Francis Bacon - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 3, 2022 | Phillips

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  • 'I am always surprised when people speak of violence in my work. I don’t find it at all violent myself. […] There is an element of realism in my pictures which might perhaps give the impression, but life is violent; so much more violent than anything I can do!' —Francis Bacon

    Executed in 1948, Head is a visually striking example of one of British artist Francis Bacon’s earliest and most important bodies of work, the Heads that he intensively devoted himself to between 1948 and 1949. One of his earliest single-figure portrait studies, Head clearly signposts major compositional motifs and themes that would preoccupy the artist in subsequent years; establishing the foundations of his unmistakable visual vocabulary these pivotal works also testify to Bacon’s unflinching treatment of the human condition, even at this early stage. Painted in anticipation of his first major solo exhibition at London’s Hannover Gallery where six of these extraordinarily concentrated works announced Bacon as a forceful presence of the British avant-garde, Head documents the rapid evolution of the artist’s work during this short period, bridging the raw, animalistic power of Head I with the bold theatricality of the thickly textured vertical veils of grey paint that would come to be such an iconic feature of his early painting and exemplifying Bacon’s desire ‘to paint like Velázquez but with the texture of hippopotamus skin’.i

    Testament to the foundational importance of these early, single-figure portrait studies on Bacon’s subsequent production, Head I, Head II, and Head VI all belong to major public collections, and three paintings from this core series of six are currently on view as part of the critically acclaimed retrospective Francis Bacon: Man and Beast at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. Presented together in this way we get a powerful sense of the pivotal importance of 1948 and 49 in defining Bacon’s practice as the figure clearly emerges as the central focus of his work. Bringing examples of these early Heads together too underscores their direct relationship to the artist’s iconic series of Screaming Popes, made explicit with the inclusion of Head VI, the last of the 1949 series and the first of Bacon’s paintings to directly reference Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece Portrait of Innocent X


    Diego Velásquez, Pope Innocent X, c. 1650, Galleria Doria Pamphilj. Image: akg-images

    Heads: A Background 

    'Everything is arranged around the exaltation of the figure rather than in the tight display of a theatrical moment [..] They vibrate. They are often draped in a muted incandescence. They are the gesture of vertigo and the stability of a scream.'Bacon first embarked on his series of Heads after his breakthrough 1946 work Painting, an early and particularly arresting iteration of the crucifixion motif that would also take such precedence in the artist’s oeuvre. Like that larger-scale work, Head also incorporates the circular framing device and the beginnings of the cage motif, the ‘delicate geometric structure that encloses the central part of the scene’ that he would employ with increasing confidence as the Heads progressed.ii


    The 1946 Painting proved to be the springboard for this body of Heads on a practical as well as technical level. After being invited to Bacon’s studio by fellow artist and friend Graham Sutherland in 1948, Erica Brausen - owner of the Hanover Gallery - immediately purchased the work and offered Bacon his first solo exhibition that would be held the following year. As well as establishing his status as a major artist of the British avant-garde at home, Brausen was also highly instrumental in launching Bacon on an international stage, swiftly gifting Painting to Alfred Baar at The Museum of Modern Art in New York where it was immediately celebrated in an exhibition of recent acquisitions in 1948.  

    'I think art is an obsession with life and after all, as we are human beings our greatest obsession is with ourselves.'Although some of these works were started in Monaco, the Heads were primarily executed in Bacon’s legendary Cromwell Place Studio, with its consistent northern light and proximity to the Natural History and Science Museums, as well as the extensive Victoria and Albert collection, as detailed by Michael Peppiatt. When Bacon vacated the premises in 1951, he left several works in the care of Robert Buhler, to whom he sold the lease, Head being one of only two works to remain in the family’s collection until 2008. As was not uncommon in this period of post-war scarcity, Head is painted on a wood fibreboard known as Sundeala board, which Roy de Maistre and Graham Sutherland had also been using for reasons of economy during this period.iii Interestingly, as detailed in the catalogue raisonné, the fibreboard support in fact bears evidence of a previous work by di Maistre beneath Bacon’s composition.

    Heads, Faces, and Screams

    As Bacon discovered in his employment of the crucifixion motif in Painting, the close focus on the structure of the head – and the scream that so often contorted it under the artist’s hand - provided ‘a magnificent armature on which you can hang all types of feelings and sensation’ that is used to particularly powerful effect in the present work.iv For Bacon, the head connected his major themes: the thin line between animal and man, and a profound ability to capture the brutal horror of existence. 


    Left: Francis Bacon, 1967. Image: © The Lewinski Archive at Chatsworth. All Rights Reserved 2022 / Bridgeman Images
    Right: Still from Battleship of Potemkin. Image: Album / Alamy Stock Photo 

    Alongside reproductions of Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X, Bacon obsessively collected other images focused on heads and faces, notably reproductions of the frenzied oratory conducted at Nazi rallies, and medical texts, a favourite being one focused on diseases of the mouth that he chanced upon in Paris, and that fuelled a life-long fascination with medical imagery and research. Torn, crumpled, and splattered with paint, Bacon also kept a still from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 cinematic masterpiece Battleship Potemkin in his studio. Pioneering in his use of montage, rapid cuts, and claustrophobic close-ups, Eisenstein understood the power of the face to convey intense and extreme emotion in an age of silent film, a fact remarked upon by Bacon himself who cited the ’tremendous force’ of the image in this era.v


