The only full-length self-portrait by the artist ever to be offered at auction, Francis Bacon's Self Portrait from 1978 is the consummate self-image of the most influential figurative painter of the second half of the 20th century. Throughout his career, Bacon constantly scrutinised his own face and produced a great number of self-portraits, mostly small canvases of his head. However, he painted precious few full-length self portraits, as David Sylvester recalls: "Beginning in 1956 - with an image Quasimido-like in face and figure - he produced seventeen [full-length self-portraits]. That count... includes three items which in fact constitute Study for Self-Portrait - Tryptich, 1985-86." (David Sylvester in Exhibition Catalogue, London, Hayward Gallery, Francis Bacon: The Human Body, 1998, p. 32). Extraordinarily rare, the present work is an iconic image of an artist who is himself an icon of his age; set against a serene lavender backdrop, it combines the sinuous paint handling, visceral intensity and psychological depth characteristic of Bacon's mature oeuvre in an instantly recognisable image of the artist that is charged with existentialist angst and unparalleled beauty.
Executed in 1978 when Bacon was fast approaching seventy years of age, Self Portrait stands as a post-script to what David Sylvester deems to be Bacon's second great period, which "covered the sequence of a dozen big triptychs which he painted between 1970 and 1976... some of them avowedly realised in a conscious wish to exorcise the pain of [George] Dyer's death." (Ibid, p. 29). An artist who maintained throughout his career the validity of portraiture as a genre conducive to great art, Bacon painted surprisingly few full-length self-portraits in the 1950s and 1960s. After Dyer's suicide in 1971, on the eve of the opening of Bacon's retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, however, a mournful period of deep introspection prompted the grief-stricken Bacon to exorcise his self-accusatory demons in a suite of heart-rending self images which are among his very best works. As Bacon explained to Sylvester: "People have been dying around me like flies and I've had nobody else to paint but myself... I loathe my own face and I've done self-portraits because I've had nothing else to do." (the artist cited in David Sylvester, Brutality of Fact, London 1975, p. 129).
As the present work attests, however, Bacon's purported reluctance to paint his own image is grossly disingenuous and, as in all his self-portraits, the beholder instantly discerns the artist's pleasure and fascination with tracing his own features. Like Rembrandt's corpus of self portraits, the self-images are most revealing because "one always has a greater involvement with oneself than anybody else." (the artist cited in Milan Kundera and France Borel, Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, London 1996, p. 241). Unlike the tortured and harrowing self-portraits painted in the immediate aftermath of Dyer's untimely death, such as Self Portrait 1973, the present example shows a more spirited and animated countenance. By 1974, Bacon had met John Edwards, a darkly handsome East-Ender with whom he shared a largely platonic, paternal relationship until his death in 1992. Edwards, coupled with the healing power of time, brought solace to the wounds caused by Dyer's suicide. In this Self Portrait, the artist has shed his black mourning attire in favour of desert boots and a brightly coloured shirt, unbuttoned at the chest, which signals a new dawn and a return to Bacon's infamously garrulous and loquacious self. Whereas in the earlier work his apathetic posture, torpidly slumped against the washbasin, conveys the lassitude and languor of someone unanchored by devastating loss, in the present work the figure is energised by the white elliptical form that encircles him, seemingly twisting in space, tugging at his shirt collar in a sign of renewed virility. In life Bacon was obsessed with his image, acutely conscious that success - both professional and amorous - depended on self-presentation. Nowhere else in his oeuvre is such attention paid to clothing as in the brightly patterned cross-hatching of his shirt, rendered in a luminous palette of pink, blue and orange.
Caught in twisting profile, Bacon's unmistakably moonlike, amorphous physiognomy and trademark flick of hair are here rendered with gutsy brushstrokes of self-assured, representational genius. Working from photographs and memory freed Bacon from representational restraints, allowing for greater intuition in the painterly act. An instinctual painter, who said he wanted to work as close to the nervous system and unconscious as possible, Bacon employed whatever was at hand in his infamously unkempt studio. As well as brushes, he used his hands, rags of wool and textile, newspapers and paint tubes to apply and manipulate the paint, exploiting the malleability and tactility of the nearly-dry oils to create chance visual effects, clearly visible in Self-Portrait in the orange and purple pigment that has apparently been daubed above and below the nose with a corduroy rag creating ribbed seams of paint reminiscent of Degas' 'shuttering effect' with pastels. In the hair, sand has been introduced to the paint, lending a grainy, slightly iridescent finish as it catches the light. The exquisite details of the shirt buttons and the wristwatch are achieved by pressing the circular rim of a paint-covered lid against the canvas surface, creating precision geometric forms which stand out against the otherwise scumbled surface.
