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Francis Bacon, Two Studies For a Self Portrait, 1977. Est. £13-18m. Photo: Sotheby’s.

LONDON.- Francis Bacon’s (1909-1992) haunting self-portraits have become inseparable from how we remember the turbulent life of one of the great painters of the 20th-Century. On 10 February 2015, as part of its flagship auction of Contemporary Art, Sotheby’s London will offer Bacon’s hugely rare Two Studies for Self-Portrait, 1977, (est. £13-18m) one of only three self-portraits in this dual format to have been painted by the artist.

In the years that followed the tragic suicide of his lover George Dyer in 1971, Bacon’s work became increasingly concerned with the dark psychological depths of his own psyche. Painted in 1977, on an almost 1:1 scale, Two Studies for Self-Portrait is a profoundly intimate portrait, starkly evoking the artist’s inner turmoil at a moment when he was at the height of critical acclaim during his lifetime.

Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s Deputy Chairman, Europe, said: « Of all the subjects he depicted, it is the self-portraits – painted with an almost obsessive intensity – that bring us closest to the artist. It’s this extraordinary intimacy and power, together with their rarity, that make Bacon’s self-portraits so irresistible to collectors. »

Unparalleled Self-Portraiture
Self-portraiture played a role of unparalleled importance in the work of Francis Bacon. “He was never more brilliant, more incisive or more ferocious when it came to depicting himself. In this he helped revive a genre, and Bacon’s Self-Portraits can now be seen as among the most pictorially inventive and psychologically revealing portraits of the Twentieth Century”, wrote the renowned art historian Michael Peppiatt in 2009. For this reason, they are the most sought after of the artist’s works among collectors; regularly achieving prices well in advance of their estimates when they make a rare appearance at auction. A 1978 self-portrait, estimated at £812m, more the doubled its low estimate when it sold for £21.6m at Sotheby’s London in 2007, while a 1969 example, offered at Sotheby’s New York, also in 2007, fetched $33.1m.

More so than any artist since Rembrandt, Bacon’s self-portrayals tell of the existential ups and downs of an extraordinarily dramatic life, starkly punctuated by tragedy. From the suicide of his friend John Minton in 1957 to the death of his decade-long lover Peter Lacy in 1962; the tragic suicide of his lover George Dyer in 1971 and the death of his mother, Winnie Bacon, in the same year. Summoning a lifetime’s worth of memories, Two Studies for Self-Portrait, 1977, shows Bacon at his most self-reflective and at the peak of his of his powers as a painter.

In one of his celebrated interviews with the art critic David Sylvester, Bacon was brutally honest about his increasing propensity toward self-portraiture: « People have been dying around me like flies and I’ve had nobody else to paint but myself… I loathe my own face. One of the nicest things that Cocteau said was ‘Each day in the mirror I watch death at work.’ This is what one does to oneself.”

Seeing Double
Bacon only ever made three self-portrait diptychs in this format (35.5cm by 30cm), of which this is the only example to have ever appeared at auction. The immediacy and intimacy of Bacon’s smaller scale (almost 1:1) portraits ensures that they are hugely coveted by collectors. This was most recently in evidence when a new record for any small-scale portrait by Bacon was set in June 2014. The triptych, Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer, sold at Sotheby’s London for £26.7m, well in excess of its high estimate of £20m.

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Francis Bacon, Two Studies For a Self Portrait, 1977. Est. £13-18m. Photo: Sotheby’s.

left panel: signed, dated 1977 and inscribed Self portrait, Diptych, Front left Panel on the reverse – right panel: signed, dated 1977 and inscribed Self portrait, diptych, Front right panel on the reverse – oil on canvas, in two parts – each: 35.5 by 30.5cm.; 14 by 12in.

AUTHENTICATION: This work will be included as number (77-02) in the forthcoming Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné, being prepared by the Estate of Francis Bacon and edited by Martin Harrison.