    Capturing the distinct balance of violence and vulnerability conveyed by Eisenstein, Head appears suspended in a moment of distorting transformation, like a face contorted into a scream. As a formal exercise it is a marvellous illustration of Bacon’s observation that ‘Painting in this sense tends towards a complete interlocking of image and paint, so that the image is the paint and vice versa.’vi

    In its layers of chalky whites and fleshy pinks shot through with greens, yellows, and vibrant flashes of red, Head is one of the more chromatically vibrant and tonally complex paintings from this body of work, which tend to resolve in an all-over grisaille. Similarly, there is a remarkable freedom to the brushwork, especially pronounced by the juxtaposition of the explosive handling of paint in the head to the broader vertical treatment of the veiled background. Often read as the embodiment of post-war angst, Bacon’s brutal treatment of the structure of the head here testifies to his uncanny ability to transform paint into the substance of the object depicted; taking on the materiality of flesh and bone, he endows the work with incredible weight and presence. Powerfully expressive, Head conforms to what Yves Peyré has described as ‘this play between the central figure in the full crisis of presence and the background, which receives the tribute of being such a mystery in action. Something violent explodes in the midst of calm.’vii


    Clip from ‘Francis Bacon Fragments of a Portrait’, Interview by David Sylvester. Originally broadcast on BBC1, 18 September 1966.


    Collector’s Digest

    •    One of the great masters of 20th century, Francis Bacon’s work continues to fascinate, and has inspired a range of biographies, artist’s monographs, feature films, and philosophical readings over the years. Examples of his works reside in major institutions all over the world, including the Tate London, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Museé National d’Art Moderne – Centre Pompidou, and the Stedelijk Museum, amongst others. Carefully reassembling the contents of his studio, The Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin is now home to an enormous collection of ephemera and material that Bacon worked directly from as part of his practice over the years.  

    •    Currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, Bacon has been honoured with exhibitions all over the world, including Francis Bacon and the Art of the Past at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the 2012 Francis Bacon: Five Decades at Art Gallery NSW, and the 2008 Francis Bacon hosted by the Tate Britain in London.


    •    Bacon's work belongs in the worlds most prestigious public collections including The Tate, in London, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Musée d'Art Moderne - Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, amongst others.


    i Francis Bacon, quoted in John Russell, Francis Bacon, London, 1993, p. 35. 
    ii Yves Peyré, Francis Bacon or the Measure of Excess, Paris, 2019, p. 22.  
    iii Michael Peppiatt, p. 106. 
    iv Francis Bacon, quoted in David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 2012, p. 44. 
    v Archimbaud, 1993, p.16; Martin Harrison, In Camera Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London: Thames & Hudson, 2005, p.26
    vi Francis Bacon, 'Francis Bacon: Matthew Smith - A Painter's Tribute', Matthew Smith: Paintings from 1909 to 1952, exhibition catalogue, (London: Tate Gallery, 1953), p. 12.
    vii Yves Peyré, Francis Bacon or the Measure of Excess, Paris, 2019, p. 22.  

    • Provenance

      Robert Buhler, London (acquired directly from the artist's studio circa 1951)
      Private Collection (by descent from the above)
      Sotheby's, London, 28 February 2008, lot 153
      Private Collection (acquired at the above sale)
      Sotheby's, London, 30 June 2011, lot 192
      Acquired at the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      Martin Hammer, Bacon and Sutherland: patterns of affinity in British culture of the 1940s, New Haven, 2005, pp. 127, 223
      Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon. Anatomy of an Enigma, London, 2008, pp. 106, 122, 134, 143-144, 147, 153, 155, 160
      Francis Bacon: Five Decades, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2012, fig. 18, p. 36 (illustrated; dated circa 1949)
      Martin Harrison, Francis Bacon. Catalogue raisonné vol. I, London, 2016, pp. 19, 68
      Martin Harrison, Francis Bacon. Catalogue raisonné vol. II, London, 2016, no. 48-03, p. 184, 186 (illustrated, p. 185)
      Martin Harrison, Francis Bacon. Catalogue raisonné vol. V, London, 2016, pp. 1526

    • Artist Biography

      Francis Bacon

      Irish-British • 1909 - 1992

      Francis Bacon was a larger-than-life figure during his lifetime and remains one now more than ever. Famous for keeping a messy studio, and even more so for his controversial, celebrated depictions of papal subjects and bullfights, often told in triptychs, Bacon signified the blinding dawn of the Modern era. His signature blurred portraits weren't murky enough to stave off his reputation as highly contentious—his paintings were provocations against social order in the people's eye. But, Bacon often said, "You can't be more horrific than life itself."
      In conversation with yet challenging the conventions of Modern art, Bacon was known for his triptychs brutalizing formalist truths, particularly Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which Bacon debuted in London in 1944, and Three Studies of Lucian Freud, which became famous when it set the record for most expensive work of art at auction at the time it sold in 2013.

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Untitled (Head)

oil on fibreboard
65.5 x 55.5 cm (25 3/4 x 21 7/8 in.)
Painted circa 1948.

Full Cataloguing

£600,000 - 800,000 ‡♠

Sold for £772,700

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+ 44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 3 March 2022