Painted in Paris in 1977, and held since that time in the distinguished collection of Magnus Konow, Francis Bacon’s Study for Portrait is a powerful eulogy to his greatest love and most important subject: George Dyer. Raised up majestically against a thickly stippled velvet black screen, his near-sculptural form casts a long dark shadow, poignantly reminiscent of the artist’s own silhouette. Dyer had tragically taken his own life six years earlier in 1971, less than thirty-six hours before the opening of Bacon’s career-defining retrospective at the Grand Palais. His death had a devastating impact on the artist, giving rise to paintings that represent some of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary meditations on the human condition. Konow, a Norwegian collector based in Monaco, came to know Bacon during this pivotal period, acquiring several significant canvases including Three Studies for a Portrait, which he donated to the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. With its abstract armature, scumbled textures and viscerally-wrought figure, the present work extends the language of the dark, cinematic “black triptychs” made in the immediate aftermath of Dyer’s death. Bracketed with raw linen, the central panel appears to hover before the viewer in three dimensions, evoking a canvas on an easel or a flickering television screen. Dry transfer lettering, inspired by Picasso’s Cubist collages, conjures the literary rubble of the artist’s studio, where John Deakin had famously photographed Dyer seated in his underwear. As the spirit of Michelangelo courses once more through his veins, Bacon’s muse is here restored to the flesh. The artist, meanwhile, is reduced to a blood-spattered trace, reunited with Dyer beyond the veil. For Bacon, who devoured Shakespeare’s tragedies and Greek mythology, it is an impassioned fantasy of reincarnation and sacrifice, worthy of any great work of literature.
Konow acquired Study for Portrait from Bacon through Marlborough Gallery shortly after its completion. As a young man in the 1970s, he built an impressive collection of works by School of London painters, but remained particularly fascinated by Bacon, with whom he became friends. 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. Konow first encountered Bacon’s work on the cover of Esquire magazine, and was immediately struck by what he would later describe as its “sense of chaos”. He acquired four of his paintings in total, including the 1972 canvas Figure in Movement and the 1978 work Painting, which was illustrated on the cover of John Russell’s seminal biography reprinted the following year. These works took their place alongside canvases by other prominent postwar British artists, including Lucian Freud’s Naked Portrait II (1974), Frank Auerbach’s To the Studios (1977) and David Hockney’s Swimming Pool (1965), as well as paintings by R. B. Kitaj. As the friendship between Bacon and Konow developed, the artist traveled from Paris—once with Freud—to visit him in Monaco, where he indulged in his passion for gambling in the casinos of Monte Carlo. “Bacon would always talk about Dyer,” Konow recalls. “I think that he was the only man he really loved in his life. I find this work is so powerful—for me it is probably one of the best paintings of their mystical love affair, and that’s what drew me to it.”
First unveiled at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, shortly after its creation, and widely exhibited since, the work represents the culmination of Bacon’s painterly language during one of the most important periods in his practice. Consumed by a wild mixture of grief, sadness, guilt and loss in the wake of Dyer’s death, Bacon took a studio in Paris in 1974. By 1977, buoyed by the success of his major exhibition at Galerie Claude Bernard that year, his grief had given way to a period of innovation that is reflected in the present painting. Inspired by the 1976 work Triptych, painted the previous year, sweeping perspectival railings recede like train tracks, evoking by turns the frame of a bed, the legs of an easel or a road to infinity. The central black panel, floating above, becomes a headboard, a tombstone, a filmic membrane or an empty void, simultaneously disappearing into the distance and looming towards the frontal plane of the canvas. Paris, for Bacon, was a place steeped in literature: as a young man he had been enraptured by the work of Georges Bataille and other Surrealist writers. Upon his return in the 1970s, he immersed himself in a new circle of philosophers, authors and critics—among them Michel Leiris, who wrote important commentaries on his work during this period. As the painting’s interior dialogue unfolds, rich in thematic allusion, the fragments of lettering pay tribute to this new, stimulating milieu.
In both compositional and technical terms, too, the work is a tour de force. Throughout the 1970s, spurred by a renewed awareness of his own mortality, Bacon began to strip his art down to its barest essentials, seeking “concentrations of reality” and a “shorthand of sensation”. In Study for Portrait, saturated color fields and stark geometries create a warped spatial framework that borders on abstraction, conjuring the work of Kandinsky, Malevich and the Color Field painters. Bacon plays with different textures of black, offsetting the matte backdrop with the textured central panel, which shifts and shimmers under different lighting conditions. The pale lilac ground, rendered in thin pigmented layers, is juxtaposed with bright accents of blue, canary yellow and red, which glow as if illuminated by an overhead spotlight. Circular lenses, derived from a book on radiography, punctuate the surface, setting up a rhythmic counterpoint between the sculptural mass of flesh and the surrounding interior space. The figure itself is an ode to carnal pleasure, wrought with fluid, tactile brushstrokes, spectral veils of white and scumbled strains of color around the eyes and mouth. It is Dyer in his prime, flickering like a projection or an x-ray, presiding over the composition with the tortured grandeur of Bacon’s early Popes. Rarely was his body so passionately articulated with a mixture of raw draughtsmanship and freestyle painterly bravura, creating a swirling vortex of physical agitation. Raised upon a dais against a blank, clinical abyss, his quivering form speaks to the transient nature of human existence.
