Please note this work has been requested for the forthcoming Francis Bacon retrospective at Tate, London commencing September 2008 which travels to the Prado, Madrid and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
An obsession in paint
One of the most psychologically arresting portraits of the Twentieth Century and holding within its stunning paint surfaces an extraordinary story of love and obsession, Francis Bacon's Study for Head of George Dyer is a masterpiece of intense physiognomic analysis that perfectly summates his incredible working process. Framed in a flood of intense emerald green, leaping arcs and dashing flecks of radiant pinks, reds, yellows, and white pigment announce the unmistakable features and profile of George Dyer, probably the single most significant figure in Francis Bacon's long and enormously prolific life and work. Highly intimate in format, not only is this painting exceptionally rare as the extant paean to Dyer, the love of Bacon's life, but it is also outstanding in its execution, presenting a virtuosity of brushwork and exuberance of colour that in terms of intensity equals any other masterpiece the artist produced.
Bacon's portraiture is critically-defined and world-renowned for achieving uncanny likeness via a seemingly chaotic assault of violent brushstrokes. Study for Head of George Dyer represents the zenith of this achievement, whereby out of a flurry of swipes and blows Dyer's magnificent presence has emerged indomitable on the surface. It is almost as if Bacon has attempted to hide this face; to camouflage it in paint, yet suffers the burden of knowing it too well, in fact better than any other, to conceal its true identity. It is often noted that Bacon's portraits reveal their sitter's inner essence because he painted people he knew closely, and amidst the artist's inner circle it was George Dyer who became the unlikely target of his most obsessive and impassioned fascination. Thus with each loaded stroke this most focused of portraits unravels the sitter's psychological and emotional kernel across the canvas surface.
The compositional catalyst for this work was a photograph of George Dyer taken by John Deakin in Soho in about 1964. In the manner in which it both correlates with and departs from its source Bacon's painting is one of the most sophisticated uses of photography in the history of painting. As a surviving eulogy to the Bacon Dyer relationship, this work's rarity is amplified by Bacon's practice of destroying any canvas that he deemed unsatisfactory. Indeed, despite one hundred and twenty-nine photographs of Dyer being found in Bacon's studio after the artist's death, a number vastly exceeding that for any other subject, this painting is one of only two known designated portrayals of Dyer in this single fourteen by twelve inch format.
It serves as an apt counterpoint to the so-called 'Black Triptychs' of the early and mid 1970s that commemorate Dyer, which are widely considered to be among the greatest triumph of Bacon's whole output. Finally, in the brilliance of its conception and the significance of its subject, this painting should be inserted into an epic art historical canon that redefines what portraiture can achieve, running from Michelangelo's Brutus of 1540 in the Bargello to Picasso's Weeping Woman of 1937 in the Tate.
Physicality of Paint
From 1961 Bacon employed the fourteen by twelve inch canvas format exclusively for an unprecedented portraiture cycle depicting a close coterie of friends that occupied him until the end of his life. While his friend Frank Auerbach has likened these fantastic portrayals to "risen spirits" John Russell has commented that "Just as a gunshot sometimes leaves an after-echo or parallel report, so these small concentrated heads carry their ghosts within them" (John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 99 and p. 152). Among these phenomenal character investigations, the brilliant colour, dramatic brushstrokes and analysis of facial landscape in the present work are truly exceptional. Highlights of tone and hue constantly converge and dissemble to describe the dancing passages of light across the visage: just as our eye is attracted to the seeming organisation of one area it immediately shoots to the apparent dissolution of another.
The variegated textures of the surface recount the story of this work's creation: the artist has brushed, smeared, flicked, lifted and thrown paint in his drive to define likeness; scraping, reworking, and layering to impregnate the painting with both painterly and psychological depth. Bacon had started throwing paint in the mid 1960s and later claimed that "My ideal would really be just to pick up a handful of paint and throw it at the canvas and hope that the portrait was there" (the artist cited in: David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 107). This portrait converts this ideal into reality inasmuch as he has thrown the fleck of white that has landed at the base of the head's chin. Of course this flamboyant technique left no opportunity for error and is typical of Bacon's risky painting method, which aptly echoes his avocation as a gambler.
Engaging the classic complimentary of red and green, colour here is not merely a means to a descriptive end, but acquires a sculptural, material identity itself as different colours are applied as different textures. Tan browns are scrubbed, flesh pinks lathered, cadmium reds dragged, yellows impressed and bright whites flicked in a symphony of painterly expression. A sinuous sweep of highly viscous light pink marks the base of the jaw, while a writhing thin black gorge bores across the mouth and cheek like a gashed scar and a serenely closed eye hints at a refuge of inner calm. All this is set against a backdrop of deep glinting green, soaked into the absorbent unprimed canvas, which contrasts brilliantly with the explosive hues of the portrait. This rich ground evokes both the heavy green velvet curtains in Bacon's Reece Mews home in South Kensington and the lurid emerald green interior of the Colony Room drinking club in Soho run by Bacon's friend Muriel Belcher.
Because we see several aspects and angles of Dyer's head all at once we are confronted by his character as a whole, rather than one specific snapshot. The representation is like an over-exposed photograph, or even some constantly adjusting oil-based hologram acting as a psychosomatic X-ray. Left on the canvas is the residue of the artist's impulsive onslaught, simultaneously trapping different facets of facial expression and a sense of movement. However, rather than merely the few moments of a time-delayed photo, Bacon has caught Dyer's emotional and psychological character as he observed them over several years, and thus the painting holds within it time, experience and the shadows of memory itself. Of course, with the case of his lover and muse Dyer, these include Bacon's most important remembrances of all, which would decisively mark the direction of his work until his death a quarter of a century later.
George Dyer: a fated muse
George Dyer was born in 1934, and was thus twenty-nine when he met Francis Bacon, by contrast almost fifty-four, in the autumn of 1963. Contrary to the myth that they met when Dyer broke into Bacon's mews house, popularised by accounts such as the 1998 film Love is the Devil starring Derek Jacobi as Bacon and Daniel Craig as Dyer, according to Bacon they actually met in a Soho drinking den when Dyer introduced himself to the artist's party with the gambit "You all seem to be having a good time. Can I buy you a drink?" (George Dyer cited in: Jonathan Fryer, Soho in the Fifties and Sixties, London 1998, p. 9). Hailing from London's East End, Dyer had received little formal education, possessed a criminal record and had served several short prison terms for theft and petty crime. The collision of the two personalities: Bacon's rarefied intellectualism versus Dyer's rough innocence, resulted in a highly charged, impassioned, and tempestuous relationship.
Bacon and Dyer Dynamics
Bacon and Dyer: the Dynamics of Infatuation
For the most part Bacon felt passionately affectionate towards Dyer, as is clear from a fascinating account he gave to Michael Peppiatt: "when [George] was sober, he could be terribly engaging and gentle. He used to love being with children and animals. I think he was a nicer person than me. He was more compassionate" (the artist cited in: David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 135). However, by providing a 'kept' existence, Bacon inadvertently fuelled the younger man's paranoia of lacking purpose. This aimlessness in turn drove Dyer's worsening alcoholism, increasingly erratic behaviour and the onset of depression.
In the autumn of 1971 the pair travelled to Paris for the major retrospective exhibition that had been organised for Bacon's work at the Grand Palais. However, on 24th October, barely thirty-six hours before the opening, George Dyer was found hunched over the lavatory in the bathroom of their shared suite at the Hotel des Saint-Pères, dead from an overdose of sleeping pills exacerbated by alcohol abuse. Despite suffering from numbing shock and a despairing guilt that would linger for twenty more years, Bacon continued with the opening apparently unabated. However, in that brief but horrific sequence of events the shadow of George Dyer was cast over Bacon and remained there for the rest of his life. The short but momentous existence of George Dyer, so central to Francis Bacon, is succinctly précised by Russell: "A compact and chunky force of nature, with a vivid and highly unparsonical turn of phrase, he embodied a pent-up energy...a spirit of mischief, touched at times by melancholia...his wild humour, his sense of life as a gamble and the alarm system that had been bred into him from boyhood...George Dyer will live for ever in the iconography of the English face" (John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, pp. 160-65).
Photography and Art History
From the mid 1960s the photograph was the critical catalyst for Bacon's art, which by then focused on the human subjects around him: "if I both know them and have photographs of them, I find it easier to work than actually having their presence in the room...I find it less inhibiting to work from them through memory and their photographs than actually having them seated there before me" (the artist cited in: David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 48). Ironically, this method facilitated his post-mortem infatuation with Dyer as it was unaffected by the physical unavailability of his subject.
Bacon had met John Deakin (1912-1972) in the late 1940s and by the end of his life possessed more than three hundred of his friend's photographs. Deakin took at least four dedicated sets of Dyer and the famous photograph cut-out is just over twenty-two centimetres high with thirteen pin holes at its top. It has been suggested that Bacon "cut away Dyer's head from one of the prints [as] a literal embodiment of his desire to lift the motif from its substrate" (Margarita Cappock, Francis Bacon's Studio, London 2005, p. 40). With Dyer's distinctive quiff of hair chamfered off, the cut-out was an inspiration as the actual physical process of cutting the photograph enabled Bacon to behold the shape of the outline in a singularly tangible way.
