In the catalogue to the spectacular retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1985, the museum's renowned director Alan Bowness described the art of Francis Bacon thus: "His own work sets the standard for our time, for he is surely the greatest living painter; no artist in our century has presented the human predicament with such insight and feeling....for Bacon, the virtues of truth and honesty transcend the tasteful. They give to his paintings a terrible beauty that has placed them among the most memorable images in the entire history of art" (Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Francis Bacon, 1985, p. 7). Executed in this very year, Figure in Movement represents physical testament to this acclamation. Exhibiting the most striking composition, a magnificent array of brushwork and a supremely arresting palette, this is a formidable portrayal of the human animal that epitomises the full gamut of Bacon's artistic genius. Indeed, the inimitable traits of his method, specifically the intense combination of brilliant cadmium orange with depthless black, directly compare with the masterpieces Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944 (Tate Britain, London) and Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York).
Gifted by the artist to his physician Dr. Paul Brass, who followed his father Dr. Stanley Brass as Bacon's personal doctor and with whom Bacon maintained a close bond until his death in 1992, Figure in Movement possesses an exceptional provenance. The terms of its ownership vividly reflect its importance to Bacon: not only was Dr. Brass a most trusted friend, but when he was first offered a choice of painting and initially suggested another work, the artist instead recommended Figure in Movement, assuring his doctor that it was a superior painting. Eminently regarded through its distinguished exhibition history in major shows in Moscow, Paris, London and The Hague, as well as its long-term loan to the Tate; this marks the historic occasion of its first appearance to market.
Foremost among Bacon's innermost clique in 1985 was John Edwards, a handsome East-Ender and the artist's closest companion at this time. Edwards wrote, "it was a perfect relationship. I was never Francis' lover, but I loved him as the best friend a man could have. He was fond of me like a son" (Exh. Cat., New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Francis Bacon, 1998, p. 7) and Dr. Brass has also stated: "I never heard Francis say a bad word about John. He said to me...'I think of John like a son. He's a son to me really'" (interviewed for Bacon's Arena, directed by Adam Low, produced by Anthony Wall, BBC Arena and The Estate of Francis Bacon, 2005). The parity between Edwards and the present physiognomy is clear: the long jaw-line, the geometries of the eye, nose and mouth and the jet-black hairline. However, Bacon never painted his friend from life and the naked torso of this body is adapted from photos of other models, notably the infamous shots of George Dyer in his underwear taken 20 years earlier. Thus, Figure in Movement conflates two of the most important figures in the artist's life. Significantly, Bacon inserts this being, an amalgamation of that which he held most dear, onto an exposed dais that is a crucible of existential isolation: the natural environment of his extraordinary artistic and philosophical innovation.
While the figure twists and writhes as if to struggle free of the canvas, it is contained within indications of rigid cricket pads. The sport was a subject of fascination for the artist's later career. A photograph of source material littering his studio floor reveals the intriguing arrangement of a copy of Physique Pictorial lying on top of England cricketer David Gower's book With Time to Spare, so that the legs of a brooding male bodybuilder join up with the cricket pads of a batsman underneath. This fusion of diametrically opposed images is archetypal of Bacon's ability to meld starkly eclectic themes to portray the chaos of human existence, and provides apt parallel with Figure in Movement. Bacon draws on his knowledge of art historical precedent, such as the incomparable figural studies of Michelangelo. He accelerates the effects of light and shadow, plunging form in and out of darkness so that several passages of light flow in simultaneous chorus. Chiaroscuro rhythms of anatomic gesture negotiate between material and void, while the figure's left leg dissolves in the black ether of the platform.
More than any other artist of the 20th Century, Bacon held a mirror to the nature of the Human Condition, and Figure in Movement provides the perfect reflection of what he saw. He was fascinated by the postwar works of the French existentialists Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir, and their themes of alienation, imprisonment and the absurd. The most important actors of Bacon's canon, typified by this figure, crystallise this entire philosophical enquiry, as they let go of the sureties of the past and stand on the threshold of an unknowable future.
An interview between Sotheby's Michael Macaulay and Martin Harrison, editor of the Francis Bacon catalogue raisonné in preparation for publication.
MM: Could you share your opinion of Bacon's late work of the 1980s and explain how Figure in Movement from 1985 fits into this important period?
MH: Bacon's project in the 1980s can be summed up as refining to their essence the themes that preoccupied him most of his career – the human body, gesture and movement. In eliminating superfluous detail, he could be described as a figurative minimalist. Figure in Movement is a quintessential exemplar of this process. It is a compelling variation of a concept he had first essayed in 1982, in which a naked form wearing cricket pads was raised on a dais. In the 1982 paintings, the 'figure' is an abstracted semi-torso, as in the panel Study from the Human Body, 1982–84, from the diptych in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D. C. and in Study of the Human Body, 1982 (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). Evidently, in Figure in Movement, 1985, Bacon set himself the challenge of representing a more complete human body.
