Description: oil on canvas
Executed in 1973.
Dimensions: 35.5 by 30.5cm.
14 by 12in.
Exhibited: London, Tate Gallery; Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie; Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Francis Bacon, 1985, no. 83, illustrated in colour
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., Francis Bacon 1909-1992 Small Portrait Studies, 1993
New Haven, The Yale Center for British Art; Minneapolis, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts; San Francisco, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Francis Bacon: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1999, p. 160, no. 52, illustrated in colour
Literature: Lorenza Trucchi, Francis Bacon, London 1976, no. 169, illustrated in colour
John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1979, p. 157, no. 81, illustrated
Dawn Ades and Andrew Forge, Francis Bacon, London 1980, p. 83, illustrated in colour
Provenance: Alfred Hecht, London
Sotheby's, London, Post War and Contemporary Art, 27 June 1991, Lot 40
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Notes: "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" (Francis Bacon in David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, ps. 129-133)
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The love of Francis Bacon's life to date, George Dyer, died in 1971. It was two nights before the grand opening of his retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris and Dyer had committed suicide by overdose in their hotel room. A handsome ex-petty criminal, Dyer offered Bacon a different take on life and their relationship from 1963 onwards inspired arguably one of his most fertile periods of creation. Filled with bold, confident swathes of joyous colour and distinguished by brushstroke upon brushstroke of self-assured representational genius, the over-riding sense of the fullness of life swept through the paintings, like never before. However, Bacon's art had always been aware of the direct opposition between life and death, and the period immediately following Dyer's suicide was characterised by a deep sense of mourning. Infused with grief and self-accusation, the depth of despair in the works between 1971 and 1973 show the reverse of Bacon's painterly coin.
On the one hand this period confronted Bacon's desolate sense of loss, but on the other it also represented a period of intense loneliness for the artist. With the loss of his right hand man, Bacon withdrew from society in a kind of self-imposed exile. As such, apart from his outstanding triptych epitaphs to George, most of the paintings of this period were self- portraits. Bacon had always been an incredibly gregarious bon-viveur, but with nobody else around him, he was forced to confront himself, and this he did with his usual unerring sense of painterly presence.
Painted during this period of intense drama, turmoil and self-reflection, Study for Self Portrait of 1973, represents one of the most powerful smaller single panel works in Bacon's oeuvre. The larger full-body studies of the same period show his body in a state of extreme reluctance. Slumped back into a chair with his head held in his hands or holding his legs towards his head in a kind of adult foetal position, all of these works show him dressed in black, with his head cast in various tones of grey. This is Bacon plumbing the depths. The extraordinary Study for Self-Portrait closes right in on a profile of his head. Fidgetting nervously, his right hand and arm are drawing across his face, seemingly surprised at the attention he is receiving. The extraordinary compression of the image, together with the scumbled pale blue background heightens the drama and magnifies the prominence of his wristwatch. The wristwatch was present in a few of the works of this period and would appear to remind the viewer of the transitory nature of existence. As Bacon reflected "Time does not heal. There isn't an hour of the day that I don't think about him [George Dyer]" (Francis Bacon in Exhibition Catalogue, Lugano, Museo d'Arte Moderna di Lugano, Francis Bacon, 1993, p. 44)
As with all of his self-portraits, this image would have been painted from memory and, up close and personal, Bacon covers the canvas with his immediate presence. Dressed once again in black, the contemplative profile is picked out in delicate detail right down to the flick of hair which appears to disappear into the background sea of pale blue. Equally, as the face merges with the appearance of the movement of the arm across it, Bacon draws broad sweeps of his paint-filled brush as if trying to mimic the action. Incorporating a rich array of colours, techniques and textures the image brings the paint to life. Bacon has primed the back of the canvas to allow the pigment to seep into the weave, this alliance of the weave together with the scumbling and meandering areas of think and thin paint creates a living, breathing action. Bacon here appears to have achieved his aim: "What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance" (Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester, Exhibition Catalogue, London, Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, 1967, p. 37)
If Bacon's art sought the height of painterly expression as a reflection of life, then his self-portraits represented the heart of that exploration. Bacon's life itself was filled with extremes and, from his very first self portrait in 1956 to the last in 1986, one can sense a man who responded directly to the ups and downs of life. If the late 1960s provided some of his happiest moments, the early 1970s provided undeniably his most introspective moment. The counterpoint of the two, as in Study for Self-Portrait, contrived to provide some of the most complex depictions of emotional presence in the history of art.