With its writhing, serpentine figure set within a stark amphitheatre of colour and form, Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe is one of the great masterpieces of Francis Bacon’s finest period: the 1960s. Against a sea of deep, cardinal red, flanked by a curtain of rapid painterly striations, Bacon’s supine nude lies sprawled upon a bed, framed by a vast ocular lens and suspended within a sharp cubic grid. Executed on a monumental scale, spanning nearly two metres in height, the painting marks the critical moment in Bacon’s oeuvre at which the diverse experimental strands of the preceding decade were brought into powerful synthesis: the near-total abstraction of the figure, the visceral animation of flesh, the corporeal handling of pigment and the rich, sensory palette of opulent and electric hues. Closely related to Bacon’s two great Lying Figure compositions of 1966 and 1969, housed in the Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofía and the Fondation Beyeler respectively, the painting represents a direct reworking of his 1963 canvas Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe. In its transformation of the earlier void-like composition into a living theatre of figural abstraction, the painting tells a story largely untold within Baconian mythology: the relationship between the artist and Willem de Kooning, whom he had met earlier that year. Like the American master’s seminal depictions of the female body as sites of raw, carnal sensation, Bacon’s woman dissolves into a violent, almost eligible tangle of limbs in motion: a dynamic bundle of animal matter in its most rarefied state. Whilst the cage and the ellipse – structures both visible in the present work – had previously provided Bacon with a means of ‘pinning down’ this pulsating figural energy, here they are no longer enough. The operation, transmitted directly from Bacon’s own nervous system onto the canvas, now required a syringe.
Two years after its creation, Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe was one of the first paintings to be acquired by the Vanthournout collection, remaining in its prestigious holdings for nearly four decades. During this period, it was seen by the public on just one occasion when, in 1998, it was personally requested by Bacon’s foremost critic David Sylvester for his curatorial swansong Francis Bacon: The Human Body at the Hayward Gallery in London. There, it sat alongside an exclusive, tightly-curated selection of twenty-three works that, in the scholar’s opinion, represented the core of Bacon’s practice. For Sylvester, it was precisely the shadows of Abstract Expressionism in this work that justified its place in this elite survey, having previously described how the artist ‘came closer to de Kooning here than in any other of his works’ (D. Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 108). Though the painting may be understood in relation to Bacon’s landmark Crucifixion triptychs of 1962 and 1965, as well as his celebrated depictions of Henrietta Moraes – whose reclining figure inspired the present work – its dialogue with abstraction ultimately sets it apart from these compositions. Pigment, and its ability to embody sensation, becomes the primary focus of the work; in myriad tones of green, blue, pink, red, yellow and purple, it is swiped, swept and smeared, stippled, shuttered and scrubbed across the picture plane. The central ovular field, contained within a vitrine-like case, is simultaneously an operating theatre, an arena or even perhaps an eye, in which the figure hovers like an optical illusion. The syringe, in this light, becomes an anchor in the face of the formless and nameless: a means, as Bacon himself described, of ‘nailing the image more strongly into reality or appearance’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, p. 78).
DIALOGUES WITH ABSTRACTION: BACON AND DE KOONING
Though Bacon maintained something of a scathing attitude towards Abstract Expressionism throughout his career, the 1960s saw the development of a complex – if, at times, subconscious – dialogue with the movement’s key proponents. The Tate Gallery’s 1959 exhibition The New American Painting had a profound impact on the artist, and many of Bacon’s subsequent compositions – including, most notably, the 1963 version of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe – began to echo the stacked colour fields espoused by artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. In contrast to the works of the 1950s, Bacon’s palette morphed from a representational tool to a sensory conductor: colour was increasingly employed for its emotive rather than pictorial potential. A new set of tonalities entered his vocabulary: bright, electric flashes of green, pink and orange that sat in jarring relation to the luxuriant, velvety carpets of burgundy, regal purple and blue carried over from his earlier Papal portraits. As in the present work, these neon hues were frequently employed as halo-like shadows, shrouding his subjects in a radioactive haze. For Bacon, colour gradually became a means of capturing what he described as the ‘emanation’ of his subjects – a tool for abstracting them beyond the physical world. Despite his suspicion of the gestural language proposed by Newman, Rothko, Pollock and others, it was precisely this understanding of colour as a vehicle for transcendence that lay at the heart of their beliefs.
