Francis Bacon and the portrait of George Dyer

Francis Bacon, Portrait of George Dyer with a mirror, 1968, Oil on canvas, 198×147 cm, Madrid, musée Thyssen-Bornemisza

Francis Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 to English parents. He had a difficult childhood due to poor health and, as a teenager, his father rejected him from the home when he discovered his homosexuality. After spending several months between Paris and Berlin, during which time he discovered Picasso and the Surrealists, he returned to London in 1928 and decided to pursue a career as a painter. Bacon never trained at an art school. He was self-taught and was always influenced by great painters such as Picasso, Velázquez and Rembrandt. After a very difficult start, his work was finally recognised in the 1950s and his first retrospective exhibition was held in 1955. A few years later, in 1963, he met George Dyer who became his lover and one of his favourite models, as our painting shows.

The painting shows George Dyer, in suit and tie, sitting cross-legged on a swivel chair. He is holding a cigarette and what appears to be a hand mirror. His face is turned towards a strange piece of furniture, which looks as much like a dressing table, a light box as a television set, in which his face is reflected, but slightly larger. The rest of the set is almost empty. The figure stands out against a bluish circle, probably carpet, and the background is a plain blue-grey, with only a semi-circular white line running through it.

The figure is placed in the centre of the canvas. The lower part of his body seems to be contained within the circle drawn by the carpet, while the face and its double seem to be wedged between two semi-circles.

The circle of light on which the figure stands out forms a kind of theatre set. George Dyer is at the centre of the stage, highlighted by a kind of spotlight halo. At the same time he is alone, isolated in the middle of an empty set. He is alone with himself, both exposed and lonely.

The face of the figure is not recognisable. It is deformed, distorted by the brushstrokes, which is characteristic of Bacon’s portraits, which were inspired by Picasso’s « split face » portraits. On the other hand, the reflection of the face in the mirror is treated in a rather naturalistic way and one can easily recognise Dyer’s slightly angular profile.

This same reflection in the mirror is cut in two. Is this the effect of a reflection on the glass caused by chance? Is it the same chance that causes the painter to project thick traces of white paint on the left side of the circle? This break is perhaps also a way of showing the dual nature of Dyer’s character: on the one hand, a small-time thief, violent, sadistic and alcoholic and, at the same time, depressive, docile and full of admiration for Bacon. This fracture reveals the complexity of the character, as it reveals the complexity of the relationship, tumultuous to say the least, between the painter and his model. It seems to me that this idea of rupture is echoed by a thin vertical white line that divides the figure’s body in two.

In this portrait, as in all his other portraits, Francis Bacon does not seek to give a realistic image of his models. In the deformations he makes them undergo, he seeks to penetrate their souls and their entrails. He wants to transcribe the most sordid, deepest aspects of human nature. He wants to bring out the animality hidden in the depths of his models. These deformed faces are also an image of impermanence for a painter who said that to paint a portrait was to paint death at work.

And death was to catch up with George Dyer three years later, on 24 October 1971. Two days before the Bacon retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, George committed suicide in their hotel room. Traumatised by this episode, Bacon dedicated a series of triptychs to him.

While waiting for the tragedy, Bacon plunges us, in the most beautiful way, into the deepest part of his lover’s personality. And you, what do you think about this?

Francis Bacon, In memory of George Dyer, 1971, Oil on canvas, each panel : 198×147 cm, Bâle, Fondation Beyeler

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