“I’ve done a lot of self-portraits [recently], really because people have been dying around me like flies and I’ve had nobody else left to paint but myself” (F. Bacon, quoted by D. Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 2016, p. 150).
Considering his own mortality, Bacon painted Study for Self-Portrait when nearly seventy-years-old – the visible creases and wrinkles of age heightened by a strong raking light upon his left cheekbone, the right falling into darkness. The recognizable contour of his jawline, bright crimson, blue, and purple – as if battered and bruised – sweep across his face, a ghostly blue muting the definition in his eyes. This investigation of the self also comes as an investigation of the human condition, traumas and violence translated in form and palette.
Bacon’s use of strong light and shadow can be traced to his interest in photography – the work of Helmar Lerski, in particular, who photographed Bacon after spotting the young artist on the street in Berlin in the late 1920s. Closely-cropped, Lerski’s intimate photographs could have promoted Bacon’s fascination, the camera becoming central to his painting practice. This preference to paint his subjects from photographs than from life allowed him to more easily deconstruct features, distilling psychological tensions.
“Bacon’s portraits are the interrogation on the limits of the self. Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself? To what degree of distortion does a beloved still remain a beloved being? For how long does a cherished face growing remote through illness, through madness, through hatred, through death still become recognizable. Where lies the border beyond which a ‘self’ ceases to be a ‘self’” (M. Kundera, “The Painter’s Brutal Gesture,” in F. Borel, Bacon Portraits and Self-Portraits, 1996, London and New York, p. 12).