The meeting between Francis Bacon and George Dyer has become the stuff of art legend. Bacon liked to claim that they met one night when Bacon rumbled Dyer in the process of robbing his flat. He also told a less glamourous tale of Dyer merely approaching Bacon and his friends in a bar in Soho because they looked like they were having such good drunken fun. Whichever the case, within a short time of meeting, an intense friendship had sprung up between the two very different men and Dyer was to become Bacon's constant companion throughout much of the 1960s and early '70s, as well as his most important model if not Muse.
It was the strange combination of masculinity, fragility and criminality that manifested itself in Dyer that had attracted Bacon. An introverted and evidently deeply troubled character there was a constant tension surrounding Dyer, a quality that Bacon soon found to be inherently suited to his art and his large-scale portraits of Dyer from the 1960s and early 1970s are clearly among his greatest artistic achievements. Portrait of George Dyer Staring into a Mirror is a large-scale painting from 1967 that incorporates within itself a double-portrait of Dyer in a way that reflects the tormented and deeply divided nature of the sitter. Staring into a canvas-like mirror, the unmistakable features of a suited Dyer (his sense of style was reputedly inspired by the notorious Kray Twins) are shown from two angles, each anxiously inspecting the other. Bacon used this double motif in several of his pictures of Dyer to create a jarring sense of duplicity and a double-portrayal rather than a mere reflection. With the mirror acting as a second canvas, Bacon explores a multiple image in a way similar to those in his triptych portraits. At the same time, the immense open and empty space of the right of the picture, its almost abstract simplicity, heightens both the concentration of biological and biographical matter compressed into the left-hand side of the picture. Sitting with his hands anxiously clasped together and twisted around himself on a stool in the midst of this empty modern office-like interior, a profound existential sense of isolation, such as Dyer may often have felt, is here persuasively expressed. Forming a bizarre conglomeration of Saville Row tailoring and of tense contorted flesh, Dyer's impressive physique seems both small and crushed by the emptiness of the space all around him. His contemplation of his own self image in the canvas/mirror on the wall, reflects the anxious self-questioning nature of Dyer and his position as Bacon's lover and muse. The deliberate ambiguity between the canvas and the mirror that Bacon has established by giving it a pinned canvas-like border suggests that this picture may show Dyer inspecting his own painted image rather than his mirrored reflection. Staring at himself, questioning not only his own inner nature but also the expressive but dispassionate and even distanced way in which he has been portrayed by his lover strikes at an area of deep personal insecurity in Dyer's life that ultimately led to his suicide in 1971. Dyer was never comfortable with life in Bacon's shadow and was constantly worried about the validity and purpose of his existence feeling himself completely out of place and inadequate in the company of both Bacon and his friends. Bacon's decision to depict Dyer in the way that he does in this portrait - alone, tormented and surrounded by the emptiness of a alienating modern environment - shows that although powerless to change anything he was not insensitive to this feature of Dyer's life. The painting, like all of Bacon's best art is direct, refreshingly simple and existentially disturbing in the brutality of its honesty.
The incorporation of a double portrait into this work and the differing angles and perspectives that it offers was a device that Bacon often used as it was one that allowed him to explore his subject matter both more accurately and with more detachment. It was Bacon's aim to capture in his portraits a fundamental quality - the deep and underlying energy at the heart of life. Adopting a dispassionate almost scientific detachment from his subject matter and working from photographs rather than live models, Bacon consciously disrupted the recognisability of his images, smearing and battering the figures that he committed to canvas into a distorted image - one more real, he hoped, than any illustrative representation. 'What I want is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance,' Bacon explained. 'I think that the methods by which this is done are so artificial that the model before you, in my case, inhibits the artificiality by which this thing can be bought back. [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. (Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York 1990, pp. 38 and 40).
The adding of chance elements into his painting, thrown splashes of paint, smearings and random distortions - was another way in which to capture the essence of life all the more truly and allowed his painting to develop organically in reaction to his own violence to the canvas and the image. 'I just wipe it all over with a rag' he said, 'or use a brush or rub it with something or anything or throw turpentine and paint and everything else onto the thing to try to break the willed articulation of the image, so that the image will grow, as it were, spontaneously and within its own structure, and not my structure' (Ibid., p. 160). Through exposure to the elements of chance Bacon hoped to somehow capture the emanating pulse of life that runs through all animate matter and incorporate his paint, to some extent, into the real world.
This violence of representation, the distortion of a loved one's image in order to capture life, was all the more successful in Bacon's portraits of Dyer, who brought a genuine criminality, intensity and virility to the pictures. The violence of Bacon's style was now also reflected in the subject himself, allowing Bacon to harness a life force that was more raw. Bacon considered his own life to have been punctuated by violence, be it through childhood whippings, Republican attacks in Ireland, the Second World War, or his own personal predilections. Bacon's artistic philosophy and his opinions about the nature of existence were founded on these experiences: 'this violence of my life, the violence which I've lived amongst, I think it's different to the violence in painting. When talking about the violence of paint, it's nothing to do with the violence of war. It's to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality itself' (Bacon, quoted in Sylvester, Ibid., p. 81).
Bacon was extremely conscious of the violence that he enacted upon his subjects in his paintings as he defaced them with turpentine and splatterings and smearings of paint. It was one of the reasons why he preferred to work from photography and source materials rather than from life. One of the smeared and distorted faces in Portrait of George Dyer Staring into a Mirror is particularly reminiscent of a photograph of his model that Bacon was known to use as a source image. In the same way that Bacon distanced himself from a literal representation of his sitter in order to capture life more accurately, he also distanced himself from the sitters themselves. Close as he was to Dyer, even with him Bacon worked from pictures (usually taken by John Deakin). Sylvester has pointed out that in the so-called 'nude' portraits of Dyer, Dyer is shown wearing underpants, a reflection of Dyer's unwillingness to pose naked not for Bacon but for the photographer. In works such as this painting these images have been distorted, mangled and wrought into a powerful likeness that is both a portrait of the inner psychology of the man, his outward appearance and a much wider investigation of the existential nature of life itself.
The violence that punctuated Bacon's life flared at two of the highpoints of his career. His former partner Peter Lacy had died during the opening of Bacon's Tate retrospective, while Dyer committed suicide the night before the opening of Bacon's momentous 1971 Paris exhibition, in which amongst other works, Portrait of George Dyer Staring into a Mirror was shown. Dyer had been miserable for many of their years together, feeling both inadequate in the glittering and witty company that Bacon kept and conscious of his mediocrity as a thief. Bacon was immensely tortured by his death, and portraits of Dyer continued to posthumously haunt his output for some years. 'His 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' reflected Bacon. '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' (Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 135). Already, four years earlier, this tension is apparent in the anxious and contemplative figure in Portrait of George Dyer Staring into a Mirror, and Bacon has taken it and concentrated it into a wider portrayal of the intensity and the loneliness of man's existence.