Catalogue entry

Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake) 1955


Oil on canvas 610 x 508 (24 x 20)

Purchased from Lady Caroline Lowell through the Mayor Gallery, London (Grant in Aid) 1979

Purchased from the artist through the Hanover Gallery, London by Lady Caroline Citkowitz (later Lady Caroline Lowell) 1955

Bacon, Scott, Sutherland, Hanover Gallery, London June-July 1955 (4, as ‘Study for Portrait’)
Francis Bacon, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1962 (44), Kunsthalle, Mannheim, July-Aug. (35), Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna, Turin, Sept.-Oct. (39, repr.), Kunsthaus, Zurich, Oct.-Nov. (33), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Jan.-Feb. 1963 (29)
Francis Bacon, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Oct. 1963-Jan. 1964, Art Institute of Chicago, Jan.-Feb. 1964 (31, repr. p.51)
Francis Bacon, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, Oct. 1971-Jan. 1972, Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf, March-May (22, repr. p.106)
La Délirante: Revue de poésie, Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’Art Moderne, Paris, Sept. 1982-Jan. 1983 (50, repr. p.11)
Francis Bacon: Paintings 1945-1982, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, June-Aug. 1983, National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Sept.-Oct., Aichi Prefectural Art Gallery, Nagoya, Nov. (11, repr. in col. p.39)
Francis Bacon, Tate Gallery, London, May-Aug. 1985, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Oct. 1985-Jan. 1986, Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Feb.-Mar. 1986 (27, repr. in col.)
Francis Bacon, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., Oct. 1989-Jan. 1990, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Feb.-April, Museum of Modern Art, New York, May-August (18, repr. in col.)
À visage découvert’, Fondation Cartier, Jouy-en-Josas, June-Oct. 1992 (no catalogue found)
Francis Bacon: Figurabile, Museo Correr, Venice, June-Oct. 1993 (12, repr. in col. p.42)
Menschenbilder Figur in Zeiten der Abstraktion, Kunsthalle, Mannheim, Oct. 1998 - Jan. 1999 (no number, repr, in col. p.162)

Alan Clutton-Brock, ‘Round the London Galleries’, Listener, vol.54, no.1375, 7 July 1955, p.30
Robert Melville, ‘Exhibitions’, Architectural Review, vol.118, no.705, Sept. 1955, p.189, repr.
Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, p.92, repr. p.93, no.93 (col.)
Alexander Duckers, Francis Bacon: “Painting 1946”, Stuttgart 1971, p.16, repr. between pp.16 and 17, pl.5
Tate Gallery Report 1978-80, London 1980, p.39, repr. (col.)
Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: logique de la sensation, Paris 1981, p.21, pl.48
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1978-80, London 1981, pp.58-9
John W. Nixon, ‘Francis Bacon: Paintings 1959-1979; Opposites and Structural Rationalism’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Ulster, Belfast 1986, p.570 (no.93)
Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, London 1992, pp.104-6, repr. p.105, pl.57
Andrew Sinclair, Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times, London 1993, p.131
Philippe Dagen, Francis Bacon, Paris 1996, p.96, repr. p.23, pl.12 (col.)
Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p.164
Inge Herold, ‘Das Bild des Menschen’, in Menschenbilder Figur in Zeiten der Abstraktion, exh. cat., Kunsthalle, Mannheim 1998, p.140

John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1964, [p.20]
Lorenza Trucchi, Francis Bacon, Milan 1975, trans. John Shepley, London and New York 1976, pl.44 (in col.)
Marius Van Beek, ‘Dat Weergaloze Rood Van Francis Bacon’, Kunst Beeld, yr 9, no.9, July-Aug. 1985, p.6
Ronald Paulson, Figure and Abstraction in Contemporary Painting, New Brunswick and London 1990, p.198
Paul Bailey, ‘Imaginable Furies’, Modern Painters, vol.6, no.3, summer/autumn 1993, p.21

In 1955-6, Bacon made a series of five works, all showing a head set against a dark background, of which Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake) is the second. Close inspection reveals a studied accumulation of layers which belies the apparently simple technique. A coat of black was first laid over the canvas of Study for Portrait II before the form of the head was worked out in purples, greens, blues and pinks overlaid with white. The colours are strongest where they coincide with the shadowy drawing of form, and the whole effect establishes an equivalent in paint of the layering of the flesh on the bone structure. The forms - such as the broad mouth and the line of the closed eyelids - were made with small gestural marks, but the final working of the head involved a dragging of paint, especially down from the nose and the neck. The black background was re-painted as a final stage, with the lower part moving towards green and the upper part towards a purplish-blue. The off-centre position of the head, which sets it apart from the rest of the series, was balanced compositionally by the introduction of a barely perceptible ‘space-frame’.

