long does a cherished face growing remote through illness, through madness, through hatred, through death still become recognizable. Where lies the border beyond which a ‘self’ ceases to be a ‘self’” (M. Kundera, “The Painter’s Brutal Gesture,” in F. Borel, Bacon Portraits and Self-Portraits, 1996, London and New York, p. 12).
But as he grew older, Bacon began painting more and more self-portraits. Speaking in 1975, he commented that “I’ve done a lot of self-portraits [recently], really because people have been dying around me like flies and I’ve had nobody else left to paint but myself” (F. Bacon, quoted by D. Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 2016, p. 150). As he advanced towards old-age, and his circle of friends diminished, Bacon’s own feeling of mortality resurfaced, feelings that had haunted him for much of his life. He remembers recalling at the age of 17 that life was limited, and that you only have a brief time on earth before you disappear forever. “One of the nicest things that Cocteau said,” Bacon once recalled to David Sylvester, was “’Each day in the mirror I watch death’” (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, p. 152).
In considering his own mortality, Bacon joined a distinguished group of artists who exorcised their own emotions by committing their anxieties to canvas. In the last decade of his life, having survived his wife, all four of their children, and personal bankruptcy, Rembrandt produced what are widely regarded to be some of the great self-portraits ever painted. “…the final decades—between 1652 and his death in 1669,” writes curator Marjorie Wiesman, curator of Dutch and Flemish Painting at the National Gallery in London, “show Rembrandt focusing on more internally motivated concerns: achieving a realistic and sympathetic rendering of old age, now extending its merciless reach across his own face and body, and reflecting upon his own profession and his own place within it” (M. Wiesman, ‘The Late Self Portraits,’ in J. Bikker & G. J. M. Weber (eds.), Rembrandt: The Late Works, exh. cat., National Gallery, London, 2014, p. 37).
Similarly, back in the 20th century, Andy Warhol’s last great series of self-portraits act as a memento mori of sorts. The so-called “Fright Wig” self-portraits that he painted in 1986 are often considered the artist’s most successful. Despite his own often-debilitating shyness, throughout Warhol’s career he chronicled and charted his own appearance in a range of self-portraits, culminating in this final defining series of works. His fame was now so extensive and his features so instantly recognizable in their own right, that he had easily attained the status within the Pop firmament that merited his own inclusion in his pictures. These paintings captured not only a sense of Warhol’s celebrity, but also a sense of his fragility. The stark tonality and fleeting nature of photography belies the intense preparation that went into creating the source image, from purchasing the wig to taking and selecting a photographic template for the silkscreen. Warhol’s gaunt appearance, heightened by the contrast between light and dark, adds a strange, searing anxiety to these paintings. This picture appears to be a self-examination as well as a self-presentation—Warhol, like Bacon only a few years before, was looking into the mirror and confronting what he sees there.
The psychological tension that is inherent in Study for Self-Portrait is enhanced by Bacon’s dramatic use of lighting. Although pictured front on, the features on the right of Bacon’s face dissolve into the darkness. His high cheekbones, strong jawline and deep eye sockets all fall away. Whereas on the left side of his face, the strong raking light exposes and exaggerates the artist’s features, on the right side, the impenetrable darkness shrouds him in mystery. This effect can also be seen, to a lesser extent, in his Three Studies for Self-Portrait painted earlier in 1979. The origins of this effect can be traced to Bacon’s interest in photography, and having seen in early modern photographs that were strongly lit. It could have been promoted in particular by the photographs of Helmar Lerski, who had taken a series of photographs of the artist after spotting the young Bacon on the street in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Bacon’s interest in photography continued throughout his life and became a central part of his painting practice, and he always maintained that he preferred to paint his subjects from photographs, rather than from real life, and it allowed him to truly deconstruct their facial features.
Francis Bacon’s paintings are among the most powerful works in the modern art historical canon. Visually arresting and psychologically penetrating, they represent the contemporary human condition. One of only a handful of self-portraits which he undertook in the last decade of his life, Study for Self-Portrait is one of the most striking from the later part of his career. Here, the artist breaks down his own image in order to build up a perceptive picture of himself. “Whether the distortions which I think sometimes bring the image over more violently are damage is a very questionable idea,” Bacon said. “I don’t think it is damage. You may say it’s damaging if you take it on the level of illustration. But not if you take it on the level of what I think of as art. One brings the sensation and feeling of life over the only way one can” (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, p. 43). The result is remarkably personal portrait that shows the complexity of the artist at first hand, and a remarkable new direction for the future of portraiture, as critic John Russell concluded. “…the image is nowhere fixed, finite, descriptive; and yet it tells us more fully and more truthfully than any conventional portrait what it is like to be a human being. It suggests to us that earlier images have been unwarrantedly bland in their presentation of human nature; and it also suggests that this particular new kind of presentation is something that only painting can do. Painting here reclaims its rights” (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London, 1971, p. 132).