Francis Bacon News








‘Francis Bacon. A terrible beauty’




The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, 28 October 2009-7 March 2010;

Compton Verney, Warwickshire, 27 March-20 July



‘Francis Bacon: Early works’


Room 8, Tate Britain, London





 Francis Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 (the same year that Sir Hugh Lane was knighted) at 63 Lower Baggot Street. He was the child of middle – or even upper-middle-class Protestant English parents and there was nothing Irish or even Anglo-Irish about him. After he left Ireland at the age of about 16, he hardly returned, almost certainly never after 1939. Many British artists (a number of them friends or acquaintances of Bacon) visited Ireland to paint after the War, including Freud, Vaughan, Burra, Agar, Hillier, Colquhoun and Macbryde, Weight, Bawden, Uhlman, Piper, Ayrton, Lewis and Craxton; but not Bacon. He certainly does not seem to have expressed any interest in or affection for Ireland and it is a nice quirk of fate that now yokes him to Dublin through the arrival of his studio at the Hugh Lane Gallery. (I note that a photograph of the few books on Bacon’s bookshelf showed that he had a biography of Oscar Wilde.)

Just as with the long-running saga over the Hugh Lane pictures and the competing claim on them between Dublin and London, there now, since the arrival of his studio, seems to be some sort of cultural imperial battle opening up between Dublin and London over who can claim Bacon the most – before that Dublin did not concern itself with him too much, apart from a show in 1965. Now we have seen the Tate’s third great retrospective for him, in 2009, following those in 1985 and 1962, closely followed by the Hugh Lane’s second big exhibition about him in recent years – the previous one being called ‘Francis Bacon in Dublin’ in 2000. No sooner has the latest show opened in Dublin than the Tate responds with a very unusual little show in its Room 8, showing very rarely seen early works from the 1920s and 1930s.

The battle also seems to extend to the written word, in the analysis of the contents of the studio. Our own Martin Harrison has developed his platform with ‘In Camera: Francis Bacon, Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting’ in 2005 and ‘Incunabula’ in 2008; whilst Barbara Dawson (director of the Hugh Lane) and Margarita Cappock (Head of Collections at the Hugh Lane) have published ‘Francis Bacon’s Studio at the Hugh Lane’ in 2001 and Margarita Cappock has published ‘Francis Bacon’s Studio’ in 2005. In any event, Barbara Dawson and Martin Harrison have come together on this occasion by co-curating the exhibition and both featuring in the accompanying book. Delving into the archaeology of the studio, whether by Irish or English writers, is simply never going to end and books trickle out based upon an increasingly detailed analysis of the detritus of that studio. Whilst this has produced many interesting insights into Bacon’s sources and methods, one sometimes steps back to wonder which other 20th century artist gets analysed like this? Does anyone care which magazines Freud has read, if any, over the years, or whether he wrote lists on the endpapers of his books? If these sorts of analytical techniques are so relevant to a study of Bacon, why are they not employed by students of other artists to the same extent? It would surely be possible to pursue the working conditions of some other 20th century British artists in this way, where studio conditions or archive material have survived, but I am not aware that it is being done.

Still, historiographers of the Bacon industry are going to thrive for many years, as one can begin to look forward to writing about those who write about Bacon almost as much as writing about the man himself. It would, for example, be possible to torture David Sylvester’s writings on Bacon, and his fixation with him, to make them reveal something about their relationship and the extent of the rôle played by Sylvester in inventing the Bacon myth. There has not been too much seen in that direction yet, but it is fruitful ground. Will all the footling things which Bacon said about art and about his work – all of them – turn out to be thoughts of Sylvester, shaping up his man to be the thinking artist of 20th century Britain? I fear so. I also suspect that Sylvester put the virtually uneducated Bacon into contact with the sort of middlebrow classics he liked to quote for ever afterwards, such as little bits of Aeschylus in translation and so on. Bacon the profound thinker is really a hard Bacon to swallow.


Anyway, as I have said before when reviewing things about Bacon, some of those working on him are astute and careful critics and they produce work worthy of respect and attention. Martin Harrison is co-curator of the Dublin exhibition and has developed a large and well-deserved reputation as a man of ruthless factual accuracy and carefulness. (He is also an extremely generous man when asked for help, as this writer can vouch.) I long for the day when he allows him-self to go into print with comments on the aspects of Bacon’s past which do not stand up to too much scrutiny. It can be done without impugning the work. It has to be done sometime by somebody.


For all the frustrations generated by the industry growing up around Bacon, the work is always fascinating. The Hugh Lane show is a great treat in this respect. There are works with which I was not familiar (and which were certainly not at the Tate last year) and the room with the damaged pictures is extremely novel – interesting, as are the paint samples used to explore his technique. Bacon destroyed lots of pictures, but the archaeologists found in the studio that he sometimes left the cut-out bits lying about. And so in some cases they have the cut-up pictures and some of the missing bits. It can never be possible to be sure in each case why he defaced a picture, but studying the damage inflicted in particular cases is surely a legitimate way of trying to engage with his creative thinking: to glimpse the creative process through the artist’s own eyes.


There can be little doubt that Bacon was a passionately engaged creative thinker working deceptively hard at his pictures to produce effects which he planned and developed and which, in the end, left little to chance, despite what he nonsensically claimed.


Room 8 is interesting in a different way, with early works and some rugs and a screen painted by him. In the 1920s and ’30s he was signing his work. It would, of course, be fascinating to get more material about his painting activities in the years leading up to the first great triptych exhibited in 1945. Where did it spring from? What kind of work led up to it? For the things in Room 8 predate but do not presage what might be called the mature Bacon style that burst into the Lefevre Gallery in April 1945. The possibly influential role layed by the Australian artist, Roy de Maistre, has not been fully explored. There are tantalising glimpses of early works by Bacon in the background of some of de Maistre’s own pictures from the pre-War period. Unfortunately, until Sylvester came along at the end of the 1940s, and especially the 1950s, and gave Bacon something to say about his thoughts on art, we have nothing substantial from the artist himself to say what he was about, although there are glimpses in the Bacon letters which survive from the 1940’s.

In 1953 Bacon was made to pretend that he was impressed by Matthew Smith’s work, in the infamous ‘Painter’s Tribute’ at the front of the catalogue to a big Smith retrospective at the Tate. It was almost certainly written by Sylvester and basically amounted to a sort of manifesto of what Sylvester would make Bacon say about his own work over and over again ad infinitum (at the Hugh Lane Gallery there plays on an endless loop the Bacon/Bragg interview of 1985 in which Bacon is still mouthing the same old stuff over 30 years later).


The book which accompanies the Hugh Lane show has essays by a variety of people, as well as a thorough catalogue of the pictures on display. It is striking how a number of those writing comment on how inconsistent and unreliable were many of the things Bacon said about his own work. How his attitude towards apparently key aspects of his work did not so much consciously change, but more slid about, depending upon the impression he wanted to give. Examples are his varied responses to questions as to whether his work contained elements of ‘violence’: sometimes he said it did, sometimes he said it did not. He liked to say the elements of his paintings came by chance, but the technical analysis of his painting style, which is extremely revealing, shows that, while this may have been an important element to his work in the early days, it quickly became irrelevant. Bacon became a master of technique and clearly understood and controlled the outcome of his efforts on the canvas very carefully and effectively, but one would never know this if one relied upon the nonsense which he uttered to interviewers. He was also a master of obfuscation.


There are various reasons why Bacon the talker was so unreliable. It may have been a deliberate game intended to confuse analysis. He probably thought that art criticism could come to its own conclusions without his telling it what to think. He may also have believed that obscurity did no harm to reputation and, therefore, sales. There is also the rather sad thought that – barely educated and totally without artistic-training as he was – he wanted (and was encouraged by Sylvester to want) to be regarded as an intellectual artist, fizzing with creative and necessarily obscure thoughts about the indefinable nature of the creative process. Well, maybe he succeeded in whatever he wanted to achieve. Certainly during his life he seemed to keep a tight grip on the way in which he wanted his work to be received, but the critic who ignores much of what he said may produce a more balanced view of his work, approaching more closely an objective assessment of Bacon’s achievements.


This is a good book to accompany the exhibition. All the different contributions are crisp and to the point and all have interesting things to say about the different aspects of Bacon’s art that they are writing about. The area of Bacon commentary has become extremely crowded, with one’s bookshelf already groaning from the weight of Bacon studies, and so contributing anything original is in itself a fine achievement.

The older artist always mentioned as being someone whose work Bacon admired was Matthew Smith. The Guildhall Art Gallery in the City is not normally associated with 20th-century British art, but, by a quirk of fate, it holds an enormous collection of Smith’s work. In total it has over 1,000 paintings, drawings and watercolours by him, comprising the work left in the artist’s studio on his death in 1959 and presented to the City of London Corporation by his heir, Mary Keene, in 1973.


The exhibition was certainly extensive, and quite fascinating. The fact that it consisted of work from his studio probably skewed it a little towards his later work, rather than being a genuine attempt to cover his long painting career, but the overall effect was impressive.






Artist’s anniversary marked



AN EXHIBITION marking the 100th anniversary of artist Francis Bacon’s birth opened

at the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, yesterday evening, writes AIDAN DUNNE





Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty puts on display many of the contents of Francis Bacon’s studio, which the gallery received in 1998.

Opening the exhibition, President McAleese paid tribute to Hugh Lane director Barbara Dawson, her staff and Brian Clarke, the executor of the artist’s estate.

“They deserve a big thank you for bringing this man home,” she said, describing Bacon as “the defining figure in Irish visual art generally and one of the greatest of the 20th century”.

Commenting on the famous messiness of Bacon’s studio, the President said he was lucky he had never had to receive a presidential visit there because, as her daughter had told her after an official visit to her school: “A visit from the President is like having your mother visit your bedroom, so a visit to Bacon’s studio would clearly have been a disaster for everyone concerned.”  

Brian Clarke also commented on the studio’s state of disorder. He first visited it late at night, when the artist was still alive and without his knowledge. “It was,” he said, “both exhilarating and repulsive.”

Clarke and the late John Edwards, Bacon’s heir, gave the studio to the Hugh Lane, who sent in an archaeological team to survey and catalogue it. It inventoried more than 7,000 items, all of which were shipped to Dublin. The recreated studio can be seen in the Hugh Lane now.

Also on view is a selection of Bacon’s paintings, many of them only rarely exhibited in public before, including a picture from Damien Hirst’s personal collection. The studio contents, including unfinished and partially destroyed canvases, sketches, photographic prints and photographic reproductions in books and magazine, has been a treasure trove for scholars of the artist’s work.  





