‘You are beautiful, darling, and you always will be’
–Francis Bacon to Henrietta Moraes
‘I think there’s a whole area there suggested by Picasso, which in a way has been unexplored, of organic form that relates to the human image but is a complete distortion of it’
Unseen in public since its inclusion in Francis Bacon’s historic exhibition at Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris, in 1977, Three Studies for a Portrait is the artist’s penultimate ode to his great female muse Henrietta Moraes. Across a trio of cinematic panels, spiked with abstract colour and texture, the artist develops his 1969 painting Study of Henrietta Moraes into a fully-fledged triptych. Comprising three 14-by- 12-inch canvases, it is the last of only six portraits of Moraes painted in this celebrated format, the first of which now resides in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Throughout the 1960s, Moraes had played a central role in Bacon’s cast of bohemian Soho subjects, inspiring many of his finest paintings. Painted in Paris in 1976, the present work signals an important turning point in his practice, following the tragic death of his lover George Dyer shortly before his triumphant Grand Palais retrospective five years earlier. Drawn to the city where the couple had spent their final moments, Bacon had taken a studio there in 1974. As the years passed, his despair began to fade, sparking not only a stream of new subjects but equally a return to old friends. Bacon’s 1969 portrait of Moraes had been inspired by a film still of the actress Emmanuelle Riva in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959), a serpentine strand of wet hair bisecting her face. With its themes of love and memory, the film’s imagery continued to haunt Bacon as he began to come to terms with his loss. Three Studies for a Portrait combines the influence of this source with the primitivist visions of his hero Pablo Picasso, using the hair and nose as sculptural pivots around which to shift his subject’s facial features. Tinged with subtle chiaroscuro lighting, her mouth and teeth are animated by photographic blurring effects, electrified hues, scumbling and sharp flicks of the brush. Exhibited at Claude Bernard alongside the mournful ‘black triptychs’ and self-portraits painted in the wake of Dyer’s death, it represents a glimpse of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel: a poignant reflection on his golden Soho days.
An artist’s model, writer and notorious bonne vivante, Moraes had first appeared in Bacon’s work in 1963, subsequently inspiring more than twenty paintings. Having previously sat for Lucian Freud in Girl in a Blanket (1953), she quickly became part of Bacon’s colourful social circle who congregated at the Colony Room and other London haunts. ‘When I was eighteen, I had spent almost all my mornings, afternoons and evenings with him’, she recounted, ‘dined alone with him at Wheeler’s, oysters and Chablis, gone with him to the Gargoyle, listened to the wit and wisdom which flowed almost continuously from his lips’ (H. Moraes, Henrietta, London 1994, pp. 72-73). In the early 1960s, Bacon announced he was beginning a series of portraits of friends, and asked if she might allow John Deakin to take some photographs of her. The images gave rise to some of his most important works of the period, including Portrait of Henrietta Moraes and Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe, both of 1963, as well as Lying Figure, 1966 (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid), Lying Figure, 1969 (Fondation Beyeler, Basel) and a significant body of single and triptych heads. The 1969 portrait, which had featured in the Grand Palais retrospective, continued to linger in Bacon’s psyche throughout the 1970s, inspiring not only the present work but also Female Nude Standing in a Doorway, 1972 (Centre George Pompidou) and a further 1976 triptych. As Michael Peppiatt observes, Bacon had been drawn to ‘her vitality, her bursts of unconstrained laughter and her equally unconstrained behaviour’ (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, pp. 209- 10). It is perhaps little wonder that, as the clouds of sorrow for Dyer began to part, Moraes returned once again to his art.
Three Studies for a Portrait tells the story of Bacon’s assimilation into the Parisian art world. He felt a powerful connection to the city where Dyer had died, and three years later acquired a studio near the Place des Vosges. Despite the personal tragedy of the 1971 retrospective, it had brought him outstanding critical acclaim. The canvases exhibited at Claude Bernard six years later, crowned by the grand allegorical Triptych painted shortly before the present work, propelled the public’s reverence to even greater heights. ‘The show as a whole caused an immediate sensation’, writes Peppiatt. ‘Bacon’s reputation had stood very high in Paris ever since the Grand Palais retrospective, and once the French public had admitted him as a new hero in their cultural pantheon their enthusiasm knew no bounds. The press build-up had been considerable, with Newsweek running a portrait of the artist on its cover to announce: “Francis Bacon’s Big Paris Show”. During the opening, police cordoned off the rue des Beaux-Arts in an attempt to control the crowds pressing down the boulevard Saint-Germain. In a couple of hours, some eight thousand people had pushed their way into the gallery’s relatively restricted space: a mood of exhilaration, but also of panic – of something that was about to get completely out of hand – ran through the narrow street’ (M. Peppiatt, ibid., London 1996, pp. 277-78). The mobbing of the exhibition was an apt expression of his rising celebrity, which frequently saw him stopped in the streets by new friends and strangers alike. After years of emotional strain, Bacon entered a new period of personal and professional contentment.
