FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)
FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)
FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)
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FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… 显示更多 Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection
FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)

Three Studies for Self-Portrait

Each: 14 x 12 in. (35.6 x 30.5 cm.)
Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., London.
Private collection, Europe (acquired from the above, 1979, then by descent).
Anon. sale, Christie's, London, 8 December 1999, lot 72.
Acquired at the above sale by the late owner.
R. Daniels and M. Harrison, eds., Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné, 1971-1992, London, 2016, vol. IV, pp. 1174-1175 (illustrated in color, p. 1174, no. 79-02).
Palma de Mallorca, Pelaires Centre Cultural Contemporani, Marlborough in Pelaires, August-October 1990 (illustrated in color, p. 37).
Seattle, Pivot Art + Culture, The Figure in Process: de Kooning to Kapoor 1955-2015, December 2015-February 2016, pp. 11 and 23.
Seattle, Pivot Art + Culture, A Closer Look: Portraits from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, December 2016-March 2017.
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Max Carter
Max Carter Vice Chairman, 20th and 21st Century Art, Americas


Staging a triple encounter with his own visage, Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Self-Portrait is a vivid and visceral example of the artist’s celebrated self-portrait triptychs. Painted in 1979, its rich skeins of color and texture writhe and shimmer against a blazing orange backdrop, articulated in near-cinematic sequence. The work takes its place within the extraordinary, career-defining sequence of self-portraits that Bacon produced during the 1970s and 1980s: a period of tragedy and triumph that saw him push the genre into profound new territory. Following the devastating death of his great love and muse George Dyer in 1971, the artist had begun to stare his own mortality directly in the eye, pouring his grief and sorrow into powerful confrontations with his own likeness. Flickering with the spirit of Rembrandt, Picasso and others who charted the passage of life across their features, the present work is one of only seven self-portrait triptychs of this size painted in the 1970s: another from 1979 is held in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, with later examples held in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen and the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Far from slowing down as he entered his eighth decade, Bacon continued to breathe new life into his practice. The present work’s rich and complex surface, in particular, bears witness to the thrilling array of techniques that the artist brought to bear upon his own countenance during this period. The spectral pallor of his flesh is layered with electric veils of blue and pink, their ribbed textures demonstrating Bacon’s use of his corduroy jacket as a printing material. In places, the paint is chalky like pastel; elsewhere, it is thick with tactile impasto. Amid the painting’s abstract strata and schisms, moments of clarity emerge: a strand of hair, perfectly defined; an ear, rendered in intricate detail; the curve of a lip or nostril; an eye, staring directly at the viewer. Though Bacon typically worked from photographs, he would also study his own face in the mirror, letting his stubble grow for several days and using pots of Max Factor pancake make-up to practise swirls and distortions upon his features. Here, this approach breeds three images charged with the very feeling of flesh itself, each arrested in living motion.
Bacon’s self-portraits of the 1970s stand among the twentieth century’s most daring and poignant explorations of the human condition. Cathartic, mournful and near-obsessive in their spiraling iterations, they witness a giant of his time coming to terms with his own mortal transience. The decade saw Bacon acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest living painters, with major retrospectives at the Grand Palais in 1971 and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1975, as well as the publication of his landmark interviews with the critic David Sylvester. At the same time, however, it was a period of overwhelming loss. Though the artist had long been sanguine about life’s fleeting nature—declaring the earth a “vast lump of compost” and its inhabitants “potential carcasses”—Dyer’s death had plunged him into turmoil. The tragedy, which took place on the eve of Bacon’s Grand Palais exhibition, was a haunting reminder of the death of his previous lover, Peter Lacy, who had passed away shortly before the opening of the artist’s Tate retrospective in 1962. Around the time of the present work, moreover, Bacon had been deeply affected by the death of his close comrade and muse Muriel Belcher—founder of The Colony Room—whose passing marked the end of an era at his beloved Soho haunt. The deaths of his great friend Sonia Orwell, and his sister Ianthe, would follow in quick succession.
After years of painting his social circle, it was within this context that Bacon truly began to turn inwards. Self-portraiture had not been entirely absent from his earlier practice: his first attempt, dating from 1956, resides in the Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth, with other notable examples including a 1958 canvas held in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D. C., and an impressive large single panel of 1963 housed in the National Museum and Gallery, Cardiff. In the aftermath of Dyer’s death, however, the act of painting himself became something akin to a compulsion: of the 53 named self-portraits within Bacon’s oeuvre, 29 were painted in the 1970s, many in tandem with the harrowing “black triptychs” produced in his lover’s memory. “I’ve done a lot of self-portraits, really because people have been dying around me like flies and I’ve had nobody else left to paint but myself,” he explained. “… 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” (quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1975, pp. 129-133).