Hugh Delap, from Clontarf, and Jenny Fitzgibbon, from Rathmines, with Study for Portrait (John Edwards) 

 by Francis Bacon, at the opening of A Terrible Beauty yesterday. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh






HQ Visits... The Bacon Report





It’s the centenary of Francis Bacon’s birth, and one feels obliged to write about it. But when one looks – or I look, if you’re going to be casual about it – at a body of work only to go, "Ugh" ... well, one wonders what the hell one is going to come up with.

If you write about a certain subject for a living, you can’t always like everything that you write about – but there is something so unappealing about Bacon’s work that it created quite a dilemma. He is deemed too important by the powers-that-be to fob off with a mention at the bottom of the arts pages. So, what’s a girl reporter to do?

She can start with the truth: I don’t like the work of Francis Bacon. It is revolting, violent, not only grotesque but gross; it is frightening and nightmarish. It’s emotional terrorism, like being forced to watch torture, as the bulk of his imagery is either all screaming popes or carcasses of cows, or distortions of the human figure so subtle that it takes a while to figure out what is so disturbing.

However ... there’s got to be something fairly powerful going on to provoke such a reaction. So, rather than just react all over the place and settle into my off-put opinion, I decided to let someone try to convince me otherwise. I hired myself to the Hugh Lane Gallery, which has mounted A Terrible Beauty, marking Bacon’s 100th birthday with a presentation of objects and research materials from the gallery’s extensive Bacon archive; once there, I just about dared one of the curators, Padraic Moore, to convince me of the merits of an artist whose work I disliked so thoroughly.

To his great credit, he didn’t blink an eye when I told him of my aversion. "When you approach the later paintings," he agreed, "they have all the qualities that you were talking about, this visceral, aggressive, violent, even frightening energy. And they’re not necessarily aesthetically pleasing." Ha! I knew I was right!

Moore continues: "But they have a function, and I think that function is to provoke. It’s important to contextualise where he was coming from."

The context is illuminating. Born in Dublin to a British military family, Bacon Senior was horsey, and it was his equine capabilities that brought the family to Ireland. They returned to London during the First World War, and then moved back to Ireland for our own Civil War. Not restful times in which to grow up.

Bacon Junior was asthmatic, and arty; at 16 he was ejected from the family home when Dad found him dressed up in Mum’s clothes. He went to London and, with some education here and there, and no formal art training at all, took up life as an artist.

What a time to have lived. Two world wars, the atomic age ... "I think he was really only reflecting what he was bombarded with," says Moore, and I have to agree. I’m starting to understand something about the psyche of Francis.

Then there’s how his lover, George Dyer, died of an overdose the night before the opening of Bacon’s first retrospective in the Grand Palais in Paris. The gallery’s archive yields several photographs of Bacon attending the showing despite his grief, although in one image clearly shows the devastation Dyer’s death has wrought.

Oh, dear. He’s becoming human. "The work is very human," Moore insists. "And humanity is violent, and it is sexual, and it is about suffering and vulnerability and isolation."

Oh. Yes. That’s true. It’s not all water lilies and Madonnas and child and dogs playing poker, is it?

Now I begin to question what it is I look for in an artwork. Am I happy enough with impressionistic light upon the water, or am I up for a challenge? Moore takes me for a tour of the exhibition, and he points out some of the things that he values in the paintings: the formal structure, the palette of luscious colours, the recurring body language of the figures.

There’s a portrait of Francis’ last lover, John Edwards, from 1988: the figure sits on a cane chair in his underpants, against a black and olive background. It’s simple, it’s direct, and it echoes, painfully, mournfully, many of the portraits that Bacon did of Dyer. "Something that’s left out of the reading of his work is love, and affection, and the suffering that this causes," says Moore.

"If you are the sort of person who is attached to people, as soon as you make the decision to attach yourself to another human being, you are instantly vulnerable, and there’s the potential for suffering."

I feel my heart creak open, just a crack, to allow in comprehension of the sadness of the artist. And then I get freaked out by the shadow of Edwards that Bacon has painted in the foreground: it is flesh coloured.

I have no idea why that freaks me out, but it does – all the way. It is just plain nasty. And yet I’ve learned a lot about the man, and I’ve allowed myself to take in his work, so I’m not totally repulsed.

Bacon may not make my lifetime hit parade of favourite artists, but getting glimpse of his work process, through the gallery’s presentation of its archival materials, has humanised him. I don’t hate his work any more, and I can appreciate its power to push buttons and evoke tumultuous emotions.

It is, after all, only paint on canvas – but in the right hands, paint on fabric becomes explosive, and disconcerting, which says everything about the power of art. And the most powerful art is often the least lovely. But don’t ask me to appreciate that Italian dude who put his own excrement in tins and sold it for buckets of money. I’ve got to draw the line somewhere. 

Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty, runs ’til March 2010 at the Hugh Lane Gallery




Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty




Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane  28 October to 7 March 2010



Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty celebrates the centenary of Francis Bacon’s birth in 63, Lower Baggot Street, Dublin. This exhibition comprising paintings, drawings, photographs, unfinished works and slashed canvases will offer the viewer an astonishing new look at Francis Bacon, the great figurative painter of the 20th century. It will provide an opportunity to reappraise his oeuvre through the selected paintings, several of which haven’t been on public exhibition for many years. The mastery of Francis Bacon is revealed through these works and will be fully supported by an extensive and previously unseen selection of items from Bacon’s Studio.

Following on the donation of the Studio to the Hugh Lane by John Edwards in 1998, the 7,000 plus items retrieved from the studio were archived by The Hugh Lane. Francis Bacon’s Studio has been on permanent exhibition at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane since 2001. It is acknowledged as one of the most pioneering and successful realisations of preserving and displaying an artist’s studio and contents. The database is unprecedented, documenting every item retrieved, thus providing fascinating insights into Bacon’s working processes.

The exhibition is co-curated by Barbara Dawson and Martin Harrison. It is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue that presents important new research on the artist.

Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty is one of the major European cultural events of 2009. The exhibition will tour to Compton Verney, Warwickshire, England, in 2010.

Admission is free.


Sunday 25 October 2009, 1.30pm 


Lecture & Film Screening: Francis Bacon and David Cronenberg. The Inner Beauty and other aspects.

Curated by Katharina Günther, Bacon Scholar


Film criticism suggests a connection between the paintings of the Irish artist Francis Bacon and the films of the Canadian director David Cronenberg, well known for movies like Scanners (1979), The Fly (1986) or Dead Ringers (1988). Those comments are mostly based on the fact that both oeuvres are often characterized as controversial, shocking or horrific, but very few research has been done on their actual similarities. In an interdisciplinary approach, this screening will explore both artist’s imagery, regarding common motives and concepts.

After discussing selected paintings and film scenes, David Cronenberg’s The Fly (95 mins) will be shown in full length.


Public Lecture – A Game of Chance
15 November 2009

Sunday 15th November 2009, 1.30pm

Public Lecture: A Game of Chance: The Media and Techniques of Francis Bacon

Lecturer: Head of Conservation, Joanna Shepard


Francis Bacon was a self-taught painter who created a range of astonishing effects with his materials. He created a personal mystique centring on claims that his paintings came about almost entirely by chance.  Head of Conservation, Joanna Shepard, presents important new research that contradicts these claims and reveals some remarkable discoveries about Bacon’s practice.

Part of a series of vibrant lectures that will illuminate this extraordinary exhibition and will give the opportunity to debate and explore issues raised by the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue.


Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty
28 October 2009

Published by Steidl on the occasion of the exhibition, Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, 28 October 2009 – 7 March 2010. Includes essays by the co-curators, Barbara Dawson and Martin Harrison, along with texts by Rebecca Daniels, Marcel Finke, Jessica O’Donnell, Joanna Shepard, and Logan Sisley.







                                                                Scanners (1979) David Cronenberg 







Unveiling the myths of Bacon




His London studio has been in Dublin for some years, but a new centenary exhibition

of paintings and archive material explores Francis Bacon’s influences and tragedies,

and helps re-evaluate the artist.





LATE IN OCTOBER 1971, just a few days short of his 62nd birthday, the painter Francis Bacon was in Paris, where the president, Georges Pompidou, had decided to personally open a retrospective of his work at the Grand Palais. The presidential imprimatur, the prestigious venue and the scale of the exhibition amounted to an extraordinary accolade for Bacon. And, although he habitually made light of just about everything, he was enormously pleased. Not least, the event finally put him on a par with the artist who, more than any other, he saw as the figure he had to measure himself against: Pablo Picasso. Picasso had been similarly feted in the Grand Palais a few years earlier.

Contemporary accounts note that Bacon was in ebullient form, and seemed to genuinely revel in the fuss and the attention. There was a lot of attention: the great and the good turned out in their droves to attend the opening. As the artist’s biographer Michael Peppiatt records, the evening was crowned with a banquet in the ornately decorated brasserie Le Train Bleu in the Gare de Lyon, organised – and indeed paid for – by Sonia Orwell, Zette Leiris and Marguerite Duras.

In the Hugh Lane Gallery’s exhibition Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty Terrible Beauty, opening next week, you can trace a surprisingly detailed account of that evening through photographs taken at the time. In one image, caught at a quiet moment, Bacon looks thoughtful, slightly withdrawn from the throng. We don’t know what was on his mind, but it’s reasonable to guess that he was thinking about his lover, George Dyer. The previous evening, while Bacon was out doing an interview about his exhibition, Dyer had killed himself in their room at the Hôtel des Saints-Pères.

News of Dyer’s death was not released immediately, but by the time of the banquet the next night, word had spread. The confluence of events was extraordinary and distressing in many ways. For one thing, on the opening day of his Tate Gallery retrospective almost 10 years earlier, Bacon had learned of the death of his ex-lover, Peter Lacy, in Morocco. He had been rejected by Lacy, and had been absolutely devastated by the news of his demise. At the same time, he seemed to think Lacy’s sad end was almost calculated to detract from his enjoyment of his own success.

Now, at perhaps the crowning moment of his career, in Paris, the same thing had happened with Dyer. Professional, public triumph was inextricably linked to, and symbolically eclipsed by, personal disaster. More, life was uncomfortably imitative of art. Commentators on Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais could not help but note the work’s preoccupation with emotional and physical extremity. It depicted a world of personal cruelty, isolation and despair. At the same time, while the imagery, in its level of distortion and vehemence, its rawness, suggested something extreme and unusual, something beyond the comfort of familiarity, what lent Bacon’s work its exceptional power was the fact that his subject was in fact nothing more than ordinary, everyday life.

