To complement the exhibition Van Gogh and Britain: Pioneer Collectors at Compton Verney, Francis Bacon’s Study of a Portrait of Van Gogh is displayed alongside a series of sculpted heads by the Viennese court sculptor Messerschmidt. Both Bacon and Van Gogh were accomplished painters of physical sensation, and Messerschmidt’s Character Heads record the artist’s own expressions as a register of the human condition in its rawest form.
Francis Bacon (1909-1992) is regarded as one of the most significant post-war artists. In the 1950s he created a series of works inspired by Van Gogh’s painting The Painter on the road to Tarascon (1858). In this series, which he titled Study of a Portrait of Van Gogh, Bacon transforms Van Gogh’s interpretation of an artist walking on a summer day into a more troubled, solitary figure, consumed by his own shadow.
Bacon’s sources are diverse and derive from painters of the past, photographs and film stills. The resulting paintings epitomise the human condition in a disturbingly visceral way, where traces of a human presence are seemingly trailed over the surface of the canvas and left as a haunting imprint. These heightened sensations are also present in Messerschmidt’s Character Heads, which depict inner turmoil and states of mind through their dramatic facial expressions.
Messerschmidt (1736-1783) was one of the greatest artists of imperial Austrian baroque and the Age of Enlightenment, whose extraordinary depictions of human physiognomy prompted him to abandon his position as court artist in order to actively pursue the Character Heads in the 1770s. These rarely seen sculptures, with titles such as The Yawner; A Grievously Wounded Man; The Incapable Bassoonist, and An Arch-Rascal, are brought together at Compton Verney in a display that celebrates a particularly individual view of the human condition.