Bacon was an Art History fanatic, visually devouring canonical precedent with ferocious alacrity. He preyed on the pictorial conventions of masterpieces and the terms of their execution. Whether cast from mythical allegory, classical Antiquity or contemporary culture, characters depicted by such masters as Michelangelo, Titian, and Picasso, to name but a few, provided supreme examples of psychological cross-examination, frequently from a side-view perspective. Furthermore, self-portraits by the likes of Rembrandt and Van Gogh were often treated highly objectively, as much an analysis in the third-person as an examination of the self, and thus also became important influence for Bacon's portraiture. Bacon knew this mine of precedent intimately and Study for Head of George Dyer should also be seen as a cornerstone of this grand art historical narrative.
As the celebrated Czech writer Milan Kundera has commented, "Bacon's portraits are the interrogation on the limits of the self. Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself? To what degree of distortion does a beloved being still remain a beloved being?" (Milan Kundera, Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, London 1996, p. 12). Study for Head of George Dyer provides the consummate response to these questions, and in many ways it is Bacon's definitive portrait. Taking its cue from a chain of art historical masterpieces, this work narrates the story of George Dyer, as well as providing a universal allegory related to the Human Condition.
David Sylvester has described how "Bacon had something of Picasso's genius for transforming his autobiography into images with a mythic allure and weight" (David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 186), and Study for Head of George Dyer superbly projects personal experience from Bacon's microcosmic realm onto the macrocosmic stage of global relevance. On the one hand it is devoted to the character and psychology of George Dyer, yet from another it is a metaphor for inner conflict. It is a brilliantly conceived portal from the transience of human beauty to the complexities of a conflicted psyche, and as such is a painting of profound universality.
Bacon after Dyer
Bacon without Dyer
After the tragedy of Dyer's suicide in Paris, Bacon was "stricken by a grief that was never to heal" (John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 151). The effect of the death on the artist was immense, as he later admitted in a candid interview with Sylvester: "Time does not heal. There isn't an hour of the day that I don't think about him" (the artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Lugano Museo d'Arte Moderna, Francis Bacon, 1993, sv. 44). For Bacon, bereavement found material expression through his work: "you concentrate on something that was an obsession, and what you would have put into your obsession with the physical act you put into your work. Because one of the terrible things about so-called love – certainly for an artist, I think – is the destruction" (the artist interview by David Sylvester, cited in: John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 151).
As arguably Bacon's most intense study of Dyer from his partner's lifetime, the present work must be considered as a masterpiece of the highest order. Martin Hammer has asked "how can intimacy and the apparent brutality of Bacon's distortions be understood in tandem with one another" (Martin Hammer in: Exhibition Catalogue, Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; and Hamburg, Kunsthalle, Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, 2005-06, p. 16), a point that is readily amplified here in Bacon's brutal depiction of someone for whom he felt so much affection. This painting is the manifestation of pure emotional honesty, or what Bacon called the 'brutality of fact'. A supreme entombment of Bacon's achievement of "setting the standard for what art in the twentieth century could achieve: depicting the individual in the moment of disintegration" (Peter Bürger, Exhibition Catalogue, Düsseldorf, Kunstsammlung, Francis Bacon: The Violence of the Real, 2007, p. 35), this portrait is a masterwork of psychological intensity and personal significance as great as any in Bacon's momentous corpus.
Oil on canvas
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., Francis Bacon Recent Paintings, 1967
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., Francis Bacon Paintings, 1985, n.p., no. 9, illustrated in colour
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., Francis Bacon: Small Portrait Studies, 1993, n.p., no. 5, illustrated in colour and detail
Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; Hamburg, Kunsthalle, Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, 2005-2006, p. 62, no. 30, illustrated in colour (and in detail on the front cover)
Salzburg, Museum der Moderne, A Guest of Honour: Francis Bacon und sein Umkreis, 2008, p. 20, illustrated in colour
35.8 by 30.4cm. 14 by 12in.
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon: Full Face and in Profile, New York 1983, no. 48, illustrated in colour
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, Paris 1987, no. 43, illustrated in colour
Milan Kundera, Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, London 1996, p. 26, illustrated in colour
Martin Harrison, In Camera, Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, p. 183, no. 203, illustrated in colour
Rachel Campbell-Johnston, 'Beyond the Fringe: ghostly medics and Gauguin' in: The Times: T2, 10 August 2005, p. 15, illustrated in colour
Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., London
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in March 1967