FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)
FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)
FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)
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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)

Painting 1990

FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)
Painting 1990
signed, titled and dated 'Painting 1990 Francis Bacon' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
78 x 58 1/8in. (198 x 147.5cm.)
Painted in 1990
Marlborough International Fine Art, Vaduz.
Marlborough Gallery, Zurich.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2004.
M. Harrison and R. Daniels (eds.), Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné: Volume IV 1971-92, p. 1376, no. 90-04 (illustrated in colour, p. 1377).
London, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., The Marlborough Gallery Re-Opening Exhibition, 1991.
Berlin, Galerie Sander, Bacon, Freud, Kossoff, Auerbach: Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier / Paintings and works on paper, 2003, p. 14 (illustrated in colour on the front cover; illustrated in colour, p. 15).
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Lot Essay

Painted just over a year before Francis Bacon’s death, Painting 1990 is a poignant and majestic work that stands among the artist’s last great canvases. Rendered in the stark, distilled painterly language that came to define his extraordinary late output, it is a radiant tribute to the vitality of the human form, its central figure aglow with the visceral dynamism of living flesh. According to Martin Harrison, author of the artist’s catalogue raisonné, Bacon’s subject is a hybrid vision. The face, framed like a portrait within a portrait, resembles José Capelo: the artist’s last significant love and muse, and the man he was visiting in Madrid when he died. The figure’s cross-legged pose, meanwhile, is hauntingly reminiscent of the artist’s former lover George Dyer—who tragically died in 1971—as well as his subsequent companion John Edwards. Both their forms populated Bacon’s art throughout the 1970s and 1980s: the present work, indeed, is the last in his oeuvre to feature this iconic posture. It is a powerful testament to those he loved—and had loved—and a vivid summation of his art.

Dyer’s death had shaken Bacon to the core. On the eve of the artist’s career-defining retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, the man who had been the very lifeblood of his art had been wrenched from his world. The distinctive cross-legged pose, immortalised in John Deakin’s photographs of Dyer half-naked in Bacon’s studio, had fuelled his paintings throughout the 1960s. In the immediate aftermath of Dyer’s death, it resurfaced in the harrowing ‘black triptych’ Triptych—August, 1972 (Tate, London), made in memory of his lover. As the 1970s wore on, new light came to Bacon’s life in the form of his beloved, steadfast partner John Edwards; yet, even in his tender, luminous portraits, the ghosts of Dyer lingered still. Edwards, too, would assume the cross-legged pose, notably in the left-hand panel of the celebrated 1984 triptych Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards, whose sky-blue backdrop and compositional structure shares much in common with the present work. The truncated shadow that quivers below the figure’s left foot—a frequent motif in Bacon’s late works—seems to conjure the ever-present spectre of death. The artist, indeed, was all too aware that time was running out.

Capelo—a young Spaniard who deeply admired Bacon’s work—had entered his life towards the very end. The pair first met two years after Capelo attended the artist’s 1985 retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London: Bacon, incidentally, had selected Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards to feature as the grand finale to the exhibition. Their relationship flourished, buoyed by a shared love of art, music, travel and Spanish culture. Capelo’s likeness featured in four portraits, including the left-hand panel of the celebrated late Triptych (1991, Museum of Modern Art, New York). While the present work is the only one of these examples to feature a full-length seated figure, Bacon nonetheless seems to focus his attention on Capelo’s head, encasing it in the manner of his celebrated fourteen-by-twelve-inch portrait heads. Deriving from a fascination with the Chinagraph markings used in photography, and the analytical diagrams in medical textbooks, Bacon had long used cubic and circular structures to spotlight his subjects. Here, in tandem with the picture’s sparse setting, these seemingly clinical devices serve to amplify the vivacity of the flesh contained within them: the figure’s limbs, muscles and facial features seem to glisten with life and movement, even in the knowledge of their impermanence.

