``..Bacon's role in painting has been that of the one great exponent in our time of the Figurative Sublime.''
-David Sylvester, Francis Bacon: the Human Body, 1998
Portraiture is an artistic genre of ancient tradition as early as Greek and Egyptian funerary paintings and the Imperial Roman coins. Western tradition progressed to the status portraits of medieval and Renaissance rulers, nobles, Popes and merchants depicted in the trappings of power and privilege of their day. The advent of humanism profoundly affected portraiture as artists attempted to reveal the inner nobility of man in a more contemplative and philosophical manner. Modern artists delved deeper in order to expose the inner trauma or conflict of the individual as a mirror to the chaos and turmoil of early 20th century society. A study of portraiture is therefore a study of each era's cultural and social mores, and most importantly, each aesthetic shift corresponds to a development in the manner of painting, since the style of a contemplative revelatory subject cannot be the style of a more dissonant and searching study of man.
In this marriage of subject matter and stylistic revolution, the genre of self-portraiture is the most psychologically rich and inventive. In the canons of art history, the masters of self-portraiture are among the most radical and innovative of their time. Francis Bacon recognized this truism and celebrated it in the masters who preceded him. In interviews with David Sylvester, Bacon spoke often of his admiration of Rembrandt van Rijn and the Dutch artist's life-long chronicle of self-portraits which he could create free of the strictures of patrons. (A portion of Rembrandt's 1660 Self-Portrait in the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was among the color plates and fragments found in Bacon's studio). With great acuity, he observed in 1979, ``I think the self-portraits are the greatest thing Rembrandt ever did because they were formally the most extraordinary paintings. He altered painting in a way by the method by which he dealt with himself, and perhaps he felt freer to deal with himself in this totally liberal way'' (David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, New York, 2000, p. 241) Self-portraiture is best understood as a means to explore the ability of paint to represent and to convey: the artist is not studying his own face simply for reasons of autobiography, but rather to probe the potentiality of pictorial depiction. Along with the meticulously scrutinised faces of a handful of close friends, lovers and acquaintances, during the 1960s and 1970s it was Bacon's own visage that became the arena for his most ferocious and original investigations into pictorial representation. Combining the sinuous paint handling, visceral intensity and psychological depth of his mature oeuvre, the eye-catching immediacy of the 1969 Self-Portrait assaults the viewer with mesmerising force.
Francis Bacon is recognized as the Contemporary artist who most thoroughly and expansively explored the genre of portraiture within a more modern context. Throughout his career, Bacon turned to the portrait in his belief that Modernist and post-war abstraction were merely aesthetic, and that art devoid of human content lacked emotional resonance. Executed at the zenith of Bacon's career when his creative ambition was freed from the obstacle of commercial success, Self-Portrait is one of the most psychologically compelling and physically engaging works of Bacon's career; an iconic image of the artist who is himself an icon of his age.
Like Rembrandt before him, Bacon painted self-portraits throughout his life, beginning in 1956 and increasing in frequency in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Arguably the consummate practitioners of the genre, both Rembrandt and Bacon are master manipulators of psychological acuity and the expressive qualities of paint. Although Bacon disingenuously feigned nonchalance in choosing to paint himself, the extraordinary range and virtuosic paint handling in images such as the present Self-Portrait contradict such detachment. As with the shifting phases of life, the sinuous paint and vibrant color of Bacon's self-portraits conveyed everything from the existential angst and demons of the creative mind, the pain of loss following George Dyer's suicide in 1971 or the more contemplative periods of Bacon's life. Citing Giacometti's quote ``Why ever change the subject'' in reference to Rembrandt's self-portraits, Bacon acknowledged the advantages of returning to the same subject as a means of focusing on technique and discovering new insight. During one of his celebrated conversations with David Sylvester, Bacon commented in 1973, ``I think that's probably what is so haunting about that small German book where they have put all the Rembrandt self-portraits together, from a young man to the very end of his life. And it's such a remarkable thing, turning page after page to see these things of the one man, absolutely different from beginning to end. [...], ... there are painters who find a subject and just go on doing the same thing, which is not at all the same as somebody who is reinventing the methods by which this subject can be recorded.'' (Sylvester, Ibid., 2000, p. 242) In like fashion, Bacon's life-long array of self-portraits is a panoply of aesthetic experimentation and revelatory panache that convey the existential and contradictory depths that are a hallmark of Bacon's oeuvre. The shifting perspectives and distorted figurations of his paintings continually manifest Bacon's internal struggle for his identity as an artist; in the self-portraits this occurs in the most personal terms.
