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Lot 5: Francis Bacon (1909-1992)

Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

by Christie's

February 8, 2006

London, United Kingdom

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Description: Self-Portrait
signed, dedicated and dated 'Self-Portrait 1969 Francis Bacon To V with all very best wishes Francis' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
13 1/2 x 11 1/4 in. (34.3 x 28.6cm.)
Painted in 1969

Notes: THE COLLECTION OF THE LATE MISS VALERIE BESTON: ARTISTS FROM THE LONDON SCHOOL

Inspired by the example of his great art historical heroes, Velázquez, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, Bacon believed that in the self-portrait an artist could take more liberties and risks with the image - with its distortion from illustrative reality and in its conveyance of feeling - than in any other medium. In the same way that he worked from photographs rather than directly from sitters because, photography's 'slight remove from fact' could, 'return' him 'onto the fact more violently', Bacon found that the self-investigative peculiarities of self-portraiture were highly suited to the fierce scrutiny of his art.

'The obsession' he once remarked, is 'how like can I make this thing in the most irrational way? So that you're not only remaking the look of the image, you're re-making all the areas of feeling which you yourself have apprehensions of. You want to open up so many levels of feeling...It's wrong to say it can't be done in pure illustration, in purely figurative terms, because of course it has been done. It has been done in Velázquez...[and]...if you take the great late self-portraits of Rembrandt, you will find that the whole contour of the face changes time after time; it's a totally different face although it has what is called a look of Rembrandt, and by this difference it involves you in different areas of feeling...With Velázquez its more controlled and, of course, I believe more miraculous. Because one wants to do this thing of walking along a precipice, and in Velázquez it's a very, very, extraordinary thing that he has been able to keep it so near to what we call illustration and at the same time so deeply unlock the greatest and deepest things that man can feel'. (Francis Bacon in a 1975 Interview with David Sylvester, reproduced in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, pp. 26-28).

Bacon's own attempts to 'walk upon this precipice' first came about in the late 1960s. Barring a few rare attempts at self-portraiture in the 1950s, Bacon began systematically to paint portraits of his own head only towards the end of the 1960s. This 1969 painting is one of the first of his single-head portraits from this time. Far from being rooted in any sense of vanity, these paintings reflect how Bacon brought to the painting of his own self-image the same objective curiosity about the human condition that Rembrandt brought to his self-portraiture. 'I loathe my own face' Bacon told David Sylvester, 'but I go on painting it only because I haven't got any other people to do. It is true to say...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' (ibid p.130-133).

While in the mid-1970s Bacon's slightly self-pitying lament that he had no-one else to paint may have had a ring of truth to it, this was certainly not the case in the late 1960s when he was painting many of his most celebrated portraits of George Dyer, Isabel Rawsthorne, Michel Leiris and Lucian Freud. Bacon's turning to investigate his own unique animal presence and self image at this time perhaps reflects a degree of introspection and more certainly a heightened existential awareness and increased psychological intensity in his work. For, inevitably, with his fundamental belief in life as an accident, for Bacon, self-portraiture was intrinsically connected to his keen awareness of passing of time and the presence of death within everything in life including his own. For him, as it was for Rembrandt, the device of the self-portrait was a powerful means with which to speak about the fascinating but ultimately meaningless existential nature of the human condition. And, excepting his earlier series of expressionist self-identifications as a working artist in the guise of Vincent Van Gogh, Bacon's self-portraits are predominantly objective and dispassionate portrayals of himself as a seemingly ordinary and unremarkable man.

Bacon was also undoubtedly conscious of the precedents among the Old Masters when he began the process of exploring the contours and idiosyncratic features of his face in the late '60s. Not only did he bring a fierce objectivity to the depiction of his own striking and owl-like face, but he also carefully laid the groundwork for these images with a remarkable degree of preparation. According to the writer and art historian John Richardson, before embarking on a self-portrait Bacon would let his stubble grow for three of four days and then rehearse the angular and distortive brushstrokes using make-up on his face in front of the mirror. ' Those strange revolving brushstrokes, that are so familiar from his pictures, ' Richardson recalled, 'would be rehearsed with Max Factor pancake make-up. He had a series of these Max Factor pots and he would take one and do a sort of smear across his face, and these are the smears that you see on so many of the faces of those early paintings.' (J. Richardson quoted in Francis Bacon: taking Reality by Surprise, C. Domino, London 1996).