BY BACON’S OWN account, at the time of the Grand Palais exhibition he and Dyer were no longer even close. Their relationship, always acrimonious, had foundered some time previously. Yet, just as Lacy became an important, stubborn presence in Bacon’s work after his death, so Dyer too became a central preoccupation in a series of works that culminate in a chilling triptych, re-enacting the circumstances of his death. Bacon was clearly not without feelings, and there is immense affection as well as cruelty in the painting. But he could not have been a great artist without possessing a streak of utter ruthlessness that enabled him to take the most painful aspects of his own and others’ experience and lay them bare on canvas. It would be wrong to suppose, though, that his work was always as painfully autobiographical as were the pictures about Dyer’s suicide.

Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty goes some way to illuminating the links between the personal and the public in Bacon’s art and world.

The exhibition marks the centenary of Bacon’s birth and is the most extensive display derived from the archive since its acquisition. In effect, as in elaborating on the opening at the Grand Palais, it also sets up a dialogue between Bacon’s life, his work practices and the paintings he produced. From the moment it was announced that the Bacon studio was to come to Dublin, the implicit question has been whether actual paintings would follow in its wake. The studio, the undoubted wealth of its research material notwithstanding, is a bit like Hamlet without the prince in the absence of a representative collection of paintings by Bacon to set alongside it.

While it would certainly have been nice if the studio had come with such a stock of paintings in tow, that was never on the cards. Huge financial interests are involved. There are unfinished paintings, generally very unfinished in the sense that they look as if they were never destined to be finished. Several of these are on view. There are also many destroyed canvases. They have been described as “slashed canvases” which sounds quite dramatic, as if the artist set about them in a fit of rage. In fact, slashed canvases in that sense are very rare. Usually Bacon hacked out sections of an abandoned work, presumably to use them in another context. A whole room is given over to the display of canvases with excised sections. The effect is odd, because clearly it was never intended that they would be exhibited in this way. But it allows conservator Joanna Shepard a chance to investigate Bacon’s working methods in detail, and she provides an explanatory commentary.

To make up for the paucity of Bacon paintings in Irish collections, reinforcements have been drafted in from several sources, including the artist’s estate, private collections, the Tate Gallery and the Ulster Museum. Many of these works are outstanding, and hardly any is an obvious choice. The strange, dark-lit Untitled (Half-length Figure in Sea), for example, is credited to Damien Hirst’s personal Murderme collection: fascinating given its similarities to Hirst’s own recent paintings, now on view at the Wallace Collection in London. Head III and Head of a Woman, also from private collections, are classic portrait heads, as is Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, of late in a collection here in Ireland, now part of Christie’s stock. It’s a shame such a perfect little painting could not have stayed in the country permanently.

A whole room is given over to plates from Eadweard Muybridge’s The Human Figure in Motion, which Bacon – and, it must be said, countless other artists, used extensively as references. Harrison is an authority on art and photography, and his book In Camera is an exhaustive and informative account of Bacon’s use of a vast range of photographic sources, including original photographs of friends, lovers and acquaintances, often commissioned from John Deakin (a room in the exhibition is given over to them), as well as mechanically reproduced images from magazines, art history books, medical textbooks and just about anything that caught his eye.

WE ARE WELL into a re-evaluation of the myth of Francis Bacon, which tended to downplay the role of photography and simply deny the use of preparatory drawings. Around 40 of the latter turned up in the studio, but in a way they confirm Bacon’s protestations. The sketches are minimal and rudimentary, more notes or memory aids than drawings in the usual sense. But on the other hand you could say that photographs, both original and reproduced, were his preparatory drawings, and they were absolutely vital to what he did. He collected and consumed them voraciously; editing, tearing, shaping and distorting them to create his own images.

This is one conclusion that emerges unmistakably from A Terrible Beauty. There was a time when artists couldn’t admit to using photographs in this way but, as David Hockney observed in his book Hidden Knowledge, painters have generally used any and every available means to make their work, and now photography is widely used and accepted. The exhibition should also deepen awareness of the relationship between life and art, and it’s hard to emerge from it without getting some sense of Bacon’s personal difficulties and tragedies, as well as his extraordinary resourcefulness, industry and inventiveness as an artist.

Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty is at the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, from October 28th to March 7th, 2010. Tel. 01-2225550



     Setting the scene: preparations for Francis Bacon; A Terrible Beauty at the Hugh Lane Gallery.




International Art Festival debuts in Tel Aviv






Any film festival that brings together homages to Francis Bacon and Merce Cunningham, hosts a descendant of Felix Mendelssohn and presents a master class by self-confessed art geek Ben Lewis deserves to be called eclectic – or EPOS, the first International Art Film Festival, which will take place October 29-31 at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque.

Festival directors Micky Laron and Gidi Avivi are presenting over 40 local and international documentary and feature films on music, dance, literature and poetry; art and theater. In addition, the festival will host special guests and present events, including an evening dedicated to Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham, the great choreographers who passed away this year, and commemorations of the 200th anniversary of Mendelssohn’s birth and the 100th anniversary of the British painter Bacon’s birth.

Controversial American art critic and filmmaker Lewis, who prides himself on having been booted out of the famed Sotheby’s auction house, will offer a master class entitled: Art Safari: The Tantrums, Tears and Traumas of making Art Documentaries, in which he will explain the inner workings of making cult documentary films on the subject of contemporary art, focusing on his own feature The Great Contemporary Art Bubble.

In collaboration with the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, on October 31 the festival will present an homage to Bacon’s 100th birthday, featuring a lecture by Tal Lanir, Fragment of a Crucifixion  The Art of Francis Bacon, and a screening of the film Francis Bacon, which follows a day in the life of the painter. The event will take place at the museum. 

Time will also be set aside at the festival on October 29 to focus on films made by students at films schools and art colleges around the country.

For a full schedule of films and events and to order tickets, go to EPOS online.




                  Francis Bacon’s Version No. 2  Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe








British art’s biggest names reveal the work that set them on the road to fame




Michael Glover looks at the earliest efforts of some of the world’s greatest artists





The beginning. The middle. The end. It is always fascinating and instructive to observe the trajectory of an artist, any artist. Beginnings can be particularly instructive. Is he or she to the manor born? Or is this foray into art a sudden flight into unknown and uncharted territory, at which the family now raises its collective eyebrows in a mingling of horror and consternation? 


Francis Bacon, like so many other painters, was self-taught. He worked as a furniture designer and interior decorator at first. It was, in part, Picasso’s paintings of the early 1930s, those weird organic forms in which man seems part human and part animal, which caused Bacon to invent a language for himself as a painter. Picasso revealed to Bacon a particularly repulsive, bestial vision of humanity, and Bacon recognised it to be his own inner truth. He stuck to it, from first to last, never seriously deviating.


This question of truthfulness to some wholly compelling inner vision would have been quite alien to the great majority of the painters of the Renaissance and the pre-Renaissance. Painting was a skill to be acquired. Painters were artisans, not wilful visionaries. It was a question of emulation, of learning in the environment of the workshop, the gradual acquisition of essential skills. And then it would be a matter of pleasing the patron, which would, more often than not, have been the Church, and, if the patron were displeased, then doing something radically different.






$40 Million Bacon Star in French Art Fair







While London’s weeklong contemporary-art fairs trumpeted a $9 million Francis Bacon , this week Paris will serve up two Bacons with prices around $20 million and $40 million  plus Picasso, Leger, Mondrian, Warhol and other 20th-century heavyweights.

The Paris-based Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain has added a new section, The Modern Project, which offers select dealers a sumptuous display booth and lower costs. The result is that for the first time FIAC has attracted major galleries and their high-end art.

The dealers are expected to offer a total of 25 museum- quality artworks with multimillion-dollar price tags during the fair, which runs Oct. 22-25 underneath the glass-domed Grand Palais and in the Louvre’s courtyard.

The priciest works will include Andy Warlol’s 1963 Green Disaster, created the same year as his Green Car Crash, which fetched $71.7 million at Christie’s New York in 2007; Bacon’s 1966 Portrait of George Dyer Talking, priced around $40 million; and a 1921 Fernand Leger Le Grand Dejeuner, priced between $20 million and $25 million (a larger version of the work is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York). Bacon’s Head III (1949) will be offered at about $20 million, and Pablo Picasso’s Maternity (1921) around $25 million.

“It will create fireworks,” said Paris-based dealer Daniel Malingue.




               Bacon’s 1966 Portrait of George Dyer Talking




Take ‘an astonishing look at Francis Bacon’ in Dublin








Those staying in hotels in Dublin over the coming months can celebrate the life of Irish artist Francis Bacon by attending an exciting new exhibition of his work.

Entitled Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty, the collection goes on show at the Dublin City Gallery from October 28th to Match 7th 2010 and is expected to attract art lovers from across Europe.

The exhibition features dozens of items, including photographs, drawings, paintings and previously unseen items from his studio.


According to the gallery, visitors will be offered "an astonishing new look" at the artist. Born on Lower Baggot Street in Dublin, Bacon is widely considered to be one of the most important figurative painters of the 20th century.

Some of his most famous works include Figure in a Landscape, Study of a Dog, Figures in a Garden and Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, the last of which was painted in 1944 and is currently on display at the Tate in London.





Handiwork not the whole hog




Damien Hirst’s new paintings reek of Bacon but lack a visceral tug





Poussin was one of the great draughtsmen of all time. Hirst, shall we say, is not. As an installation artist, that was no problem – we weren’t looking at his handiwork, we were looking at his ideas, rendered through the handiwork of his technicians. Now, however, there is nothing between us and Hirst. Nothing, that is, except Francis Bacon, who looms over this exhibition far more than any of Hirst’s skeletons can do.

Bacon used a glowing, Prussian blue. So does Hirst. Bacon created triptychs. So does Hirst. So does he use Bacon’s white, gouged-out grid to lock in his figures. So does he use similar-sized canvases. So does he use gilded frames, and reflective glass over the canvases. In two diptychs – The Birth of Medusa/Witness at the Birth of Medusa and Guardian I and II - he even uses Bacon’s bloody, papal red.

These two diptychs, though, are two of the best things in the show, more thought through, less fragmentary than smaller works such as Skull with Ashtray and Lemon, which attempt, through bubbles resembling his spot paintings, and a Baconian grid, to give a structure to what are otherwise simply random elements dotted about the canvas. But his brushwork is uncertain – here the paint is heavily applied, there the canvas shows through the thin paint – without any sense of a coherent rhythm. But all too often Hirst is let down by his technique – he sees, but he can’t show us, because his draughtsmanship is just not up to it, his application of paint too unpractised. These paintings are Bacon-lite – not the whole hog.