PROVENANCE: Private Collection, Switzerland (acquired directly from the artist)
Sale: Sotheby’s, London, Contemporary Art: Part I, 2 December 1993, Lot 32
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

EXHIBITED: Madrid, Fundación Juan March; and Barcelona, Fundació Joan Miró, Francis Bacon, 1978, n.p., no. 13, illustrated in colour
Tokyo, The National Museum of Modern Art; Kyoto, The National Museum of Modern Art; and Nagoya, Aichi Prefectural Art Gallery, Francis Bacon, Paintings: 1945-1982, 1983, p. 69, no. 36, illustrated in colour
London, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., Francis Bacon, 1985, p. 29, no. 12, illustrated in colour
London, Ordovas, Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt, 2011, pp. 45, 69 and 82, illustrated in colour

LITERATURE: Michael Leiris, Francis Bacon: Full Face and in Profile, Oxford 1983, n.p., no. 111, illustrated in colour
Milan Kundera, Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, London 1996, pp. 74-75, illustrated in colour

NOTE: Francis Bacon lived with the deepest commitment to seizing the vulnerable, vital and violent conditions of human existence; he was an artist for whom painful reality was itself life’s purpose. Nowhere is this more forcefully evident than in the haunting opus of self-portraits that weave an autobiographical thread through a lifetime enlivened by drama and blighted by tragedy. Executed in 1977 when Bacon was 68 and at a height of critical repute and international acclaim, Two Studies for Self-Portrait evinces both mournful rumination and fierce effacement. Following the unexpected (though unsurprising) suicide of George Dyer in 1971 – on the very eve of his retrospective opening at the Grand Palais – Bacon launched into a period of production that would become the most emotionally fraught, inventive, self-flagellating and ambitious of his career. In 1977 Bacon’s tremendous outpouring of pain and melancholia, fused with grand poetic and painterly ambition, culminated in the hugely successful one-man-show at Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris. Providing the introverted counterpart to the cycle of extroverted and elaborate triptychs executed during this period and exhibited in the ‘77 exhibition, are the small portrait studies. Operating on an almost 1:1 scale, these works represent the most immediate and all-too-human aspect of Bacon’s practice: drama and brutality are enacted within the vicissitudes of an existential physiognomy. In this regard, the self-portraits can be viewed as the most revealing and ruthless of Bacon’s oeuvre, prepared as he was to masochistically inflict more violence upon his own likeness than to ‘insult’ anyone else. Scuffed, scraped, contorted and dissolving in confused movement, the present work forms an enigmatic and rare doubling of Bacon’s photo-booth styled headshots. Indeed, only two other self-portraits in this dual format were created in comparison to the 14 single panels and 11 triptych self-portrait studies in the 14 by 12inch canvases. Exhibited widely across Europe and Asia during Bacon’s lifetime, this striking dual image bears the signature features of the artist’s famous face: the carefully arranged forelock of hair and plump rounded features are idiosyncratically present. Plagued by death, guilt, bereavement and excruciating self-analysis, the self-portraits form the most enduring and imaginative exercise of Bacon’s later practice.

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Portrait of Francis Bacon by unknown photographer, circa 1972. The Estate of Francis Bacon Collection © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS 2015. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

