LONDON - Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 29 June in London will present a selection of works of major significance, including Francis Bacon's stunning Crouching Nude of 1961.
In 1959 the appearance of the first female nudes painted by Francis Bacon must have struck the contemporary art audience as a startling iconographical switch. Between 1959 and 1962 he made twelve further paintings on this theme, among which Crouching Nude, 1961, is one of the most remarkable. Formally, it is the most resolved of this group in terms of the figure/ground relationship, as well as the most sculptural in the plasticity of the figure. The illusion of depth is accentuated by the simplified geometry of the perspectival setting, a confined space with a sloping dais base painted in several shades of the iridescent green that Bacon had essayed as a dominant colour for the grounds of his paintings in St Ives at the end of 1959.1
Yet it is the woman's ambiguous pose and the enigmatic expression simultaneously salacious, predatory, snarling and anguished that most forcefully engage our attention. While several of the related nudes considered in this essay are seated or lying, Crouching Nude, 1961, is in many ways the most reposeful of them: indeed its title is only marginally applicable in this instance. In this respect it is more redolent of an Ingres odalisque, albeit a radically reformulated one, and although Ingres may not have been uppermost in Bacon's thinking, his admiration for his paintings is amply documented. Almost certainly in Bacon's mind was the nude woman (or youth?) leaning against a wine keg in Michelangelo's dramatic fresco of The Deluge in the Sistine Chapel, 1509. Did Bacon transpose this detail into Henrietta Moraes leaning against the bar of the Colony Room in Crouching Nude, 1961, secularizing the wine keg? Irrespective of the modern (photographic) imagery that Bacon absorbed, Michelangelo was almost invariably a potent stimulus for his paintings of nudes. Furthermore, Michelangelo's protagonists in the Sistine Chapel scene, cowering on the rocks from the flood, lend credence to the 'crouching' of Bacon's title, and the heads of the figures in both artists' paintings are slightly over-scaled.
Prior to 1959 most of Bacon's figures had been relatively static in their poses, if not in the movement of the paint for example the enthroned Popes and seated businessmen. The explosion of mobile, twisted anatomies in attitudes of crouching, stretching, lying, bending, crawling and falling, represented a quantum shift in his visual index of the human figure. A trigger for this change may have been the violent depictions of the painter on the road to Tarascon in his Van Gogh paintings of 1957, but it was the animation of Rodin's sculptures that seems to have provided the main motivation for the transition. In December 1958 Bacon wrote on the flyleaf of one of the two copies he owned of V.J. Stank's Introducing Monkeys (c. 1957): 'Figure as Rodin figure on sofa in centre of room with arms raised', and 'use figure volante of Rodin on sofa arms raised'.2 Bacon's familiarity with Rodin's sculpture can be demonstrated in many contexts, but it should be remembered that Sir Cecil Harcourt-Smith, who as director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1914 oversaw (albeit with reservations) the acceptance of Rodin's gift of fourteen sculptures to the Museum, was Bacon's uncle. Rodinesque forms are conspicuous in many of the 'works on paper' that Bacon made in this period, particularly in the two collections of preparatory sketches (now in the collection of Tate Britain) that the artist presented to his friends Paul Danquah, Peter Pollock and Stephen Spender around the time of his removal from Battersea in 1961.
Crouching Nude, 1961, and Seated Figure, 1960, were the first of Bacon's paintings in which strangely etiolated limbs become attenuated and exaggerated to even greater extremes. In their serpentine bending and twisting their substance seems to be liquid or rubbery deliquescent rather than flesh and bone. The figure's right arm in Crouching Nude, 1961, is an anatomically improbable appendage, while the swollen, dangling or schematized breasts in Bacon's female nudes was a phenomenon described by Didier Anzieu as signifying an infant's 'clinging or attachment drive' rather than its libido.3
Bacon's admiration for Soutine in the 1950s has often been referred to, and although he denied it later he conveyed his enthusiasm to James Thrall Soby in 1959.4 The thick, bold impasto, vertiginous perspectives and staccato rhythms of Soutine's Ceret landscapes, in particular, clearly informed Bacon's landscapes immediately prior to, and including, the 'Van Gogh' paintings of 195657. Soutine's portraits evidently fascinated Bacon, too, both for the energy and immediacy of their technique and the deformation of his subjects' anatomies and facial features.
