Painted in 1954, ‘Man at a Washbasin’ is a powerful and haunting work from Francis Bacon’s great ‘blue’ period of the mid-1950s. A nude male figure – based on Bacon’s lover at the time, Peter Lacy – is suspended in a void of rich, midnight blue. His skin glows in evanescent tones of white and lavender. He bends over, plunging his hands into a washbasin which is described in glinting, crystalline white rays. Further rays indicate a receding quadrilateral space behind him. In Bacon’s signature ‘shuttering’ technique, both room and figure are strafed by vertical shafts of light, creating a shimmering, shadowy effect that brings foreground and background together. These lines are reminiscent at once of the folds of a curtain and the bars of a cage; further golden-black beams span out from an ambiguous space in front of the figure, cropping him above the knee and enclosing him in the room beyond.
Stylistically, this picture is closely related to Bacon’s seminal painting Two Figures (1953), as well as to his celebrated Man in Blue series of 1954. During this period, embroiled in a passionate and sometimes dangerously violent love affair with Lacy, Bacon brought together lessons from the photography of Eadweard Muybridge, the voluptuous sculpture of Michelangelo and the intimate nudes of Edgar Degas in dark, mysterious paintings that stand among the most impressive achievements of his early career. Discussing the ‘Men in Blue’, Michael Peppiatt writes that ‘These enigmatic, dark blue figures emerging from a dark blue ground stand out by their precisely delineated, almost clinical composition and deliberately restrained, cold colour, as if Bacon were making in his art a conscious attempt to regain the control he had lost so spectacularly in his life … There is a range and complexity in these works that marks them apart: one can sense a sinister calm beside the cry, a more subtle interlocking of the central image and its surrounding structure, a more knowing manipulation of the paint itself as well as of warm and cold tones’ (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, exh. cat. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich 2006, p. 46). This description applies no less aptly to the present work, whose refined chromatic drama and assured composition lend it a searing psychological force.
Bacon had met Peter Lacy in 1952 at the Colony Room in Soho. A former fighter pilot who served in the Battle of Britain, Lacy was a troubled man prone to vehement bouts of rage. The pair shared deep and conflicted feelings towards one another, and their mercurial connection provided the artist with one of his most important ongoing character studies. Initially appearing in Study of Figure in a Landscape, 1952 (Phillips Collection, Washington D. C.), Lacy was among the first members of Bacon’s circle to feature in his portraits. The first four years of their relationship, largely conducted from Lacy’s home near Henley-on-Thames, were punctuated by rows, hysteria and violence. As well as inspiring his groundbreaking depictions of coupled male figures and the Man in Blue works, Lacy featured in Bacon’s first portrait triptych of 1953. The artist continued to paint him following his relocation to Tangier in 1956, and subsequently after his death, producing canvases now held in museum collections worldwide.
The stooped figure in ‘Man at a Washbasin’ is a typically complex image of Lacy. Bacon paints his body with a tenderness that is charged with coiled, muscular brutality. The white glint of his teeth lends him a bestial grit. Framed in the painting’s voyeuristic structure, Lacy appears as both a man at a washbasin and – in an echo of the images of wild apes and dogs Bacon painted after his visit to South Africa in 1952 – a crouched animal in a cage. He is a powerfully masculine figure, even as his vulnerable posture recalls Edgar Degas’ intimate studies of women bent at their toilette. (There are echoes here of the National Gallery’s famous pastel After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself (1890-95): a totemic work for Bacon, who was particularly impressed by Degas’ unnerving attention to the woman’s spine). As David Sylvester observed of the artist himself, ‘The two sexes met in Francis Bacon, more than in any other human being I have encountered. At moments he was one of the most feminine of men, at others one of the most masculine. He would switch between these roles as suddenly and unpredictably as the switching of a light. That duality did more than anything perhaps to make his presence so famously seductive and compelling and to make him so peculiarly wise and realistic in his observation of life’ (D. Sylvester, Francis Bacon: The Human Body, exh. cat. Hayward Gallery, London 1998, p. 38).
In ‘Man at a Washbasin’, the familiar and even banal setting of the bathroom becomes a theatre of dark, mysterious grandeur. Restaging the darkness of monochrome photography and Old Masterly portraits, Bacon transforms domestic space into existential void. In this sense, the scene could be said to foreshadow his great ‘Black Triptychs’ of 1972-74, which depict the final moments of his lover George Dyer. In these paintings, the brute fact of Dyer’s death in a hotel bathroom is elevated, through Bacon’s remarkable poetry of colour, space and figure, into a final ‘Passion’ of stunning emotional intensity. ‘Man at a Washbasin’, meanwhile, is a masterpiece of restraint, capturing the thrilling, agonising volatility of Bacon’s relationship with Lacy with potent and poignant economy. This is a picture of a complicated love. The pearlescent figure flickers in and out of oblivion, dancing between bruising physicality and spectral transience. A darkroom vision of Bacon’s emotional world, the painting takes us to a captivating place of desire where beauty, horror, pain and pleasure coexist.