In Two Studies for Self-Portrait Bacon appears as a double death mask of translucent and scumbled marks; air-like apparitions of an ephemeral spirit dissolving into the black ether of an enveloping void. The pink and purple colouration and effervescence of paint handling somewhat recall the artist’s much earlier animations of William Blake’s life mask from 1955. Appearing to wear a turtleneck jumper in these portraits, Bacon’s head and neck are similarly disembodied, with heavy eyelids and unseeing eyes closed shut by the corrugated scrape of textured fabric. Intriguingly the left panel seems to echo the earlier Self-Portrait with Injured Eye from 1972 in which Bacon’s battered eye socket is portrayed as triumphantly swollen, purple and enlarged. Herein this bruised palette is in keeping with the very best works from this decade, in which pink, purple and accents of orange, yellow and blue feature heavily. In both portraits the mouths are the site of further violence and incredible painterly invention. The ellipses and circular outlines telescope our attention on the elongated and mangled jaw-line in both pictures, with heightened confusion occurring in the right panel. Oval voids and shadows eat away at painted flesh whilst circular windows reveal a jumble of blurred masticatory movement. Whether tooth-bearing and screaming as in his earlier work (most notably the corpus after Velazquez’s Pope Innocent X) or as a muddle and mess of lips as in the present self-portraits, Bacon maintained an abiding obsession with mouths throughout his lifetime. Prior to the execution of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1944, Bacon had studied a nineteenth-century book on diseases of the mouth for its explicit and viscerally colourful hand-painted illustrations. In the present work, the lasting influence of this book, paired with Bacon’s erotic fascination with the mouth, is formalised by compositional elements that echo the diagrams in K.C. Clark’s Positioning in Radiography (London 1939) – another highly influential source for Bacon owing to its encyclopedic illustration of X-ray photography. These medical and biological fascinations paired with a revelling of the moribund and violent all form a part of how Bacon existentially dissects what it is to be human, that existence is purely flesh and physicality; in his paintings he flays and undoes corporeal boundaries and pokes at our fleshy make-up with his brush, transcribing, dissecting and pinning it back in place. In full consciousness of the waning years Bacon here paints himself in the dim-light of inexorable transience: “I myself want to go on living as long as I can… After all, there’s nothing else… we can just go on living, even though we know something terrible will happen” (Francis Bacon quoted in: Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 2008, p. 309). Nihilistic and resolved to the inevitable oblivion of mortal flesh, Bacon stoically transcribed the psychological wounds of his life through his extraordinary opus of self-portrait studies.

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Francis Bacon, Self-Portrait, 1969. Private Collection. Artwork: © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS 2015

The very first self-portrait created in this intimate 14 by 12 inch format was painted in 1962 directly in response to the death of Peter Lacy, the object of Bacon’s first major love affair. A former RAF pilot with a self-destructive nature prone to furious outbursts, Lacy embodied a magnetic force for Bacon whose finely-tuned and masochistic proclivity for violence drove all aspects of his life. By the mid-1950s the tempestuous relationship had ended and Lacy and moved to Tangier, where he began to slowly and surely drink himself into oblivion. Upon hearing of Lacy’s death the grief-stricken Bacon painted his own self-portrait flanked by Lacy’s emanation as a commemorative act of resuscitation and atonement. The triptych, Study for Three Heads (1962) powerfully lays bare the harrowing introspective quality intrinsic to the intimately scaled canvases: struggling to the surface of the outer panels, Bacon’s phantasmal memory of Lacy is here comingled and conjoined with the artist’s own self-image in the central canvas. Indeed, it was this first major tragedy in Bacon’s life that precipitated the first acknowledged self-portraits. That tragedy had the power to induce a mode of self-reflection in Bacon’s work was made emphatically clear following the artist’s second profound trauma: the death of George Dyer. Ten years following Lacy’s demise, and on the eve of Bacon’s retrospective opening at the Grand Palais in 1971, George Dyer – Bacon’s companion, lover and principle artistic subject since 1964 – was found dead. Marred by progressive alcoholism, suicidal desperation and a waning sense of purpose in Bacon’s shadow, Dyer’s eight-year relationship with the artist was as fractured as it was passionate. A compelling force in life, in death, Dyer’s absent-presence took on the weight of Bacon’s loss and melancholic regret; a profound grief that resonates throughout Bacon’s post-1971 opus and specifically the elegiac late paintings of himself. As evinced in the present work, Bacon’s searching and intensely haunting self-images at once exorcise accusatory demons whilst offering deeply mournful inquiries in the face of profound bereavement: today the suite of heart-rending self-images executed following Dyer’s death stand among his very best works. These harrowing epic eulogies powerfully speak of the intense loss and guilt that eternally remained with the artist.

