Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer is the very first portrait Francis Bacon painted of his greatest muse. Executed in 1963, this mesmeric triptych was completed mere months after Bacon first met George Dyer, a handsome petty thief from London’s East End. It marks the inception of their turbulent and ultimately tragic relationship and introduces a model who, John Russell declared, “will live forever in the iconography of the English face” (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London, 1971, p. 165). The encounter between the two lovers was transformative, with Dyer becoming to Bacon what Dora Maar famously was to Picasso. His masculinity and muscularity, his sexual aura and anxious persona, acted as a wellspring for pictorial breakthroughs that helped stake Bacon’s claim as one of the 20th-century’s most celebrated artists.
This triptych is the beginning of a journey that saw Bacon paint Dyer’s face and body obsessively for many years. Dyer would appear in at least 40 of Bacon’s paintings, many of which were created after his death in Paris in 1971, barely 36 hours before Bacon’s major retrospective opened at the Grand Palais. The convulsive beauty of the present work represents the flowering of Bacon’s infatuation with the man portrayed and is only one of five triptychs of Dyer that the artist painted in this intimate scale. This example is unique among them, as it does not depict the white shirt and sharp suit that Dyer invariably wore. Instead, the head and neck emerge disembodied from the darkness—explosive, agitated, naked, and unmoored from spatial or temporal reality.
Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer was completed during the moment of greatest personal and professional contentment in Bacon’s career. In the autumn of 1961 he had ended his somewhat transient existence by securing a permanent base at 7 Reece Mews in South Kensington. He also established a habitual structure for his paintings during this time—limiting his supports to the 14 x 12-inch canvas format used exclusively for portrait heads, and the large 78 x 58-inch canvases that typically show full-length bodies and biomorphic figures. When the artist met Dyer towards the end of 1963, Bacon was being praised by a public who now saw him less as a maverick, than a master of figurative painting. This came on the heels of his first major retrospective in May 1962 at Tate in London, which was followed by a triumphant exhibition at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in October 1963.
The beginning of the 1960s also signaled a new virtuosity and complete change of style for the artist as all his brushwork became concentrated in the figure, whereas in earlier works the figure tended to dissolve into the field. What first strikes the viewer of this triple portrait are the vigor, passion and fluidity of Bacon’s painting technique. Dyer’s presence materializes from dynamic interlocking lines and planes rendered in white and flesh-toned hues mixed with sweeps of emerald, all set against a gritty black void. His distorted features appear and dissolve in the sweeps of gestured paint, with flecks of vermilion and gaping holes articulating the contours of his animated visage. There is something beyond representation on display here—this is the individual presented as their very essence. It is this quality that made Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer so compelling to its first owner—another titan of the arts—writer Roald Dahl, who chose with great care five singular works from Bacon’s oeuvre between 1964 and 1967. The triptych was seldom displayed publicly in the decades to follow, but it has in more recent years been included in significant international solo exhibitions, including the Francis Bacon retrospective that toured the Tate in London, the Museo Nacional Prado in Madrid and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York between 2008 and 2009.
The Rise and Fall of George Dyer
Bacon and Dyer’s first encounter is the stuff of art world legend, thanks to Bacon’s claim that he caught Dyer in the act of breaking into his Reece Mews studio—a myth perpetuated by the 1998 biopic film Love is the Devil. But the artist also told a less glamorous but much more plausible tale of meeting him during a night of drunken fun. Whichever the case, Bacon was instantly attracted to the handsome young man with the build of a Michelangelo figure and an air of latent violence. This was in the autumn of 1963, when Bacon was almost 54 and Dyer was around 30. An intense friendship immediately sprung up between the two very different men, with Dyer becoming Bacon’s lover, muse and dependent throughout much of the 1960s and early ‘70s.
Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer was painted within a couple of months of their first acquaintance, when Bacon’s passion for the younger man was at its most fervent. As a known masochist who had a predilection for “rough trade,” Bacon was drawn to Dyer’s underworld mystique and criminal past. He would soon discover, however, that behind Dyer’s immaculately groomed yet somewhat menacing façade was a shy, kind-hearted man who made a hopeless career criminal. “[George] was much too nice to be a crook,” Bacon would later joke (F. Bacon, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in Your Blood: A Memoir, London, 2015, p. 248). In fact, the man Bacon dubbed “Sir George” was a troubled, emotionally fraught character. Often pale, anxious and constantly smoking, Dyer frequently found himself crippled by a sense of insecurity and purposelessness. He devoted himself to Bacon and tried to convince himself that being a significant artist’s companion and subject of much-lauded paintings gave his life greater meaning. But as the decade wore on and the pair’s dynamic began to unravel, Dyer’s drinking and despondency grew increasingly worse. Bacon became impatient with his neediness and Dyer became desperate—he attempted suicide on more than one occasion and framed the artist for cannabis possession, which led to a humiliating court case that ultimately came to center on Dyer unreliability as a witness. The intensity of his relationship with Dyer became a source of both deep personal sadness and important artistic stimulation for Bacon, who chronicled Dyer’s perceived deficiencies in a masterful series of large stand-alone canvases, including George Dyer Riding a Bicycle, 1966 (Fondation Beyeler, Basel) and Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror, 1968 (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid).
