‘In a way Dyer’s death allowed him to paint some of his very greatest pictures. Suddenly he had no need of mythical or religious structures because he had his own tragedy’
Held for forty-one years in the prestigious collection of Magnus Konow, Francis Bacon’s Figure in Movement is a poignant meditation on the transience of human existence, shot through with the memory of his muse and lover George Dyer. Executed in 1972, it takes its place among an extraordinary group of works – including the celebrated ‘black triptychs’ – painted in the aftermath of Dyer’s tragic death the previous year. Rendered with impassioned streaks of impasto and thick stippled textures, a voluptuous, near-sculptural figure is suspended within a stark, abstract space-frame. Dark, billowing shadows engulf his form; a piercing flash of green encircles his profile. Dyer had taken his own life shortly before the opening of Bacon’s triumphant retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. In the decades that followed, his likeness would come to haunt the artist’s work more powerfully than ever before. Wrought with nods to Michelangelo and Eadweard Muybridge, Figure in Movement transforms Dyer’s distinctive features into a commentary on the fleeting nature of life. The newspaper, demonstrating the artist’s early use of Letraset, functions as a memento mori of sorts. As the figure’s writhing form threatens to dissolve into oblivion, he clasps it to his face, as if desperately trying to remain in the present. Scrambled letters, evocative of Picasso’s Cubist collages, spill onto the floor beside him, like fragments from a discarded novel. For Bacon, who devoured literature and mythology, the story of Dyer’s death was as epic and profound as any of the great tragedies he admired. Set against a geometric abyss, the present figure is captured in a state of transition: from the realm of corporeal, factual reality to that of fiction, memory and legend.
Konow, a Norwegian collector based in Monaco, came to know Bacon personally during this turbulent period. Purchased on 5 May 1977 – just five years after its creation – Figure in Movement was the first of four significant canvases by the artist that he acquired as a young man during the 1970s. His purchases included Three Studies for a Portrait (1973) – later donated to the Israel Museum, Jerusalem – as well as Study for Portrait (1977) and Painting (1978), which was illustrated on the cover of John Russell’s seminal biography reprinted the following year. Konow first encountered Bacon’s work on the cover of Esquire magazine, and was struck by its ‘sense of chaos’. His fascination with the artist would ultimately develop into a friendship. Bacon would regularly travel from Paris – once with Freud – to visit him in Monaco, where he indulged in his passion for gambling in the casinos of Monte Carlo. Konow’s family roots are in Norway: his father was a celebrated Norwegian Olympic sailor, who competed in multiple Olympics between 1908 and 1948, winning two gold medals and one silver. His paternal grandmother, Dagny Konow, sat for Edvard Munch during the late 1880s. Through his relationship with Bacon, Konow’s own artistic tastes developed to encompass other School of London painters: his impressive collection included David Hockney’s Swimming Pool (1965), Lucian Freud’s Naked Portrait II (1974) and Frank Auerbach’s To the Studios (1977), as well as paintings by R. B. Kitaj.
Included in Bacon’s 1983 touring retrospective in Japan, as well as his 2016 exhibition at the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco, Figure in Movement demonstrates the new artistic directions he pursued during the 1970s. The period following Dyer’s death saw him move away from the characterful portraits of his Soho circle that dominated his practice during the 1960s, gravitating instead towards dark, existential meditations on mortality. Channelling the influence of sculpture, photography and film, his figures took on a new intensity, captured in states of contortion and transformation. In the present work, Dyer’s spectral likeness is an ode to carnal pleasure: Bacon relishes in the physical act of caressing, deforming and moulding his pigment, as if modelling clay with his bare hands. Flashes of white and pink chart the contours of his body, whilst swarming passages of black propel his quivering form into three dimensions. Though the upper half of the figure exudes the solid presence of a marble bust, his lower half blurs into a dizzying, holographic whirl that flickers like a moving image. In counterpoint with this visceral brushwork, Bacon constructs an abstract chamber from flat, intersecting blocks of colour, creating a complex spatial interplay. The space-frame and curved interior – devices common to his practice – are intercepted by two light and dark panels, evocative of windows, canvases, tombstones or cinema screens. Letraset letters leap off the page in skewed formations, shimmering on the frontal plane like fragments of concrete poetry. In the hustle between figuration and abstraction, Bacon creates a vivid sense of the transition from life to death, capturing the point at which living flesh fades into shadow.
