In his early career, Bacon executed paintings after well-known works of art, such as papal portraits by Velazquez and paintings by Vincent van Gogh, but during the 1960s his paintings often featured individuals to whom he had deep personal attachments. His portraits of these years included those from his intimate circle, such as Lucian Freud, John Edwards, and Isabel Rawsthorne, but George Dyer was the friend who appeared most frequently in Bacon's paintings, as the subject of works in three series between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s.
The artist met Dyer in the fall of 1963 while drinking in a public house in London's Soho district. Dyer was an uneducated, petty thief who lived in the East End and is often thought to have appealed to Bacon's darker side. The two were intimate companions for the rest of the decade, and during this time, Dyer was a fixture in Bacon's paintings. He died in 1971, committing suicide in a Paris hotel on the occasion of Bacon's first major retrospective in France.
The present painting includes an early example of Bacon's use of the full-length, turning figure in his paintings. While the present work clearly positions its sitter at the center of a brightly-colored and oddly-shaped room, it also generates multiple ambiguities as the violent distortions and displacements in the human figure are echoed in the symmetrical, though seemingly precarious, curvatures of both floor and walls. Moreover, even the primary articulation of the room is unclear: the aperture which frames Dyer's head may be either a window or a door, or as suggested by a related painting of the same year, Portrait of George Dyer Staring at a Blind Cord, a photograph pinned against the back wall. The ominous lightbulb suspended above Dyer's head heightens the pervasive feeling of instability in this interior.
Bacon always executed his portraits from photographs or from memory, even when he had direct access to his subjects. Bacon stated, "Even in the case of friends who will come and pose, I've had photographs taken because I prefer working from them. It's true to say I couldn't attempt to do a portrait from photographs of somebody I didn't know. But, if I both know them and have photographs of them, I find it easier to work than actually having their presence in the room. . . . What I want to do is to distort the thing beyond appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance" (Quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1980, pp. 38).
The present painting, in fact, twists tradition in multiple, provocative ways. Bacon was influenced deeply by Edward Muybridge's famous studies of human locomotion. In most images of Dyer, Bacon offers several views at once of this figure, providing an additional suggestion of movement through multiplication, either by literal doubling or mirror reflections. The present painting indicates motion more conceptually and confines any activity to the figure's violated anatomy; the only other movement rests in the pile of papers, scattered perhaps by the revolution of Dyer's stool.
The colors in the present painting seem to reflect the bright colors of 1960s fashion and interior design (Bacon's first choice of profession was interior and furniture design), but the composition and central figure suggest a return to art-historical sources, specifically works of the Italian Renaissance. There are echoes of paintings such as Piero della Francesco's famous Madonna in the Pinacoteca Brera in Milan in which an egg hangs from the cupola above the virgin's head. However, even more forceful is Bacon's portrayal of Dyer's twisted and contorted form: his pose, through its insistent torsion, recalls the restrained torsion of Michelangelo's slaves. This visual connection relates to John Russell's description of Dyer: "A compact and chunky force of nature, with a vivid and highly unparsonical turn of phrase, he embodied pent-up energy. As a spirit of mischief, touched at times by melancholia, he had been the subject, and the inspiration of some of Bacon's greatest images" (J. Russell, op. cit., p. 160).
(fig. 1) Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913.
(fig. 2) Dyer in Bacon's Studio. Photograph by John Deakin.
Portrait of George Dyer Talking
Oil on canvas
Titled and dated 'Portrait of George Dyer Talking 1966' (on the reverse)
Paris, Galerie Maeght, Francis Bacon, November 1966-January 1967.
London, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., Francis Bacon Recent Paintings, March-April 1967, no. 8 (illustrated in color).
Paris, Centre National d'Art Contemporain, Grand Palais and Düsseldorf, Städtische, October 1971-May 1972, Francis Bacon, no. 65 (illustrated in color, p. 77).
Caracas, Bogota, Montevideo, Buenois Aires, and Rio de Janeiro Four Contemporary Masters: Bacon, Dubuffet, Giacometti, De Kooning, April-October 1973.
New Haven, Yale Center for British Art; Minneapolis Institute of Arts; San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, and Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Francis Bacon: A Retrospective, January-October 1999 (illustrated in color).
78 x 58 in. (198.2 x 147.3 cm.)
Maeght, A. ed., Derrière Le Miroir: Francis Bacon, no. 162, Paris, November 1966 (illustrated in color on the cover and p. 19).
L. Trucchi, Francis Bacon, New York, 1975, no. 109 (illustrated).
M. Leiris, Francis Bacon, Full Face and in Profile, New York, 1983, no. 44 (illustrated in color).
J. M. Faerna, ed., Bacon, Barcelona, 1994, p. 19 (illustrated in color).
C. Domino, Francis Bacon, Taking Reality by Surprise, London, 1997 (illustrated in color, p. 98).
Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London.
Galerie Maeght, Paris.
Dr. Israel J. Rosefsky, Binghampton, New York.
Dr. Israel J. Rosefsky, sale; Christie's, New York, 5 May 1987, lot 85. Acquired at the above sale by the previous owner.