George Dyer: Painting the Human Figure
Bacon and Dyer had first met in 1963 in a Soho pub, and quickly struck up a rapport. “George was down the far end of the bar and he came over and said, ‘You all seem to be having a good time. Can I buy you a drink?’” recalled the artist. “And that’s how I met him. I might never have noticed him otherwise” (F. Bacon, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p. 259). Described by Bacon as the most beautiful man he had ever met, Dyer would come to define some of his most ambitious works during the 1960s, including ten outstanding large-scale studies as well as a number of smaller portrait heads. Nearly thirty years Bacon’s junior, he sported a uniform of clean-cut suits and narrow ties tightly knotted around the neck, reminiscent of the infamous Kray twins. Beneath this debonair façade, however, lay a troubled character in need of guidance and protection. Raised in London’s East End, he had fallen into petty theft at a young age, and was frequently crippled by a sense of purposelessness. His innate vulnerability, combined with his classical good looks, provided Bacon with a fascinating character study. Their passionate, tempestuous relationship became increasingly fraught—both in life and in paint—and by the late 1960s had begun to show signs of strain. In October 1971, as Bacon prepared to place his life’s work on display in Paris, he received news that Dyer had been found dead in their hotel room. His face would continue to haunt Bacon’s art for the rest of his career.
Martin Harrison identifies Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer as a precedent for the present work. Painted in 1968, it stands among the later of the major portraits of Dyer produced during his lifetime. Like nearly all its companions, it was based on Deakin’s seminal group of photographs depicting Dyer seated in his underwear: images that would become archetypes for Bacon’s wider portrait—and self-portrait—practice. In the 1968 painting, Dyer’s semi-naked figure is etched onto a dark canvas-like screen, his swirling, monstrous form pierced sporadically by pins. The notion of “fixing” or “nailing” reality into place was one that ran throughout Bacon’s practice, expressed at various points through the imagery of crucifixion and, by extension, the hypodermic syringe. Dyer himself, fully clothed, turns away from the image, as if oblivious to—or indeed repelled by—the brutality of Bacon’s painterly act. In many ways, Study for Portrait may be understood as a completed version of this “painting within a painting”. The needles are removed, and Dyer’s muscular form flourishes in radiant, corporeal splendor. His face, formerly disfigured, is now unveiled as a beacon of sculptural perfection, echoing the Renaissance figure studies to which Bacon had once likened his lover. The struggle to capture the human form, so violently expressed in the 1968 canvas, is laid to rest; the figure, in all his beauty, is reborn.
The notion of resurrection may be said to take on new meaning in light of the black triptychs. In these works, produced between 1971 and 1973, Bacon attempted to process his feelings of guilt and sorrow by reimagining Dyer’s last moments in paint. The central black panel in Study for Portrait has its origins in these canvases. In Triptych August 1972 (Tate, London), Dyer’s seated form—another derivation of Deakin’s photographs—hovers before a grainy abyss. In Triptych May-June 1973, he inhabits these dark spaces as if slipping slowly into the void. In contrast to Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, which depicts him as a painting, the black triptychs capture Dyer in a fundamentally filmic manner, casting him as a disembodied, illusory specter. Pins and nails are redundant in this world; the subject, crucially, is no longer there to be fixed. The central panel in Study for Portrait extends the cinematic metaphor of these works, creating a fluid, plasmic surface upon which Dyer’s image hovers like a mirage. Bacon had often marveled at the power of film over pigment: “I would like to have been a film director if I hadn’t been a painter,” he once said (F. Bacon, quoted in Francis Bacon in Conversation with Michel Archimbaud, London 1993, p. 16). Through paint, Bacon had always striven to capture the raw pulsations of reality; in Study for Portrait, cinema—the space of memory and fantasy—offers him a temporary escape from its cruelties. How can one attempt to “trap this living fact alive,” as he put it, once its flame has been extinguished?
Bacon in Paris: Exorcism and Triumph
If the black triptychs went some way towards confronting the pain of Dyer’s death, it was Bacon’s move to Paris that finally allowed him to come to terms with the fact. In 1974, he took a studio beside the Place des Vosges, eager to immerse himself in the city where he had spent his final moments with Dyer. There he painted one of the great masterpieces of his career: another triptych, but this time supremely allegorical. In Triptych, 1976, Bacon wove together political sources, erotic imagery and his readings of Greek mythology, creating a grand existential finale to his own personal tragedy. The work would continue to reverberate throughout his art over the following years, informing both the present canvas and a further 1977 painting, Seated Figure. Several compositional features link them together: most notably the linear railings, which have variously been likened not only to the legs of an easel but also to the “dollies” used to support television cameras. In the present work, this structural device also evokes another of Bacon’s erstwhile sources: the images of Pope Pius XII held aloft on the sedia gestatoria, which had populated his studio during the 1950s and 1960s. Bacon had played with the relationship between the Pope and Dyer in two works shortly before the latter’s suicide; in Study of George Dyer, 1971, he usurped the pontiff from his throne. By channeling this imagery, Bacon extends the spirit of his 1976 Triptych: a final act of exorcism, presided over by grandiloquent historical themes. The substitution of his own shadow—in comparison to the triptych’s amorphous pools of pigment—certainly supports this reading.