However, of all his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, it was ultimately de Kooning with whom Bacon most readily identified. The two artists, along with Sylvester, met for the first time in January 1968, at a dinner during de Kooning’s visit to London. According to Ted Morgan, Bacon came to regard him as ‘the great man in the United States for bursting through the abstract and planting an image on the canvas’ (T. Morgan quoted in D. Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 141). This notion spoke directly to Bacon’s own practice which, since its inception, had sought to embed the physical and emotive essence of his subjects within the very fibres of the linen: to capture what he referred to as the ‘after-glow’ of the human form and to fix it in paint. De Kooning’s famous assertion that ‘Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented’ resonated strongly with Bacon’s aesthetic agenda, and both artists shared a deep admiration for Chaïm Soutine’s richly-textured depictions of viscera and carcasses. Their shared ancestry in the primitivist aesthetic of Pablo Picasso positioned them as leading voices in what Sylvester termed the ‘figurative sublime’ - a counterpoint to the much-lauded ‘abstract sublime’ practiced by Newman, Rothko and Pollock. Indeed, in his seminal 1980 documentary The Shock of the New, the art critic Robert Hughes paired Bacon and de Kooning as the twentieth century’s most important exponents of ‘the disquieting human figure’ (R. Hughes, The Shock of the New, BBC, 1980).
Nowhere is this parallel more palpable in Bacon’s oeuvre than in the present work. Like the primal beings that confront the viewer from the swirling depths of de Kooning’s Woman paintings, Bacon’s figure is boiled down to a cellular, almost amoeba-like reduction of the human body. Its physical substance is sublimated to a series of abstracted movements, channelled through the sheer force of Bacon’s own physical gestures. For both artists, the tactile condition of sculpture was an important reference point in their respective approaches to human anatomy. De Kooning – who, unlike Bacon, actively worked in the medium – famously closed his eyes whilst modelling clay, bringing his creations to life through touch rather than sight. Bacon’s work too, powerfully rooted in his fascination with Michelangelo and Rodin, was born of an intense physical engagement with the very grain of the pigment. As Robert Melville once wrote, ‘Bacon has used paint as if he were modeling the figure out of wet clay or as if he has forced his hands into the actual substance of the model and sculpted the bone structure in order to intensify the pliancy of the flesh’ (R. Melville, quoted in Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 262). In the present work, Bacon not only moulds but ultimately pulls apart the figure, peeling back the flesh to reveal the twitching nervous system and muscular spasms beneath. By consciously animating the interior of his subject, Bacon allows his figure to break free from its physical condition, liquidating its form to a fluid carnal trace. It is a powerful demonstration of André Breton’s famous assertion that ‘Beauty will be convulsive or not at all’ (A. Breton, Nadja, New York 1960, p. 160).
FORMAL DEVICES: THE GRID, THE OVAL AND THE SYRINGE
Throughout his oeuvre, Bacon’s desire to penetrate right to the heart of his subjects was borne out not only by his handling of the figure, but also through the compositional armature in which his subjects were situated. The grids, cages and ovals that increasingly populated his canvases throughout the 1950s and 1960s were conceived as zoom lenses: devices through which to isolate and spotlight the flesh. The distinctive cubic frame, frequently compared to the Chinagraph markings used by photographers to indicate areas for enlargement, has also been likened to the cages in which Bacon’s contemporary Alberto Giacometti submitted his subjects to deep existential enquiry. The elliptical vortex functions in a similar way. Though Bacon has traced the origin of this structure to the ‘beautifully curved rooms’ at the back of his grandmother’s house in Farmleigh, Martin Harrison has identified a number of potential sources of inspiration for this structure, including the circular barriers around casino roulette tables, sporting arenas – particularly those of the bullfight or corrida – the swirling vortexes of Soutine’s landscapes, Max Ernst’s appropriation of the zoopraxiscope and the photographs of operating theatres found in Bacon’s prized medical textbooks (M. Harrison, In Camera: Francis Bacon. Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, pp. 118-121). Elsewhere, it has been suggested that this ovular void evokes an eye - a metaphor for vision, as co-opted by Bacon’s early Surrealist influences Luis Buñuel and Georges Bataille. For Bacon, who worked from a flood of reproduced and half-remembered pictures, photographs and sources scattered around his studio, it was via these geometric frames that he was able to filter the contents of his own mind’s eye into a single, animated image.