Damien Hirst: No Love Lost, Blue Paintings




Wallace Collection, London W1








Somewhat late in the day, Damien Hirst has decided to find out whether he can paint. So far, he has been able to do without such specialised, old-fashioned skills. When Andy Warhol transformed his studio into a factory, he announced that from now on art would be an industrial operation, dispensing with originality and relying on teams of toilers, proudly advancing beyond manual craft. With a frisson of dread, Hirst calls painting a “solitary practice”. He makes it sound as if he were obliged to revert to masturbation after the coital companionship of the production line that arranged the bottles on the shelves of his Pharmacy. When, I wonder, will Katie Price risk writing one of the books that are branded with her name?

The results of Hirst’s experiment with actual artistry aren’t encouraging. Twenty-five canvases installed in two galleries rearrange his morbid fetishes, wearily shuffling a pack of greasy, dog-eared cards. Most of the paintings contain skulls, sometimes accompanied by more contemporary emblems of mortality – a cigarette, a pink lighter, a filthy ashtray. Panicking a little, he creates a fussy diversion with cobwebs of intersecting lines that crosshatch the surface, a gimmick copied from Francis Bacon. But in Bacon, these are vectors of force, arrows of desire. Here, they serve to distract an eye that otherwise finds nothing to engage its interest in the bruised blue murk.

Occasionally, a lemon strays into the arrangement, probably because its shape makes it easy to paint. An iguana, which Hirst’s amateurish daubing turns into something like a crayfish, briefly scuttles on. In one painting, he attempts a facsimile of a nautilus shell, one of nature’s most intricate contraptions; it looks, when he’s done with it, like a scrofulous human ear. A vase of white roses buzzed by butterflies is a dithery fiasco, all the more pitiful because it’s hung not far from the Wallace Collection’s Watteaus and Fragonards, in which entire landscapes bud, blossom and frolic, alive with fertile delight.

Outside Hertford House, which houses the Wallace Collection, he has set up a sculpture of St Bartholomew flaying himself, entitled Exquisite Pain. As in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, the saint brandishes the blade with which he has performed the operation and dangles his limp skin over his arm like a dirty shirt. Is Hirst claiming to conduct the same internal inquisition, laying bare his fears? He shouldn’t claim such existential courage; his speciality is queasy horror, not tragic terror. And despite the rowdy bravado with which he jokes about mortality and welcomes the Apocalypse, he has the small soul of an interior decorator. The icy cobalt blue of the paintings in No Love Lost is, to use his prissy word, “exquisite”.

A few of the canvases re upstaged by the floral borders of their carved frames and they all look crass by contrast with the blue silk wall fabric behind them, commissioned by Hirst from a weaver in Lyons once patronised by Marie Antoinette. The young Turk and the decapitated tart make an apt couple: I can imagine them eternally yoked in the inferno. In our consumerist world, the nifty package matters more than the naff product inside and Hirst’s titles are often more interesting than the paintings they tag. One of his triptychs, featuring three more skulls plus the gaping, serrated mouth of a shark, is called The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth. I assume Hirst is mocking the Christian prophecy, because his own career demonstrates that things have turned out rather differently. In art at least, the pushy and the publicity-hungry, the self-aggrandising and the meagrely talented are the inheritors.

Bumptiously confronting Titian, Poussin and other venerable elders at the Wallace Collection, Hirst is enjoying his temporary ownership of the trampled, desecrated earth. But he’s not a legitimate heir and the Wallace Collection is playing host to a jumped-up pretender. 



 Close encounter



The modernist Francis Bacon is pitted against the 17th-century

master Caravaggio: Rachel Spence observes the contest





There has been a vogue recently for encounters between past and present masters. In Madrid, Paris and London, Picasso has been set in the context of influences such as Velázquez, Delacroix and Manet. Less successfully, Jan Fabre, the Belgian contemporary artist was let loose in the Richelieu wing of the Louvre: displayed alongside Rembrandt and Rubens, Fabre’s flimsy installations were grist to the mill of traditionalists who swear no contemporary artist can match up to the old masters.

The decision to confront Francis Bacon with Caravaggio is also fraught with risk. As the curators acknowledge, the 17th-century master exerted no direct influence on the Irish-born modernist. (Indeed, Bacon, who revered Velázquez, Rembrandt and Picasso, was influenced by Poussin, one of Caravaggio’s harshest critics.) What the pair do share is a revolutionary approach to the human figure, a fascination with anatomy, and a vision that is simultaneously sacred and profane. Both have been tagged as icons of gay, tormented genius whose decadent and violent lives – Bacon’s lover committed suicide; Caravaggio killed a man and wounded several others – fuelled the anguish in their canvases.

Yet it is the differences between them that make this show compelling. Caravaggio was a Catholic; Bacon an avowed atheist. Caravaggio was the flag-bearer of the Counter-Reformation, charged with seducing the faithful away from Lutheran temptation. In Bacon’s age, secularity was yesterday’s news and artists painted to please themselves. Bacon’s refusal to relinquish the human figure while artists all around him turned to abstraction looked quasi-reactionary. Surrounded by the distorted idealism of high mannerism, Caravaggio’s fidelity to the real – he transcribed every wrinkle, every hair, every frantic gesture – saw him pilloried as a radical.

At first, the encounter jars. Built around the ancient-to-baroque art collection amassed by the 17th-century Roman cardinal Scipione Borghese, the Galleria Borghese is one of the finest small museums in the world. But Bacon’s triptychs, August (1972) and Triptych inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981), are eclipsed by the combination of two mighty Caravaggio canvases, The Conversion on the Road to Damascus (1601) and The Resurrection of Lazarus (1609), and the jaw-dropping lavishness of the entrance hall, with its frescoes, statues and mosaic floors.

The display is partly to blame. Mounting the triptychs with their colour-field backgrounds against temporary panels in a pink that tones not only with Bacon’s own colours but also the ceiling fresco is a perilous reminder of Bacon’s original trade as an interior decorator.

But the real problem is the temporal leap demanded of the eye. Plunging a 20th-century artist with a predilection for deconstructing the human figure into a room devoted to classical beauty is an optical challenge. Painted in oil devoid of the sensuous impasto and tenebrous chiaroscuro that make premodern art so seductive, Bacon’s figures look like cartoons: cheeky, graphic teases cocking a snook at the grand old patriarch whose transcendent beauty puts him beyond threat.

After a few minutes, however, these visual hurdles recede and one becomes aware that a gripping dialogue across centuries and belief systems is taking place. What is at stake here is faith. Although he had a complex relationship with religion, repeatedly painting crucifixions, Popes, and triptychs, the imagery of Augusttells us that Bacon’s world was a redemption-free zone.

One of a cycle of “black triptychs” painted after the suicide of his lover George Dyer in a Paris hotel room, the work depicts two semi-naked male figures, leaking out their life force into sinister flesh-pink puddles. Flanked by this pair, a nebulous spillage in mauve, grey and white is Bacon’s chilly vision of a sexual coupling. These abject scenes are framed by a trio of black portals whose matt, merciless, impenetrable surfaces suggest nothing lies on the other side.

Caravaggio’s painting of Lazarus makes a powerful case for the alternative. As a divine glow plays across the scene – the nude torso of the beggar, Christ’s omnipotent, out-stretched arm – the cavern’s tawny-lit, deliquescent darkness truly seems the territory of miracles.

Other than Piero della Francesca, no artist knew better than Caravaggio that light was the Catholic painter’s greatest ally. In the Conversion of St Paul, a breathtaking image of Paul prone beneath the raised hoof of a piebald horse, he floods a dynamic, diaphanous glow on to the horse’s silky hide, making the animal the hero of the painting and reminding us that we are all equal under the eyes of God.

The contest is more equal in the room devoted to portraits. Here, two early Caravaggio canvases, Young Man with a Basket of Fruit (1593-1595) and Self-portrait as Bacchus (1593-1595), show Caravaggio developing the style that would ensure his lasting fame. Although often presented as “the first modern painter” for his refusal to idealise nature, the Lombard-born artist was steeped in the lessons of classical antiquity. Thus he renders every bloom, vein and blemish on his fruit basket in Flemish-style detail yet the boy who holds it, with his purple-shadowed throat and parted, rosy lips, possesses the sculpted perfection of a Michelangelo.

Bacon’s contribution is anchored by Head VI (1949),  one of more than 50 paintings based on Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X. Bacon was no draughtsman but Velázquez’s outline bestows a steely gravitas that is the perfect counterpoint to Bacon’s disfigurement. By dragging paint across an untreated canvas and adding that fathomless, shrieking mouth, Bacon creates an expression of such archetypal horror you sense all his demons – death, faith, masculinity, patriarchal authority – distilled into that single image.

Of course, these were Caravaggio’s demons too. In the the show’s finale, a clutch of marvellous works by the Italian – Madonna di Loreto (1604-1605), St Jerome (1605-1606), Madonna dei Palafrenieri (1605-1606) – include his David with the Head of Goliath (1610). One of Caravaggio’s final paintings, it’s said that the Philistine’s bloodless, open-mouthed visage is a self-portrait of the artist at the end of his life, when he was tortured by guilt and by the thought of his own mortality.

Bacon, who once described his crucifixion scenes as self-portraits, would have understood. A weakness of this show is that it barely contains any of the canvases – the Guggenheim’s Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962), for example – where the Irishman explodes the human body into viscous, blood-hued rubbles of flesh. Only one, Study from Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953), the Pope’s face dissolving into a garnet-red froth to match his robe, hints at the profound sense of revulsion – for death, self, the human condition – that animates his most powerful work.

Ultimately, the absence of a few masterpieces doesn’t matter. Although the curator Anna Coliva writes that the show is “not an exhibition of history”, that’s exactly what it is. But the lesson is made thrilling by the aesthetic power of the works.

Leaving Caravaggio and Bacon aside, the museum offers a whistle-stop tour from ancient art to Rubens, by way of Bellini, Raphael and Correggio. In this company, we see how Caravaggio’s determination to paint the poor, the old and the ugly heralded the slow disintegration of classical ideals of beauty. With modernity came the revelation that man was no longer “the measure of all things”. Bacon’s sorry, disfigured souls mark the final act of the tragedy. Perhaps he was lucky. If he had been born 50 years later he might, like Jan Fabre, be making art out of beetles.

Caravaggio Bacon, Galleria Borghese, Rome, until January 24 2010





               Bodywork  Francis Bacon’s Study of George Dyer (1969)




But Can He Paint?



Leading Conceptual Artist Switches Mediums and Unveils the Results





Damien Hirst’s stock-in-trade is shock, and he has always revelled in the surrounding hoopla. The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists, while calling him "probably the most famous and controversial British artist of his generation," attributed his success to his flair for self-publicity" rather than to his work.

