(Ireland, England 28 Oct 1909–28 Apr 1992)
198.0 x 147.5cm stretcher; 217.9 x 166.4 x 7.5cm frame
With several false starts to his painting career and a successful foray into furniture design, Francis Bacon's early years were fraught with indecision and self-doubt, despite support from other artists and major collectors. After a hiatus during which he destroyed most of his work, Bacon found a renewed fervour for painting, rejecting both expressionism and abstraction. His return to painting at the height of the horrors of World War II only reinforced his early exposure to what he referred to as the emotional and disturbing violence of Berlin and the despair of life. Bacon's fascination with the corruption, decay, passion and desolation of the human species remained a continuous focus. In responding to the vibrant horror of his work, one art critic commented that the 'joys of painting, the presence of a brilliant mind, are not enough to dispel one's morbid embarrassment, as if one had been caught, and had caught oneself, smiling at a hanging'.1
Bacon's intrinsic understanding of the human figure provided limitless possibilities in reflecting states of anxiety, morbidity, death and fear. His repetitive depiction of the isolated figure in the seclusion of an interior and a disturbing ambiguity only compound the feeling of innate despair and deny any easy narrative. Coupled with his exacting compositions and application of pigment, which is painted on the reverse of primed canvas, Bacon creates an exhilarating juxtaposition of form and field.
In 'Study for self-portrait' Bacon portrays himself, as in many of his portraits, contained within a geometric 'interior' form that evokes the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann in his courtroom glass cage.2 Isolated and imprisoned by the 'exterior' expanse of the canvas, Bacon lurches forward in a distorting and twisting spasm which doubles and blurs as if in constant motion, yet remains anchored to the chair. His aim in painting these disturbing and isolated figures was to distort into reality - not away from reality - to reveal the truth and the essence of the person rather than merely paint an illustration. Bacon argued that the only way to convey fact or truth was through a form of distortion, a distortion that reflected life's suffering and despair.3 Within the spasmodic event, the figure oozes and dissolves through the barrier of the containing form and splurges into the foreground. It is as if the body, in reaching the limit of the barrier, removes a part of itself from itself and thrusts it out in a frenzied attempt to escape the containing space. All that remains at the point of disjuncture is a circular void, the detached flesh already decaying in the empty field beyond him.
The contrast between the disrupted fleshiness of the body and the clean expanse of the colour field heightens the sense of physical abjection. The brute and raw nature of the figure represents in some ways what Bacon refers to as the dung heap of life. In this self-portrait Bacon looks on the world with a squeamish horror, his face doubled and blurred in his desire to capture the human scream of suffering.
1. Max Kozloff, 'Francis Bacon, 16 Nov 1963', 'Writing on art from the Nation: 1865-2001', Thunder's Mouth Press, New York 2001, p 307
2. The geometric form is the parallelepiped, a polyhedron with six faces that are parallelograms
3. See 'Francis Bacon: a retrospective', the Trust for Museum Exhibitions, New York 1999, p 8
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006
Marlborough Fine Art (London) Ltd. (England, estab. 1946), London/England, Purchased by the AGNSW from Marlborough Fine Art 1978
Anthony Bond (England; Australia) (Curator), Francis Bacon: five decades, Sydney, 2012, 194, 195 (colour illus.), 235 (colour illus.).
Anthony Bond (England; Australia) (Commissioning Editor), Wayne Tunnicliffe (New Zealand; Australia) (Commissioning Editor), Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 2006, 116, 117 (colour illus.).
'Mervyn Horton's bequest' by Michael Wardell, pg. 11-12, Look Jun 2004, Jun 2004, 11.
Bruce James (Australia) (Author), Edmund Capon (England; Australia, b.1940) (Director), Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, Domain, 1999, 70 (colour illus.).
'Francis Bacon and the law of Entropy' by Bernard Rigby, pg. 17., Look Oct 1999, Oct 1999, 17 (colour illus.).
Donald Williams (Australia) (Author), Barbara Wilson (Australia) (Author), From Caves to Canvas: An Introduction to Western Art (Second edition), Sydney, 1998, 304, 305 (colour illus.).
Peter Tomory (United Kingdom) (Author), Anne Kirker (New Zealand; Australia, b.1947) (Author), British painting 1800-1990 in Australian and New Zealand public collections, Sydney, 1997, 46. cat.no. 65
Ewen McDonald (Australia) (Editor), The Art Gallery of New South Wales collections, Sydney, 1994, 172 (colour illus.).
Donald Williams (Australia) (Author), Barbara Wilson (Australia) (Author), From Caves to Canvas: An Introduction to Western Art, Sydney, 1992, 259 (illus.).
'Francis Bacon Portraying the Human Predicament' by Elvira adelstein, pg. 20-21., Look Jun 1993, Jun 1993, 20-21 (colour illus.).
Annabel Davie (Editor), Art Gallery of New South Wales Handbook, Domain, 1988, 56.
Renée Free (Australia) (Author), Art Gallery of New South Wales catalogue of British paintings, Sydney, 1987, 10 (illus.), 11.
'European Acquisitions: 1972-83' by Renee Free pg. 63-67, Art and Australia (Vol. 22, No. 1) Spring 1984, Spring 1984, 64 (colour illus.), 67.
Sir Lawrence Gowing (England, b.1918, d.1991) (Author), Francis Bacon Paintings 1945-1982, Unknown, 1983, 109.
Art Gallery of New South Wales (Australia, estab. 1874) (Author), Three years on: a selection of acquisitions 1978-1981, Sydney, 1981, 33 (colour illus.). cat. no.2
Clem Lloyd (Author), Peter Sekuless (Author), Australia's national collections, North Ryde, 1980, 257 (colour illus.).
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas (Venezuela), Francis Bacon, Unknown, 1978, (colour illus.). cat.no. 8. Used for poster for exhibition.
Galerie Claude Bernard (France), Francis Bacon: oeuvres récentes, Unknown, Jan 1977, (colour illus.). cat.no. 9
Museo de Arte Moderno (Mexico) (Author), Francis Bacon: Works 1970-1977, Unknown, 1977, (illus.). cat.no. 9
Francis Bacon: oeuvres récentes, Galerie Claude Bernard, 19 Jan 1977–26 Mar 1977.
Francis Bacon: Works 1970-1977, Museo de Arte Moderno, Oct 1977–Dec 1977.
Francis Bacon, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas, Feb 1978–Feb 1978.
Three years on: Acquisitions 1978-81, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 15 Oct 1981–01 Dec 1981.
Francis Bacon, Palazzo Reale, 04 Mar 2008–24 Aug 2008.