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Auction PR Publicity Announcements News and Information

Sotheby’s London to Offer Exceptionally Rare Study for Head of George Dyer by Francis Bacon

LONDON – Sotheby’s announced that it will offer Study for Head of George Dyer, 1967 by Francis Bacon (1909-92) in its Evening Sale of Contemporary Art on Tuesday, July 1st, 2008. Francis Bacon is widely regarded as one of the greatest painters of the 20th century and this work is not only an exceptionally rare, intimate depiction of Dyer – the love of Bacon’s life – but is also an outstanding example of Bacon at the height of his powers. It is a rare lifetime depiction of Dyer and is also representative of Bacon’s life in London during the 1960s, a period which the artist spent in the gritty milieu of swinging Soho. The work is outstanding in its execution, presenting brushwork and an exuberance of colour that is equalled by only a handful of other works by the artist, and it is totally fresh to the market, having been acquired by the current owner directly from the Marlborough Gallery only two months after Bacon painted it in 1967. With a pre-sale estimate in excess of £8 million, it is offered ahead of Tate Britain’s major retrospective entitled Francis Bacon, which opens in September 2008 and continues into early 2009 – Bacon’s centenary year.

Oliver Barker, Senior Specialist, Contemporary Art, Sotheby’s London said: “Study for Head of George Dyer represents the zenith of achievement in portraiture for Bacon, an artist who is world-renowned for accomplishing an incredible likeness to his subject via a seemingly chaotic use of brushstrokes on the canvas. Painted in 1967, at the height of Bacon’s love affair with Dyer, this emotionally rousing work is the iconic crystallisation of the most significant relationship of Bacon’s life. We expect it to create great excitement at auction, coming at a moment when the market for works by Bacon is at an all-time high. The offering follows Sotheby’s extremely successful sale of Self Portrait, 1969 – painted in the same small-scale format – which achieved $33 million in November 2007.”

Study for Head of George Dyer is a rare type of eulogy to Dyer, not least because Bacon destroyed any canvas that he deemed unsatisfactory. Indeed, despite 129 photographs of Dyer being found in Bacon’s studio after the artist’s death, this painting is one of only two known designated portraits in this single 14 by 12 inch format. From the early 1960s Bacon only worked on two sizes of canvas, either a 78 by 58 inch or a 14 by 12 inch format. Whereas his monumental Triptych 1976, sold at Sotheby’s New York on May 14th for a world record $86.2 million*, enlists epic narrative to confront universal themes with the large format, by contrast Study for Head of George Dyer uses the more intimate format for one of the most profoundly personal and intense portraits of the 20th Century. It also serves as a counterpoint to the so-called ‘Black Triptychs’ of the early 1970s that commemorate Dyer and which are widely considered to be the pinnacle of Bacon’s whole oeuvre. Oliver Barker adds: “In the brilliance of its conception and the significance of its subject, Study for Head of George Dyer should be included in the history of art alongside Picasso’s Weeping Woman of 1937 in the Tate as an example of what portraiture can achieve.”

Contrary to the myth that they met when Dyer broke into Bacon’s mews house – popularised by accounts such as the 1998 film Love is the Devil starring Derek Jacobi as Bacon and Daniel Craig as Dyer – according to Bacon, they actually met in Autumn 1963 in a Soho drinking den when Dyer introduced himself to the artist’s party. Hailing from the East End of London, Dyer had received little formal education, possessed a criminal record and had served several short prison terms for theft and petty crime. Nevertheless, well-built and immaculately dressed, he soon succeeded Peter Lacy, who had died the previous year, as Bacon’s companion and lover. As the 1960s advanced, Bacon and Dyer’s affair became increasingly stormy. The artist repeatedly bought Dyer out of trouble and by providing a ‘kept’ existence, inadvertently fuelled the East Ender’s paranoia of lacking purpose, which in turn drove his worsening drink problem and the onset of depression. In the Autumn of 1971 the pair travelled to Paris for the major retrospective for Bacon’s work that had been organised at the Grand Palais. It was to be a monumental occasion celebrating the artist’s already stellar career. However, barely 36 hours before the opening, George Dyer was found dead from an overdose of sleeping pills, exacerbated by alcohol abuse, in the hotel suite the pair shared. Dyer’s suicide left Bacon griefstricken.

Thus, both before and after death, George Dyer provided a defining inspiration for Bacon’s work, proving the catalyst for a string of masterworks. Similar to the way that Pablo Picasso created a profile of his young lover Marie-Thérèse Walter and obsessively repeated it in works throughout the 1930s, Bacon created a distinctive and instantly recognisable template for the outline of George Dyer’s head which became a highly visible recurrence in his 1960s and ‘70s output.

In executing Study for Head of George Dyer, Bacon cut out a photograph of his subject, taken by photographer John Deakin who he had met in the late 1940s. Bacon and Deakin were both habitués of Soho’s Colony Room, where the photographer took endless shots of his fellow regulars, many of which became the basis of the artist’s penetrating portraits of their mutual drinking companions. Bacon never painted from live models and this famous cut-out, circa 1964, is frequently cited as iconic evidence of Bacon’s use of photography to aid his work. It was not used as a direct template, but provides insight into Bacon’s working method. Talking of his subjects, Bacon said: “If I know them and have photographs of them, I find it easier to work than actually having their presence in the room. I think that, if I have the presence of the images there, I am not able to drift so freely as I am able to through the photographic image. This may just be my own neurotic sense but I find it less inhibiting to work from them through memory and their photographs than actually having them seated there before me.” (the artist cited in: David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1993, p.48).

Painted in oil, the resulting portrait announces in an exuberance of emerald green, arcs and dashing flecks of pinks, reds, yellows and white, the unmistakable features of Bacon’s lover who was so significant in the artist’s life and of whom Bacon continued to make paintings after Dyer’s death. The work has been requested by Tate for their forthcoming major Francis Bacon retrospective. The exhibition will also travel to the Prado, Madrid and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Study for Head of George Dyer was recently exhibited at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art for the exhibition Francis Bacon: Portrait and Heads for which it was on the cover of the catalogue, as well as at the Museum der Moderne, Salzburg in A Guest of Honour: Francis Bacon und sein Umkreis. Prior to its sale in July, the portrait will be on view at Sotheby’s New Bond Street Galleries in London.