Now he has an exhibition of paintings at London’s Wallace Collection, a museum that includes works by Poussin, Titian and Velázquez in its permanent collection. Mr. Hirst seems amused by the idea that showing in a traditional setting, and working in oils, should have an equal capacity to draw attention.

I turned up in a tie based on a Bacon triptych, bought from John Pearse, the tailor whose shop stands just across from the Colony Room and Groucho clubs. There, during the 1990s, Mr. Hirst’s drink-and drug-fueled exploits became notorious even by Soho’s bohemian standards.

Great tie," he says. John sent me one, too." I mention that I used to see him knocking around pubs and the Colony Room, where Francis Bacon had once been a barman and where foul-mouthed abuse and vodka-driven hooliganism were the order of the day. Beside one of Mr. Hirst’s spot paintings behind the bar, there was a snapshot of him, wearing, if I remember correctly, only Wellington boots. "Well, there’s a lot of that time we all don’t remember," he says.

"It wasn’t a kind of planned thing," he protests. "A lot of what Bacon called, in painting, happy accidents’  well, I have that in my career. I mean Lehman collapsing on the day of my fucking auction and that still going well, that was unbelievable. But it’s more to do with chance than it is with my skill at marketing."

He dismisses, too, the suggestion that his move to traditional painting might have been prompted by the current financial climate, and its implications for the conceptual art market. "It wasn’t really a decision, because I’d started doing it before," he says. "But even with the market the way it is now I could definitely still sell spot and spin paintings. My gallery in New York said Why did you have to kill the golden goose?’"

One suspects Mr. Hirst is just as concerned with growing up as an artist, and about securing his reputation. "In the back of my mind I was always flirting with it because I was afraid of it," he says. "And I always admired painters more than sculptors.

The shift to painting may be a symptom of Mr. Hirst’s maturity and a bid to erect a bulwark against mortality. But if it is to safeguard his artistic reputation, and dispel the view that he is essentially a clever set decorator with a flair for marketing, the question of technique arises. For his spot paintings, he employed an army of assistants, while the spin paintings were made by machines. Can he actually paint?

"I was always very dissatisfied with my paintings and thought they weren’t very good," he says. "I did two years of absolutely rotten paintings, then I started doing things that I did like: The first one was Floating Skull, that was 2006."

The influence of Francis Bacon, one of Mr. Hirst’s great heroes, is immediately apparent, especially in the triptych "The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth," which even uses Bacon’s ghostly cages. "You can’t avoid comparisons," he says. "I’ve put Bacon frames on my pictures but you put them in here and everybody’s got a gold frame. But if I put it in one of my normal galleries it looks like a Bacon rip-off. You ask: Can I use that? But all great artists do that ... you go through being very heavily influenced."

Unfortunately, it can’t be said that, as paintings, they are very accomplished (most teenagers could paint a better lemon). The trouble for Mr. Hirst’s bid to be taken seriously as a painter, rather than as a conceptual artist, is that solutions in painting, most people would argue, ought to be about painting, not about maintaining the superficial glamour, commercial value and recognizability of the Hirst brand.

—Andrew McKie is a writer based in Cambridgeshire.









 Damien Hirst abandons shock of the new for

 old-fashioned art — but it’s shockingly bad



Visual art Rachel Campbell-Johnston






The paintings are dreadful. Think Francis Bacon meets Adrian Mole. So why are these works now hanging in the Wallace Collection? What are they doing in the home of such masters as Rembrandt or Poussin, Titian or Fragonard?

The answer is simple: they are by Damien Hirst. And his is a name that curators must welcome. The artist who can transform a pickled bovine into a cash cow has the commercial touch that any cash-strapped museum needs, not least the somewhat sedate Wallace Collection. Plus, the Hirst show comes complete with a fully paid-for gallery refurbishment (the artist covered the entire cost of the £250,000 exhibition) including a silk wall fabric commissioned from Marie Antoinette’s preferred manufacturers at a cost that would leave most of us dreaming of off-cuts.

Hirst undoubtedly has an entrepreneurial talent. Ever since he launched his landmark 1988 Freeze show he has been upping the ante, testing the parameters of expectation and taste.

Now he makes his latest departure. In the conceptual milieu which he has done so much to make fashionable, what now counts as radical is a return to tradition.

Hirst has been painting. And by that he doesn’t mean employing a team of assistants to produce the paint-by-numbers-type canvases familiar from recent shows. Hirst has been alone in his studio working with palette and brush.

The result is No Love Lost — a show of 25 pictures. Seen from a, istance they don’t look too bad. Their dark expanses are seductively presented iri traditional gilt frames. They fill the galleries with an eerie blue Insect-O-Cutor-style glow.

But take a step farther and a pale, silk-papered boudoir transforms into what feels more like a teenage boy’s bedroom. You can almost smell the brooding odours of existential angst.

Here are all Hirst’s familiar obsessions: the skulls, the shark’s jaws, the ashtrays, the spots with the odd iguana or little O-level, “still life” lemon added to the mix. Hirst floats his images on the dark surface of the canvas, mapping out their spaces and relationships with a mesh of perspective lines.

These works are utterly derivative of Bacon (give or take a dash of Giacometti), but they completely lack his painterly skill. And their metaphors are as ham-fisted as the application of pigment.

Look to the end of the galleries and you will see Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time. Hirst appears to hope that his heavy handed memento mori will make him part of the line-up of art historical tradition. But the artist who has made his reputation with shock now produces works that are shockingly bad. And who knows, maybe this is his trick. Is his brand so strong that we can’t resist turning up to look — even at works on which we know no love will be lost?

 Exhibition runs until January 24




Back to the drawing board but my kids are better than me’



Ben Hoyle Arts Correspondent





The critics are lining up to point out that as a painter Damien Hirst is no Rembrandt, Velazquez or Rubens, even though, from today, his new work is hanging alongside theirs. But the artist himself has pre-empted them: he is not even as good a painter as his children, he said.

Hirst, who has three sons aged 4 to 14, has theatrically turned his back on most production-line artworks, closed two of his studios and is on his last formaldehyde project — “three crucified cows in marble tanks”.

He has two galleries next to the Wallace Collection’s Great Gallery, which includes paintings by Rembrandt, Titian, Velazquez, Van Dyck, Rubens and Gainsborough.

“I’ve digested the history of art. I know all these guys but I’m approaching [painting] from a completely different angle. I love Rembrandt but I don’t have the same abilities.” Even if Hirst did, he doubts that he could make the same impact as they did from pure painting.

“There’s too much going on [today]. When they were painting there were paintings. There was no Hollywood, there was no plastic surgery, advertising, TV. We live in such a crazy world Hirst is abandoning formaldehyde projects to return to painting now I think a mere painting on that level doesn’t really work.”

He gave up painting as a teenager because Francis Bacon “had covered it all”. Now he has taken it up again and "it’s something that I’ve started to feel very comfortable with”.

Having children had steered him back to bush and canvas. “You see kids painting and they just pick it up.”

Is he better at painting than his children? “Definitely not, especially the little one. My mum once said to me, I’ve learnt a hell of lot more from my children than I could possibly teach them’. All children are artists. It’s just that most of them stop.”




Stop it, Damien Hirst, you’re embarrassing yourself









The Laughing Cavalier, painted by Frans Hals in 1624, is one of the greatest treasures of the Wallace Collection.

That this roguish anonymous gentleman is indeed laughing has been a matter of dispute since the title was coined in the later 19th century, but as it has become canonical and the image iconic, the questions why? and at what? have not been much asked in recent years.

Now, however, almost four centuries after his depiction, he has a wry reason for his laughter, for a guffaw must be the sane man’s immediate reaction to the puerile and maladroit paintings by Damien Hirst, newly installed in neighbouring rooms for the next three months or so.

These, I have no doubt, were painted with high seriousness, if for no other reason than that they must sell for millions (perhaps they should not be exposed to such a risk), for as original works from the very hand of Hirst himself, each must surely rank higher as a work of art than any such multiple workshop offering as the notorious diamond-encrusted skull.

Alas, however, these paintings are shoddy, slip-slop and derivative, not of Poussin or Frans Hals – the latter has a wonderful painting of a skull in the National Gallery – but to Francis Bacon, whose work Hirst crudely mimics but does not understand.

At vast expense, Hirst has provided new hangings for the gallery walls, striped moiré silk in an aquamarine blue that conjures the spirit of dix-huitième France in an attempt to influence our opinion of his daubs.

At vast expense, he has framed his canvases as Bacon did, primarily in silver and gold, sheet glass both obscuring the images with reflections and lending mysterious depth.

But, discounting these Baconian tricks of presentation and concentrating only on the canvases, we have nothing but the wretched incomprehensions of the first-year student cribbing from an acknowledged master.

Were Hirst’s canvases the work of a late teenager, we might take the random lines around the skulls as a clever allusion to the measuring-points of a sculptor of Canovas generation, or as an illusion of cracked glass, and forgive the ugly clumsiness of inexperienced execution; but Hirst is nearing his half-century and should have a far higher level of skill than this rough daubing, with which he degrades his master, Bacon.

Is Damien his own worst enemy? He claims these caricatures of Bacon to be deeply connected with the past, but it is a past no earlier than the last quarter of the century in which he was born.

He is vain enough to proclaim that his work as Bacons shallow pasticheur belongs in the Wallace Collection with paintings by Rembrandt and Velázquez, Titian and Van Dyck, but one minute spent in the Great Gallery with these is enough to prove the arrogance of this delusion.

Are then his uncritical friends, allies and advisers his worst enemies – those who daily greet him with Oh King, live for ever and tell him he can do no wrong?

Has Ros Savill, directrice of the Wallace Collection, done him a great disservice in her foolish desperation to increase the number of the museum’s visitors by exhibiting so notorious and filthy-rich an artist? The exposure should do no good to either herself or Hirst.

The exhibition is supported by the usual events performed by the usual lackeys who can be trusted to Praise him, praise him, praise him – including Tim Marlow, a director of White Cube, the art dealership most closely associated with Hirsts huge commercial success (only in the arts could so crass a conflict of interest be ignored).

It is accompanied by a catalogue in which all 29 canvases are illustrated, but in no way illuminated by the text of a conversation in The Pig and Whistle between Hirst and John Hoyland, the grand old bore of British bucket-and-slosh abstract painting.

In this the words most used and most superfluous are fuck and its derivatives – the fucking chair, fucking debris, fucking rectangle, fucking artist, fucking unbelievable.

I take this as licence, for this occasion only, to declare this detestable exhibition fucking dreadful.

No Love Lost, Blue Paintings by Damien Hirst is at the Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, W1 (020 7563 9500) until 24 January. Admission free.







