‘How can you cut your flesh open and join it with the other person?’ – F. Bacon
‘Not an hour goes by when I don’t think about George’ – F. Bacon
‘A compact and chunky force of nature, with a vivid and highly [unorthodox] turn of phrase, [George Dyer] embodied pent-up energy. As a spirit of mischief, touched at times by melancholia, he had been the subject, and the inspiration of some of Bacon’s greatest images’ – J. Russell
‘In a way Dyer’s death allowed [Bacon] to paint some of his very greatest pictures. Suddenly he had no need of mythical or religious structures because he had his own tragedy. His loneliness and shock gave him a very grand subject: life and death, love and loss, guilt and retribution’ – M. Peppiatt
‘The two figures, closely intermingled (except for the heads they are virtually fused into one) in a glass cage, resemble a sculpture on display in a vitrine, albeit a conspicuously kinetic type of sculpture: one of the protagonist’s legs actually bursts out of the cage structure’ – M. Harrison
‘In the case of Two Figures the men are so completely and intricately united that they come across almost as a single figure, in which the influences of Michelangelo’s drawings and Muybridge’s photographs in motion are indissolubly linked. Caught in the last throes of desire, the two figures are held up, as in some erotic theatre, for public display. But there is also an intensely private poetry in the way they not only meld into one but are shown tumbling through space in the fierce rush of their desire’ – M. Peppiatt
‘Actually, Michelangelo and Muybridge are mixed up in my mind together, and so I perhaps could learn about positions from Muybridge and learn about the ampleness, the grandeur of form from Michelangelo, and it would be very difficult for me to disentangle the influence of Muybridge and the influence of Michelangelo’ – F. Bacon
‘You might say that this is the painting where the wound of losing George is beginning to heal – it’s a poignant picture because Bacon is looking back on past - that’s to say, lost - happiness. This is Bacon at his most private and most tender. The painter who produced such violent, shocking images was also, perhaps even above all, a great poet of love’ – M. Peppiatt
‘He felt that [Paris] was the absolute centre of the art world – the city of Picasso, Duchamp and Giacometti, the three contemporary artists he admired most’ – M. Peppiatt
‘Francis has upped the ante, if that’s the phrase, by presenting me with an extraordinary new, large canvas... I am obviously delighted to possess this major painting, not least because it records such an intimate moment of Francis and George together’ – M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon In Your Blood: A Memoir
Standing nearly two metres in height, Francis Bacon’s Two Figures is a deeply poignant final farewell to George Dyer, the artist’s great muse and lover. Rendered with tactile, near-sculptural brushstrokes, Bacon’s figures are intimately conjoined in a state of sublime torsion, captured in ecstatic, free-falling metamorphosis. It is an extraordinary tribute to the man who transformed Bacon’s life and art, and whose tragic death in 1971 would give rise to some of his most powerful compositions. Painted in Paris in 1975, Two Figures consummates one of the darkest self-reflective periods of Bacon’s life: a period defined not only by an intensive, highly analytical stream of self-portraiture, but also by the landmark series of ‘black’ triptychs, in which he sought to exorcise the painful memories of Dyer’s suicide. In the present work, Bacon’s attempt at catharsis reaches something of an apotheosis: the haunted narratives of the triptychs are replaced by a tender invocation of male desire, its two protagonists inextricably entwined in the throes of passion. Like an incognito zoom lens, a single square frames the central figure’s face – elements of Dyer’s profile spliced together with those of Bacon himself – producing an inlaid portrait of sorts that anchors the couple’s descent. In certain lights, the figures confront the viewer like a voluptuous statue, preserved, levitated and spot-lit within the sharp geometries of Bacon’s gridded cage. In others, their translucent bodies form a writhing motion picture – a blurred time-lapse sequence that flickers in and out of focus. The visceral nature of the recollection is borne out in the sheer physicality of Bacon’s painterly bravura: a raw, almost carnal handling of pigment that animates the cascading figures. Here, for the first time, the clouds of grief and sorrow begin to lift: exposed before the world, Bacon’s protagonists come to life in celebration of the private intimacies shared with Dyer.