Many of the qualities apparent in the composition and technique of the series to which Study for Portrait II belongs were characteristic of Bacon’s contemporary portraits. He had made a personal theme of the head whose features disintegrate in a veil of paint and, by the time of such works as Study for a Head, 1952 (private collection),[1] these acquired the focal scream and defining perspectival frame which became Bacon’s most publicly recognised devices. Physical isolation was interpreted as indicative of existential estrangement, and a psychological tension was readily perceived in such images as the sequence of laughing, screaming and despairing men in suits in the triptych Three Studies of the Human Head, 1953 (private collection).[2] It may be significant that in that year Bacon contributed an unidentifiable work (listed as Laughing Man) to a collective exhibition, the title of which - Wonder & Horror of the Human Head[3] - was explained by Herbert Read in terms of the simultaneous dominance and vulnerability of the head.[4] Bacon appeared to fix upon this dichotomy in his heads, to which the works derived from the mask of William Blake brought the added mystery of closed eyes.

Bacon was of the generation of British artists who witnessed the inter-war reassessment of the work of William Blake. There was a spate of publications, by such scholars as Geoffrey Keynes, and an influx of work into public collections including the British Museum and the Tate Gallery (especially through the bequest of W. Graham Robertson in 1939 and 1949); in 1951, an exhibition of The Tempera Paintings of William Blake was held by the Arts Council.[5] In the pre-war and wartime years Bacon’s contemporaries, such as Read and Graham Sutherland, saw Blake as the exemplar of a visionary tradition in British art, but Bacon himself was later reported to have ‘a great admiration for Blake’s poetry, [while] he dislikes his paintings’.[6] It was through outside encouragement that he settled on the artist’s head as a subject. Significantly, he first showed two (or possibly three) of the series simply as Study for a Portrait, but the source was immediately identified by critics[7] and subsequently became part of the familiar title.

The impetus for making the works has been recounted by Ronald Alley.[8] His assessment appeared after the painting had been loaned to the Tate Gallery during 1957-9[9] and was republished, with minor variations, when the work was acquired by the Gallery;[10] it has subsequently been closely paraphrased by others (without acknowledgement).[11] Alley stated that the theme ‘was suggested to Bacon by a young composer, Gerard Schurmann, who had set some of Blake’s poems to music and who asked him to design a cover for his song cycle. He took Bacon to the National Portrait Gallery to see the plaster cast made after J.S. Deville’s famous life mask of William Blake of 1823’.[12] Schurmann’s reproduction was abandoned, but Bacon paintings were made with the benefit of return visits to the Gallery and ‘several photographs ... (showing it isolated against a dark background)’.[13] It should be added that an undated photograph shows that Bacon also had a cast of the mask in his living room.[14] That the plaster was taken from life (when Blake was sixty-six) distinguishes it from comparable death-masks of the famous both in it function as memorial and in the sense of vitality. Significantly for Bacon’s interests, the life-cast served a role in fixing appearance which was to be occupied by photography.

The intervening stage between Bacon’s experience and the source itself was typical of his technique of using photography to bring ‘other implications’[15] to his subject. It also allowed him to work away from his usual London studio. According to Alley,[16] the first three[17] of the five surviving works (including the Tate’s version) were painted in January 1955 in the Imperial Hotel at Henley-on-Thames; Bacon had been drawn to Henley because of his violent affair with Peter Lacey who lived nearby. Without altering the allotted order, Alley noted that Schurmann believed the Tate’s canvas to be the first of the group.[18] The fourth painting[19] was ‘probably executed a few weeks later’.[20] The first three were included as part of Bacon’s contribution to a three man show (with William Scott and Graham Sutherland) at the Hanover Gallery that summer.[21] The smaller fifth painting was made in the following year;[22] two others were destroyed by the painter.

Although varying in the looseness with which the paint is applied, the series uniformly set the pale head against a dark background. All but the fourth concentrate upon the left side of the mask, a view presumably dictated by the photographs. One critic would remark on the accuracy of the rendition: ‘The mask itself presents a powerful image to which Mr Bacon’s not very considerable alterations and distortions do not add very much’.[23] However, direct comparison with the Life Mask[24] shows how Bacon consistently elongated the face, with the effect of enlarging the (closed) eyes at the expense of the dome of the head, and emphasised the underlying bone structure; the neck was also suggested where it hardly exists in the plaster. The morbidly skull-like result may be compared to the searching masses of Alberto Giacometti’s sculpted heads of the same period.

In his enthusiastic reception of the first three of Bacon’s series, Robert Melville used dramatic language in identifying ‘a self-sufficient painterly substance’ in which ‘broad strokes of pink and mauve, with which he establishes an equivocation between waxen mask and human flesh, drag pain and loneliness and imperturbable spirit in their wake’.[25] Subsequent commentators have interpreted the disembodied mask in relation to qualities perceived in Blake. In a speculative addition to his original assessment, Ronald Alley wrote of the ‘ectoplasmic quality of an apparition’, noting: ‘The expression, with the closed eyes, suggests a tremendous inward concentration and imaginative power: a true spiritual portrait, one feels of this great visionary poet and painter.’[26] More recently, a critic has described the series as a record of ‘human complexity’ and a celebration of ‘the physiognomy of the visionary poet’.[27] Given the circumstances, it may be debatable whether Bacon was concerned with such a ‘visionary’ reputation or whether he was drawn to the peculiarities of the isolation of a moment in an individual’s existence as enacted in his contemporary portraits.