MM: How does Bacon's symbolic content, in this case the gladiatorial inference of the inclusion of the cricket pads, relate to the isolation of his figures?
MH: The reference to cricket is deliberately ambiguous: the figure, isolated in an artificial arena, is simultaneously vulnerable and aggressive. Bacon's figures are radically decontextualised into a kind of existential vacuum: cricket is an outdoor sport, but Bacon's visual field is neither exterior nor interior. Figure in Movement is one of a select group of works made in the last decade of his life that feature a dominant, bright cadmium orange ground, Bacon's favourite colour. In its positive and vibrant aspects it intensifies the confinement of the abject yet heroic figures.
MM: The cricket pads invoke Bacon's appropriation of found imagery as cues for composition. How had the artist's treatment of found imagery altered by this stage in his career?
MH: Bacon collected images of cricketers in the 1980s, and four books on cricket that remained in his Reece Mews studio at the time of his death are now in the collection of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane: Patrick Eagar and John Arlott, An Eye for Cricket, (1979); David Gower and Alan Lee, With Time to Spare (1980); Mike Brearley, Phoenix from the Ashes: The Story of the England – Australia Series 1981, (1982); Patrick Eagar and Graeme Wright, Test Decade 1972–1982 (1982). He was familiar with cricket through his relationship with Eric Hall from the 1930s to the 1950s; Hall was an aficionado of the sport and on intimate terms with many of the leading players. Bacon greatly admired David Gower, one of England's leading batsmen renowned for his good looks, and David Sylvester identified Gower as a specific spur for the paintings. [Interviews, p. 180] However, even in the last painting to reference cricket, the central panel of Triptych 1987, the head is unequivocally that of John Edwards whose representations were based on photographs: therefore, Bacon's modus operandi in terms of appropriated imagery remained the same as it had since the 1940s, when he first adapted reproductions of Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X and Eadweard Muybridge's Animal Locomotion.
MM: This work was executed seven years before Bacon's death. Do you perceive a growing sense of his own mortality, and what does Figure in Movement say about the artist's self-perception in this final period?
MH: Crucial to Bacon's anti-narrative strategy, he located the elements of Figure in Movement in a zone of ambiguity. The protagonist is non-specific, adopting neither an offensive or defensive attitude. The figure also defies spatial logic, occupying an abstract field both behind and in front of the pale blue and black backdrop. The padded left leg dissolves into a smoky shadow on the floor of the elevated dais, the dissociated 'field of play' that acts as a cipher for the confrontation between batsman and bowler on the cricket field. It is too facile to relate the dissolving of forms to his consciousness of mortality, although the black backdrops – opaque voids that resemble tombstones – tend to support such an interpretation, as would the collapsing of the head into the negative space.
This intense and deceptively simple painting transforms the role of the viewer from a passive to an active state: Bacon's fragmented forms and anatomical diversions – the tilt of the body and the violent diagonal sweep of the sketchy arms and hand – insist on a creative interaction. Our gaze is drawn through the converging perspective of the wicket/pedestal and we become both observer and participant.
Oil on canvas
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., Francis Bacon: Paintings, May - July 1985, cat. no. 17, p. 39, illustrated in color
Oxford, Museum of Modern Art, Current Affairs: British Painting and Sculpture in the 1980s, March 1987, cat. no. 2, illustrated in color
Moscow, Maison Centrale Des Artistes, Nouvelle Galerie Tretyakov, Francis Bacon, September - November 1988, cat. no. 17, p. 61, illustrated in color (organized by the British Council)
Glasgow, McLellan Galleries, Glasgow's Great British Art Exhibition, March - May 1990, p. 37, illustrated in color
Paris, Centre national d'art et de culture Georges Pompidou, Francis Bacon, June - October 1996, cat. no. 81, p. 217, illustrated in color
London, Hayward Gallery, Francis Bacon: The Human Body, February - April 1998, cat. no. 22, n.p., illustrated in color
The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, Francis Bacon, January - May 2001, p. 111, illustrated in color
London, Tate Britain; Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Francis Bacon, September 2008 - August 2009, p. 243, illustrated in color
London, Tate Gallery, 2000 - 2010 (extended loan)
78 1/4 x 58 1/4 in. 198.7 x 147.8 cm.
Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Modern Masters: Francis Bacon, New York, London and Paris, 1986, no. 102, p. 107, illustrated and illustrated in color on the back cover
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, Paris, 1987, no. 149, n.p., illustrated in color
A gift from the artist to the present owner in 1985