Held for 41 years in the prestigious collection of Magnus Konow and offered in London on 4 October, this 1972 painting — shot through with the memory of Francis Bacon’s muse and lover, George Dyer — is a poignant meditation on the human condition
Executed in 1972, Figure in Movement takes its place
among an extraordinary group of works — including the celebrated Black Triptychs — painted in the aftermath of George Dyer’s
tragic death the previous year. Dyer had taken his own life
shortly before the opening of Bacon’s triumphant retrospective
at the Grand Palais in Paris. In the decades that followed,
his likeness would come to haunt the artist’s work more powerfully
than ever before.
With nods to Michelangelo and Muybridge, Figure in Movement transforms
Dyer’s distinctive features into a commentary on the fleeting
nature of life. The newspaper, demonstrating the artist’s
early use of Letraset, functions as a memento mori of
sorts. As the figure’s writhing form threatens to dissolve
into oblivion, he clasps it to his face, as if desperately
trying to remain in the present. Scrambled letters, evocative
of Picasso’s Cubist collages, spill onto the floor beside
him, like fragments from a discarded novel.
For Bacon, who devoured literature and mythology, the story
of Dyer’s death was as epic and profound as any of the great
tragedies he read. Set against a geometric abyss, the present
figure is captured in a state of transition: from the realm
of reality to that of fiction, memory and legend.
Magnus Konow, a Norwegian collector based in Monaco, purchased Figure in Movement on 5 May
1977 — just five years after its creation — and it was to be the first of four significant Bacon canvases that
he acquired as a young man during the 1970s.
Dyer’s spectral likeness is an ode to carnal pleasure: Bacon revels in the act of caressing, deforming and moulding his pigment
Konow had first encountered Bacon’s work on the cover of Esquire magazine,
and was struck by its ‘sense of chaos’. His fascination with
the artist would ultimately develop into a friendship. Bacon
would regularly travel from Paris to visit him in Monaco, where he indulged in his passion
for gambling in the casinos of Monte Carlo.
Included in Bacon’s 1983 touring retrospective in Japan, as
well as his 2016 exhibition at the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco,
Figure in Movement demonstrates the new artistic
directions he pursued during the 1970s. The period following
Dyer’s death saw him move away from the portraits of his
Soho circle that dominated his practice during the 1960s,
gravitating instead towards dark, existential meditations
on mortality. Channelling the influence of sculpture, photography
and film, his figures took on a new intensity, captured in
states of contortion and transformation.
In Figure in Movement, Dyer’s spectral likeness is
an ode to carnal pleasure: Bacon revels in the physical
act of caressing, deforming and moulding his pigment, as
if modelling clay with his bare hands. Piercing flashes of
white and pink chart the contours of his body, while swarming
passages of black propel his quivering form into three dimensions.
While the upper half of the figure exudes the solid presence
of a marble bust, his lower half blurs into a dizzying, holographic
whirl that flickers like a moving image. In counterpoint
with this brushwork, Bacon constructs an abstract chamber
from flat, intersecting blocks of colour, creating a complex
The endurance of Dyer’s form in Bacon’s art is a testament
to the vital, complex nature of their relationship. The pair
had met almost exactly eight years previously in a pub in
Soho, where the artist was drinking with the photographer
John Deakin. A troubled character, Dyer was physically commanding
yet emotionally vulnerable, and provided Bacon with a fascinating
character study, becoming both his lover and his muse.
Their relationship was tempestuous, punctuated by bouts of
violence and anger. Towards the end of the 1960s, their affections
became increasingly strained: a source of great sadness to
Bacon, particularly in the immediate aftermath of Dyer’s
Tragically, Deakin also passed away in 1972: another great
loss for the artist, who was called upon to identify
his body. Bacon had always been fascinated by the camera
as a means of engaging with reality, preferring to work from
Deakin’s snapshots rather than from life.
Seen in the context of the photographer’s death, as well as
Dyer’s, Figure in Movement takes on subtle new layers
of meaning. The interior apparatus recalls that of a studio,
or perhaps the inside of a camera. The space-frame, used
throughout Bacon’s oeuvre, resembles the chinagraph
markings used by photographers to indicate areas for enlargement.
‘When I look at you across the table, I don't only see you but I see a whole emanation which has to do with personality and everything else’ — Francis Bacon
From the time of his earliest depictions of screaming popes, Bacon had been
fascinated by the human figure in motion. Movement, he felt,
allowed him to glimpse the ‘emanation’ of the human spirit
— the innate physical expressions that make up ‘all the pulsations
of a person’.
Mining hundreds of photographic and filmic sources, Bacon repeatedly
sought to capture these revelations in paint. ‘When I look
at you across the table, I don’t only see you but I see a
whole emanation which has to do with personality and everything
else,’ the artist explained.
Perhaps due to the physical nature of their relationship, Bacon’s
portraits of Dyer frequently captured him in the midst of
dynamic activity: riding a bicycle, talking, turning, crouching
and — in the black triptychs — caught in the final, gruesome
throes of death.
Figure in Movement sheds critical light on Bacon’s
understanding of the human condition during this period.
Laced with allusions to photography, literature, reportage
and film, it is not only an attempt to trap his subject’s
‘emanation’, but to visualise the ways in which figural traces
continue to live in the mind. It speaks to the architecture
of memory itself, and captures the perilous precipice upon
which our very existence is poised.