The present work takes its place within this remarkable outpouring. Among its companions are magnificent single heads held in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris and the Musée Cantini, Marseilles, as well as large-scale canvases held in the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Von der Heydt-Museum Wuppertal. A profound sequence of works from 1973 depicts Bacon with a watch: a poignant memento mori, and a rare example of an illustrational device within his practice. In certain works, his form looms like a ghostly beacon in the darkness; elsewhere, he houses his body within a space frame or windowless interior, as if tormented by the trappings of the world. On occasion, Bacon would insert his self-portrait into just one triptych panel, featuring alongside Dyer and Lucian Freud in 1973, and as a painting within a painting in the late 1991 masterwork Triptych (The Museum of Modern Art, New York). The range of his self-representations was—and remains—staggering in ambition. “Feeling less constrained about pulling apart and recreating his own looks than he did with those of his friends and lovers,” writes Michael Peppiatt, “Bacon was at his freest and most inventive in his self-portraits” (Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait, London, 2021, p. 156).
Within this diverse output, the self-portrait triptychs occupied a particularly notable place. As a format, the triptych had fueled Bacon’s practice for more than three decades, aspiring less to the condition of grand narrative altarpieces than to the aesthetics of cinema. The triptychs “are the things I like doing most,” said Bacon, “and I think this may be related to the thought I’ve sometimes had of making a film. I like the juxtaposition of the images separated on three different canvases. So far as my work has any quality, I often feel perhaps it is the triptychs that have the best quality” (quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 232). Bacon famously described his visual imagination as a “grinding machine” into which images fell like slides: a process that found affinity with the films of Sergei Eisenstein and Luis Buñuel—among others—as well as the sequential photographs of Eadweard Muybridge. The present work, with its three shifted stances, offers a vivid demonstration of this tendency, capturing Bacon’s enduring aspiration to trap his subjects alive. Light flickers in his eyes; words seem to strain at his lips. “The rest”—as his beloved Shakespeare once wrote—“is silence.”
The fourteen-by-twelve inch portrait, too, was similarly significant for Bacon. Since the 1960s, wrote the critic John Russell, these intimate, concentrated heads had been “the scene of some of Bacon’s most ferocious investigations,” their impact comparable to the “after-echo” left by a fired gun (Francis Bacon, London, 1993, p. 99). As the artist grew older, this effect intensified, in concert with a broader sense of clarity and distillation that came to define his later practice. Arriving at the realization that reality can be “summed up with so much less”, the artist began to reduce his gestures and palette to their bare essentials, using defined strokes, saturated colors and often cropping his subjects—here losing an entire eye. The present work, notes Martin Harrison, is the first smaller-format painting to employ the searing cadmium orange backdrop that Bacon typically reserved for his larger canvases—among them his seminal 1944 masterwork Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné, 1971-1992, London, 2016, vol. IV, p. 1174). The addition of blue and pink overlayers, “printed” onto the surface with Bacon’s jacket, imbues the work with a striking, almost Pop-like intensity: Andy Warhol, notably, would produce his own electrifying series of late self-portraits just seven years after the present work.
Throughout history, painters have used their own image as a barometer for their art. Bacon’s idol Pablo Picasso painted himself from the ages of 15 to 90, completing his final haunting iteration in 1972. Vincent van Gogh, another of his great heroes, painted more than 35 self-portraits in his 37 years of life, while Bacon’s contemporary Lucian Freud charted his ageing form in everything from intimate portrait heads to full-frontal nudes. For Bacon, however, it was Rembrandt’s self-portraits that truly set the standard. “If you take the great late self-portraits of Rembrandt,” he stated, “you will find that the whole contour of the face has changed time after time; it’s a totally different face” (quoted in Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt, exh. cat., Ordovas Gallery, London, 2011, p. 7). Moreover, he explained, Rembrandt’s self-portraits went beyond mere facial likeness, offering instead microscopic insights into his hand. They were “almost completely anti-illustrational … a coagulation of non-representational marks”: a foreshadowing of Abstract Expressionism, he proposed, trained upon the recording of fact (quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, in ibid., p. 58). In Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Bacon believed, the artist ultimately dissolves into his art.
It is this, too, that fundamentally underpins the present work. It is not simply a record of appearance, but a record of process: a repository of action, feeling and intuition, channelled through the face that Bacon knew better than any other. For an artist who devoted his life to transferring the impulses of his nervous system onto canvas, it offers a vivid dramatization of the moment at which flesh ends and paint begins. “Bacon’s portraits are the interrogation on the limits of the self,” wrote Milan Kundera. “Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself? To what degree of distortion does a beloved still remain a beloved being? For how long does a cherished face growing remote through illness, through madness, through hatred, through death still become recognizable? Where lies the border beyond which a ‘self’ ceases to be a ‘self’?” (“The Painter’s Brutal Gesture,” in F. Borel, Bacon Portraits and Self-Portraits, London and New York, 1996, p. 12). In Three Studies for Self-Portrait, Bacon proposes that paint can give form to those boundaries, enacting the shift from figure to figment that defines how we come to know ourselves.

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