The Mirror and the Nude - Composing a Masterpiece
Widely regarded by historians and critics alike as one of the most important works in Francis Bacon's oeuvre, Study of Nude With Figure in a Mirror is exceptionally rare both as a full-length depiction of a female nude and because of the enigmatic two-figure narrative that it incorporates into a single panel, the usual reserve of his triptych formats. Requested for all the major exhibitions of his work since its creation in 1969 such as the 1971 Grand Palais retrospective in Paris and the 1985 Tate Gallery retrospective, it condenses into a singular image the entire scope of Bacon's vision. In his celebrated monograph, the renowned art historian John Russell concludes that with Study of Nude With Figure in a Mirror "We are left wondering if natural life - life as it is actually lived out, without packaging - has ever been portrayed more completely in painting" (John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 144).
Painted at the height of Francis Bacon's impassioned and tempestuous relationship with George Dyer - arguably the most determining emotional journey in the artist's life - the conception of Study of Nude With Figure in a Mirror is rooted in the middle of the 1967-73 period that is widely regarded as his strongest. The painting depicts one of his closest friends, Henrietta Moraes, reclining under the watchful gaze of a seated male companion who appears as a fleeting, reflected presence in a mirror in the right flank of the composition. Characteristic of Bacon's very best painting, this work confronts art historical institutions head-on, specifically the canonical tradition of the nude and the concept of reflection provided by the mirror. Just as he first exhibited the deafening scream of angst that is Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) during the ecstatic post-war euphoria in April 1945, here, at the height of the Sexual Revolution and the Feminist movement in 1969, Bacon produced this nude that remorselessly turns the mirror on an existential hunger for sheer carnality and unbridled desire.
Execution - A Painterly Triumph
The sheer intensity, detail and controlled violence of the nude's head in the centre of the composition is an immediate beacon for the mastery of paint handling which is on display here. Akin to the greatest small portrait heads he produced, the animalistic features of the sitter are carved out with an incredible mixture of sensuous delicacy and gargantuan brutality. With its exposed teeth, a motif borrowed by Bacon from a film-still of Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent film The Battleship Potemkin, the mouth is as good as one will see in a Bacon. Alternating between the stunning beauty of the curves which define the face and swept back brunette hair and the animalistic in its baboon like qualities, Bacon here masterfully depicts human appearance in all its various guises. This concentration is not restricted to the face, the conventional site for expression in portraiture. As Russell notes, "Bacon in the late 1960s aimed ... to make the whole body as expressive as is the face in traditional painting. Those well-armoured backs, those meaty and mountainous calves, those rumps up-ended in boisterous play - all contribute to the heroic image" (John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 139).
Bacon regarded the drama of paint as the true focus of his paintings and here the stretcher-bed structure on which the female nude reclines - itself based on Bacon's early furniture designs - is left as raw canvas, contrasting against a brightly coloured, shrill lilac-pink monochrome background. This draws the viewer's attention towards the main event: the figure's expressively-smeared impasto forms, applied in thick arcs as sweeping curves of flesh. Amidst the schematic interlocking shapes, contrast is wrought between the lifted peaks of paint, literally pulled away from the surface in the flank of her foreleg, and the diagrammatic exactitude of a circumscribed nipple. Bacon kept medical journals in his studio as references and stimuli, and here protruding peaks of impasto hint at the carnal physicality of the flesh, at times more bovine than human. As Peter Bürger explains, Bacon's painting process "derives its energy from the tension between even paint application and gestural brushstrokes, just as his entire working process is characterised by the contrast between calculation and spontaneity" (Peter Bürger in: Exhibition Catalogue, Düsseldorf, K20 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Francis Bacon. The Violence of the Real, 2006-07, p. 33). This nude figure epitomises that for Bacon, painting was not merely a channel for his fascination with the idea of depicting the human body in movement, but with actual movement itself; with the pulsations contained within the act of painting and the unforeseen chance effects attainable through the metamorphic malleability of paint. Furthermore the contrast between the segregated domains of the two figures is expressed through their different paint layers: the subtle semi-translucency of the blue mirror column and the streaked vertical linearity which almost dissolves the man's features is dramatically juxtaposed with the ribs and seams of the leathery paint membranes of the nude. His near invisibility and the masterful liquid treatment which Bacon has given him heightens the compositional tension. It is as if Bacon organises composition itself as much through the variance of paint as through premeditated draughtsmanship. "That is why painting is a mysterious and continuous struggle with chance," Bacon explained; "Mysterious because the very substance of the paint, when used in this way, can make such a direct assault on the nervous system; continuous because the medium is so fluid and subtle that every change that is made loses what is already there in the hope of making a fresh gain" (the artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate, Matthew Smith Retrospective, 1953).