In preference to the literal and literary interpretations, a number of commentators have located the series within Bacon’s current concerns. David Boxer has related the closed eyes to the recurrence of blind or blindfolded figures in Bacon’s oeuvre.[28] More complex psychological and phenomenological readings have been posited. While still relying upon the identification of Blake’s head as the source, Ernst van Alphen explored the notion that the paintings do not ‘represent the life mask as an index of life, but as an icon of death’ even as they contain details ‘that a death mask lacks’. [29] Thus, he added: ‘All these attributes seem to make it signify as a non-death-mask. The index of death is no longer the imprint of the face in the wax of the mask, based on spatial contiguity. Instead the index is now temporal; after death, there is life again ... The imprint of life is indistinct from the ghost of death.’[30] In van Alphen’s assessment this paradox is bound up with Bacon’s rejection of representation and narrative: ‘If there is life in representation, it is not in the represented object but in the act of representation.’[31]

For his part, Gilles Deleuze reflected on the skull-like head of Blake in his discussion of ‘meat and the spirit’. He asked rhetorically: ‘can one really say exactly the same thing about both meat and the head, namely that this is the zone of objective indecision in man and animal? ... According to Bacon, there is no death’s head. The head is boneless, not bony. Yet it is firm and not at all soft.’[32] Citing Bacon’s comments upon the similarities between the Crucifixion and butchered carcasses, Deleuze perceived an increasing convergence between head and meat, especially in the locus of the scream which is ‘the whole body’s response to the immense pity that meat provokes.’[33] This scream was the hallmark of Bacon’s contemporary works; in the Blake heads it is replaced by a suppressed grimace. This seems to distinguish the morbid life mask of the dead painter-poet from the apparent anxieties of his own contemporaries.

Matthew Gale
February 1999

[1] Repr. Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, [p.176] no.43
[2] Repr. ibid. [pp.188-9], no.74
[3] Wonder & Horror of the Human Head: An Anthology, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, March-April 1953
[4] Herbert Read, ‘Preface’ in Wonder & Horror of the Human Head: An Anthology, exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, London 1953, [p.1]
[5] Arts Council Gallery, June-July 1951
[6] Alley 1964, p.92
[7] E.g. Alan Clutton-Brock, ‘Round the London Galleries’, Listener, vol.54, no.1375, 7 July 1955, p.30, and Robert Melville, ‘Exhibitions’, Architectural Review, vol.118, no.705, Sept. 1955, p.189
[8] Alley 1964, p.92
[9] Oct. 1957-Jan. 1959
[10] Tate Gallery Report 1978-80, London 1980, p.39, and Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1978-80, London 1981, pp.58-9
[11] Andrew Sinclair, Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times, London 1993, p.131, Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p.164, and A[nna] H[iddleston] in Francis Bacon, exh. cat. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.123
[12] Alley 1964, p.92
[13] Ibid.
[14] Christophe Domino, Francis Bacon: ‘Taking Reality by Surprise’, Paris 1996, trans. Ruth Sherman, London 1997, p.78
[15] Francis Bacon in David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, revised as The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1980, 3rd ed. 1990, 4th ed. as Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1993, p.38
[16] Alley 1964, p.92
[17] Study for Portrait I (after the Life Mask of William Blake), 1955, private collection, and Study for Portrait III (after the Life Mask of William Blake), 1955, Gilbert de Botton, Family Trust, repr. ibid., [pp.196,197], nos.92,94
[18] Alley 1964, Appendix C, p.271
[19] Study for Portrait IV (after the Life Mask of William Blake), 1955, private collection, repr. ibid., [p.201], no.102
[20] Ibid., p.92
[21] Bacon, Scott, Sutherland, Hanover Gallery, London, June-July 1955 (4, as ‘Study for Portrait’)
[22] Study for Portrait V (after the Life Mask of William Blake), 1956, private collection, repr. Alley 1964, [p.208], no.117
[23] Clutton-Brock 1955, p.30
[24] Repr. Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1963, p.23
[25] Melville 1955, p.189
[26] Tate Gallery Report 1978-80, London 1980, p.39
[27] Paul Bailey, ‘Imaginable Furies’, Modern Painters, vol.6, no.3, summer/autumn 1993, p.21
[28] David W. Boxer, ‘The Early Work of Francis Bacon’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 1975, p.54
[29] Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, London 1992, pp.105-6
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid., p.113
[32] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: logique de la sensation, Paris, 1981, p.21, extracted and translated in Gilles Deleuze, ‘Interpretations of the Body: A New Power of Laughter for the Living’, Art International, no.8, Autumn 1989, p.36
[33] Ibid., p.38