How Francis Bacon turned to the likes of Muybridge and Michelangelo to grapple with the death of his muse George Dyer
The 1976 painting bears all of Bacon’s characteristic devices, revealing the love he had for George Dyer, and the pain he endured in his absence
‘Not an hour goes by when I don’t think about George,’ said Francis Bacon, referring to his lover and muse George Dyer. Their relationship began in 1963, when they met in a pub in Soho, London. The relationship was tumultuous and fraught with issues, but Dyer became the subject of many of Bacon’s most iconic works.
His tragic death — less than 36 hours before Bacon’s career-defining retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris — marked a turning point in Bacon’s career, one which would change the direction of his art for the rest of his life.
Offered in Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale on 9 November, Bacon’s 1976 Figure in Movement is a cathartic and pivotal work made in response to Dyer’s passing. It stands among the icons of Bacon’s oeuvre as a meditation on love, loss, and memory.
‘All of Francis Bacon’s work is deeply personal,’ says Alessandro Diotallevi, Senior Specialist in Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s London. ‘Figure in Movement expresses the power, the love, the grief he feels in missing his muse, Dyer.’
Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Figure in Movement, 1976. Oil and dye transfer lettering on canvas. 78¼ x 58 in (198.9 x 147.3 cm). Sold for $52,160,000 in 20th Century Evening Sale, on 9 November 2023 at Christie's in New York
Figure in Movement is one of Bacon’s masterpieces, composed with his grief as its central theme. Two figures are depicted wresting on a nearly fire-coloured platform, bounded by the edges of a geometric cube. Appearing on the right is a ‘fury’ — a reference from the myths of antiquity that he began using in the 1940s — and throughout the painting certain areas are magnified, obscured, and shown in different perspectives.
By 1976, Bacon had already depicted his muse through various perspectives: obsessing over his likeness, portraying his body in contorted perspectives, even overlaying Dyer’s face upon his own. The paintings he composed at this time, from Dyer’s death in 1971, to the mid-1970s, laid bare both the emotional tumult he was experiencing, and his forced confrontation with his own mortality.
Francis Bacon and George Dyer, Soho, c. 1950. Photograph by John Deakin. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved / DACS, London / ARS, New York 2023
But the present work extends Bacon’s figural language in a way that those prior did not. Here, he depicts a figural coupling — two bodies, rather than one. They are distinct: the one on top has its fist raised, straddling the other which is on the floor, and whose face appears to be looking in two directions at once.
This change is subtle, but telling. Often Bacon’s work isolates the central human figure from its surroundings, but when a second body is introduced it becomes a confrontation between the two. The metamorphosis of these central figures into deformed, ambiguous versions of themselves comes precisely from this fluctuation between imprisonment and liberation.
At the corner of the work is a ‘fury,’ a device Bacon uses to reference themes of guilt. Also known as Eumenides, these furies appear in the great tragedian Aeschylus’ three-part saga, the Oresteia. Born of drops of blood, they haunt Orestes after he kills his mother, Clytemnestra.
They are especially common in his work throughout the era following Dyer’s death, where they are modelled off of an image of a diving bird. In addition to Dyer, his former lover Peter Lacy also died on the eve of one of his major gallery openings, and the presence of these furies suggests that perhaps Bacon saw himself as similar to Orestes: unable to escape fate.
Series of photographs from K.C. Clark’s Positioning in Radiography, 1939
The arrow that points to the figure on the floor in this work is derived from K.C. Clark’s 1964 book Positioning in Radiography, a guideline for how the body should be positioned for accurate radiographic images. Together with the delineating frame around the action, Bacon references it to heighten the sense of magnification. The frame also recalls his highly regarded Pope series from the early 1950s, where a geometric box is used to similar effect, amplifying emotions and separating the subject from its surroundings.
In addition to Bacon’s literary influences, ranging from Greek tragedy to T.S. Eliot, his artistic inspirations are visual. Eadweard Muybridge’s influence on his work is particularly important in forging the connection between photography and painting.
Muybridge was a pioneer of photographing people and animals in motion, and his ability to capture movement over successive frames arrested Bacon, who was one of the first artists to capture this experience in paint. ‘Michelangelo and Muybridge are mixed up in my mind together,’ he told David Sylvester, who interviewed him throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, ‘I perhaps could learn about positions from Muybridge and learn about the ampleness, the grandeur of form from Michelangelo.’
Eadweard Muybridge, ‘Men Wrestling’ from The Human Figure in Motion, 1887 (from the artist’s studio). Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved / DACS, London / ARS, New York 2023
Muybridge’s image of wrestlers, pictured above, influenced the forms of Figure in Movement, and Dyer — who possessed sculptural features and a muscular physique — undoubtedly reminded Bacon of Michelangelo’s figural studies. Both artists often worked from the male nude, and in Bacon's oeuvre Dyer is often depicted with a statuesque grandeur, akin to the statue of David.
The present work is a culmination of both Bacon’s powers, and the harmonisation of his literary and artistic references. Like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, it shows the artist’s ability to express movement. But, through Bacon’s singular visual language, the work also portrays an artist on the precipice, looking into the abyss. Precisely because of this visceral and open confrontation with the self, Figure in Movement is one of Francis Bacon’s masterworks.
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