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Francis Bacon, Two Studies for a Self-Portrait, 1970. Private Collection. Image/Artwork: © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS 2015. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

“I loathe this old pudding face of mine… but it’s all I’ve got left to paint now” (Francis Bacon quoted in: ibid., p. 307). From the suicide of his friend John Minton in 1957, the aforementioned deaths of Peter Lacy and George Dyer, the death of his mother, Winnie Bacon, in 1971, through to the demise of his longstanding friend John Deakin in 1972, by 1977 Bacon’s life had been starkly punctuated and beset by loss. Echoing the narrative traits of a Greek Tragedy, this trend would continue for the rest of his life: in 1979 Bacon witnessed the death of his good friend and owner of the beloved Colony Room drinking den, Muriel Belcher, while his youngest sister, Winifred, died in 1981 following a long battle with Multiple Sclerosis. Though he had suffered with chronic asthma since childhood and having been a dedicated drinker and lover of excess, Bacon lived into his ninth decade until he died in 1992. Feeling as if death had stripped him of all his friends, during the 1970s Bacon increasingly turned the brush on himself; in these works his visage can be viewed as a ghostly sentinel to the misfortune and loss of those closest to him.

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Francis Bacon Two Studies for a Self-Portrait, 1970. Private Collection. Image/Artwork: © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS 2015. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

While the intensity of Bacon’s self-portrait practice undoubtedly deepened following the death of George Dyer, Bacon had maintained an abiding fascination with his own appearance throughout his life and knew his own features intimately. He wore make-up and was a keen subject of the photographers lens; indeed, the artist had quickly learned the nuances of re-invention and self-presentation from a young age, spending hours scrutinising and tracing the particulars of his own appearance in the mirror. Such is the power of the small portrait studies; to quote William Feaver: “this is how we see what we feel like in the morning, examining the image in the mirror that corresponds so remotely with the sense we have of ourselves. This is the face that gets worse (more ‘lived in’) over the years, the face that betrays. These heads are what we are stuck with: unsentimentally ours. Bacon dealt with his… knowing that the best he could do was to effect a phantom, a rasping whoosh of characteristics” (William Feaver, ‘That’s It’, in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., Francis Bacon 1909 – 1992 Small Portrait Studies, 1993, p. 6). Two Studies for Self-Portrait witnesses Bacon conjure the traits of his own appearance with facility and aplomb: the wide moon-like face and the deeply set yet extraordinarily round eye sockets are here framed by the quintessential fringe of hair swept across his forehead. Moving from one image to the next Bacon’s visage begins to waste and disappear; in the second canvas the idiosyncratic roundness is replaced by a wraith-like apparition, as wispy emanations cipher matter into the encroaching darkness that consumes the right-hand side of the artist’s face.

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Francis Bacon, Two Studies for Self-Portrait, 1972. Private Collection. Image/Artwork: © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS 2015. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

When asked by David Sylvester in 1979 why there are so many self-portraits, Bacon explained: “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 quoted in: David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 129). Although somewhat true, Bacon’s purported reluctance to paint his own image is largely trivialising. The artist had very rarely painted from life and did not require the presence of sitters to translate a likeness in paint, instead relying upon memory and the detritus of photographs and books famously strewn across his South Kensington studio as aesthetic triggers. Alongside the countless pictures of friends taken by John Deakin, hundreds of photographs of himself comprised a core visual compost for his pictorial imagination.