Henrietta Moraes - An Intimate Portrayal
Throughout his mature career, Bacon voraciously looked to friends and acquaintances around him as subjects for his existential masterpieces. The roll call of participants in his 1960s Soho and West London entourage - Dyer, Lucian Freud, Isabelle Rawsthorne, Muriel Belcher to name but a few - time and again instigated both monumental and intimate portrayals. As Hugh Davies and Sally Yard have noted, "Bacon searched the surfaces of his friends for some intimation of their inner lives [and] concludes that mind, nervous system, and body are one" (Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York 1986, p. 50). The subject of Study of Nude With Figure in a Mirror is Henrietta Moraes, who was a very close friend of Bacon's and who led an extraordinarily colourful and multi-layered life that sustained his intense examination for a substantial body of portraits, from which this example is outstanding.
As David Sylvester has written, Bacon's "female bodies tend to be paradigmatically female: curvaceous and well fleshed...[his] lack of personal erotic interest in naked females did nothing to prevent these paintings from being as passionate as those of the male bodies that obsessed him" (David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 224). The artist's treatment of the female nude is always consummately expressive and this is particularly true of his portraits of Moraes. The images that came out of their relationship, climaxing during the artistically fertile late 1960s, are amongst the most psychologically powerful and emotionally vulnerable of Bacon's entire career. The present work relates to photographs of Moraes lying naked on her bed that he had commissioned from fellow Soho habitué and their mutual friend John Deakin in 1962.
Although Bacon usually insisted on working in absentia rather than 'from life', thus relying heavily on photographs of his friends, this was not the case with Moraes. She died at the beginning of 1998 and in his obituary for her Tim Hilton described that Bacon "needed Henrietta's naked presence in the studio, for reasons apparent to anyone who ever met her. Some models inspire painters by their looks, others by their personality. Henrietta was foul-mouthed, amoral, a thief, a violent drunkard and a drug addict. Yet she was witty, wonderfully warm and lovable. Her presence in any room immediately told you that life is more thrilling than we dull folk imagine" (Tim Hilton, 'Life on a broad canvas: Henrietta Moraes', The Guardian, 8th January, 1999). In the late 1950s Moraes had spent her time constantly drinking amidst a close coterie in Soho haunts like the Carlisle and the French Pub, while the 1960s saw her become increasingly infatuated with drugs after the failure of her marriage in 1961 to the young Indian writer Dom Moraes, her third husband. In the late 1960s she spent four years traveling from London to Wales via the new age shrines in the Celtic West Country; later in life she was sent to prison after a brief career as a cat burglar faltered.
She was also instrumental in the tragic narrative of John Minton, another of Bacon's friends, which undoubtedly appealed to Bacon's deep need for character analysis. Minton, a teacher at the Royal College of Art with a significant private income, fell in love with Henrietta Moraes, though his love was not reciprocated. According to Daniel Farson, Minton also met and fell in love with an unnamed young man, who in turn fell in love with Moraes in a romantic tryst. When the young man chose Moraes over Minton, the older teacher was devastated and in 1957 took his own life with a massive overdose. Farson recounts: "If [Minton] did so in the belief that there would be a reconciliation when the friend arrived in time to save him, it all went wrong. Such a waste. Minton had the last vengeful laugh: he left his splendid Chelsea home to Henrietta instead of to the young man who had chosen her" (Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London 1993, pp. 4-5). The unwitting trigger of an intensely tragic drama, the presence of Moraes makes Bacon's painting overwhelmingly loaded. Watched in the mirror by an indistinct presence that evokes both the 'male gaze' of the spectator and the artist himself, this nude defines the psychosomatic destructivity of carnal desire. Simultaneously a portrait of Moraes and a complex affirmation of existence, Moraes' outrageous dichotomy in spirit between a sexually-laden magnetism and an appetite for rogue danger is unerringly pinpointed by Bacon in this masterwork.
