"One of the nicest things that Cocteau said was: 'Each day in the mirror I watch death at work.' This is what one does oneself." (Francis Bacon in a 1975 Interview with David Sylvester. reproduced in David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, p.130-133)
For Francis Bacon, whose uniquely disturbing and somewhat timeless art seems, in many ways, to have stronger connections to the traditions of the Old Masters than to 20th century Modernism, self-portraiture was intrinsically connected to the artist's very strong awareness of the passing of time and the presence of death within everything in life.
Like Rembrandt before him, for Bacon, the self-portrait provided a window onto this process - a mirror of mortality that reflected an undeniable truth about the existential nature of the human condition. Excepting his earliest self-portraits, which were Expressionist portrayals of himself as an artist in the guise of Vincent Van Gogh - one of the very few artists with which Bacon openly identified - all of Bacon's other self-portraits are highly objective and dispassionate portrayals of himself as a seemingly ordinary and unremarkable man.
With a few exceptions, Bacon only really began to paint self-portraits with any frequency in the late 1960s. After suffering a spate of deaths among those close to him, Bacon began, in the mid-1970s, a prolonged series of self-portrait heads, painting his own face almost obsessively. "I loathe my own face but I go on painting it only because I haven't got any other people to do," he told David Sylvester in 1975, suggesting that he was only painting these self-portraits because people had been "dying around me like flies" and he had "nobody else left to paint." This was not strictly true. There were enough close friends around to provide him with alternate subject matter if he had so wanted, but the proximity of death all around him allied to his own encroaching mortality seems to have made Bacon, always very conscious of the temporality of man's existence, even more reflective on this subject. It also seems to have proved a highly cathartic exercise for Bacon during what was, in the wake of his former lover George Dyer's suicide, clearly a difficult time for the artist filled by periods of grief, guilt and self-reflection.
Depicting the artist with eyes distinctly shut, seemingly in sleep, bruised pain or inner contemplation, across a sequence of three panels, Three Studies for a Self-Portrait is a rare and richly-colored example from the outstanding series of self-portraits that Bacon produced at this time. Executed in 1974, it depicts the distorted almost beaten-up, but still distinctly recognizable features of Bacon's owl-like face in three varying degrees of twisted expression and mutilation. The sequential effect of these three contrasting depictions of artist's face endows the complete work with a powerful sense of motion, fragility and life that is seldom achieved in Bacon's single panel portraits. Drawn perhaps from Eadweard Muybridge's sequences of analytical photographs on the motion of animals and human beings, the cinematic, slide-like progression of images in a triptych format appealed to Bacon because, as he once explained, "I see every image all the time in a shifting way and almost in shifting sequences. So that one can take it from more or less what is called ordinary figuration to a very, very far point" (Ibid, p.21).
The triptych format also recalled the sequence of police mug-shots of a subject with which Bacon was also very fascinated. Mixing the clear, analytic facticity of the image inherent to both these and Muybridge's photographs, with the essentially more abstract and mercurial medium of paint was one of the consistent aims of Bacon's art. In Three Studies for a Self-Portrait Bacon depicts himself as a substantial and very material presence, flash-lit, almost like an apparition, and set against a dark monochrome purple background suggestive of an apparently infinite empty space. Using strong sweeping brushstrokes that appear to both mould and invade the artist's features, Bacon creates a series of images that in the restlessness of their distortions seem to suggest a series of alternating moods and expressions and an atmosphere of uncomfortable and shifting psychological unease. These are punctuated by the apparent progression of a lens-like ellipse - a kind of anatomical highlighting device derived from Bacon's book on positioning in radiography - that appears to move and cast a deep blue shadow across Bacon's face. This device, used frequently in many of Bacon's paintings in a way that seems to suggest the cold analytical view of an unseen perhaps even medical authority, here conveys a sense that the artist himself is under the microscope.
