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Francis Bacon (1909 - 1992), Study for portrait. Photo Sotheby's

signed, titled and dated 1976 on the reverse; oil on canvas, 35.5 by 30cm. 14 by 12in. Estimation: 1,800,000 - 2,500,000 GBP 

PROVENANCE: Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris

Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1977

EXHIBITED: Paris, Galerie Claude Bernard, Francis Bacon, 1977

NOTE DE CATALOGUE: "The single head, fourteen inches by twelve, was from 1961 onwards the scene of some of Bacon's most ferocious investigations. 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

Among the many remarkable aspects of Francis Bacon’s extraordinary oeuvre, his capacity to capture so exactly the unmistakable likenesses of his human subjects is legendary. As his career progressed through the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, he developed his prodigious and uncanny skill to manipulate the many guises of a now-famous cast of characters into single physiognomies: images formally rooted in memory and photographic record, yet expanded through imagination to become psychosomatic x-rays that attest the entire human drama. Bacon enlisted a specific coterie of friends and acquaintances, encountered in the pubs, nightclubs and casinos of London’s Soho and the West End, as a template to evidence enduring themes of the human condition. Today this line up of personalities may consist of strangers, yet the lasting universality of their powerful expressions still stand as metaphors for the circumstances of existence. Indeed, Bacon’s revered paintings of portrait heads belong to the great exemplars of art history in which a face depicted becomes both portal and mirror for profound contemplation and are no less than timeless in their phenomenal impact.

The present work, Study for Portrait of 1976 is an archetype of these intimate portrait heads, conflating several of Bacon’s most important subjects, critically including himself, in one vital visage. Readily discernible traits of two of Bacon’s most important muses, Henrietta Moraes and Isabelle Rawsthorne are characterized with almost preternatural ease by Bacon’s brush, from the unmistakable angle of the profile, to the curve of the neck, to the cascading wave of hair. Ultimately the composition is focused to a point with the inscribed black circle to the centreright, fashioned after one of the array of paint lids or other round objects that Bacon utilized as stencils and which cluttered the various surfaces of his South Kensington studio. Within this ring resides the immediately-recognizable profile of Bacon’s own self portrait, as it appears in so many of his most famous paintings and large scale triptychs of the decade. Thus the present work is loaded with a spectacular amalgamation of the preeminent actors of Francis Bacon’s output, and stands as a mnemonic touchstone for both his life and art. To approximate the words of John Russell, it is a scene of ferocious investigation that carries its ghosts within like the after-echo of a gunshot (John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 99).

The painting schematizes physiognomy in diagrammatic swathes, whose edges carve through the layers of accumulated paint material among patterns of pigment applied with cashmere sweaters and corduroy impressed and smeared on the surface. The head looms like a sculpture in paint and is virtually superimposed onto the stark flatness of the pale backdrop, whose tonal polarity emphasizes the prominent silhouette of morphing profiles. Throughout the work there is this tension between graphic dexterity and the raw power of color, as is so typical of Bacon's most enthralling masterworks. Within the scribed lines of the head its idiosyncratic features - high forehead, long cheekbones and arched eyebrows - are confidently incised in flecked streaks and variegated smears of densely workedpaint. Variance of expression is revealed through the veiled layers of shuttered hatching, so that as the artist described "sensation doesn't come straight out at you; it slides slowly and gently through the gaps" (Francis Bacon cited in: David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1990, p. 243).

As delineated by the eminent art historian and Bacon authority David Sylvester, this painting stands squarely within the extraordinary corpus of poignant canvases produced during the years 1971-1976, following the suicide of the artist’s long term partner and lover George Dyer on the eve of Bacon's prestigious retrospective opening at the Grand Palais, Paris in January 1971. Five years after Dyer's death, Bacon returned to Paris in January 1977 with an
exhibition of extraordinary new works at the Galerie Claude Bernard. This seminal and now legendary exhibition became the single most important commercial gallery show of Bacon's career. Of the intimate group of twenty works exhibited, including the present work, a significant number of these now reside in prestigious museum collections: while two belong in the Tate Collection, examples also belong to the Fondation Beyler, Basel, and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Caracas. Furthermore, the sale of Triptych, 1976, the centerpiece of the Claude Bernard show, at Sotheby's New York made auction house history when it achieved the then highest price for any Contemporary work of art ever offered at auction, and the exhibition also included the spectacular Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror.

This pivotal exhibition in 1977 bore witness to an unprecedented amount of publicity and eager anticipation; as Michael Peppiat, friend to Bacon and author of the biography Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, describes: "with the mixture of intellectuals and collectors, art groupies and sensation seekers, aesthetes and layabouts, the gallery quickly became half sideshow, half shrine... Bacon was on hand in the middle of the throng, pink-cheeked and immaculately dressed, greeting friends, signing posters and catalogues, laughing appreciatively and generally behaving as if nothing could have been more normal than the single-minded mobbing of which he and his pictures had suddenly become the object." (Michael Peppiat, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London, 2008, pp. 344-45). The police notoriously cordoned off the Rue des Beaux-Arts to limit the immense crowds coursing towards the gallery from the Boulevard Saint-Germain; an incredible 8,000 people squeezed and pushed their way down the narrow street and into the restricted gallery space. In an interview with Richard Cork in 1991, Bacon fondly remembered the heightened intensity given to his paintings by the claustrophobic conditions and affirmed that the installation at Claude Bernard stood as his favourite among the many museum retrospectives prestigiously afforded him (Richard Cork in: David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 214).

That the present work prominently includes the simulacra of Bacon’s own likeness introduces the powerful presencethrough-absence of the memory of Dyer that saturates many of the artist’s most impactful masterpieces of the 1970s, and this would have been extremely evident in the context of the 1977 Claude Bernard exhibition, where Dyer’s shadow was seemingly all-pervasive. The constancy and significance of Dyer's appearance in Bacon's oeuvre is rivalled only by the self-portraits, with which Bacon became increasingly preoccupied from 1971 onwards. Somewhat disingenuously, Bacon once 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." (the artist quoted in David Sylvester, Francis Bacon, London, 1975, p. 129). Anathema to Bacon's trivialising postulation, the suite of self-portraits executed during this period offer deeply mournful meditations on transience and death, and it is difficult to view a self-portrait after this time without being reminded of Dyer. In the present work, a masterpiece of Bacon’s intimate portrayals of the human animal, this enduring source of reflection resonates within the inky black circle, itself symbolic through its unending linear infinity.

Sotheby's. Contemporary Art Evening Auction. London | 12 févr. 2013 www.sothebys.com