When Francis Bacon was in his early 20s, he drew a long nose on the side of a ship for the nurses of the RNLI ship. A decade later, he covered the same side of a trolley train with black oil for the nurses of the London Underground. In 1960, as he researched the body of a middle-aged man, Bacon found himself staring at the top of his thick pile of crayons, running them through a beige crayon pen and, well, what we know as “the readymade.” Two crayons crossed each other, adding up to a two-toned portrait of a character who began to resemble Bacon’s own gaunt, nameless masculinity.
Now, an anonymous portrait of Bacon from 1958 looms on the wall near his life-size portrait of himself, tucked to the side. This is part of the quilt of death and death-related art pieces that was woven from his work by his eventual widow, the painter Lucian Freud. In 2014, the quilt was presented in an exhibition that traveled to five museums, including the Met and the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C. Now the quilt is up again, at work on loan to the National Gallery of Art for its new exhibition of John Singer Sargent. At the exhibition opening on Oct. 22, the quilt has its own display, created in the State Armory in Virginia. It is given its own name: “The Artist and His Legacy.”
“As people go through the gallery, they see it almost in a unifying way as if they’re walking through Bacon’s palette,” said Esther Parsons, head of American art at the National Gallery.
So, how does one prepare to sit with a printed portrait — one that requires you to be stationary for three hours? Mr. Freud, who gifted the quilt to the National Gallery after her husband’s death in 2008, urged about 50 artists, academics and gallerists to create portraits of their own and submit to him for a new quilt.
“We wanted artists to sort of work with it themselves, but also then engage with it, let them feel that, here is this exhibition that’s been chosen and selected for certain place or could be made into a small piece. We wanted them to be able to interact with it in their own way,” Ms. Parsons said.
The artists who participated in the selection process included Edward Ruscha, Ronda Lee and Joan Jonas.
The quilt, which took four years to make, was done in wood from Ms. Freud’s family home in Germany and two pieces of linoleum from New York City’s Rediscovered Wall of Fame. (Allegedly Mr. Bacon called it “the Rediscovered Wall of Shame.”)
“It was a complete and total collaboration of the people who were involved,” Ms. Parsons said. “The quilt was a collaborative project.”
After finding your subject, the curator’s philosophy is to “bring back as little as possible.” In other words, as soon as you buy the print, you throw away it. Though a memoir would be nice, she says, you’ll get nothing as far as framing, with which she’s wary of being outbid by collectors. What she is considering are a couple of options: Nontotheque series with inserts, like a first edition of a novel. (You see the other quilt object — the “Human Condition Quilt” made of photographs of the more than 40,000 photographs in the National Gallery’s archive — during the exhibition.)
So, about your portrait: The creators say that the best thing to do is no subject matter whatsoever. But the strain comes with asking yourself, Why are you studying somebody with such a striking face that has made you in you such a brilliant, complete painter?
Oh, right. Because it’s interesting.
The show: “The Artist and His Legacy: A Gift from Lucian Freud to the National Gallery of Art.” New York debut. Oct. 22–Feb. 25, 2020. National Gallery of Art. Renzo Piano Auditorium at the museum. 212-570-3600, www.nga.org
New book: “Lucian Freud: A Needle in the Blood,” by Rebecca Seal. In paperback, available Oct. 28. Free copies to be given out to the first 350 to RSVP on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/ev…