Among the visual material found in Bacon's studio after his death, only one item relating to Soutine survived, Monroe Wheeler's catalogue of the Soutine exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 195051: the paucity of Soutine documents was no doubt a legacy of Bacon's peripatetic lifestyle between 1951 and 1961. But it is readily apparent from the extensive markings from splashed paint found in this single extant volume that several of the illustrations in it were consulted by Bacon, in his studio. Specifically, in relation to Crouching Nude, 1961, the black and white plates in Wheeler's catalogue of Soutine's Woman in Pink, c. 1924 and Woman in Red, c. 192324, are directly comparable with the sinuously distorted limbs in Bacon's painting. Moreover, the spillage of pigment on these pages is consistent with several of the colours in the palette of Crouching Nude, 1961.
The other ostensible pictorial source for the crouching nude is a series of photographs taken for Bacon by John Deakin. In fact the relevance of Deakin's photographs to Crouching Nude, 1961 raises a question that is not, as yet, resolved. Hitherto it has been generally accepted that Bacon first commissioned Deakin to take photographs of the friends he wished to paint in 1962 or 1963, but in the case of two separate sessions in which Deakin photographed a naked Henrietta Moraes this dating is open to question. There would appear to be three possible explanations. One, that Deakin took these photographs as early as 1959, which would mean that the images of Moraes upside-down are directly related to the lying figures that Bacon painted in that year, and that the photographs of Moraes on her bed informed Crouching Nude, 1961. This is not implausible, since Deakin kept no account books and Moraes's recollections of the sittings for Deakin were not entirely reliable few of the events such as this which she recalled in her autobiography were dated.
Secondly, the female nudes that Bacon painted between 1959 and 1962 may have been made quite independently of Deakin's photographs. If this is so, the existence of the Tate works on paper may be significant they could have performed the function of rough compositional draughts, and thus obviated the necessity to employ photographs. By 1963, when Bacon embarked on the small portraits of his friends and also identified specific individuals in his large 'subject' paintings, the photographs by Deakin enabled him to extract key aspects of their physiognomies that would act as ciphers in his distorted depictions of them, leaving their specific identities in no doubt. It is possible, therefore, that Crouching Nude, 1961, represents to some extent Henrietta Moraes, but that Bacon had not yet established his repertory of distinguishing features for her, and that this had to await the photographs taken by Deakin after 1962.
A third possibility is perhaps the most compelling. Among the 'Tate sketches' are images that parallel most of Bacon's paintings of male and female nudes from the period under review: for example there are sketches that closely correspond to Lying Figure, 1959, Sleeping Figure, 1959, and Seated Woman, 1961. Yet there is nothing that resembles Crouching Nude, 1961. This may be because there were sketches that have not survived, but equally it is feasible that Bacon engaged John Deakin to photograph Henrietta Moraes (in poses that approximated Michelangelo's Deluge figure), rendering a sketch superfluous. While Bacon's intention may not have been to include a portrait of Moraes as such, and the evidence in the present painting is not conclusive, it does have affinities with the photographs that Deakin made of her.
Bacon, as was his usual practice, reserved his most intense application of paint for the head, the heavily-loaded brush moving in arcing strokes that echo the curvature of the body. The woman wears spectacles, indicated most clearly by the gold rim under her left eye, which appear to be vestiges of the pince-nez worn by the Nanny in Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin, an image that Bacon famously grafted onto his 'Popes'. They may signify that the subject wore glasses: Bacon himself had been astigmatic since the 1940s, and presumably wore glasses in the studio, though he would never let himself be seen wearing them in public.
Crouching Nude, 1961, was one of the last paintings Bacon completed in the room that doubled as his studio at Overstrand Mansions, Battersea, in the flat he had shared with Paul Danquah for six years. The recently-completed painting was photographed in June 1961 and in August of that year Bacon moved to 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington, which he retained for the rest of his life. Formally, Crouching Nude, 1961, can be placed within the general category of major subject paintings (as distinct from portraits and heads) that he painted in his largest format approximately 78 x 56ins.; 198 x 142cm. He returned to a similar composition in Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1963, but the painting that most nearly resembles Crouching Nude, 1961, is Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on a White Ground, 1964. He continued to paint female nudes exclusively from photographs of Moraes throughout the 1960s, after which only one female nude features in his oeuvre, Studies from the Human Body, 1975. Thus, not only is Crouching Nude, 1961, a most impressive conceptually economical yet affecting performance, it served as a crucial reference point for Bacon long after it was painted.
1. Notably in Miss Muriel Belcher (1959); Bacon referred to this colour thereafter as 'Belcher's
2. See Hugh M. Davies, Francis Bacon The Papal Portraits of 1953, 2002
3. Didier Anzieu, The Skin Ego, 1989, p. 99.
4. See Martin Harrison, 'Bacon's Paintings', exh. cat., Francis Bacon, 2008
Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon, London 1964, no. 187, illustrated
From the Sotheby's catalogue note by Martin Harrison