Painted against a velvety dark blue background, the artist's soulful and troubled eyes in Self-Portrait dominate the work and capture our gaze, while the swirls of textured paint deconstruct the flesh to reveal the inner structure of bone and sinew. The dematerialization of the public visage as an act of brutal analysis and truth-seeking was the crux of the challenge for Bacon in choosing to paint portraits. Like Pablo Picasso, Bacon sought to convey the principal tenets of portraiture - physiognomy, gesture and attitude, or what Bacon called "fact" - in a non-illustrative way. Straightforward representational verisimilitude, what he termed "illustration", was as abhorrent to Bacon as it was to his modernist forebears and abstractionist peers. For him, painting had to transcend mere representation to expose something more vital and irrational: "The living quality is what you have to get. In painting a portrait the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person... The sitter is someone of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their emanation." (David Sylvester, Ibid., 2000, p. 98) In the shifting profiles and features of Bacon's portrait heads, the distortions of the Cubist fracture are surpassed, forcing the viewer to engage in the struggle of identity along with the artist. The activated brush work and chromatic dissonance of Bacon's flesh tones compound the expressive nature of his human renderings. While Lucian Freud's portraiture is equally, if not more, stunning in its voluptuous and tortured manipulation of paint as tactile flesh, one gains a stronger sense of peering `underneath the skin' with Bacon. The raw element of bone structure speaks of savage exposure and intimate probing.
In discussing self-portraiture, Bacon's attitudes varied from self-deprecating to startlingly candid, and considering the power he invested in his self-images, the latter is certainly the more pertinent. While on the one hand, he claimed to paint himself due to a lack of other portrait subjects and with a certain reluctance, he also confessed a few years after painting Self Portrait (1969), ``One always has a greater involvement with oneself than with anybody else. No matter how much you may believe that you're in love with somebody else, your love of somebody else is your love of yourself.'' (David Sylvester, Ibid., 2000, p. 241) The present Self-Portrait was executed in Bacon's 60th year. The earlier 1956 Self-Portrait belongs to a different era in Bacon's artistic enterprise, as the full figure is rendered in the darker monochromatic palette of the tonal paintings of solemn suited figures from the mid-1950s. Almost as a coda to the series of Man in Blue I-VII of 1954, Bacon depicts himself in the same distanced manner, removed from the viewer and posed with a watchful, detached air. Between this relatively uncommunicative portrait and the present Self-Portrait, Bacon engaged with portraiture in abundance, spurred by the use of photography as source material. His friend, the photographer John Deakin, took numerous pictures of other members of Bacon's circle beginning around 1963-1964, leading to an explosion of portraits of Lucian Freud, Muriel Belcher, Isabel Rawsthorne, Henrietta Moraes and George Dyer. The photographs served as a touchstone but not slavishly so: Bacon worked from memory as much as observation and could freely move between the two in capturing the essence of the chosen sitter. The activated brushwork, thin sweeps of veiled color and the abstracted visages of the 1960s, as evident in the present Self-Portrait attests to the radical development of Bacon's intuitive expressiveness - as well as his exuberance in the investigation into the potential of portraiture. By the time of Self-Portrait (1973), the artist had suffered the loss of George Dyer and entered a more contemplative yet equally probing phase. Full-figured portraits were prevalent, indicative of a period when Bacon produced many of his greatest monumental triptychs, and the twisted poses, often set in an interior with a reflective mirror panel, speak eloquently of the inner turmoil for Bacon during this period.
Like the other post-war 20th Century icon of self-portraiture, Andy Warhol, Bacon's sense of mortality may have been more pronounced in later years, but it was ever-present as a tributary of thought. Just as Warhol's later portraits conveyed a sense of memento mori, Bacon alluded to the more solemn aspects of the genre as well. ``I've done a lot of self-portraits, really because people have been dying around me like flies [...] I loathe my own face, but I go on painting it because I haven't got any other people to do [...] One of the nicest things that Cocteau said was: `Each day in the mirror I watch death at work.' This is what one does oneself.'' (Bacon quoted in David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 2002 [reprint of the enlarged edition published in 1987, first published in 1975], pp. 133) Self-Portrait from 1969 conveys just such a haunting reverie on the human condition, as the artist's gaze is both one of introspection and expressiveness, engaging in an inner dialogue while projecting an indelible aura.
Oil on canvas
Paris, Galeries Nationals du Grand Palais; Düsseldorf, Kunsthalle,
Francis Bacon, October 1971 - May 1972, cat. no. 91, p. 131, illustrated
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Francis Bacon, 1975
New York, Wildenstein, Modern Portrait: The Self and Others, October - November 1976, cat. no. 3, p. 5, illustrated
Düsseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Francis Bacon. The Violence of the Real, September 2006 - January 2007, cat. no. 50, p. 161, illustrated in color
14 x 12 in. 35.5 x 40.5 cm.
John Russell, Francis Bacon, Geneva, 1971, pl. 104, illustrated
Lorenza Trucchi, Francis Bacon, New York, 1975, fig. no. 135, illustrated and pl. 136, illustrated in color
France Borel and Milan Kundera, Bacon Portraits and Self-Portraits, London and New York, 1996, p. 116, illustrated in color
Private Collection, London
Marlborough Fine Art, London
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1975