Damien Hirst: Dead on Arrival








After years of doing installation art, dead animals in formaldehyde and pictures painted entirely by his small army of studio assistants, work that made him one of the most famous artists in the world, Damien Hirst is showing paintings in London this week that he did all by himself. And the British critics are tearing him to pieces.

When I profiled him last year for Time, Damien Hirst was at an odd place in his career. As a market and media phenomenon he was bigger than ever. He was about to rake in an additional pirate’s treasure by cutting out his dealers and taking several years worth of his new work directly to auction at Sotheby’s in London. As we all now know, though the sale took place the same week that Lehman Brothers collapsed in New York, it brought in nearly $200 million — the perfect End-of-the-Gilded-Age blowout.

But he was also at some kind of psychological crossroads. He had made his name with work that had no trace of his hand, but his greatest hero was Francis Bacon, one of the most painterly painters of all time. And Hirst had come to a point where he seemed to feel that the only way to demonstrate his own authenticity as an artist was to paint — actually paint, meaning applying the stuff to the canvas himself. You got the feeling he was embarked on a sort of a one-man rappelle a l’ordre, like Picasso’s return to neo-classical figuration after Cubism. One difference, of course, was that Picasso could draw.

One day that summer at Hirst’s offices in London, with one of the several Bacons in his collection looking down from one wall, he showed me some large transparencies of the work he had begun. They were ghostly white-line figures and (of course) skulls, drawn in paint against dark blue backgrounds. It was pretty clear right away what work had inspired them, Bacon’s series of Blue Men of the 1950s, isolated businessmen in pinstripes painted against spare dark backgrounds.

They didn’t look very promising but I didn’t offer any judgments about them then and I won’t offer any now. You can’t make final judgments based on reproductions or transparencies. But I do remember thinking that when he finally exhibited them he was probably going to be slaughtered by the critics in London, who had gotten thoroughly sick of those endless dot and butterfly paintings being churned out in his name by his assistants, to say nothing of that diamond encrusted skull.

I was pretty sick of all that, too, but I was also sort of moved by Hirst’s predicament. He had become one of the most successful artists in the world without painting anything himself, but at the age of 43 he felt he needed to work in the great tradition to feel validated. It reminded me of the way Billy Joel and Paul McCartney keep trying to write classical music.

Well, Hirst is now showing those paintings, 25 of them, in an exhibition that opens today in London called No Love Lost. As an additional provocation he’s showing them at the Wallace Collection, an ornate old townhouse stuffed with works by Titian, Rembrandt and Poussin, which means he’s placing himself squarely in the long line of art history. And, as predicted, the British critics have taken out all the long knives.

Tom Lubbock, in The Independent, is typical:

They’re thoroughly derivative. Their handling is weak. They’re extremely boring. I’m not saying that he’s absolutely hopeless. But I’m not saying he’s any good either. ... Hirst, as a painter, is at about the level of a not-very-promising, first-year art student. He is in his mid-forties.


As a public service, on its website the BBC combines links to several of the reviews.


Hirst remains a very canny operator, and occasionally also an interesting artist, though not on canvas. I predict he’ll survive all this, though it will be interesting to see how long it takes before he shows paintings again.







            Francis Bacon, Man in Blue V, 1954   Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf




Damien Hirst: Who’s fooling who?



 ‘Are Hirst’s paintings any good? No, they’re not worth looking at’



If it were not for his prodigious fame, would Damien Hirst’s canvases be

exhibited at London’s hallowed Wallace Collection? 

Of course not, says Tom Lubbock, the man simply can’t paint







A few quick questions. 1. Are these new paintings, painted by Damien Hirst himself, any good? No, not at all, they are not worth looking at. 2. So why are you writing about them at such length? Because he is very famous. 3. And why has the Wallace Collection decided to exhibit them? Because he is very famous. 4. And why did Damien Hirst even paint them in the first place? Because he is very famous.

Now let me put this at more length. Damien Hirst has painted some paintings, entirely by hand. So far he has made his name with other kinds of art: with assemblages, mainly involving dead animals and pills, and paintings, painted by other people. There have been the spot paintings, the spin paintings, paintings copied from photographs, all done by assistants. But now he has risked his fame, with some paintings done by his own hand.

Anyone interested in Hirst’s art to date, anyone simply interested in Hirst as a very famous artist, will probably take an interest in this radical turn in his work. What will they look like? There’s another thing. Even now we’ve learnt to accept that skills needn’t matter, still that old question seems to linger over any artist, whatever methods they employ: can they actually paint?

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s an extra attraction in where these paintings are being shown., The Wallace Collection is a distinguished, old-fashioned venue, and chosen precisely as a traditionalist setting, to stress the way these new paintings have a place in the great tradition. As the artist has said himself, he feels they are "deeply connected to the past." For the public, it’s intriguing. If you were expecting some outrage from the master of Brit Art shock, expect again.

Here they are, then, looking like history. In a long chamber, just off the Wallace’s main gallery of masterpieces, they hang on walls of sumptuous silk, and held in heavy old-master frames. There are 25 pictures, including two triptychs. Their collective title is No Love Lost, Blue Paintings. And they don’t look back that far. As you’d expect, they are most reminiscent of paintings by Hirst’s hero, Francis Bacon.

You see it at once. They take their effects, not from Bacon’s virtuoso exploding flesh images, but from the dourer Bacons of the 1950s. There’s little colour. Blue-ish whites glimmer out of blue-ish darkness. As in Bacon, but more so, the figures are contained within frameworks of straight white lines. The figurative matter consists (mainly) of Hirsty things – skulls, skeleton, a shark’s open maw, ashtrays, cigarette packets, flayed bodies, also lizards, thickets of wood. There are grid patterns of white dots. 

Like Bacons, they’re pretty big. Their themes come in repetitive sequences. There’s a series of very similar paintings of flayed bodies seen in a thicket, another series of skulls and ashstrays. The subjects may sound harsh, but the painting of them is neither violent nor graceful, simply unassertive and unconfident, caution suggesting uncertainty. There’s not a dash of virtuosity. There’s an attempt at blurry, glowy etherealness. There’s one picture of a vase of flowers with butterflies flying out of it in all directions, and some of the butterflies are quite neatly painted.

But come now. This is ridiculous. To talk in this considered way is to pretend that the paintings can be taken seriously. So let’s be clear. Many kinds of paintings get reviewed on these pages, and some of them (in my judicious way) I say are good, and some bad. But in a way they’re all quite good, or they wouldn’t be getting reviewed here in the first place.

These Hirst paintings are way outside that range. They’re thoroughly derivative. Their handling is weak. They’re extremely boring. I’m not saying that he’s absolutely hopeless. But I’m not saying he’s any good either. There are many degrees of painting. There are many painters in evening classes much worse than Hirst. On the other hand, you’d find quite a few who were better, too. To try to be accurate: Hirst, as a painter, is at about the level of a not-very-promising, first-year art student. He is in his mid-forties.


There are dozens of youngsters who turn up at our art schools each year, doing this turgid teen-angst stuff. And many of them are deluded enough, in their innocence, to think that their work is "deeply connected to the past." Their teachers have to scold and embarrass them out of these bad habits. These kids may come to something. At that point you can’t really be sure. But you can be sure that the Wallace Collection, in its kindness, wouldn’t offer them a gallery to display their work. And I too, in my kindness, wouldn’t write about this present show, if it wasn’t for the level of public interest.

As for what Damien Hirst thinks he’s doing, it’s not my business, but anyone may wonder. Yearning to be among the masters, and blinded by self-belief? Maybe. And I could imagine another famous artist, who had made their name in assemblage, and who decided to try their hand at painting – but when it turned out like this, realised it simply wouldn’t do, and sighed, and put it away, their fame not having warped their judgement.

And I could imagine another famous artist who did a similar thing, but who wasn’t quite sure, and realised that their fame was likely distort both their judgement and the public’s. So they submitted one of their new paintings, under a pseudonym, to the biennial John Moores Painting Prize competition, to see what would happen. Hirst could have done the same.

Well, the artist can make a fool of himself, and it doesn’t matter. I’m sure the pictures will sell for a packet anyway, and if the critics are rude – I jolly well hope they are – the buyers need only be reminded of Van Gogh, rejected by all in his time, now seen as great. (Ignore the slight circularity of this argument.) No, it’s our poor little art world that I feel sorry for. We just look so bloody stupid. 

I mean, here is the director of the Wallace Collection – no names, no pack-drill – and what she says is: Hirst’s paintings are "very classical in nature" and "his ethereal other-worldly treatment of the memento mori subject evokes centuries of great art... a comparison can be made to the Wallace Collection’s great Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time."

Actually, the Wallace thinks so highly of its great Poussin that currently it exhibits it with a statuette plonked directly in front of it, so you can’t see it properly. Never mind. You can see those Hirst paintings clearly enough, and then imagine what could have moved the mind of this director. Was she dazzled by stardom? Can she really not see anything?

We’re all blinded, I suppose, somehow. So many things obscure a pure attention to good art. The spectacle of blazing fame and self-delusion, the joy of people talking utter rubbish, and writing rude reviews: the freak show goes on. At least today I have detained you long enough.

No Love Lost, Blue PaintingsWallace Collection, London W1 (020-7563 9500) to 24 January




No one wants to take home the Bacon at art show





A painting by Francis Bacon valued at $9m on sale at the Pavillion of Art & Design in London this week, could be a bellwether for the art market in a post credit crisis world.


The Monday night opening of the fair was attended by thousands of wealthy collectors and clients of the Pavilion’s sponsor, Swiss private bank EFG International.


Cheaper and mid-market works were the biggest sellers. While the pricier works of art were less popular.


Gerard Faggionato, a director of the Faggionato Fine Arts gallery, which was selling the Bacon, and also works by super-artists Andy Warhol and Gilbert & George, said he had sold little





Frieze Week to Lure Billionaires With $9 Million Bacon Nude








Oct. 8 (Bloomberg) — London’s contemporary-art traders are aiming to defy the recession in their biggest week of the year by offering works including a $9 million Francis Bacon painting.

The Frieze Art Fair previews on Oct. 14, with 165 galleries bidding to win business from billionaire collectors. That’s up from 151 last year. Frieze found new exhibitors as 28 galleries pulled out. Other satellite events have shrunk or closed.

Frieze is still Europe’s biggest fair exclusively devoted to original works by contemporary and living artists. Demand for these works contracted during the financial crisis that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in September 2008. Volumes of auction sales shrank between 70 percent and 80 percent, and prices of some artists more than halved, said the London-based research company ArtTactic in an e-mail last month.

London-based dealer Gerard Faggionato will be offering Bacon’s 1988 painting of a male nude, Study from the Human Body after Muybridge, with a price of $9 million at the satellite Pavillion Art & Design fair. The painting is from the estate of the artist, which Faggionato represents.