Bacon’s love life had long intersected with his art. Almost four decades earlier, in the 1950s, his complex, troubled relationship with former fighter pilot Peter Lacy had launched his portrait practice in earnest, instilling within Bacon a predilection for painting those he knew intimately. In 1963, the year after Lacy’s devastating death, he had met Dyer in a Soho bar, embarking upon an intense love affair that etched itself into some of his greatest canvases. Around fifteen years Bacon’s junior, Dyer was a handsome, well-groomed individual, whose lithe physique and chiselled features reminded the artist of Michelangelo’s drawings and sculptures. At the same time, a deep vulnerability flickered behind his eyes, born of a wasted youth of petty crime and a life that frequently seemed to lack direction and purpose. His relationship with Bacon was passionate and tumultuous in equal measure: a dynamic that gave rise to some of the artist’s most profound observations of the human condition. As Michael Peppiatt has observed, ‘however great the liberties Bacon had taken in pulling apart and remaking the appearance of his other friends, with Dyer he reached a maximum intensity’ (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p. 261).

In 1964, Deakin took a seminal series of photographs of Dyer seated in his underwear in Bacon’s studio. The dynamic cross-legged pose, captured from multiple angles, would go on to inspire major works such as Portrait of George Dyer Talking (1966), Portrait of George Dyer (1967), Portrait of George Dyer and Lucian Freud (1967), Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1968, Sara Hildénin Art Museum, Tampere) and Two Studies of George Dyer with Dog (1968). It would also come to inflect portraits of other muses: notably Bacon’s seminal triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969), as well as the 1968 work Two Figures Lying on Beds with Attendants (Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran). For Bacon, photographs such as Deakin’s were an essential part of his working process, allowing him to distance himself physically from his subjects and—in doing so—to channel his raw, sensory impressions of them onto canvas. A vast repository of printed source imagery littered Bacon’s Reece Mews studio: the artist famously described himself as a ‘grinding machine’, into which residual traces of these pictures dropped repeatedly ‘like slides’.

In the years following Dyer’s death, this process would take on new meaning. Echoes of his form continued to haunt Bacon’s art, with Deakin’s photographs never far from his mind. ‘People say you forget about death, but you don’t’, he explained; ‘… you don’t stop thinking about them; time doesn’t heal’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, p. 76). Edwards—an East End pub manager whom Bacon met at the Colony Room in 1974—provided some degree of comfort, becoming a trusted, son-like companion. As his likeness began to appear on canvas, however, the memory of Dyer refused to subside, his poses and features infused with reminders of the crumpled 1964 snapshots that lay among the detritus of Bacon’s studio. As well as the 1984 triptych, works such as Portrait of John Edwards (1988) and the central panel of Triptych 1986-7 would all invoke Dyer’s cross-legged form. Interestingly, not long before the present work, Bacon had stood once again in front of the mournful Triptych— August, 1972 at his Tate Liverpool retrospective. ‘… It goes on having power … for me anyway’, he observed. ‘Maybe I’ll do another one day’ (F. Bacon, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, Francis Bacon: Revelations, London 2022, p. 724).

If these words rang in Bacon’s ears as he began to paint the present work, it was perhaps with a third figure in mind. On 12 December—the day before the present work was photographed—the artist had waited excitedly at Sloane Square Station to greet Capelo, who had just returned to London from a solo trip to Asia. His hair had been cut newly short, and Bacon greatly admired the look. By this stage, the two had known each other properly for three years: though Capelo had met Bacon briefly at his Tate retrospective, and had written to him afterwards, it was not until 1987 that the two were formally introduced at a dinner hosted by their mutual friend Barry Joule. Serendipity played its part: the singer Freddie Mercury, who had long wanted to meet the artist, had been taken ill on the day of the dinner, prompting Joule to extend the invitation to Capelo instead. Aged thirty-one at the time, Capelo had trained as an aeronautical engineer in America before taking a position as a business analyst in London. He was well-travelled and multi-lingual: an intellectual with deep interests in art and culture. Though somewhat different to Bacon’s former flames, the two connected straight away, and began what was to become the artist’s last significant love affair.