In the present work, along with its predecessor, these two structures are joined by a third – the syringe. Within an oeuvre that sought to pierce the very skin of its subjects, the metaphorical significance of this device goes straight to the heart of Bacon’s aesthetic preoccupations. If the cage and the oval attempted to contain the figure, the syringe was a means of pinning it down for closer examination. Bacon’s fascination with Cimabue’s depictions of the crucifixion was ultimately rooted in the same concept: it was through anchoring the human figure, he believed, that its true essence could begin to emerge. Writing of the 1963 version of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe, Gilles Deleuze explained how the image ‘is less a nailed-down body (though this is how Bacon describes it) than a body attempting to pass through the syringe and to escape through this hole or vanishing point functioning as a prosthesis-organ’ (G. Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, 1981, London 2005, pp. 17-18). Deleuze’s conception of the syringe as an organ of sorts invites comparison with the ellipse’s construal as an eye: they are not only means of ensnaring or fixing the body, but equally vehicles for allowing it to transcend its external appearance. Both are gateways to the abstract tangle of nervous electricity that flows beneath the body’s physical surface. Along with the cage, they exemplify what Deleuze refers to elsewhere as the ‘diagram’ – vectors that interact with the figure, pinioning it to the canvas and thereby forcing its internal energy to the surface.
THE HUMAN FIGURE IN MOTION
Though the majority of Bacon’s figures were based on people he knew, he rarely worked directly from life. The figurative violence he enacted upon his subjects was, to his mind, so extreme that he preferred to work from photographs. Though the present work is far from a portrait of Henrietta Moraes in the traditional sense, it was nonetheless her reclining figure that formed the basis for its central protagonist. Part of the colourful cast of Soho characters who touched Bacon’s life during the 1960s, Moraes featured in some of Bacon’s most significant paintings from this period, including Three Studies for a Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1963 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1963, Study for Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1964, and Henrietta Moraes, 1966. Many of these works, along with the present painting, derived from a series of photographs taken by John Deakin of Moraes reclining on a bed. Though Bacon specified the exact pose he wished her to enact, the first series of images – which depicted her in an upright recumbent posture – met with dismay: ‘the blithering nitwit reversed every single shot of you I wanted’, he complained to Moraes (F. Bacon quoted in H. Moraes, Henrietta, London 1994, p. 71). He insisted that Deakin take another set of photographs, this time with Moraes lying flat on her back, her head towards the viewer, her arms outstretched and her leg raised. It was a pose that related directly to his earliest Lying Figure compositions of 1959-61, based on Rodin’s Iris Messenger of the Gods. This posture, in various subtly different guises, features in all of the Lying Figures from the 1960s and would, in turn, inform the figures that populated his Crucifixion triptychs.
By the time of the present work, photography – and its extension into cinema – had become a primary point of reference in Bacon’s attempts to capture the human body. The idea of isolating and preserving a split second of figural motion appealed directly to his desire to zoom in on the body’s carnal make-up. Of all the works produced during the 1960s, the present work is among the most powerful engagements with the legacy of Eadweard Muybridge, whose frame-by-frame accounts of the human body in movement provided a deep source of inspiration for Bacon. 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 rapid striations of paint that hover behind the figure – recalling the ‘shuttering’ effect that Bacon adapted from the pastels of Edgar Degas – also have their origins in filmic media, reminiscent of shuddering optical static or a cinematic time lapse. Used throughout his oeuvre to express a release of tension – most notably in his screaming Papal portraits of the 1950s and early 1960s – here it recalls the persistent fluttering of an eyelid; a series of rapid blinks, struggling to focus on the swirling vortex of impasto that lies, spread-eagled, in the middle of the composition.
BETWEEN STATES OF BEING
In its virtuosic dialogue between figuration and abstraction, motion and containment, Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe represents one of Bacon’s most important meditations on the convulsive nature of reality. It is perhaps significant in this regard that Bacon – who up until the 1960s had almost exclusively painted men – chose a woman as his vehicle. Indeed, it is in his depictions of the female form, more than anywhere else in his oeuvre, that Bacon revealed the double-edged depths of his own search for identity. As David Sylvester has written, ‘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 as 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. 21). In a painting so rich in association, it is perhaps appropriate that Bacon’s central figure should embody the conflict that lay at the heart of his own being. As John Russell said of the artist’s work, ‘the image is nowhere fixed, finite, descriptive; and yet it tells us more fully and more truthfully than any conventional portrait what it is like to be a human being’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1971, p. 132). Sprawled upon a bed – the primal site of birth and death – the figure’s transitional state offers a powerful commentary on the human condition in its broadest sense.