The Nude - Confronting Art History
Bacon spent a lifetime obsessed with the paragons of the History of Western Art. He studied these masterpieces intimately for decades and committed to his most instinctual memory the terms of their execution, pictorial conventions and vehicles of communication. One genre that held singular intrigue for Bacon was the Nude, which of course had been interrogated and expanded by successive masters since the Renaissance. Indeed, when he was invited by the National Gallery to curate one of The Artist's Eye exhibitions in 1985, Bacon chose to adorn the most important wall with three nudes: Velázquez's Rokeby Venus (1647-51); Degas's pastel After the Bath, Woman drying herself (c.1890-95); and Michelangelo's Entombment (c.1500-01). Rooted in the strict didacticism of academic training, the female nude in art history became the facilitator of a barely-concealed erotic voyeurism. Supposedly mitigated by the deity or mythology of the subject, or as an empirical assessment of anatomy, the sensuality of nudes became increasingly explicit from the investment of earthly personality in Titian's Venus of Urbino (1538) to the semi-pornographic exoticism of Ingres' The Turkish Bath (1862). One year after Ingres' work, Manet painted his infamous Olympia (1863) as a riposte to the prevailing conventions of idealised nudity. Here the shamelessly confrontational courtesan is shown with the minimal accoutrements of her trade as a professional selling her services, the work thus implicating the viewer as her client. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Picasso created the seminal Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) showing five concubines on display as if in a shop window. The visceral animalism of Picasso's women stemmed from his fascination with Tribal masks and his earliest developments in Cubism.
Study of Nude With Figure in a Mirror slots exactly into this grand development of the genre and is the direct descendent to these celebrated works of genius. This painting advances the themes of inverting convention and investigating the boundaries of eroticism as expounded by Titian, Velázquez and Ingres; the posture of the model and its sculptural quality reflect Bacon's understanding of Renaissance sculpture and the contrapposto that he savored in Michelangelo's Dying Slave (1513-16); but most of all it is the development of Manet and Picasso's ideas of the commodification of women and the implication of the viewer as voyeur that makes this painting so powerful. Moraes' face, with the low hairline, cavernous black eyes and twisted jaw, seem to reference directly the savage faces of Picasso's Demoiselles, a picture which announced Cubism, a movement so crucial to Bacon's treatment of the human form. Like Picasso's harlots, Moraes' visage appears like an African tribal mask. Even the colour scheme - pink and blue with lurid fleshtones interrupted by strongly contrasting passages of black and white - echoes the Cubist masterpiece. From Manet, Bacon takes the confrontation of the flesh, presented as the lived flesh of humanity, far from idealized it is sullied, the existential flesh of the Twentieth Century. Above all, Study of Nude With Figure in a Mirror continues the narrative ambiguity and openendedness of Manet, the composition both echoing the Olympia and his last masterpiece, The Bar at the Folies-Bergère.
In this painting Bacon scrutinises the nude, both as dramatic subject and art historical tradition, with predatory focus. Paradoxically, Moraes, the addict and sometime femme fatale, is portrayed as a type of lethal, wingless siren, perched upon a supporting structure that consequently seems closer to a cage than a bed or piece of furniture. Through her uniquely distorted, highly complex form, this figure references the singularity of psychological experience. Bacon's inimitable existential vision, this animalistic nude, though distinguishable as Henrietta Moraes, is ultimately other-worldly and unlike anything the viewer has ever seen. Thus she asserts the existential idea of the individuality of experience and makes it impossible that this painting belongs to pictorial convention. In this way Bacon first manipulates the full gamut of the Nude canon and then develops it into something that is perpetually relevant: Study of Nude With Figure in a Mirror transforms the convention of the Nude genre into a phenomenon that is epic, multivalent, and representative of human experience.
