For this month’s Catalogue Raisonné Focus we’re taking a look at Head II, 1949.
‘The thickly-textured grey paint of the curtains is the quintessential exemplar of Bacon’s remark, reported in Time, 21st November 1949, p.28, that ‘One of the problems is to paint like Velázquez but with the texture of hippopotamus skin.’
Although Bacon worked on Head II for an unusually long time it was not one of the paintings he considered he had over-elaborated and spoiled: ‘I worked on that for about four months, and in some curious way it did, I think, perhaps, come through a bit’ (Sylvester p.28). There are at least sixteen different layers of paint, some in bright colours that were eventually transformed into this grisaille image.’
Excerpt: Martin Harrison, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné (London: The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing, 2016) p. 188.
The canvas is on its original stretcher. It has the logo of the framer, Maison Franco, in Nice, impressed into the wood, indicating that the painting was made, or certainly begun, while Bacon was living in Monaco.
What Bacon intended with this image is not easy to determine. It may have been inspired by the decapitated head of St John Baptist, for which there was plenty of art-historical precedent, or perhaps by Eliot’s line in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: ‘Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter’.
In 1949, when Head II was purchased by Robin Ironside on behalf of the Contemporary Arts Society, it was known as ‘Laughing Man’, yet the anguished expression of the mouth is closer to a ‘sardonic grimace, an existential half animal howl’.
Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné can be purchased through our distributor’s website.