THE HUMAN FIGURE AFTER DYER AND DEAKIN
Bacon’s long-awaited retrospective at the Grand Palais opened on 26 October 1971. It was a prestigious honour granted to only one other living artist: his hero Pablo Picasso. Throughout the gallery, Dyer’s distinctive physique loomed large – his combed-back hair, the shape of his ear, his lithe figure and hunched shoulders. Captured on camera by the celebrated Soho photographer John Deakin, and transfigured in paint by Bacon, his face and form had redefined the parameters of twentieth-century portraiture. Major works, many now held in museum collections, filled the halls: among them Portrait of George Dyer Riding a Bicycle, 1966 (Fondation Beyeler, Basel), Two Studies of George Dyer, 1968 (Sara Hildénin Art Museum, Tampere) and Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror, 1968 (Museo Thyssen- Bornemisza, Madrid). Dyer himself, however, was nowhere to be seen. Less than thirty-six hours before the exhibition’s opening, he had been found dead in the room he was sharing with Bacon at the Hotel des Saint-Pères, having taken his own life. As friends arrived for the celebrations surrounding the retrospective, the artist did his best to conceal his true feelings – yet his grief would never fully subside. ‘In the lives of all of us there is a human being whom we least wish to lose’, wrote John Russell. ‘Bacon sustained that particular loss at the time of his retrospective exhibition in Paris in 1971-1972. He bore it with a stoicism for which even Homer would have been hard put to find words; but in his real life – his life as a painter, that is to say – it came to the fore over and over again’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1992, p. 151).
The endurance of Dyer’s form in Bacon’s art it is a testament to the vital, complex nature of their relationship. The pair had met almost exactly eight years previously in a pub in Soho, where Bacon was drinking with Deakin. Raised in the East End, Dyer was a troubled character who had spent much of his life in and out of petty criminal activity. Physically commanding yet emotionally vulnerable, he provided Bacon with a fascinating character study, becoming both his lover and muse. Their relationship was tempestuous, punctuated by bouts of violence and anger as well as intimacy and passion. Towards the end of the 1960s, their affections became increasingly strained: a source of great sadness to Bacon, particularly in the immediate aftermath of Dyer’s death. In the black triptychs and elsewhere, his form is underscored by liquid pools of shadow which – on occasion – morph into curious echoes of the artist’s own silhouette. His figure, frequently captured in a state of transition, was infused with new levels of sculptural grandeur, carved like the great ancient monuments that Bacon had often admired in the British Museum. His desire to ‘trap this living fact alive’, as he put it, took on new significance in the wake of his mercurial lover’s passing (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975 [reprinted 2016], p. 66). In Figure in Movement, Bacon sets up a tension between the glowing, reincarnated human form and its dark, reflected counterpart, spread on the floor like blood or ink.
‘There’s an ancient story about the origins of painting’, writes Kitty Hauser, ‘in which a young woman traces around the outline of the shadow of her beloved’s profile as it is cast on the wall. The image will be there when he has gone; it will exist after his death. It’s hard not to think of this story when considering the use Bacon made of Deakin’s photograph of Dyer’s head in profile’ (K. Hauser, This is Bacon, London 2014, p. 66). Tragically, Deakin had also passed away in 1972: another great loss for the artist, who had been called upon to identify his body. Bacon had always been fascinated by the camera as a means of engaging with reality, preferring to work from Deakin’s snapshots rather than from life. Seen in the context of the photographer’s death, as well as Dyer’s, the present work takes on subtle new layers of meaning. The interior apparatus recalls that of a studio, or perhaps the inside of a camera, with its armature of screens, slides and veils. The space-frame, used throughout Bacon’s oeuvre, resembles the Chinagraph markings used by photographers to indicate areas for enlargement. Indeed, looking more closely at the figure, questions begin to arise. Dyer’s form, like a negative developing in a darkroom, is disfigured to the point of abstraction. The ear, hair and nose, so distinctive in Deakin’s photographs, are not wholly identifiable; in certain lights, they are in fact curiously reminiscent of Deakin’s own. A dark screen hangs from above, as if to make the point. Like the young woman’s lover in the ancient story, the figure – for all his full-blooded appearance – is but a projection, cast into blank space.
LETRASET AND LITERATURE
It is perhaps no coincidence that the first examples of Letraset in Bacon’s art – between 1969 and 1970 – coincided with the build-up to his retrospective at the Grand Palais. As he prepared to install his works in the same space that Picasso’s had hung just a few years earlier, the influence of the Spanish master preyed increasingly on his mind. His adoption of dry transfer lettering was, in part, inspired by the textual fragments that Picasso incorporated into his works during his Synthetic Cubist period. On one level, their appearance serves to introduce a temporal dimension to Bacon’s compositions. Evocative of newspaper reportage – particularly in the present work – they work in counterpoint with his fleeting, tortured figures, grounding the evanescent forms in the here-and-now. At the same time, the arrangements of letters are deliberately stripped of all narrative connotation – a strategy designed to prevent interpretation on the part of the viewer. Martin Harrison draws further links with the typographical montages of Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara and Max Ernst, as well as William Burroughs’ ‘cut-up’ technique and the ‘Camera Eye’ sections of John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy. More literally, perhaps, they may also be seen to recall the reams of crumpled newspapers, books, pictures and magazines that littered the floor of Bacon’s studio. Deakin’s original photographs had captured Dyer amidst this debris; a reminder, perhaps, that he had offered Bacon as complex a window onto the human condition as any great piece of art or literature.