Comparison between Three Studies for a Portrait and the ensuing Portrait of Michel Leiris is enlightening within the context of Bacon’s burgeoning Parisian connections. If Moraes had been at the centre of Bacon’s social milieu in London, it was Leiris who helped to define his position in Paris, notably penning introductions to both the Grand Palais retrospective and the exhibition at Claude Bernard. It was in Paris in the 1920s that the young Bacon had first discovered Picasso, and both works testify to a sharpened engagement with his influence upon his return to the city. With their long sweeping noses, bared teeth and gaping eye sockets, Bacon’s facial divisions are almost skeletal, invoking Picasso’s fascination with ancient tribal masks. At the same time, his hyper-real palette and curved, organic lines speak to the 1920s beach scenes that had sparked his fascination as a young man. ‘I think there’s a whole area there suggested by Picasso, which in a way has been unexplored, of organic form that relates to the human image but is a complete distortion of it’, he asserted (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, p. 8). The implied movement of both figures creates a warped arrangement of facial features: a sense of temporal simultaneity replete with unmistakable Cubist inflections. The mottled strains of pink lend both works a visceral, bloodshot quality, like veins brought to the surface of the skin. In attempting to surmise this quality Bacon famously spoke of Picasso’s ‘brutality of fact’ – a sense of drilling down to the carnal essence of his subjects. The phrase would become the title of David Sylvester’s landmark series of interviews with the artist, published the year before the present work.
It was Bacon’s own pursuit of ‘the brutality of fact’ that led him to work from photographs of his subjects rather than from life. ‘I find it less inhibiting to work from them through memory and their photographs’, he explained. ‘… What I want to do is 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 1975, pp. 39- 40). Within this context, the 14-by-12-inch triptych became one of his most celebrated formats, allowing him to capture his subjects in the highly-charged, volatile manner in which they inhabited his mind’s eye. ‘I see images in series’, he asserted, explaining that they ‘fall in [to my mind] just like slides’ (F. Bacon, ibid., pp. 84 and 134). Bacon felt strongly that, however abstract and chance-induced his marks, they should always return the viewer to carnal fact: to the pounding veins and twitching nervous system that make up ‘all the pulsations of a person’. Inspired by his fascination with radiography diagrams, here Bacon posits a distortive zoom lens over Moraes’ mouth, as if seeking to give form once again to that ‘unconstrained laughter’. ‘I like, you may say, the glitter and colour that comes from the mouth’, he once claimed, ‘and I’ve always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset’ (F. Bacon, ibid., p. 50). Dyer’s death, the most brutal fact of all, had forced him to contemplate his own mortality. In the wake of this revelation, perhaps, he sought more than ever to preserve the spirit of those who had enriched his life and art.
THE EYE OF THE ARCHITECT PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
The disciplines of architecture and painting have been intimately intertwined throughout history, two independent strands of creative thought that have nevertheless remained bound to one another by a common interest in how people experience the world around them. When considered in conjunction with one another, they can achieve a synergistic relationship, one in which the experience and appreciation of both the painting and the space they occupy are enhanced by their connection. The following selection of works from the collection of an esteemed European architect has been assembled with this concern in mind, each work having been chosen for its ability to complement and enrich the spaces they inhabit.
Born from a keen sense of social responsibility, this architect’s forward-thinking vision was rooted in the grand tradition of socially engaged housing, creating unique buildings that place the welfare of residents above the flaunting of architectural form. Allowing ample space for vegetation to grow over their balconies and transform apartment blocks into living, vertical gardens, the resulting homes are places of beauty and contentment, with proximity to water and greenery fulfilling basic human needs as well as affording countless environmental benefits. In these buildings, the architect offered hope for a way of urban living that did not suffocate the natural world, but rather embraces an organic conception of growth, renewal and sustainability.
The architect’s inventiveness, imagination and eye for detail find clear parallels in the art collection he formed over the course of his collecting life, acquiring pieces by some of the most celebrated masters of the twentieth-century avant-garde, from Pablo Picasso to Francis Bacon, Giorgio de Chirico to Joan Miró, and Fernand Léger to Giorgio Morandi. One of the most striking features of this varied group is the way in which the collector has managed to create a sense of unity amongst the works, choosing pieces of a similarly intimate scale and thematic concern to generate a dynamic dialogue between each of the pieces when considered together. Focusing primarily on figurative compositions, this tightly curated group of works not only reveals the collector’s discerning eye and architectural mind, but also his passion for artists who continuously sought to push the boundaries of tradition in their art. Indeed, many of the works in the collection date from pivotal periods of transition in each artist's career, as they began to explore new, ground breaking techniques, subject matter or styles in their compositions.
There is also a strong emphasis on form and construction in each of the compositions, and a fascination with the architecturally-minded approach to structure that feeds these artist’s aesthetic practices. There is a clear focus on Cubism and its later developments, for example, from the carefully composed still-lifes of Picasso, Juan Gris and Georges Braque, to the visionary machine aesthetic of Léger which expanded upon the traditions of the Cubist language and adapted them to his own unique style following the First World War. The automatic, fluid language of Miró’s brand of Surrealism, meanwhile, is contrasted with the metaphysical contemplations of De Chirico’s dreamlike scenarios and cityscapes, which share the pensive atmosphere of Morandi’s highly subtle, architectural, still lifes. A rare example of Picasso’s Surrealist-influenced series of figures, meanwhile, finds echoes in Bacon’s disintegration of the human form, as the features of his model, Henriette Moraes, dissolve into an array of rich, expressive strokes of paint.
Offering an intriguing insight into some of the most dynamic and exciting periods of the European artistic avant-garde, these works stand as a testament to the collector’s keen connoisseurial eye and deep appreciation for the connection between modern art and architecture.