The Mirror - Resonating Reflection
Shortly before this painting's execution, Bacon had begun to explore new ways of increasing the narrative and expressive ambiguity of his paintings by using illusionistic devices which allowed him to present the unfolding human drama from several simultaneous yet independent perspectives. This was epitomised in his portraits of Dyer from this period, in which the mirror became like a detached and autonomous space in its own right; a picture within a picture which Giles Deleuze has succinctly summed up with: "Bacon's mirrors can be anything you like - except a reflecting surface" (Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Minneapolis 2003, p. 17).
From the time of Study of Nude With Figure in a Mirror onwards, the mirror occupies an increasingly important role in Bacon's work and provides a knowing tribute to the historically important role of mirrors in Western Art. Since the legend of Narcissus in Ovid's Metamorphoses, who it was prophesied would not live long after the moment he first saw himself in a pool of water, themes and metaphors of reflection, perception and illusion have been exhaustively quarried by writers and artists. As facilitators of dramatic irony in painting - to reveal a fact not known to the painting's subjects, or not otherwise known to the spectator - mirrors have long proved a seminal compositional tool. Their reflections have been enlisted to include the artist's self-portrait, such as in Van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage (1434) where self-promotion strengthened the artist's reputation via association with consequential patrons; as well as to challenge preconceptions regarding who is the subject and who is the spectator such as in Velázquez's Las Meninas (1656). Again Bacon uses the opportunity of Study of Nude With Figure in a Mirror to tackle these iconic masterpieces and offer his own contribution to this established corpus.
In the present work, the bright blue mirror performs a different yet equally dramatic and ambiguous role than it had previously in the portraits of Dyer. It gives the overall composition a heightened sense of spatial and perceptive ambiguity, while simultaneously introducing a narrative structure to the work. Rather than reflecting the central nude, this mirror captures this subsidiary bowler-hatted spectator; the viewer-like figure who exists outside of the conventional picture space. Anonymous and elusive, his facial identity is lost in vertical smears of paint, yet this presence waiting in the wings provides one of the first examples of a device that the artist frequently employed later in his monumental triptychs, where onlookers appear as Donor-like figures in separate side panels of these secular altar pieces. Like the protagonists in Bacon's subsequent works Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud (Sideways) (1971) and Self Portrait (1978), this eerie figure is propped up by a single-poled bar stool, and the possibility that this may have been the artist's own studio prop tantalisingly hints that this voyeur could be Bacon himself.
Although it is the male figure that would most obviously appear to be the ominous prowler, Davies and Yard have suggested that "The mirror is a stealthy, impartial intruder, and the voyeur is himself exposed to our unexpected observation. The watchful figures in "Sweeney Agonistes" and Nude with Figure in a Mirror would seem to come from the viewer's own space, reflected as they are in mirrors that search beyond the hermetic realms of the reclining and embracing nudes. As in Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-82), we too are implicated, side by side with the painter" (Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York 1986, p. 62). The comparison with Manet's illustrious canvas is indeed highly adroit, and upon close inspection the similarity between Bacon's shadowy male and Manet's reflected customer is uncanny and justly infers a direct quotation. This is more than possible as Bacon is known to have favoured visiting The Courtauld Gallery, then in Portman Square and home to this nineteenth-century painted masterwork. In Manet's painting, the predatory male figure is seen in reflection but not in person, raising the poignant question that it is in fact a reflection of the viewer, who is firmly located in front of the bar by the outward gaze of the bartender. In the Nineteenth Century, this necessarily implicated the male viewer in a licentious, voyeuristic activity that, in public at least, he would choose not to acknowledge. Bacon plays on this narrative potential with devastating aplomb in the present work. The reflected image is at once a surrogate for the artist himself and a manifestation of our own male-gendered scopophilic gaze. Furthermore, by choosing to always exhibit his works behind glass, Bacon takes Manet's metaphysical reflection into the realm of the physical as the viewer inevitably sees his own reflection in the glass, an aspect of the framing which Bacon deliberately sought to achieve.