Capelo accompanied Bacon through the highs and lows of his final few years: from the triumph of his 1989 Hirshhorn retrospective, to his last days in hospital in Madrid, where his ailing health eventually gave way to cardiac arrest. With Capelo, Bacon had felt young once again, and—though their romantic relationship remained largely private—the two deeply enriched one another’s lives. They travelled widely in France, Italy and Madrid: Bacon’s second favourite city after Paris, where he nourished his long-standing fascination with Velázquez at the Prado and relished the thrills of Spanish nightlife. They dined out regularly in London and mingled with the intellectual elite; they absorbed art and music across Europe, notably attending the Seurat retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, as well as the premiere of Pierre Boulez’s …explosante-fixe… at IRCAM. During Capelo’s solo travels, Bacon feared the prospect of growing distance between them, perhaps accounting for his decision to commit his likeness to canvas. A diptych and a single portrait head would follow the present work, as well as the 1991 triptych. In the latter, the figure of Capelo is counterbalanced by a self-portrait in the right-hand panel: a bold move for Bacon, who rarely depicted himself alongside his lovers in his work.

Aside from its subject matter, Painting 1990 bears witness to the restless creative spirit that surged through Bacon’s oeuvre during its final years. For the artist, the urge to paint never dimmed; if anything, he explained in a BBC radio interview in 1991, ‘the nearer to death I am, the stronger it gets’ (F. Bacon in conversation with R. Cork, Kaleidoscope, BBC Radio 4, broadcast 17 August 1991). Over the course of his final decade, Bacon had begun to distil and clarify his vision, declaring that ‘nine tenths of everything is inessential’ and vowing to ‘abbreviate to intensity’. His colours became brighter, his lines sharper and his settings ever-more abstract, often near-Minimalist in their diagrammatic rigour. Richard Calvocoressi draws parallels with Colour Field painting and Pop Art, noting that it was ironically within these contexts that many of Bacon’s early works were initially received. It was, he writes, a period of ‘astonishingly inventive’ output, ‘as if the artist’s imagination, far from drying up, had been stimulated by create new and ever more intense combinations of colour, structure and form’ (R. Calvocoressi, Francis Bacon: Late Paintings, exh. cat. Gagosian Gallery, New York 2015, p. 9).

For all their elemental clarity, however, Bacon’s figures continued to live and breathe with the same carnal vitality. Renaissance sculpture, the motion photography of Eadweard Muybridge and the Old Masters’ exacting observations of human flesh remained potent sources of inspiration, while the 1920s beach scenes of Pablo Picasso—some of his earliest and most profound influences—continued to inhabit his thoughts. Indeed, the present work’s planes of sandy ochre and crystal clear blue seem to conjure the shores of Dinard, where Picasso’s bathers had first revealed to him what he would later describe as the ‘brutality of fact’. Other early infatuations, too, linger in the present work’s composition: the sharp, angular lines and planes invoke the sleek, Modernist aesthetic of Bacon’s formative ventures in furniture design, while the ovular arena that houses the figure—by now a signature motif within his practice—conjures his youthful encounters with Surrealism, and the imagery of eyes that laced the work of Buñuel, Dalí, Magritte and Bataille. Seen in another light, this form invokes the vortex of the bullfighting ring: a subject whose dance of life and death had repulsed and entranced Bacon in equal measure, and which he took the opportunity to witness with Capelo during visits to Madrid.

Since his obsessive, unflinching series of self-portraits of the 1970s, many of which saw Bacon raise a ticking pocket watch to his face, the artist had been keenly aware of his own mortality. Yet, sanguine to the core, Bacon saw death as an essential part of existence: ‘if life excites you, its shadow, death, must excite you too’, he claimed. An avid reader of literature—from ancient Greek mythology to the poems of T. S. Eliot—Bacon would increasingly find solace in the great poets, novelists and playwrights who had sought to make sense of this duality. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth remained a particular favourite: ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,’ declares the protagonist, ‘That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more.’ In Painting 1990, the figure’s shadow is severed at his feet, his identity never fully disclosed. He is at once a living reality, and a spectre consigned to memory: a portrait of the thin, wavering precipice upon which our existence is eternally hinged.

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