Fear and Self-Loathing

Christie’s prints specialist, Lucia Tro Santafé, deconstructs Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for a Self-Portrait

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Self-Portrait, three lithographs in colours printed on one sheet, 1981,
on Arches paper, signed in pencil; © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2013.

Francis Bacon’s paintings have a penchant for eliciting the more horrific aspects of his human subjects. They droop, warp and scream; they fuse with vaguely animalistic forms; at times they resemble nothing so much as heaps of butchered meat.

Occasionally Bacon turned his painterly gaze towards himself. He wasn’t fond of the view. "I loathe my own face," he once said, adding: "I’ve done a lot of self-portraits, really, because people have been dying around me like flies and I’ve nobody else left to paint but myself." And yet one finds the same sensitivity in his self-renderings as in his portraits of dear friends. As Christie’s prints specialist, Lucia Tro Santafé, notes here in her deconstruction of Three Studies for a Self-Portrait (1979-80), absent is the twisting brutality; in its place one sees a quiet, softer Bacon — haunting, perhaps, but sympathetic.

‘The Living Quality’

Bacon had a concept he referred to as "the living quality" with regard to making a portrait of someone. Traditionally, portrait painters attempted to be realistic, like a photograph. And Bacon is saying (to paraphrase), "Well, actually, I don’t want that. That’s what photography is for. I just want to get the essence of a person and the emanation." His aim in portrait-making was to find a technique that could transmit what a person was feeling —the fact that the person is not an object, but flesh and blood. His paintings often make strong reference to flesh and meat and blood.

The Self-Portrait

Bacon depicted himself several times. The main reason was he didn’t have anyone else to paint. He started depicting himself in the early 1950s, and then again later in his career. He would actually take photos of himself in photo booths and base his self-portraits on those photos.

Triptych

He almost always uses this triptych form in his portraits. He likes to give three versions of a face because we have three parts of our face — the front view, where you fully see both eyes, and then the left and right sides. And people look different from those three angles. He liked to say that that’s why when you’re arrested they take photos of your three sides. There’s always this feeling of movement between the three of images of his triptychs. The practice also looks back in art history to the Middle Ages tradition of depicting religious scenes in three parts — in line with the tripartite iconography of the crucifixion and the Holy Trinity.

The mouth (what you don’t see)

He did a lot of portraits with the mouth open. He saw Sergei Eisenstein’s film, Battleship Potemkin, and in the film there’s a scene of a nurse screaming. He started using the scream with his Pope Innocent paintings because he wanted to give some expression to an unknown, to an abstract face. During that period he also bought himself a book of mouth diseases, in Paris, and he just loved it. But he doesn’t depict himself screaming or with a diseased mouth; he does that more with his anonymous figures.

A softer side of Bacon

I think it’s a very powerful image because, to me, it actually feels quite shy. The chiaroscuro contrast with the white cheek and dark background is very baroque. The painting seems to transmit this idea of trying to find the light within the darkness. God knows he had a tormented life: His lover, George Dyer, died of an overdose; he was an alcoholic and a gambler; he was homosexual. He must have waged a very strong internal fight against his conservative educational background. And maybe that’s why he depicted all these tormented faces always. He liked to see the good and the bad in people. He wanted to represent both the animal and uniquely human natures of human beings. He believed that we are both. But in this instance, his self-portrait is calmer — it’s not as agitated as his portraits of other people. This figure coming out of the darkness is very dramatic without being violent.

Christie’s is selling the complete collection of Bacon’s graphic works, including Three Studies for a Self-Portrait, in an online-only auction, from Oct. 22 through Nov. 5.