Two Figures was acquired directly from Bacon by Michael Peppiatt, a close friend and confidant of the artist, and a leading scholar and curator of his work. Held in Peppiatt’s distinguished collection for forty years, the work has featured in major exhibitions including Francis Bacon in the 1950s, 2006 (Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich), Caravaggio Bacon, 2010 (Galleria Borghese, Rome) and Bacon/Moore: Flesh and Bone, 2014 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), and has been on permanent display at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester since 2009. Like several of Bacon’s compositions, Two Figures was originally part of a larger canvas that the artist deliberately divided into two separate paintings. The right-hand portion of the initial work was subsequently titled Portrait of a Dwarf, and features a foreshortened figure upon a stool. The voyeuristic relationship between the couple and this figure played directly into Bacon’s fascination with the erotic power of watching and being watched. A ruthless editor of his own work, notorious for his abrasions, erasures and annihilations, Bacon’s conscious bisection of the canvas freed each beautifully painted work from interaction with, and interference by, the other. In doing so, he transposed that interaction and complete sense of engagement to the viewer, which was always Bacon’s primary concern.
BACON’S FAREWELL TO DYER
Within the charismatic cast of characters that touched Bacon’s life, none had a more profound impact than Dyer. The two first met in a Soho bar in the autumn of 1963, and quickly became lovers. Dyer’s classical good looks, combined with his troubled past and fragile spirit, provided Bacon with a fascinating character study, giving rise to a prodigious series of portraits and triptychs now mostly held in museum collections. Towards the end of the decade, however, Bacon’s mercurial character and Dyer’s own bleak prospects gave way to a tumultuous relationship, punctuated by sharp mood swings and fits of emotion. In 1971, shortly before the opening of Bacon’s major retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris – an accolade granted to no other living artist except Picasso – Dyer was found dead in his hotel room. In the black triptychs, which include Triptych – In Memory of George Dyer, 1971 (Fondation Beyeler, Basel) and Triptych, August, 1972 (Tate, London), Bacon brutally replayed the events of that fateful night, releasing his anguish and despair into emotionally-charged narrative panels. Though the darkened interior of Two Figures recalls the billowing swathes of black that engulf Dyer in the triptychs, the work’s subtle chiaroscuro lighting effects imbue the composition with a reverential solemnity. Gone are the tortured meditations upon the tragedy of Dyer’s death. Instead, Bacon stages a moment of cathartic reflection: liberated from all physical laws, the figures take flight in a surge of rapture. Whilst many of Bacon’s self-portraits of the 1970s were imbued with an impending awareness of the artist’s own mortality, Two Figures finds solace in the power of memory and fantasy. It is no longer simply an attempt to come to terms with the pain of his loss, but an ecstatic letting-go of the grief that had gripped him so furiously during the preceding years.
MICHELANGELO AND MUYBRIDGE
The metamorphic properties of the two figures bear witness to the dual influence of Michelangelo and Eadweard Muybridge: artists who Bacon admitted were fundamentally ‘mixed up in my mind together’. On one hand, the fleshy curves and exaggerated musculature of the figures is deeply rooted in Bacon’s fascination with the sculptor who, in his eyes, ‘produced the most voluptuous nudes in the whole of the plastic arts’ (F. Bacon, 1975, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, p. 114). In the landmark series of interviews with David Sylvester, published in the year of the painting, Bacon described how ‘for several years now I’ve been very much thinking about sculpture, though I haven’t ever done it, because each time I want to do it I get the feeling that perhaps I could do it better in painting’ (F. Bacon, 1975, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, p. 108). Nowhere within his output of this period is this assertion more profoundly embodied than in Two Figures. In places, his application of paint suggests the smoothness of polished marble; elsewhere, it recalls a rough-hewn block of stone. At the same time, the statue-esque qualities of the figures are held in tension with the sheer level of movement in the work’s surface. Like Bacon’s early portrayals of male couplings – most notably Two Figures and Two Figures in the Grass of 1953 – the figures evoke Muybridge’s photographs of wrestlers in motion: a source that Bacon returned to almost obsessively throughout his oeuvre. Arms, legs and torsos are so closely entwined that they mutate to form a single entity. Like a film paused on rewind, or a long photographic exposure, time and movement collapse and coalesce, creating a hybrid being that quivers with heightened sensory charge.