In this raw and powerful self-portrait, Bacon's recognisable but seemingly beaten-up or swollen features stare directly out of the painting with an unconcerned air of nonchalance that borders on disdain. It is the portrait of a man deeply aware of but ultimately indifferent to the peculiarities of his own features. Seeming to trap something of the animated essence of life into the semi-chaotic, half-chance driven application of his paint with its bizarre splashes. smears and rubs of purple, orange and white Bacon articulates a brutish and vital physicality. In doing so he expresses less the effects of the passing of time upon his features as in the manner of Rembrandt's self-portraits for example, but rather the energy and effect of inner emotion on the material exterior of his face. Distortion, exaggeration, accident and craft combine to create an undeniably animated material presence in the paint. Through this magic, what Bacon referred to as 'the mystery of fact' when talking of his favourite Rembrandt self-portrait in Aix-en Provence - the magic of seeming to animate what is essentially inanimate dead material - something of the essential nature of the human condition is also approximated.

'I think that the mystery of fact is conveyed by an image being made out of non-rational marks' Bacon asserted,' and you can't will this non-rationality of a mark. That is the reason that accident always has to enter into this activity, because the moment you know what to do, you're making just another form of illustration' (ibid p. 59). In this self-portrait from 1969 Bacon presents a disturbingly honest psychological portrait of himself as but another human ape. What underlies and perhaps undermines the apparent existential objectivity of this image is that the painting itself is the product of this 'mystery of fact'. This seemingly animated image of the living artist has apparently been brought into existence by a certain kind of magic or alchemy involving a fusion of controlled chance and the artist's skill. In doing this the painting seems to probe the mystery and apparent meaningless of life, as Bacon himself did and to infuse it with a life and perhaps meaning of its own. In this it is a visual echo of Bacon's philosophical view of life as 'meaningless but we give it meaning during our own existence. We create certain attitudes which give it a meaning while we exist, though they in themselves are meaningless, really' (ibid p.133).

As a token of some kind of meaning however, presumably friendship and gratitude, this self-portrait was given by Bacon to Valerie Beston soon after he completed it. On its reverse it bears the dedication, 'To V. with all very best wishes Francis.'

No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 17.5% will be added to the buyer's premium, which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.

Provenance: A gift from the artist to Miss Beston.

Artist or Maker: Francis Bacon (1909-1992)

Exhibited: London, Arts Council of Great Britain, The Human Clay, 1976, no. 9.
Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Francis Bacon, October-January 1972, no. 90 (illustrated, p. 131). This exhibition later travelled to Düsseldorf, Kunsthalle, March-May 1972.
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Recent Paintings 1968-1974, March-June 1975, no. 4.
Madrid, Fundación Juan March, Francis Bacon, April-May 1978, no. 1. This exhibition later travelled to Barcelona, Fundaciò Joan Miro, June-July 1978.
Tokyo, The National Museum of Modern Art, Francis Bacon. Paintings 1945-1982, June-August 1983, no. 24 (illustrated, p. 52). This exhibition later travelled to Kyoto, The National Museum of Modern Art, September-October 1983; Aichi, Aichi Prefectural Art Gallery, November 1983.
Paris, Galerie Maeght Lelong, Francis Bacon. Peintures récentes, January-February 1984, no. 2 (illustrated, p. 33).
London, Tate Gallery, Francis Bacon, May-August 1985, no. 66 (illustrated in colour, unpaged). This exhibition later travelled to Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie, October 1985-January 1986; Berlin, Nationalgalerie, February-March 1986.
London, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., Francis Bacon a loan exhibition in Celebration of his 80th Birthday, October-November 1989, no. 8 (illustrated in colour, p. 23).
London, The Barbican Art Gallery, The pursuit of the real, May-July 1990.
London, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., Francis Bacon 1909-1992 Small Portrait Studies, October-December 1993, no. 19 (illustrated in colour).
Saint-Paul, Foundation Maeght, Bacon- Freud Expression, July-October 1995, no. 18 (illustrated in colour, p. 71).

Literature: J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1971, no. 89 (illustrated p. 182).
L. Trucchi, Francis Bacon, Milan 1975, pl. 136.
M. Leiris, Francis Bacon, full face and in profile, London 1983, no. 68 (illustrated in colour).
H. Davies and S. Yard, Francis Bacon, New York 1986, no. 1 (illustrated on the cover and on p. 6).
W. Schmied, Francis Bacon Commitment and Conflict, Munich and New York 1996, no. 31 (illustrated in colour, unpaged); fig. 117 (illustrated, p. 100).
F. Bores and M. Kundera, Francis Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, London 1997 (illustrated, p. 106).

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