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Francis Bacon, Two Studies for Self-Portrait, 1972. Private Collection. Image/Artwork: © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS 2015. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

The subject of major international retrospectives and studies across the globe by the 1970s, Bacon was all too aware of his prominent status. When added to the cumulative impact of time on his own appearance, these factors clearly compounded a desire to not only indelibly inscribe his own likeness within the annals of art history but also to challenge its champions. Successor to a genre perfected by revered masters from Rembrandt to Picasso, Bacon was undoubtedly driven by an incessant compulsion to forge a personal mythology for the experience of his time. As a genre, self-portraiture purportedly reveals the private side of a public profession; nowhere can this be understood with such forthright candour than in Bacon’s oeuvre as viewed in the light of Rembrandt’s legacy. Rembrandt was the very touchstone of Bacon’s inventiveness in these small scale canvases; the endless variety and successive permutations of his own visage, which meld into almost abstract dissolving matter towards the end of his life cast Rembrandt’s late self-portraits as a striking parallel to, and even art historical blue-print for, the present work. Bacon believed Rembrandt’s self-portraits to be “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” (Ibid.p. 241). He would undoubtedly have intimately known the two self-portraits in the National Gallery’s collection and was familiar with the most ambitious self portrait of Rembrandt’s career Self Portrait with Two Circles (1665-69) in the collection of Kenwood House in North London – an interesting visual comparison to the present work for its prominence of circular elements – while his own celebration of the Aix-en-Provence self-portrait speaks for itself: “… if you think of the great Rembrandt self-portrait in Aix-en-Provence, for instance, and if you analyse it, you will see that there are hardly any sockets to the eyes, that it is almost completely anti-illustrational. I think that the mystery of fact is conveyed by an image being made out of non-rational marks… what can happen sometimes, as it happened in this Rembrandt self-portrait in Aix-en-Provence, is that there is a coagulation of non-representational marks which have led to making up this very great image. Well, of course, only part of this is accidental. Behind all that is Rembrandt’s profound sensibility, which was able to hold onto one irrational mark rather than onto another” (Francis Bacon quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Marlborough Gallery, Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, 1967, p. 28). In this description of the Aix-en-Provence Self-Portrait with Beret (1659), it is almost as though he is describing the very nuances, subtleties and techniques employed in the execution of the present work. When viewed up close Rembrandt’s heads seemingly disband into a mass of non-representational marks that were doubtless an inspiration to Bacon’s own savage expressivity. Like Rembrandt tallying his aged, lined and weary features with a congruent painterly treatment of disbanded corporeality, in the present work the vaporous dissolution of Bacon’s likeness tempers exigent facture with an intense yet reposed response to the concrete fact of mortality.

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Francis Bacon, 1971. Photo:  Jorge Lewinski. Private Collection. Image: © The Lewinski Archive at Chatsworth / Bridgeman Images

Bacon once mentioned to David Sylvester: “Life is all we have. I mean we are here for a moment” (Francis Bacon quoted in: David Sylvester, op. cit., p. 231). Indeed, where Bacon translates this eschatological communion most powerfully is in the astounding body of self-portraiture that punctuates the most exceptional moments of his oeuvre. As outlined by Michael Peppiatt: “…he was never more brilliant, more incisive or more ferocious when it came to depicting himself. In this he helped revive a genre, and Bacon’s Self-Portraits can now be seen as among the most pictorially inventive and psychologically revealing portraits of the Twentieth Century” (Michael Peppiatt in: Exhibition Catalogue, Rome, Galleria Borghese, Caravaggio Bacon, 2009-10, p. 210). Ethereally effervescent and partly enshrouded in shadow, de-formulation and re-formulation of likeness moves between these two remarkable visages; these depictions glow like votive icons of an artist who is today considered an icon of his age.

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Francis Bacon, Self-Portrait, 1973 Private Collection © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS 2015. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

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Leaf from book Rembrandt’s Selbsbildnisse, by Wilhelm Pinder. RM98F108:33. Collection: Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. ©The Estate of Francis Bacon All rights reserved, DACS 2015. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

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Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait, circa 1659. Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence

Rembrandt - Self Portrait J910070

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait, circa 1665. Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House, London Image: © English Heritage Photo Library / Bridgeman Images

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