Throughout his life, Bacon worked mainly from photographs. His self-portraits were also often drawn from photo-booth portraits that he made of himself, but Bacon would also spend hours studying his own features in the mirror. According to John Richardson, he would even deliberately let his stubble grow for three or four days and then using Max Factor pancake make-up rehearse the brush strokes and distortions he intended to make in the painting on his face in front of the mirror. Presenting three seemingly sequential images of Bacon's face isolated against a rich purple background, this cosmetic aspect seems especially prominent in this work. For here, Bacon has heightened the paintings' already rich variety of color by applying a sequence of striations in orange, turquoise and magenta in places by printing paint marks made by soaking either his sweater or a piece of corduroy with orange paint and impressing it onto the surface of these otherwise completed portraits. In this way, the final act of creation in Three Studies for a Self- Portrait echoes in some respects the prolonged and intensive process of putting on make-up and of self-examination and self-exploration that went into Bacon's preparation for making such an image. In addition to this however, when it came to his own face, Bacon was also able to bring all his emotional experience and familiarity with his own features to bear on what he once described as the attempt to "capture" and "trap" a true and revealing image of his subject. It was, after all, this elusive feature reflecting the visual effect of a person's unique inner energy - what he once called "all the pulsations" of a person - that Bacon sought. It was the element that he also referred to, for want of better word and in completely non-mystical terms, as a person's "emanation."
Strangely, perhaps, it is in this respect that Bacon's self-portraiture most closely resembled Rembrandt's genius for conveying the psychological intensity and life of his subjects using only the magical and essentially abstract materiality of paint. While Rembrandt never set out to "deform people into appearance," as Bacon once described his own aims, he did, as Bacon was well aware, use chance, accident and the fluid abstract and material qualities of paint to render more vividly the vital living nature of his subjects. Bacon, who often referenced Rembrandt's self-portraits as a source of inspiration, keeping a book of them in which they were sequentially illustrated, rather like his own self-portrait triptychs, close at hand in his studio, explained this quality of the Dutch master's self-portraiture by pointing to a Rembrandt Self-Portrait he knew well, in Aix-en Provence. In this painting, he said, "if you analyze it, you will see that there are hardly any sockets to the eyes, that it is almost completely (an) 'anti-illustrational' work. I think that the mystery of fact is conveyed by an image being made out of non-rational marks. And you can't will this non-rationality of a mark. That is the reason that accident always has to enter into this activity, because the moment you know what to do, you're making just another form of illustration. But what can happen sometimes, as it happened in this Rembrandt self-portrait, is that there is a coagulation of non-representational marks which have led to making up this very great image. Well, of course, only part of this is accidental. Behind all that is Rembrandt's profound sensibility, which was able to hold onto one irrational mark rather than onto another" (Ibid p.59.).
Chance, accident, and distortion often brought more life, realism and energy to an image than any painstaking scrutiny or representational copying of appearances could do, and it was this quality, what Bacon described as the "anti-illustrational" nature of painting, that he had observed in and most admired about many of Rembrandt's self-portraits. "Great art" he said, "is deeply ordered. Even if within the order there may be enormous instinctive and accidental things, nevertheless I think that they come out of a desire for ordering and for returning fact onto the nervous system in a more violent way" (Ibid p.59.).
Echoing the humility as well as the psychology and existentialism of Rembrandt's late self-portraits, Three Studies for a Self-Portrait reveals Bacon's almost visionary eye conveying the extraordinary vitality and uniqueness of its subject in the manner of a kind of psychic X-Ray. Still recognizable, despite the sometimes brutal distortion Bacon has brought to bear on his own face, this self-portrait exudes a naked existential quality that speaks in simple and universal terms not just of mortality and of the fleetingness of human life, but also somehow of the unique miracle of the fact of its existence at all.
"I think of life as meaningless," Bacon said, "but we give it meaning during our own existence. We create certain attitudes which give it a meaning while we exist, though they in themselves are meaningless, really" (Ibid. p. 133). In Three Studies for a Self-Portrait the material and the non-material meet in what appears to be three fleeting flash-bulb moments that hauntingly capture in paint the very essence and vitality of Bacon's psychological and physical presence. Although each portrait clearly differs from the others, the radiating lines, smudges and blurred distortions of all three seem to communicate with one another between the paintings so that something of Bacon's living presence, his "emanation" perhaps, seems to magically infuse the work. "Of course," Bacon once commented, "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" (Ibid, p. 22).