The rectilinear frame in which the figures are suspended also finds its origins in filmic media. Frequently compared to the Chinagraph markings used by photographers to indicate areas for enlargement, Bacon’s gridded cages had, since the 1950s, been used as devices for spotlighting his subjects. Its usage also invites comparison with the paintings and sculptures of Alberto Giacommetti – an artist who, for Bacon, truly embodied the existentialist concerns of post-War European art. Here, the structure becomes a projection of his own mental architecture: a delineated space in which Bacon is able to confront his most personal recollections and desires. The rapid striations of dark paint that cover the walls of the interior recall the ‘shuttering’ effect that Bacon adapted from the pastels of Edgar Degas, and incorporated into many of his screaming Papal portraits. Used throughout his oeuvre to express a release of tension, these lines create a kind of shuddering optical static that destabilises the rigid geometries of the cage, emphasising the work’s sense of cinematic distortion. The embedded square snapshot of the central figure’s face recalls the celebrated fourteen-by-twelve inch portrait heads that dominated Bacon’s output of the 1960s and 1970s. The allusion to this format – which, according to John Russell, was ‘the scene of some of Bacon’s most ferocious investigations’ – is particularly poignant here. ‘Just as a gunshot sometimes leaves after-echo or parallel report’, writes Russell, ‘so these small concentrated heads carry their ghosts within them’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 99).
In Peppiatt’s recently-published monograph Francis Bacon in Your Blood – a critically-acclaimed memoir of his relationship with the artist – he recalls his joy in acquiring the work. ‘I am obviously delighted to possess this major painting’, he recounts, ‘not least because it records such an intimate moment of Francis and George together’ (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon in Your Blood: A Memoir, London 2015, p. 266). Though flickering traces of Dyer’s likeness would continue to permeate Bacon’s portraits for the rest of his life, it is in Two Figures that the artist is finally able to bid farewell to his lover. The darkness that permeated Bacon’s output in the immediate aftermath of Dyer’s death is momentarily quelled and, in the hallowed arena of the artist’s imagination, the two are reunited.
MICHAEL PEPPIATT IN CONVERSATION WITH FRANCIS OUTRED
London, 10 December 2015
FO: Your relationship with Francis Bacon is legendary. Can you recall how and when you first met?
MP: In 1963 I was studying art history and editing a student magazine called Cambridge Opinion. I’d been looking at nothing but Renaissance Madonnas for a year, so I decided to devote a special issue of the magazine to modern art because it sounded more relevant and exciting. But I knew very little about it and had no idea where to begin. Then a friend in my college said, ‘You should talk to Francis Bacon – some people think he’s the most important painter in England. My mother knows his friend John Deakin, the photographer. Just go to the French pub in Soho and Deakin will introduce you.’ So I found myself standing awkwardly around in a rowdy pub full of much older, eccentric-looking Soho types, and when I found Deakin he said, ‘I don’t know whether the maestro would want to meet a mere student like you’, and at that moment Bacon – who was standing by the bar – turned round and said, ‘Don’t listen to that old fool, I adore students. Now what are you having to drink?’ He had these extraordinary piercing eyes and I was vaguely aware that I’d met someone quite out of the ordinary. But Bacon was so charming, making me feel important and filling me with champagne, that I didn’t really think about it. He’d had his first Tate retrospective the previous year, so he was still riding high and he radiated this strange kind of optimism and energy, so that whenever you were with him the whole tempo of life quickened. Of course, things could also get out of hand when he’d had the glass too many and turned vicious.
FO: What were your first impressions of George Dyer?
MP: I met George shortly after Bacon began seeing him, and at first he seemed to me just another figure in this weird cast of Soho characters. But I got on quite well with him and sensed that, like me, he felt out of his depth in this sophisticated, treacherous, volatile world we’d both wandered into. George was always immaculately dressed, and at first I imagined he was a successful entrepreneur from the East End rather than a disastrously unsuccessful petty crook who kept getting caught. He was totally infatuated with Bacon, and in the first couple of years Bacon made a great fuss of him, calling him ‘Sir George’ and giving him wads of cash to drink and gamble with.
FO: At what point did the story shift from Soho to Paris?