Although Bacon tried to distance himself from Dyer on several occasions, the pair remained close. Dyer was invited to join Bacon’s entourage to Paris for the retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1971, but Bacon virtually ignored him on arrival. Unable to cope with the crowd of dignitaries and admirers that permanently surrounded Bacon there, Dyer went on an alcohol- and pill-fueled bender. The next morning, he was found dead in their hotel room. On a recent BBC documentary, A Brush with Violence, former Marlborough Gallery employee Terry Danziger-Miles revealed that he was one of the first people at the scene, along with Bacon’s gallerist Valerie Beston, and that Beston, Bacon and the hotel’s manager agreed not to announce Dyer’s death for two days to prevent the whiff of scandal ruining the exhibition’s opening proceedings.
The degree to which Bacon was subsequently consumed by grief and guilt was evidenced in his posthumous paintings known collectively known as the Black Triptychs, which relate the tragic circumstances of his lover’s last, lonely hours: In Memory of George Dyer, 1971 (Fondation Beyeler, Basel), Triptych August, 1972 (Tate, London) and Triptych May-June, 1973 (private collection). Bacon was immensely tortured by his death, and portraits of Dyer continued to haunt his output for some years. He later reflected that, “[Dyer’s] stealing at least gave him a raison d’être, even though he wasn’t very successful at it and was always in and out of prison. It gave him something to think about... I thought I was helping him when I took him out of that life. I knew the next time he was caught he’d get a heavy sentence. And I thought, well, life’s too short to spend half of it in prison. But I was wrong, of course. He’d have been in and out of prison, but at least he’d have been alive” (F. Bacon, ibid. p. 248).
Portraiture and the Search for the Self
From the early 1960s Bacon was increasingly drawn to portraiture for its element of artistic jeopardy. Long the preserve of High Art, portraiture was then out of step with prevailing trends and needed to be completely reinvented if it was to remain culturally relevant. It needed to investigate the existential nature of life itself. Bacon was above all concerned with the conditions of painting and sought to make his ideas and their method of delivery inseparable. His aim was to find a technique that would “trap the energy that emanates” from a person, and for this task he recruited a select number of close friends whose personalities shared his own taste for risk.
Although Bacon idealized Dyer’s thuggish good looks, he was also able to grasp beneath the veneer of his tough appearance to expose something of his inner vulnerability. In Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, Dyer’s head and neck completely fill the frame, confronting the viewer with the concentrated intensity of an intimate and startlingly animated portrait. Mute and isolated upon a vacant ground, the figure is engulfed within the dark depths of his own psyche. The sequence of ever-shifting visages, rendered in a palette more reminiscent of muscle and tissue than skin, seems to turn Dyer inside out, stripping him down to mutable flesh hanging from bone. Still identifiable despite the contortions, Dyer’s portrait seems to speak of mortality and the fleetingness of human life in simple and universal terms.
David Sylvester once asked Bacon, “When you’re painting a portrait, are you at all conscious of trying to say something about your feelings in regard to the model or about what the model might be feeling, or are you only thinking about their appearance?” Bacon replied, “Every form that you make has an implication, so that, when you are painting somebody, you know that you are, of course, trying to get near not only to their appearance but also to the way they have affected you” (D. Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1962–1979, London, 1980, p. 130). This statement acknowledges the unavoidable trace of the artist’s subjectivity in summoning his images. For although a portrait is a representation of another individual, it is also inevitably a reflection of the self. Bacon’s practice of working in isolation from his sitters, relying on memory, photographic cues and an instinctive approach to color, form and line, permitted him to not simply describe, but also to invite the realm of the unconscious and imaginary into his art. In this way, he felt better able to distil into the paint surface a sense of the emotional impact his subjects made upon him.
Bacon would often further muddy the waters between subject and object by impressing aspects of his own features onto that of his sitters. There are hints of this practice in Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, particularly in the right-hand panel where an enlarged eye socket and broad right cheek have more in common with Bacon’s face than Dyer’s. The triptych can therefore be seen as a dramatic conjoining of two lovers’ bodies. Here Bacon seeks a proximity and intensity to Dyer through paint that was impossible in life, for, as he once described his frustration, “If you’re in love you can’t break down the barriers of the skin” (F. Bacon quoted in M. Harrison, In Camera Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London, 2005, p. 216).
