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The sitter is someone of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their emanation…

- Francis Bacon

This decade had a momentous beginning for Bacon. In 1971 a major book on his work by the art critic John Russell was published. In the same year, he was given a retrospective exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris which marked his critical and commercial success. Tragically, on the eve of the exhibition opening George Dyer, Bacon’s long-term lover, was found dead in his hotel room – an event that would haunt Bacon.

Bacon produced some of his most poignant and powerful triptychs in this period. Breaking his own precedent of never painting the dead and his rule of not representing a narrative, several triptychs memorialise Dyer and aspects of their life.

In the mid 1970s Bacon met John Edwards. He became his close companion and, like Dyer, featured in many portraits and figure studies. The relationship with Edwards lasted until the artist’s death and he was the sole inheritor of Bacon’s estate.

Focus work

Francis Bacon
Study for self-portrait 1976
oil and pastel on canvas, 198 × 147.5 cm
Art Gallery of NSW collection

In this self-portrait Bacon depicts his body in tumult. Seated on a stool, he seems to twist around himself in a corkscrew motion that indicates awkwardness and anxiety. In many filmed interviews, Bacon’s unease is apparent in postures such as this.

The musculature of his figure is picked out with dashes of white and cream paint on his shoulder, knee and calf. Tilted towards the viewer, his head and shoulders are framed by a rectangular black void. Against a cool background, his body casts a shadow that has a material presence – like an object or an extension of Bacon’s own flesh. The white disc at the centre of the composition may be seen as a contrast to the twisting paint that typically describes the body.

Issues for consideration

  • Create a self-portrait that reflects your emotional state. How do the elements of visual language such as colour, composition and the use of symbolic motifs contribute meaning to Bacon’s self-portrait and to your own?
  • The curator comments, '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.’ What is your initial response to this quote? What is meant by Bacon’s aim being distortion into reality and not away from it? Do you agree with the curator’s point of view?
  • Identify some of the motifs that Bacon used repeatedly in his work, such as the distorted figure, mirror, glass cage and shadows. Consider the symbolic meanings of these motifs. Choose one motif and discuss how it adds meaning to Bacon’s work.