MP: In January 1966 I got a job on a magazine in Paris and I thought I probably wouldn’t see much of Bacon once I left London. But he was actually very keen to get his work better known in Paris because he felt that it was still the absolute centre of the art world – the city of Picasso, Duchamp and Giacometti, the three contemporary artists he admired most. One day he called me up out of the blue while I was working at the magazine and suddenly I was back in his life, and we started going to all the best restaurants and nightclubs in Paris. In the interim I’d focused on Bacon’s work and I was beginning to write about it in publications like Art International. Then, in 1971, Bacon got a full-scale retrospective at the Grand Palais, which was what he’d always most wanted.
FO: And of course this is the moment when, just before the opening of the exhibition - a real breakthrough for Bacon - Dyer commits suicide.
MP: It couldn’t have been more cruel or horrible. Just as Francis had achieved this greatest triumph, he was struck down by his lover’s suicide. He’d always felt he’d been singled out to suffer – he thought in terms of Greek tragedy and felt he’d been visited with this calamity because – I don’t know – perhaps it was because he’d risen too high like Icarus, flying too close to the sun. I think he felt he’d incurred the wrath of the gods. He certainly suffered intensely afterwards.
FO: And then he embarked upon this landmark group of paintings known as the ‘black triptychs’.
MP: Yes – 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. His loneliness and shock gave him a very grand subject: life and death, love and loss, guilt and retribution. Painting became the only way for him to survive– a kind of catharsis that allowed him to express the furthest extremes of emotion.
FO: These black triptychs were painted in the early 1970s, and your painting is situated right at the end of that phase. I think it can be associated with those works in the sense that he was memorializing his great love.
MP: Two Figures is a particularly interesting case because it goes beyond the circumstances of the death – it recaptures of a moment of extreme intimacy with George. I think this metaphor of two bodies tumbling together through space is one of Bacon’s most brilliant inventions, because it recreates that feeling of sexual release – of being outside gravity, outside oneself, in free fall. At the same time Bacon put the entwined, falling couple into this curious cage because he wanted to trap and perpetuate that moment of abandon. He’d used cages before but this is like a glass case, used to pin down a fleeting, erotic memory like a butterfly on a pin and display it. You might say that this is the painting where the wound of losing George is beginning to heal – it’s a poignant picture because Bacon is looking back on past - that’s to say, lost - happiness. This is Bacon at his most private and most tender. The painter who produced such violent, shocking images was also, perhaps even above all, a great poet of love.
FO: The painting originally came to you in a different form – perhaps you could talk about the evolution of the work and how you came to acquire it.
MP: I’d had a marvellous head of the writer Michel Leiris which Francis took back to work on – it’s now in the Centre Pompidou - and to replace it I was offered this huge canvas with two figures and a dwarf onlooker which I was very pleased with. Then Francis came round to my little flat one evening for drinks and he took that back too. He felt there was too strong a narrative element in it, and he decided the best way to remove that was simply to cut the image into two self-sufficient, beautifully painted halves. I was very proud to be entrusted with the Two Figures section because it records such an intense, intimate moment in his life so memorably.
FO: Much has been written about Bacon’s relationship with London and his Reece Mews studio. How do you perceive his relationship with Paris? What was his studio like?
MP: It was not far from my own place in the Marais, in a seventeenth-century courtyard on the street that leads from the Place des Vosges down towards the Seine. It had huge windows and an even, north light. The moment Bacon walked in he said he knew right away he could work there. It was a beautiful space, yet very simple and sparsely furnished, with a couple of easels and a large trestle table where he could strew his paint tubes, rags and brushes while using it to try out various colour combinations as if it were a giant palette. He’d always found Paris very exciting and stimulating, and he soon had an inner circle of friends whom he’d meet in the bars and restaurants he liked best. His life in Paris became so flamboyant and eventful that it began to rival his life back home. Bacon loved the idea of being able to get out of London regularly, and I think it allowed him to refresh his whole visual imagination. And of course the fact that George had actually died in Paris made it a particularly poignant place for him.
FO: You recently published your memoir Francis Bacon in Your Blood. What projects are you currently working on?
MP: I’m writing a book about my earlier life in Paris and the people I came across from Beckett and Cartier-Bresson to Graham Greene and Miró. I’m also curating an exhibition on Giacometti and Bacon for the Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland. It’s a very exciting project that will bring together the two great visionary artists of the 20th century who lived through the turmoil of their times intensely, reinventing and recapturing that experience in their own distinct, unforgettable ways.