As the first portrait of Dyer that Bacon ever painted, the present work is a dedication to his all-consuming new relationship. This idea is given added poignancy when one reflects on the resonance it has with a triptych Bacon painted the previous year featuring a self-portrait flanked by images of his former partner Peter Lacy. Bacon had received the news of Lacy’s death in Tangier on the occasion of his 1962 retrospective exhibition at the Tate, and within a month or so he completed Study for Three Heads, 1962 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), initiating the 14 x 12-inch measurements that he would subsequently use for all his small portrait paintings. Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer is like the earlier work not just in its scale, but also in its concentration on the disembodied head rendered in a palette of pinks, white and emerald green against a black background. Yet Study for Three Heads has a more spectral quality as the application of pigment is thinner, the brushstrokes broader. It somehow lacks the intense physical presence and visceral paint application of the Dyer triptych. Considered together, it would seem Bacon used his art to exorcize his feelings of loss towards one lover and to celebrate the beginning of a new chapter with another.
According to Michael Peppiatt, George Dyer “came to feel inseparable from the effigies Bacon had created of him. They gave him a raison d’être, a stature even, that his failure to be anything else made all the more precious” (M. Peppiatt, op. cit., p. 213). Dyer took enormous pride in being the subject of so many paintings, but he could not fathom why Bacon depicted him as he did. Indeed, Bacon’s practice of pulling apart and reconstructing people’s appearance reached a new level of intensity with the portraits of George Dyer. Not only had Bacon reached the height of his creative powers, but found in Dyer’s handsome visage and athletic body the perfect vehicle for conveying his most complex feelings towards human existence.
As with all his portraits of Dyer, the liberties Bacon took with his appearance in this triptych are underpinned by an erotic charge. His features are at once pummeled out of shape and caressed by sweeping brushstrokes, echoing the sadomasochistic pleasures Bacon desired from his lovers. But the portraits also expose Bacon’s sensitivity to Dyer’s fragility. The eyes in each canvas are averted from the viewer, either searching the surroundings furtively, looking downwards, or slightly detached, as if the sitter were withdrawn in anxious thought. The mouth, meanwhile, is closed and twisted, and is even partially obscured by gestural brushwork, particularly in the central panel. These erasures seem intended to evoke Dyer’s slight speech impediment, which made him sound, according to Daniel Farson, “as if the words were struggling to break free” (D. Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London, 1993, p. 172).
Bacon considered his painterly deformations and dissolutions to be a concentration of reality, a shorthand of sensation. His work confronts the forces of the body that make it flesh and bone, as well as the forces outside the body that infuse and surround it. His aim was to slow down the chaos of reality, the chaos of emotion, to provide a new concept of the portrait, a new sensation that harnesses a balance between tension and collapse. “What fascinates him are the invisible forces that model flesh or shake it,” Gilles Deluze observed. “This is the relationship not of form and matter, but of materials and forces—making these forces visible through their effects on the flesh. …What fascinates Bacon is not movement, but its effects on an immobile body: heads whipped by wind or deformed by an aspiration, but also all the interior forces that climb through the flesh. To make the spasm visible” (G. Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, London, 2005, p. xii).
The malleable quality of Bacon’s figures and heads was founded on the early influence of Picasso on his ambition to become an artist. Picasso’s example had revealed to him “how realism can draw on the unconscious” to great effect (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 13). Taking this lesson on board, Bacon contorted his subjects with the goal of making them somehow more real, more poignant, than if they were painted in a naturalistic fashion. In Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, Bacon’s prodigious use of rapid, impulsive brush marks creates an encrusted surface wrought from swirling rhythms of scumbled paint, giving the sense of Dyer’s life force. Despite the visual turmoil, the figure remains instantly recognizable, perfectly encompassing Bacon’s quest to “distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance” (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1987, p. 40).
“Triptychs are the things I like doing most,” Bacon stated in 1979. “So far as my work has any quality, I often feel perhaps it is the triptychs that have the best quality” (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 100). Indeed, Bacon’s triptych paintings, both epic and intimate, have largely defined his career. With his portrait studies, he found in this structure a vehicle for painting differing angles and perspectives within a sequence of closely related units, while in his larger paintings he could establish complex interrelated yet isolated scenes. It was a device that he often used since painting his groundbreaking 1944 triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (Tate, London), as it allowed him to explore his subject matter both more accurately and with more detachment.