Bacon's work takes the emotional and thematic landscapes of Manet's painting and translates it into a dialect relevant in the Twentieth Century. Bacon's animalistic nude assumes the hyper-tragic isolationism and physical entrapment of the bar-girl, but is also injected with an existential ferocity that means her relationship with the man - or the viewer - is both that of the hunted and the hunter. In sum, Bacon's painting is less a narrative about the individuals depicted, and more concerned with human experience and more global terms of existence. As John Russell first noted in 1971, in Study of Nude With Figure in a Mirror "the real subject is the fact of intrusion: the complicity between the two figures, the refusal of 'shame', the role-playing on both sides" (John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 144). Of course, with such an esteemed and multivalent magnum opus, even from within Bacon's own unmatched corpus, singular interpretation is undermined and impossible. What finally remains, as with Manet, is the openendedness of existence and the existential impossibility of understanding our lot, manifest in the plethora of profound psychosomatic reactions that the painting will continue to engender.
Bacon was instinctively drawn to the timeless characteristics of the human condition that had obsessed the venerated masters of Art History, and in the scale and scope of his achievements his status as twentieth-century inheritor to their pre-eminence can be matched only by Picasso. The complexity and audacity of the present work positions it as absolutely fundamental to Bacon's illustrious reputation.
Oil on canvas
Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais; Düsseldorf, Kunsthalle, Francis Bacon, 1971-72, p. 89, no. 88, illustrated in colour
Hannover, Kunstverein; Duisburg, Wilhelm-Lehmbruck Museum der Stadt Duisburg; Berlin, Haus am Waldsee, Spiegel Bilder, 1982, p. 95, illustrated in colour
London, Tate; Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie; Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Francis Bacon, 1985-86, no. 65, illustrated in colour
Oslo, Kunstnernes Hus; Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art; Venice, Museo d'Arte Moderna Ca' Pesaro; Düsseldorf, Kunstmuseum, A School of London: Six Figurative Painters, 1987-88, p. 48, no. 27, illustrated
Lugano, Museo d'Arte Moderna, Francis Bacon, 1993, p. 85, no. 39, illustrated in colour
New Haven, Yale Center for British Art; Minneapolis, Minneapolis Institute of Arts; San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum; Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum, Francis Bacon: A Retrospective, 1999, pp. 144-45, no. 47, illustrated in colour
Valencià, IVAM Institut d'Art Modern; Paris, Fondation Dina Vierny - Musée Maillol, Francis Bacon: Lo sagrado y lo profane, 2003-04, p. 96, illustrated in colour
198 by 147.5cm. 78 by 58in.
John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1971, p. 203, no. 100, illustrated in colour
David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, p. 106, no. 81, illustrated
Lorenza Trucchi, Francis Bacon, London 1976, no. 137, illustrated
John Russell, Francis Bacon, Norwich 1979, p. 142, no. 71, illustrated
Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon - Logique de la Sensation, Paris 1981, Vol. II, no. 21, illustrated
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon: Full Face and in Profile, New York 1983, no. 66, illustrated in colour
Lorenza Trucchi, Francis Bacon, Milan 1984, no. 137, illustrated
Dawn Ades and Andrew Forge, Francis Bacon, London 1985, no. 65, illustrated in colour
Wieland Schmied, Francis Bacon - Vier Studien zu einem Porträt, Berlin 1985, p. 83, no. 119, illustrated
Marius Van Beer, 'Francis Bacon - Een Weergaloze Schilder', in: Kunstbeeld, 1985, p. 6, illustrated
Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York 1986, p. 61, no. 65, illustrated in colour
Jörg Zimmermann, Francis Bacon - Kreuzigung, Frankfurt 1986, p. 45, illustrated
Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, London 1992, p. 66, no. 34, illustrated in colour
Private Collection, Paris
Private Collection, Belgium
Fondation Verannemann, Kruishoutem, Belgium
Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., London
Private Collection, Europe
Ivor Braka, Ltd., London
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner