Study from the Human Body: Man Turning on the Light, 1973-74
An essay by Martin Harrison
In Study from the Human Body: Man Turning on the Light, 1973-74 (hereafter referred to by the shorter title, Study from the Human Body), a naked man leans forward at the edge of an abyss, a decontextualized void, anxiously manipulating an antiquated light-switch. Despite the compellingly fluid painting of the figure and the intensely saturated crimson and deep green, the painting is formally quite austere - the epitome of what Bacon termed his 'exhilarated despair'. Yet, while ostensibly 'impervious to interpretation', as no doubt he intended, the painting is replete with ambiguities which suggest that hope is not entirely cancelled out: and at least, within the stark interior, which contains no signs of domesticity beyond a light-bulb and switch, the man is said to be turning the light on, rather than off.
The specific three-quarter rear view of the figure in Study from the Human Body was first essayed by Bacon in a panel intended for Triptych - Studies from the Human Body (1970) but later destroyed by the artist. In the destroyed canvas the intersection of the body is similarly performed by a mirror; the mirror image was triggered by the double opening door in Marcel Duchamp's Paris apartment, a photograph of which was reproduced in Arturo Schwarz's catalogue raisonni of Duchamp (1969). The ambiguous doubling or splitting of identity in Study from the Human Body, the arbitrary diagonal bisection of the legs and left shoulder, revolves around the pale blue area to the left: is this a mirror? what, within Bacon's framing, should we read as the reflection? and is the figure leaving the 'room' or entering another one?
The striking, almost bow-legged stance of the figure in Study from the Human Body appears to have been absorbed from elements of multiple pictorial sources. It is redolent of the abject corpse with an amputated arm in Goya's Esto es peor (c.1812-15), a paean against inhumane violence in the 'Disasters of War' series of etchings; the attitude of the impaled body on the forked tree-trunk is also analogous with Bacon's fracturing of the figure in Study from the Human Body. Possibly irritated by facile comparisons with the 'Black Paintings' (which he claimed not to like at all), Bacon was ambivalent regarding the effect Goya had had on his paintings.(1) But he acknowledged the crucial importance of Michelangelo's and Muybridge's disparate depictions of the male body, observing that they were 'mixed up in my mind together'.(2) Both sources provided images that required only slight modification for the figure in Study from the Human Body: moreover, the most relevant Muybridge photograph is of a boxer and Bacon was an avid connoisseur of modern photographs of boxing, which may also have been synthesised in Study from the Human Body.
The light-switch the figure is turning on in the present painting also resembles a key, a recurrent Bacon motif which he himself traced to Picasso's paintings of the late-1920s, with their obvious Freudian phallic connotations: for Bacon, keys and light-switches became virtually interchangeable, and the man in Study from the Human Body may equally be read as unlocking a door, or barrier. Bacon's fascination with raised and bent arms performing a specific function constituted a significant aspect of his highly personal anthology of forms, and it was first introduced in the image of Isabel Rawsthorne turning a key in Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne (1967; Staatliche Museum, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin). Bacon preferred to paint by daylight, but he also famously worked under a naked light-bulb in his Reece Mews studio: he moved there in 1961, and light-bulbs entered his iconography in 1964. He painted his first vertical trunking connected to a light-switch in Self-Portrait (1973; Private Collection), shortly before commencing the present painting, a typically utilitarian detail that was borrowed from an image on the cover of a French magazine, L'Art Vivant, May 1973.
Study from the Human Body undermines any attempt at a straightforward narrative reading and cannot, therefore, be considered a representation of George Dyer (for example, Bacon's viewpoint precludes the usual depiction of his distinctively coiffed, sleek black hair). But Dyer's body and its musculature, as reconfigured by Bacon, became the prototype for nearly all of the male nudes painted after 1964. Bacon's lover and muse since 1963, George Dyer died in Paris in October 1971, two days before the opening of the retrospective at the Grand Palais that was, for the Francophile Bacon, the most gratifying exhibition he ever held. Bacon's feelings about Dyer were complicated. He admired his looks, but Dyer's innate gentleness and growing dependence eventually frustrated the artist. For his part Dyer felt increasingly alienated from Bacon's intellectual milieu, and his bouts of alcoholism and several attempts at suicide were probably motivated partly by his desire for attention. Bacon regarded Dyer's death as a suicide, and his feelings of loss were mingled with guilt. In the two cathartic triptychs Bacon completed in 1973 one contains a 'Posthumous Portrait of George Dyer' and the other is the dramatic Triptych May-June 1973, the so-called 'black triptych' in which (in an unusually literal biographical mode) Bacon painted three episodes connected with Dyer's tragic death in the Hôtel des Saints-Pères. On the evidence of these homages, in 1973 Dyer remained very much on Bacon's mind.
The manner in which the distorted arm in Study from the Human Body idiosyncratically twists back on itself in order to turn on the light recalls the gesture Bacon had painted in the central panel of his first posthumous tribute, In Memory of George Dyer, 1971. Again, in this painting Dyer is turning a key, a gesture which Bacon himself related to the Thunder God's imperative in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land: 'I have heard the key Turn in the door and turn once only'. Eliot's next line, 'We think of the key, each in his prison', adumbrates precisely the Sartrean concept of the sealed exit (Huis Clos) in Study from the Human Body. After completing the present painting Bacon continued to evolve the bending forward pose in Study from the Human Body (1981; private collection, New York), Study of the Human Body (1983; Menil Foundation Collection, Houston), Man at a Washbasin (1989-90; Marlborough Fine Art) which dispenses with the raised arm, and in one of his last paintings, Figure in an Open Door (1990-91; Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva).
Again, the organization of the interior space in Study from the Human Body is ambiguous. The mixed perspectives deployed by Bacon unsettle the viewer as does the illumination from the bare light-bulb; the chiaroscuro of the figure itself is plausible enough but the bulb could not realistically have thrown either of the shadows that Bacon painted on the floor. The semi-rhomboid shape of the green void which the figure approaches closely replicates the space of the stairwell that led from the ground floor of Bacon's premises in Reece Mews, South Kensington, up to his studio; the stairwell may have been another oblique reference to Dyer's permanent absence from Bacon's household, simultaneously a valediction and a memory of his presence. But the vertiginous staircase is represented here as a flat plane, which Bacon has further complicated, in an almost playful way, by introducing the vestigial 'space-frame' lines that interrupt the formal 'cage' structure and appear to raise it, like a drawbridge.
In view of the dating ascribed by Marlborough Fine Art to Study from the Human Body, it is reasonable to assume that Bacon first painted it in 1973 - a version he presumably considered to be finished since it was recorded in that state by the gallery's photographer. Subsequently he must have changed his mind and had the painting returned to his studio, where he completed the revised version in 1974. This was a frequent procedure with Bacon, who explained: 'I do know that when I have had paintings back, it has helped me a great deal to see them again and I have been able to add to them'.(3) He began Study from the Human Body by painting a thinned all-over wash of crimson onto the unprimed side of the canvas, and almost certainly painted the figure next. Apart from the coup-de-grace whiplash of white paint across the man's back, and the completely reconfigured foreground shadows, the most significant alterations he made were, as was often his practice, to the geometrical areas of the ground. Most conspicuous are the obliterations of two large areas of alizarin crimson, for which Bacon substituted the irregular rectangle of the green void and the 'floor' in the foreground, painted in pale grey-brown acrylics which approximate the colour of raw canvas.(4) By rolling and pressing into the wet paint with a fabric, Bacon sought to lift the surface in order to contrast both revised passages with the smoother texture of the remainder of the painting.
For most of his working life Bacon lived within a short distance of the Royal College of Art, Kensington, London. In the autumn of 1950 he deputised at the college, as a sort of artist in residence, during the temporary absence of his friend John Minton. He also spent two further periods of his career there, painting in borrowed studios, between 1951 and 1953 (in the studio of the Professor of Painting, Rodrigo Moynihan) and in 1969: the unusual circumstances under which Study from the Human Body was acquired by the Royal College of Art relate to the latter occasion. In 1968 George Dyer had apparently set fire to Bacon's Reece Mews studio, and while the necessary repairs were being undertaken Bacon asked his friend Richard Chopping, who lectured on illustration at the College, to enquire if a studio might again be made available to him there. The request was met with enthusiasm by the College's Rector, Sir Robin Darwin, which was endorsed by Carel Weight, Professor of Painting, to whom Darwin sent a memorandum saying: 'It would be a great thing to get him back again and for his electric mind to be available occasionally to students'. Bacon was to occupy Studio D, on the lower floor of the Painting School, from January until August 1969.(5)
Bacon had written in December 1968 to offer one of the paintings he produced at the College as a gift in exchange for the loan of the studio, and the following July, Darwin, Weight and Robert Buhler chose Study for Bullfight No.1 (1969), which was hung in the Senior Common Room. In 1975 the College agreed to lend their painting to Bacon's exhibition 'Recent Works 1968-1974' at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Bacon loaned them Study from the Human Body as a temporary replacement. But in May the new Principal, Lord Esher, wrote to Bacon to say that Senior Common Room Committee had become strongly attached to the newer painting, which 'seems somehow to suit the space even better than the earlier one', and asked 'whether there would be any possibility of your allowing us to keep it in place of its predecessor?' Rather than offended, Bacon was delighted at the suggestion, 'as I myself much prefer it to the painting of the bullfight'. Accordingly Study from the Human Body has hung in the Senior Common Room for the past thirty-two years, where its eloquence and extraordinary sense of presence ultimately conveyed a mood of optimism, delighting and stimulating staff and visitors.
1. David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, 2001, pp. 239-40 2. David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1987, p. 114
3. Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 196
4. Bacon's mixing of media (he frequently added dust or pastels to his oils, for example) means that sight inspections of his paintings can seldom be considered conclusive, but pigment analysis carried out on Study from the Human Body was not inconsistent with the use of acrylic in these areas.
5. The anecdote about Dyer was related to me by the artist Ben Johnson, then a student at the college.
All quotations regarding the acquisition of the two Bacons are from the RCA's correspondence files