When asked what attracted him to this format, he answered, “I see images in series. And I suppose I could go on long beyond the triptych and do five or six together, but I find the triptych to be the most balanced format” (F. Bacon, ibid, p. 100). When not painting triptychs, Bacon tended to think in broader series, producing variations on thematically linked imagery such as his Popes, men in suits and van Gogh paintings. The present work seems to fit into both categories of Bacon’s work for, as a triptych belonging to a grouping of five Dyer portrait triptychs, its seriality is multiplied. An inscription on the reverse of the later triptych, Three Studies of George Dyer (on pink ground) 1964 (private collection) stating, “3 Portraits of George Dyer Series No. 2 1964,” would suggest the artist intended for present work to become an extended cycle, thereby multiplying its serial nature well beyond the confines of the tripartite form.
In historical Christian art, triptychs often followed a hierarchical structure, where the most attention is concentrated on the central panel and the attendant wings are dedicated to supporting stories or portraits of saints or donors. With Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer there is no such hierarchy, in fact the subject itself is the same across all three canvases. In the left and right-hand panels, the two heads look slightly inward towards the central panel, effectively bracketing the work and lending the three images a collective and cohesive unity. This creates a kind of visual circuit as the viewer’s eye tracks back and forth between Dyer’s turned heads and his line of sight. This feature is a progression on the linear dramatic development evident in Bacon’s earliest portrait triptych, Three Studies of the Human Head 1953 (private collection)—a seminal work that depicts three individuals respectively grinning, screaming and in a state of collapse.
The conscious building of three different images into a unity is a unique and powerful feature of Bacon’s later portrait triptychs that reflects his belief that a combination of images merges together in the mind to form a stronger and more accurate picture of hard factual reality. In this triptych, the isolated frames suggest a kind of shuttering or strobe effect that throws the essence of Dyer’s psychological and physical presence into relief. “Of course,” Bacon once said, “what in a curious way one’s always hoping to do is to paint the one picture which will annihilate all the other ones, to concentrate everything into one painting. But actually in the series one picture reflects on the other continuously and sometimes they’re better in series than they are separately because, unfortunately, I’ve never yet been able to make the one image that sums up all the others. So one image against the other seems to be able to say the thing more” (F. Bacon, quoted in, D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1990, p. 130-133).
Photography, Time and Motion
Bacon hated making people pose for him in his studio. He stated, in an oft-cited quote, that sitting models “inhibit me. They inhibit me because, if I like them, I don’t want to practice before them the injury that I do to them in my work. I would rather practice the injury in private by which I think I can record the fact of them more clearly” (F. Bacon, ibid., p. 41). He instead found reference images were enough of a trigger to access his unconscious, intuitive impulses—they were “a release mechanism for ideas, a detonator” (F. Bacon, quoted in M. Kundera & F. Borel, Portraits and Self-Portraits, London, 1996, p. 201). As with most of his portraits of friends, Bacon relied on photographs for the creation of Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer. The source images for the triptych were a series commissioned from John Deakin, a drinking companion who had previously worked as a photographer for Vogue. Deakin captured at least four sets of photographs dedicated to Dyer, including close-up portraits and nudes. The black-and-white prints used for this work show Dyer in profile and front on, like a group of police mug-shots—a significant coincidence given his criminal history.
It is important to note that in Bacon’s effort to advance portrait painting, he turned to the very thing that had usurped it. Yet Bacon sought something more than the illustrative, something that could only be achieved through the mercurial medium of paint. He did not use photographs slavishly, depending at least as much on his memory and imagination to harness the sought-for essence of the individual. Adopting a dispassionate, almost scientific, detachment from his subject matter, Bacon consciously disrupted the recognizability of Deakin’s images, smearing and battering Dyer’s head into a distorted image—one more real, he hoped, than any naturalistic representation. “I think it’s the slight remove from the fact, which returns me onto the fact more violently,” he told David Sylvester. “Through the photographic image I find myself beginning to wander into the image and unlock what I think of its reality more than I can by looking at it” (D, Sylvester, op. cit., p. 30).
A photographic image is laden with pathos, as, in freezing the transient, it points to our mortality. The triptych format of the present work, and its depiction of Dyer’s ever-shifting face, seems to respond to this notion of temporality. The three variants of the same subject speak to time’s active force in a way that recalls Eadweard Muybridge’s famous sequential photographic studies of the figure in motion—another key visual reference for Bacon. Deakin’s original “mug-shots” of Dyer captured several viewpoints to convey a sense of three dimensions, but it is Bacon’s dynamic reinterpretation that has truly brought the subject to life. The dramatic changes to Dyer’s head imply that nothing is permanent, that even when we are static we are defenseless to change at the hands of time. As John Russell has explained, with Bacon’s painting, “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).