‘Out of the Black Cavern’

Martin Harrison, editor of a forthcoming Francis Bacon catalogue raisonné, deconstructs Bacon’s take on William Blake

Francis Bacon, Study of Portrait after the Life Mask of William Blake, lithograph
in colors, 1991, on Rives paper, signed in pencil; © The Estate of Francis Bacon.
All rights reserved. DACS 2013.

Nearly 150 years after William Blake’s death, Francis Bacon was asked to do a series of paintings about the famous poet — intended as album art for music a friend was composing about Blake’s life. In true Bacon style, he worked from a photograph of a ghostly life mask made a few years before Blake died: a pallid, frowning, closed-lidded plaster cast that closely resembled a death mask.

In Bacon’s hands the flesh came alive — or perhaps just freshly dead. His friend’s album suffered the opposite fate; it died for good, and Bacon took his paintings back. But the series appears to have been one of Bacon’s favorites, and it marked an important stratum in the evolution of his portraiture, notes Martin Harrison, editor of a Bacon catalogue raisonné and co-curator of the ongoing Francis Bacon / Henry Moore exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford. Below, Harrison deconstructs Study of Portrait after the Life Mask of William Blake, originally painted in 1955 and printed as a lithograph in 1991.

Worth saving

Of the 590 paintings Bacon made that he didn’t destroy, I think he’d have happily destroyed 500 if he could have gathered them all into a room. So one can’t help but be interested in the 90 he would have let live — the ones he thought really were the great Bacons. Bacon’s gallery, for obvious reasons, was more interested in making lithographs from his current work. And, in a sense, so was Bacon because he’s the artist, and it’s what he’s just done. The gallery began making these lithographs in the 1970s (we know there were a few before that), so the fact that Bacon chose to make one from a painting from 1955 I found interesting and significant. It must indicate he was particularly fond of this one.

A painting of a photograph of a plaster cast of a face

Bacon went to see a life mask of William Blake done not that long before Blake died in 1827, by a sculptor called J.S. Deville. It’s in the National Portrait Gallery in London. But in the studio he only used a small black and white photograph of the sculpture that he got from the gallery. Everything he painted was always done on his own, in the studio — in this kind of mad act of painting, which I think was very physical, very impassioned. But almost always, somewhere in the equation, is a photograph. He didn’t like painting from the model.

Blake, revivified

Of course, if it was to be Blake, since he was long dead, Bacon couldn’t use a live model anyway! But he infuses this, as he does all his paintings, with life — through the energy of his paint. Life masks have the appearance of death masks, I find. They’re almost signaling death. Obviously it had no color — either the photograph or the original life mask. And Bacon’s put all the breath in it.

Painting bad, poetry good

Bacon often got asked about Blake, I suppose because he did this series. And he would always say I hate Blake’s paintings, but I like his poetry.

Size matters

If you crop the black background out of this Blake, you pretty much have a 14 x 12" painting. As a purely formal point in the evolution of his portrait style, this leads into the scale Bacon would ultimately adopt. About five or six years later he started doing his portraits at 14 x 12," deciding that the very-close-to-life-sized head was what he wanted.

‘The black cavern’

It’s on a black background. It’s completely simplified. It’s just a head. You can certainly see this Blake thing as a precursor to paintings like the self-portrait in various ways. In one of Bacon’s famous interviews with David Sylvester, David referred to the end of this period as "coming out of the black cavern."

Inherited darkness

The photographic original is completely buried in the painting. But Bacon didn’t bury it in the respect that the photograph was done on a plain, black background by the National Portrait Gallery’s in-house photographer. So he slightly inherited the dark background, if you like. Maybe you can say it’s fortuitous. There’s a head of Peter Beard from the 1980s and it’s not that dissimilar. In that sense this is where that motif starts.

Christie’s is selling the complete collection of Bacon’s graphic works, including Study of Portrait after the Life Mask of William Blake, in an online-only auction, from Oct. 22 through Nov. 5.