Bacon’s “exorcism” was, in many ways, a success. 1977 brought a new lease of life, in which he took his place as a central figure in the Parisian art world. His partnership with the gallerist Claude Bernard Haim gave rise to a pivotal solo exhibition at his gallery that year, featuring the 1976 Triptych alongside the mournful works produced since Dyer’s death. “The show as a whole caused an immediate sensation” writes Michael 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, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, 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 strangers. After years of emotional turmoil, in the city where disaster had threatened to tear his world apart, Bacon entered a new period of personal and professional contentment.
The Figure and the Ground: Bacon’s Visual Devices
Bacon’s links to Paris ultimately ran deeper than his relationship with Dyer. It was there, during the 1920s, that he had first discovered the work of Picasso—an artist whose influence he would come to acknowledge more than any other’s. It was not lost on Bacon that Picasso was the only other living artist to have been honored with a retrospective at the Grand Palais, and, as he started to prepare for it in earnest during the early 1970s, his thoughts turned increasingly to the work of his idol. A feature that began to encroach upon his practice during this time, and which would come to the fore in the works of the mid-1970s, was the use of dry transfer lettering, or Letraset. Recalling the newspaper clippings that became part and parcel of Picasso’s Synthetic Cubism, these fragments introduced a temporal dimension to Bacon’s compositions, grounding his figures in the here-and-now. At the same time, the arrangements of letters were deliberately stripped of all narrative connotation—a strategy designed to prevent interpretation on the part of the viewer. Harrison also draws 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. In the present work, the fragments perform a more literal function, recalling the reams of crumpled newspapers, books 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 offered Bacon as great a window onto the human condition as any of the art or literature he so admired.
Alongside its use of Letraset, Study for Portrait demonstrates a number of other devices explored by Bacon during the 1970s. The circles that punctuate Dyer’s form were derived from Kathleen Clara Clark’s 1939 book Positioning in Radiography, which Bacon admired for its analytical, clinical divisions of human anatomy. These structures played into the artist’s fascination with photography, and recalled, in their function, the early cubic space-frames that Bacon deployed in a bid to “see the image more clearly”. The central panel itself, too, fulfils something of this role, enclosing the figure in the manner of Alberto Giacometti’s caged sculptures and framed portraits. Bacon notably admired the individual compartments in train carriages, describing them “like a room concentrated in a small space.” As his oeuvre progressed throughout the 1970s, his cordoned-off arenas became increasingly abstract and concise, existing in stark contrast to the still-sculptural fleshy forms of his figures. In the present work, the careful balance of circles, squares and perspectival lines works in counterpoint with the sense of depth created by Bacon’s handling of paint. A precise geometric order frames the composition, held in tension with a chromatic spectrum that spans from piercing primaries to subtle, intermediate flesh tones. The more clinical the interior, Bacon believed, the more powerfully human presence might be made manifest. “All Bacon’s spaces are conceived with human life in mind,” writes Wieland Schmied. “… The purpose of space is the revelation of the human” (W. Schmied, Francis Bacon: Commitment and Conflict, Munich 2006, p. 31). It was perhaps no coincidence that as the specter of death drew ever nearer to Bacon, this quest became increasingly palpable in his art.
The painter Frank Auerbach once said that Bacon’s portraits were like “risen spirits”. In Study for Portrait, Dyer—through the fluid space of the screen—is momentarily revitalized. Life surges through his body, tinging his flesh with red and pink hues. Blood—the artist’s own, perhaps—spills onto the ground, anticipating later canvases such as Blood on Pavement (1984) and Blood on Floor (1986). As Mark Stevens has argued, blood was deeply ingrained into Bacon’s visual imagination: he had watched it shed in the neighborhoods of his native Ireland during the 1920s. He had marveled at the way it stained meat carcasses in butchers’ shops, and had charted its symbolic resonance through the pages of literary tragedies and the imagery of the Crucifixion. “Blood could be a marker of bad company, violent opposition, and the criminal underworld, all of which held interest for a young, marginalized homosexual”, writes Stevens. “Blood was incarnadine, but hidden away. A vital truth concealed. When it emerged, it stained, leaked, puddled, scabbed. Blood was pain—and revelation” (M. Stevens, “Blood on Pavement”, in Francis Bacon: Late Paintings, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2015, p. 95). For Bacon, it was the ultimate reality: a sign of its passions and brutalities—everything that Dyer had represented. As the “living fact” of his lover fades into cinematic illusion, Bacon performs a final eucharistic act: a celebration of flesh and blood in the knowledge, and the acceptance, of death.