‘Existence is in a way so banal, you may as well try and make a kind of grandeur out of it’, said Bacon (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 10). Dyer’s death brought with it a renewed awareness of the passage of time, furnishing the artist’s already nihilistic outlook with painful, deeply personal nuance. His readings of Greek mythology, existential philosophy, the poems of T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats and the plays of William Shakespeare – all of which had played their part in his oeuvre – took on new significance in this context. Following the triumph of his Grand Palais retrospective, and his subsequent move to France in 1974, Bacon would increasingly immerse himself in Parisian intellectual enclaves. The Surrealist writer Michel Leiris was instrumental in establishing Bacon’s relations with this milieu, authoring numerous texts on his work alongside his own poems, essays and research. Ensconced within these new circles, Bacon began to filter his own paintings through the lens of literature and text. References to mythological figures punctuated his canvases, as well as – in the case of the Letraset works – allusions to the concept of written narrative in a more abstract sense. Lines from Eliot’s Preludes echo throughout Figure in Movement: ‘And now a gusty shower wraps/the grimy scraps/of withered leaves about your feet/ and newspapers from vacant lots’. Even more pertinent, perhaps, are the final scenes Shakespeare’s Macbeth – a set of verses much admired by Bacon. ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player’, proclaims the play’s protagonist, ‘That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more’.
ARENAS, SCREENS AND VEILS
Figure in Movement demonstrates a number of significant compositional devices that would come to dominate Bacon’s practice throughout the 1970s. Fuelled by a desire to strip his visual language back to its most essential form, his figural explorations were set within increasingly stark chambers, defined by bold planes of colour, passages of raw canvas and intersecting linear structures. In the present work, Bacon combines cubic and circular frameworks, creating a warped, angular spatial arena in which the volumetric figure blooms like a flower. Numerous sources have been identified for these geometries – the curved spaces of the roulette ring and the racing track, where Bacon spent many long hours, as well as the space-time discs and cage-like sculptures of his friend Alberto Giacometti. In this vein, Figure in Movement invites particular comparison with Bacon’s series of bullfight paintings, inspired – notably – by Leiris’ La Miroir de la Tauromachie. In these works, as in the present, the carnal specimen at the centre of the composition is enclosed within a ring. This structure acts as a railing of sorts, along which Bacon’s screens appear to slide in and out of position. A sense of voyeurism pervades these works, as though we are viewing the raw animal form through a window or a revolving door. By rooting his subjects within sparse, diagrammatic spaces, Bacon felt that – like a surgeon operating on the body – he was able to bring their visceral energy more clearly to the surface. Here, this approach gives way to an act of resurrection. Like the raging bull itself, Dyer’s form appears to take leave of its setting, alternately pushed into the viewer’s three-dimensional space and dragged back to the clinical void of the canvas.
From the time of his earliest screaming Popes, Bacon had been fascinated by the human figure in motion. Movement, he felt, allowed him to glimpse the ‘emanation’ of the human spirit – the innate physical expressions that make up ‘all the pulsations of a person’. Mining hundreds of photographic and filmic sources, Bacon repeatedly sought to capture these revelations in paint, adopting an instinctive, heuristic approach to brushwork that relied heavily on the impulses of his own nervous system. ‘When I look at you across the table, I don’t only see you but I see a whole emanation which has to do with personality and everything else’, the artist explained. ‘… We nearly always live through screens – a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils of screens’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975 [reprinted 2016], p. 94). Perhaps due to the intensely physical nature of his relationship with Dyer, Bacon’s portraits of him frequently captured him in the midst of dynamic activity: riding a bicycle, talking, turning, crouching and – in the black triptychs – caught in the final, gruesome throes of death. In the present work, the figure appears to disintegrate from the legs upwards, as if battling against the inevitable dissolution of flesh. Bacon even goes so far as to visualise the act of ‘clearing away the screens’: the black and white planes appear to part before the viewer, unveiling the lithe corporeal mass beneath.
Ultimately, then, Figure in Movement sheds critical light on Bacon’s understanding of the human condition during this period. Laced with allusions to photography, literature, reportage and film, it is not only an attempt to trap his subject’s ‘emanation’, but to visualise the ways in which figural traces continue to live in the mind. Alternately blank and fleshed-out, it speaks to the architecture of memory itself: a warped, tangled space in which today’s newspapers become tomorrow’s fictions. Dyer is simultaneously reincarnated and estranged, his likeness skewed to the point of ambiguity and mirrored imperfectly in billowing black. ‘If life excites you, its opposite, like a shadow, death, must excite you’, Bacon explained. ‘Perhaps not excite you, but you are aware of it in the same way as you are aware of life, you’re aware of it like the turn of a coin between life and death’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975 [reprinted 2016], p. 91). As his body swivels and turns, in dialogue with his silhouette, the figure’s form captures the perilous, fragile precipice upon which our existence is eternally poised.