“There’s been a change from galleries asking who they want to sell to, to collectors asking who they want to buy from,” Faggionato said in an interview. “People will wake up next week. Everybody’s waiting to see what will happen.”





A 1988 Francis Bacon painting titled Study from the Human Body after Muybridge

The work will be priced at $9 million at Faggionato Fine Art’s booth at the Frieze Art Fair, London U.K.

The fair previews on the evening of Oct. 13.






Mystery over who made the “Francis Bacon” rugs



New research poses more questions than answers over possible

attributions for items that were withdrawn from March sale





at two very rare hand-knotted rugs, designed by the artist Francis Bacon, had turned up in a saleroom near Salisbury generated widespread media excitement last February; excitement that rapidly turned to disappointment with the news they had been withdrawn by their consignor shortly before Netherhampton’s 12 March auction. The two rugs —featuring a distinctive green, angular, crosshatch design and signed boldly “Francis Bacon”—carried estimates of £50,000-£80,000.

The Art Newspaper has now seen research that raises questions about the attribution of these rugs. The technical examination by carpet experts Clive Rogers, of Clive Rogers Oriental Rugs, and Jean Manuel de Noronha, a Paris-based researcher, will be published in the December issue of the specialist carpet magazine Hali under the title “The Rugs of the Young Francis Bacon”.

The research has been timed to coincide with a rare showing of rugs known to be by Bacon at London’s Tate Britain (26 October-late February, 2010), allowing for comparison.

Bacon only made rugs and furniture for a very short period in the late 1920s—in his late teens—before turning to painting. His rugs and furniture were shown in exhibitions in 1929 and 1930, but this aspect of his work is rarely studied. According to Rogers and other experts, only seven rugs are known to be currently in existence, including one in the V&A and the three due to show at the Tate.

However—drawing on photographs of Bacon’s Queensbury Mews West studio, published in 1930 in Studio Magazine, and drawings and paintings of the studio by the Australian artist Roy de Maistre—Rogers and De Noronha’s study shows evidence of at least six more.

However, none of the rugs pictured in Studio Magazine or by De Maistre correspond with the two Netherhampton rugs, nor with a third, almost identical (but unsigned) rug in private hands, which has since appeared and been shown to Rogers. All three are narrower than the seven currently accepted as Bacons, at around 6ft x 3ft, as opposed to 7ft x 4ft.

Their place of manufacture is also a mystery: the authors state that “all three have the patina and structure of period products” but have difficulty attributing them to the Wilton Carpet factory at Wilton, near Salisbury, which has been clearly established as the maker of the seven known Bacon rugs. The authors’ research shows that the three green rugs are likely to have been made in England or Ireland but associations to either Bacon or one of Wilton’s rural satellites is problematic.

Perhaps the most intriguing finding of the research is about the design. The three “new” green rugs appear almost identical in pattern to a much larger carpet in a pinkish colourway, which has appeared three times at auction in Continental Europe. On each occasion (Sotheby’s Monaco, 23 April 1989; Boisgirard, 29 March 1990; Sotheby’s Monaco, 11 December 1995) that piece was attributed to the famous Paris-based Brazilian textile artist/rugmaker Ivan Da Silva Bruhn, probably around 1927.


However, the three green rugs are unlike Da Silva Bruhn’s construction, if similar in design. The authors note that Bacon spent time in Paris from 1927/28 and that his rugs do show the influence of Paris-based artist-makers including Eileen Gray and Fernand Léger. But so far, all the accepted Bacons “are unique”, they say, and there is no evidence of him copying directly from other textile artists


Dr Ian Bennett, the carpet expert at Netherhampton’s, declined to comment, except to say that, in light of the new evidence, he “no longer believes the rugs to be by Bacon”.





A rare glimpse into the artist’s studio



From the knee-deep litter of Francis Bacon to the artful order of Lucian Freud, a new

 exhibition explores how artists’ workspaces reveal more than their occupants expect







Between them the beautiful boy huddled over a small fire in his icy garret, and the beautiful naked girl stooping in front of window overlooking a tumble of Parisian rooftops, combine almost every popular cliché about what artists get up to behind the closed doors of their studios.

One is a little painting from 1845, by the otherwise almost entirely forgotten 19th-century artist Octave Tassaert, and the other Christopher Nevinson’s 1926 A Studio in Montparnasse. They hang among centuries of artists’ studios captured in paint, film and photographs, in a unique exhibition opening this week at Compton Verney, the country mansion gallery in Warwickshire. Both show us wonderfully plausible lies: the viewer assumes immediately that the poverty and romance of one studio, the glamour and hint of exotic pleasures in the other, must relate to the artists’ own lives. Which just proves how dangerous it is to take what artists say about themselves as the truth.

The Nevinson, for instance, doesn’t show his own studio but one borrowed from a friend – who was outraged by the painting and the suggestion that his handsome room was the kind of place you might find a naked woman hanging around the window seat.

Over a century ago the Strand magazine nailed the voyeuristic seduction of such images: “The sacred place ... a laboratory in which ideas are melted down and boiled up and turned out on canvas by magic.” Art historian, curator and deviser of the exhibition Giles Waterfield feels the seductive power of many of the images, but warns that the exhibition throws up more questions than it answers.

"For centuries people have taken the studio as a faithful reflection of the soul of the artist, but my question is – and it is one which this exhibition finally cannot answer: is it really?" Artists, after all, are by definition creatures of artifice, and they are exhibitionists. Many of these interiors are as carefully constructed as stage sets.

Waterfield and his co-curator Antonia Harrison spoke to Lucian Freud, whose studio is represented not only by his own paintings but in dazzling photographs by his assistant David Dawson, and by Bruce Bernard. Freud insisted there was nothing interesting or revelatory about his studio; it was just the place where he worked – but everything in the photographs suggests otherwise: a meticulously constructed space with almost surreal features including walls layered in impasto where he wiped his brushes. The paint is an inch thick in places – it must surely be easier to wipe a brush on a rag than risk damaging the voluptuous sculptural effect.

Another photograph by Perry Ogden shows the legendary litter of Francis Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews, precisely matching the image of a haunted genius, which has now been reconstructed like the shrine of a saint in a Dublin gallery. It is shown beside the site drawing by the team of archaeologists who were sent in to record the stratigraphy of each individual object, before the move began. But there are also two more images of Bacon studios, which suggest the great man may have been playing to the cameras as he shuffled through the drifts of paper and rags; one dates from the period when he was still designing furniture, and it is as obsessively neat as a showroom window. Another little sketch by Michael Clark, from 1982, only two years before Ogden’s photograph, shows a cluttered interior – but with a perfectly clear working space in the centre.

Many of the earlier paintings in the show, such as Peter Tillemans’s handsome interior of 1716, depict not tormented souls starving, but elegantly dressed gentlemen entertaining more gentlemen, connoisseurs and potential clients, in interiors groaning with oriental carpets, leatherbound volumes and classical statues; these are artists marketing themselves as clubbable equals rather than social outcasts. Women artists, on the other hand, have their own very small section of the show, and if they’re not quite working on a corner of the kitchen table, very few have managed a room of their own – artist Gwen John has one but it’s as bare as a nun’s cell, and clearly no society clients will be calling.

A century later, and the fashion has changed. For a society in thrall to the romance of La Bohème and Trilby, it was more marketable to be suffering in a garret. Edward Burne-Jones, in letters to his patron the Earl of Carlisle, sketches himself as a shivering skeletal figure, and writes that his stacked canvases are so cold and damp they could be used for growing mushrooms.

It may be that the only truly honest images in the show – and that includes the immaculate working studio constructed in a corner of a beautiful Georgian room overlooking a lake, for the artist Sigrid Holmwood – are from Turner prize-winner Jeremy Deller and the self-destructive 18th-century painter George Morland. Deller ruefully admits that the “studio” – no jugs of brushes, no turpentine-steeped rags, just a room where he works hunched over a laptop – is really quite boring. Morland’s little painting, meanwhile, shows him at work on an idyllic landscape in a truly grim room. There are no swags of velvet drapery or classical busts here: it is almost bare of furniture, with sketches scribbled on the fireplace wall, presumably because all the paper has already gone up the chimney. His assistant is cooking four sausages in a pan over the fire – and there are two men and two hopeful-looking large dogs, so there won’t be much lunch for anyone. There’s an empty gin bottle on the floor, and presumably, one suspects, a half-full one nearby. Morland has fatally discovered that pub landlords would trade him drink for a new inn sign. He would be dead within two years of the painting, at the age of 39.

As for the beautiful boy painter starving in his garret, the artist Tassaert was 45 when he painted it. But if he was never quite so picturesquely young and poor, his own fate was tragic enough for the libretto of any opera. The painting is owned by the Louvre, and the image is now a bestseller worldwide on prints, greeting cards and even fridge magnets, but in life Tassaert was bitterly disappointed that he never achieved the success or recognition he felt he deserved. He became an alcoholic, sold everything left in his studio to a dealer at a knockdown price and gave up painting, and died in 1874 by gassing himself.

The show ended up much larger than the curators originally expected: there are hundreds of images, spanning more than three centuries. Some of the painters, including A-list celebrities of their day such as William Powell The Derby Day Frith, were rich and famous. While the view of one of the studios of GF Watts, a giant of his Victorian heyday whose reputation went into freefall after his death, shows that he worked in a space as luxurious as the lounge of a grand hotel. Others, like poor Morland, were barely scraping a living. Still, surprising similarities show up across the years: from Tillemans in 1716 to the spaces of Damien Hirst and Tom Phillips that have been photographed in the last 10 years, there’s usually a skull around somewhere, and often the artist is not working in splendid isolation but with a rabble of assistants, women, children, cats and dogs hanging about. Time after time, although the feeling of trespassing in a sacred space endures, we as visitors are clearly expected: there’s usually an artful still life in the foreground, or drawings, maps, bits of costumes and props – laid out to impress.

It’s the Morland I’d take home with me, for its shabby frankness, and as a spur to work harder myself. I’m pretty sure he’d have swapped it for an extra sausage all round for the men and the dogs.



From decorator to painter – Francis Bacon’s interior designs go on show



Rare rugs and paintings which Francis Bacon completed when he was working as aninterior

designer are to go on display for the first time.






Hidden in private collections for decades, they escaped the artist’s attempts to destroy his early artworks which he believed were inferior to his later masterpieces.

Experts claim the pieces give a vital insight into how his interior design work influenced his more famous works.

To mark the centenary of Bacon’s birth on October 28, Francis Bacon: Early Work at Tate Britain will include three rugs and a painted screen dating from 1929 when the then 20-year-old Bacon was decorating homes in London.

