Tuesday, July 3, 2012

I am not sure what I experience when I look at Bacon’s self-portraits. On the one hand, I think I am initially repelled, yet on the other I also drawn and enthralled. If art succeeds by compelling and holding one’s gaze, then perhaps Bacon’s self-images have succeeded, experientially at least, in my case.

Some weeks ago I spoke about Munch’s The Scream, and the record sale of one of the four original versions at Sotheby’s New York. Two of Bacon’s works, both named Study for a Self-Portrait, but created 16 years apart, 1964 and 1980, have just been sold at auction.

The later canvas, 1980 work, sold at Sotheby’s for approximately 4.5 million pounds, having had an estimated label of 5 to 7 million pre-sale, the underwhelming final price perhaps reflecting a more cautious art buying scene just now. However, the earlier self-portrait from 1964 sold for the impressive sum of approximately 21.5 million pounds at Christie’s on June 27. The sale was no doubt boosted by the recent discovery that the work was in fact not just a self-portrait, but a moulding of the face of Bacon and his (at that point) friend Lucien Freud’s limbs and body.

Bacon obsessively created self-portraits throughout his career, often with a savagery that was disturbing, arriving at a ‘reality’ that at first appears wildly removed from what we see (or want to see). Yet, perhaps the vicious stripping away, the unmasking, the re-creating that his portraits (and not only the self-portraits, take for example, Study for the Head of George Dyer (1966)), portray are more real than what we want to believe and to acknowledge.

The screaming mouth is a recurring motif in Bacon’s work, from Head VI (1948) to Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of  Pope Innocent X (1953). Inspired, at least partly, by Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, which Bacon first saw in 1935, these feel like raw, unadulterated expressions of suffering, but whose distress is being expressed is unclear, and ambiguous.

I remain fascinated by Bacon, in an unknowing and ignorant way. He produced work that eludes me, but mostly speaks of an unfathomable distress, which may just in the end be mine.