While the face is relatively thickly painted, with the glossy oils pulled, scraped and smeared across the cheek-bone in a circular, contorting motion, other passages of the composition are very thinly brushed. The boots, for example, are made up simply of stylised laces thinly drawn in black oil on raw canvas, incorporating the piled texture of the un-primed support into the body of the work. Similarly the defined musculature of the forearm, with its almost skeletal swathe of confident white paint, and the fist more reminiscent of a bovine knuckle than human limb, are given relief against the richly painted shirt, successfully rendered in economical and fortuitous strokes. Bacon's treatment of the body, here depicted in twisting contrapposto which is accentuated by the abstract elliptical forms, looks back to his interest in the exquisitely rendered forms of Classical Greek sculpture and Michelangelo's innovations in particular. Just as Renaissance contrapposto sought to reveal psychological disposition through the comportment of the body, so here the body and subtly aggrandised head are carefully arranged to hone in on Bacon's emotional makeup. The head itself owes much to Picasso's pioneering explorations in Cubism, in which multiple viewpoints are condensed into a single image in an attempt to further probe the emotional complexity of the self. Bacon spoke admirably of Picasso, especially his work of the 1920s and 1930s, in which he identified a new language of "organic form that relates to the human image but is a complete distortion of it." (the artist cited in Milan Kundera and France Borel, Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, London 1996, p. 10). Bacon also admired Degas' technique with pastels, which he coined 'shuttering': "in his pastels he always striates the form with these lines which are drawn through the image and in a certain sense both intensify and diversify its reality... you could say that he shuttered the body in a way, and then he put an enormous amount of colour through these lines". (the artist cited in David Sylvester, 'Francis Bacon and the Nude' in Exhibition Catalogue, London, Faggionato Fine Art, Francis Bacon: Studying Form, 2005, p. 30) This finds its corollary in Self Portrait in the vibrant striations of orange, purple and blue which overlay the face so that "the sensation doesn't come straight out at you but slides slowly and gently through the gaps." (Ibid., p. 30)
Set in an indeterminate space, the hemispherical horizon line and encircling maroon-orange bar anchor the perspective giving the appearance of an arena or dais. Space, or rather negative space, performs an important function in Bacon's art, nowhere more so than in the present work with its grand scale and luminous, lilac background. Pared down to its most essential components, the sumptuous lilac colour field in Self Portrait shows Bacon to be as sophisticated as Rothko in his use of abstract colour to tap into our inner psychoses. Smooth and restful, its ineluctable flatness only interrupted by the pile and weave of the un-primed canvas, the uniformly applied acrylic pigment radiates colour from behind the glass, forcing the figure to the fore. Like Rothko, Bacon was profoundly inspired by Greek and Shakespearean tragedies and here succinctly translates the pathos of the tragic moment into a virtuoso display of colour. Although Bacon's devotion to figurative painting was anathema to the pure abstraction of the colour field painters, the elliptical forms that punctuate the central axis of the composition here successfully incorporate the Abstract Sublime of Barnett Newman's 'zips' into an entirely new, figurative context. All Bacon's spaces are conceived with human life in mind, inextricably related to the person, whose presence charges it with extreme tension. It is only through the figure that we really see the space and in turn it is only through the space that we learn to see the individual human being.
The prominent, exquisitely painted detail of the wristwatch is a recurring leitmotif in the self-portraits of this period. A modern day memento mori, like the motif of the hourglass in seventeenth-century Dutch self-portraiture, it implies an artist acutely conscious of his own mortality. Bacon spent much of his life exploring death: "I have a feeling of mortality all the time, because if life excites you, its opposite, like a shadow, death must excite you" (Francis Bacon cited in Wieland Schmied, Francis Bacon, Munich 2006, p. 7). In Self Portrait, the shadow of death manifests itself in the blood red shadow that reiterates and emphasises the artist's profile, a physical reminder of the artist's own advancing years. Significantly, the shadow bears a striking similarity to the profile of George Dyer, making this a double portrait and indicating that despite the more sanguine atmosphere in this self portrait, Bacon's loss is still haunting him. After the psychological darkness of the early 1970s, in Self Portrait there is an epiphanic sense of the stoic acceptance of man's lot in the passage between life and death. Having shed the sombre palette of the early 1970s, the present work appears like a break in the tumultuous clouds that shadowed Bacon's life, an incandescent moment of artistic inspiration in which Bacon achieves near perfection in his chosen genre.
Looking back on his life and career, Self Portrait can in many ways be seen as a summa which synthesises all Bacon's best explorations of self-portraiture to date. One of his crowning achievements in this field, the present work assumes its position in art history's pantheon of capital self portraits, alongside Rembrandt, Picasso, Warhol and Bacon's other great forefathers. A true masterpiece, this constitutes the rarest of auction moments.
Oil on canvas
Lugano, Museo d'Arte Moderna, Francis Bacon, 1993, p. 113, no. 53, illustrated in colour
The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, Francis Bacon, 2001, pp. 88-89, illustrated in colour
198.1 by 147.3cm. 78 by 58in.
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon: Full Face and in Profile, New York 1983, no. 114, illustrated in colour
Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York 1986, p. 87, no. 84, illustrated
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, Paris 1987, no. 113, illustrated in colour
Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, London 1992, p. 149, no. 89, illustrated
Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., London
Acquired directly from the above by the parents of the present owners in 1980
Thence by descent to the present owners