Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Sides of Bacon: 2. Middle

Francis Bacon: Five Decades
Art Gallery of New South Wales
17 November 2012 - 24 February 2014

Study for Self Portrait (1963)

In the 1960s Francis Bacon seems to have turned his attention to portraits, although they are not always flattering, or even recognisable. He claimed, “In trying to do a portrait, 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.” He used flat, high key colour used to frame and isolate, with a few wild strokes and turns of the brush to create detail.

His 1963 Study for Self Portrait is a study in distortion; he is trapped by a blue sofa and his eyes are hollow sockets. The sofa makes a reappearance in Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on a blue couch (1965). A transfigures shape reclines on a blue sofa, barely covered with a white sheet and a strong suggestion of blood. Behind her a naturalist door opens onto a dark void, with all manner of possible interpretation – none of them pleasant. According to her obituary she was, ‘foul-mouthed, amoral, a thief, a violent drunkard and a drug addict. Yet she was witty, wonderfully warm and lovable.”

Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on a blue couch (1965)
His use of blocking and perverting the colour wheel (thirds of red, orange and purple like a geography teacher’s wardrobe) are startling in From Muybridge: the human figure in motion; woman emptying a bowl of water; paralytic child walking on all fours (1965). Eadweard Muybridge was an English photographer known for pioneering motion series, and this work suggests a 3D model with moving figures.

From Muybridge (1965)
The Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror 1967-68 shows Dyer, Bacon’s lover, sitting in what looks like a swivel office chair, his disembodied face, split down the centre, reflected in a lectern-like stand. On the painting are two splurges of white paint splashed across the surface reminiscent of semen defacing the image. Whether this indicates rage, lust, or possession, it is highly confrontational to the viewer. In 1971 Dyer committed suicide in a hotel room on the eve of Bacon’s major retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Portrait of George Dyer in a mirror (1967-68)
At first glance, Lying Figure (1969) reminds me of a fried egg in a skillet – the colours correspond. On closer inspection it is a naked female figure, Henrietta Moraes, splayed on a bed with a syringe in her arm and drugs on a sideboard. There is more than a suggestion of violence and the ‘nailed to the wood’ parodies the crucifixion. The position of the model, bleak light and floating bed hint at a dissection on an operating table or perhaps another type of theatre, dramatically arranged to resemble an artist’s palette.

Lying Figure (1969)
In later works, Bacon introduced props such as umbrellas and cricket pads. Seated Figure (1978) is a depiction of George Dyer with these symbols. The triptych Studies of the human body depicts three versions of a (headless) woman on rail or tightrope with an umbrella for possible balance. The lean minimal composition highlights a writhing, convulsing figure on a clean ground of flat colour. And Figure in Movement (1985) focuses on a faceless batsman ready for action. Bacon refused to explain the cricket pads but merely said he acknowledged the importance of the game to the British psyche and coyly added that he was interested in sport of all types and the male form in action.

Seated Figure (1978)
Studies of the human body
Figure in Movement (1985)

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