On loan from a private collection, they will be shown alongside some of his earliest surviving paintings, including Composition 1933, which echoes patterns in his rug designs, and his 1944 breakthrough work, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.

From 1928 to 1930, Bacon worked in London, Paris and Berlin, designing entire interior schemes together with individual pieces of furniture. He began to incorporate some of his interiors work into his first paintings, such as Watercolour (1929), his earliest surviving painting which appears to have evolved from his carpet designs.

Aged 19, his studio in South Kensington was featured in an interiors magazine in a piece entitled The 1930 Look in British Decoration.

His clients included the Australian painter Roy de Maistre, who later became his mentor, and Sydney Butler, the daughter of the art collector Samuel Courthauld, for whom he designed a dining table and set of stools for her London home.

Matthew Gale, the curator of Modern Art and Head of Displays at Tate Modern, said that the new display which opens on October 26 would come as a tremendous surprise to a lot of people.

He said: Seeing where an artist comes from is always an incredibly intriguing and revealing thing. Not many people know that Bacon started out in interior design because he didn’t make a big thing about it in later life.

He tended to enforce the sense that the Three Studies... was where his career as the great British painter all began, but his design work was also a crucial moment.

These works show him linked to a European modernist tradition, with a debt to Picasso and building on cubism as he made the shift from decorator to painter.





Francis Bacon


Metropolitan Museum of Art





Sometime around 1950, Francis Bacon (1909-92) wrote that he would like his paintings to look like “the track left by human beings—like the slime left by snails.” My first encounter with these snail trails happened back in 1985, at his retrospective at London’s Tate Gallery. Gripped by the contrary emotions they aroused, I returned the next morning, determined to grasp their visual and psychological slipperiness. So it’s not surprising that when I walked into the Metropolitan, the last stop on Tate Britain’s traveling centenary retrospective, I did so with some trepidation. What I especially feared were the years I have spent since looking critically at art.

As if to echo this concern, the catalogue, despite proclaiming Bacon the greatest British modern painter, also admits that his importance lies more in his “commitment to art itself than in any stylistic legacy.” Indeed, in accordance with the widespread belief that the proof of an artist’s success lies in his influence on art history, this statement reads almost like an admission of irrelevance. Yet no sooner had I entered the first gallery, all of these doubts proved groundless. None of the 130 exhibits, from the earliest 1930s Crucifixions to the works created around the time of his death, felt outdated either formally or in terms of their affective power. Nor has time made them any the less conceptually profound than when they were first made.

Bacon was well aware of his problematical status in the art world. Though remaining defiantly figurative when all serious modern art had gone abstract, he earned the praise of such renowned intellects as Herbert Read and Gilles Deleuze. At the same time, his dramatic pronouncements about the necessity of excess and suffering, and his professed admiration for writers such as Nietzsche, Shakespeare and Aeschylus, were often seen as incompatible with the undeniable beauty of his paintings. Formalist critics such as Michael Fried objected that his “conventional emotions” did not rise to the level of his “venturesome” and “shocking” forms. Conversely, while Roberta Smith has responded to the “psychological situation” of his work, she felt that its impact was severely eroded by Bacon’s formulaic devices concerning the figure/ground relationship, or the “relentless” gold frames he seemed to like so much. Those and other dissonances between form and content sometimes led to even outright dismissal of Bacon as the perfect existentialist painter for the new bourgeois salon. However, one could also propose something else—that this disparity of form and content is a willful aesthetic “failure” that highlights the impassable gap between raw human experience and its artistic after-effect. Be that as it may, Bacon would have keenly felt this fissure, since his combative dialogue with traditional art was clearly the means by which he tried to define himself. Indeed, his struggle to work within the tradition was the very reason he preferred Proust, whom he termed “the last tragic writer,” to, say, Joyce’s technical bravura. And like Proust or T.S. Eliot, Bacon recognized that while the canon anchored his individual gesture, its weight made any exit outside its frame all the more challenging.

Concerning the anxieties of his position, one of the most telling documents in “Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective” (through August 16) is a wall-sized fragment of Perry Ogden’s famous photograph of Bacon’s Reece Mews studio in London. As with most of his other studios, it presents utmost chaos as a necessary comfort zone. In fact, in the midst of this squalor one glimpses a monograph on Velázquez, perhaps Bacon’s most significant art hero. Its cover shows Juan de Pareja, the mixedrace servant who was trained by his “master” Velázquez to become a painter in his own right. Moreover, it was this very painting that the Spanish master showed to Pope Innocent X before being commissioned to paint his portrait. Velázquez’s goal, as in most of his other portraits, was to demonstrate not only his ability to capture the likeness of his servant, but also the innate dignity of a person capable of rising above his station. And it was this twofold grasp of the world of appearances and their underlying reality that made Velázquez so highly esteemed even in the eyes of this notoriously callous pontiff, who is said to have received his portrait with the words “troppo vero” (too real). 

Arrogant as he may have been, Bacon aspired to be the greatest “realist” painter of his generation—realist understood here as the ability to show both the outside and the inside of phenomena. This was one crucial reason why he preferred Velázquez to the exemplary modernist Cézanne, whom he ultimately found unable to convey the life force of his apples or sitters. The Spanish baroque master, on the other hand, could take a given situation and instill out of it “both fact and image.” That Bacon could go on to praise the portrait of the Pope as something “factual” and “powerfully formal” that was also able to “unlock valves of sensation at all different levels” is understandable. But that he at the same time likened the portrait to Egyptian art places Bacon back in the court of a more historically recusant position.

This latest Bacon retrospective reads as one continuous movement toward the ideal image that can project both rigorous formality and yet assault the beholder’s sensations in unexpected ways. Though the human drama lies behind most of his grand narratives, every once in a while his paintings seem to lack a human subject. Yet even in those instances, such as the Eliot-inspired A Piece of Wasteland (1982), or Blood on Pavement (1988), which evokes the painter’s favourite lines from Aeschylus about the smiling reek of human blood, he still manages to convey the slime of existence. We get another glimpse of this double strategy in a portrait appearing at the end of the show, his 1991 Triptych, in which the artist returns once more to the theme of his long-deceased lover George Dyer. The left wing of this “altarpiece” presents the dead “Muse,” while on the right we see his mourning “Pygmalion.” Their bodies seem turned toward each other, albeit in truncated fashion, with a centaur-like passion, while their tightly cropped monochromatic faces look directly at the beholder, ensnaring us in the ineradicable dichotomy between the mind and the body, between the “higher” appearances of self and its “lower,” uncivilized urges. And as in so many of his pictures, Triptych’s central panel shows a messy tangle of limbs, alluding in equal measure to love and death, to a desire to protect and mangle the other.

Bacon may well have over-reached in his ambition to secure his place in the pantheon of Western painters. Yet, even if his obsession with Eros and Thanatos may occasionally appear single-minded, his repeated statements about the difficulty of painting today deserve the benefit of doubt. And he was probably not just trying to impress Allen Ginsberg when he allegedly told this modern-day Dionysus that the only way one could successfully conclude a work was “with a chance brushstroke that locked in the magic—a fortuitous thing he could not predict or orchestrate.”





        BACON DUST



Sifting through the remnants of 7 Reece Mews





Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life

—Pablo Picasso


Several years ago, I met Francis Bacon’s cleaning lady. Bacon’s amanuensis, the art critic David Sylvester, referred me to her, as he had her to Bacon. Jean Ward, who had her grey hair swept back into a thin ponytail like a pirate’s, welcomed me to her flat on a housing estate in Tooting Beck, South London. In a raspy voice she told me about her decade working for the painter whose legendarily messy studio—layer upon layer of dust, paint, discarded imagery, champagne bottles, and other detritus—would not have provided her much of a recommendation for future jobs.

“I wasn’t daunted,” she said when recalling her first visit to 7 Reece Mews in the early 1980s, “because I had read certain things about how some artists have tidy studios and some don’t—so I wasn’t really shocked. I just looked at the nice colours on the door that he used to try out paint on.” (Bacon referred to these giant palettes as his “only abstract paintings.”) Traditionally, it was the sculptor who was necessarily slovenly for, as Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his Treatise on Painting, “his face is smeared and dusted all over with marble powder so that he looks like a baker, and he is completely covered with little chips of marble, so that he seems as if his back has been snowed on; and his house is full of splinters of stone and dust.” The painter, in contrast, “sits in front of his work in perfect comfort. He is well-dressed and handles the lightest of brushes which he dips in pleasant colours. He wears the clothes he likes; and his house is full of delightful paintings and is spotlessly clean.”1

“I live in squalor,” Bacon once boasted of his own practice, “the woman who cleans is not allowed to touch the studio. Besides, I like the dust—I set it like pastel.” Bacon’s biographer Daniel Farson reported that the artist “never had the studio in the Mews cottage cleaned because it helped him to lift up dust from the floor and apply it to the canvas when painting his sand dunes; he also rubbed his fingers along the dust and then on to the wet paint.” Bacon did this in his portrait of his patron and lover, Eric Hall: “Actually there is no paint at all on the suit apart from a very thin grey wash on which I put dust from the floor,” Bacon said of Figure in a Landscape (1945). “I thought: well, how can I make that slightly furry quality of a flannel suit? And then I suddenly thought: well, I’ll get some dust. And you can see how near it is to a decent flannel suit.”

“He definitely didn’t like anyone going into his studio, that was his domain,” Ward confirmed. “I was never allowed to clean it. Occasionally, he and John [Edwards, Bacon’s companion for the last sixteen years of his life] would get together and clean out some of the clutter;2 otherwise it would get so high that you’d have to clamber over, and he did like to stand back and look at his paintings. … All that clutter, sometimes I would expect it to start moving with cockroaches!” Bacon was proud of his disorderly studio, which was a kind of metaphor for the creative act: “I feel at home in this chaos,” he said of his workspace, “because chaos suggests images to me. … I think it may be a spur to create order.” On another occasion he explained, “I like to live among the memories and the damage.”

When Ward first met Bacon, he had no cleaning equipment, apart from the odd can of Ajax, a domestic bleach he sometimes used to powder his face. He took Ward to Harrods department store so that she could help him choose his first vacuum cleaner. To use it in the South Kensington mews garret where the artist lived and worked, Ward often had to step over a drunk Bacon when she arrived in the morning (now and again, to celebrate a particularly successful night at one of Soho’s casinos, her employer would give her a generous wad of cash). The flat, up a steep flight of stairs from the street, had an eccentric arrangement. In addition to the studio, there were two other rooms—a kitchen which also held the bath, and a small bedroom that doubled as a living room. In Perry Ogden’s photographs of Reece Mews, taken after the artist’s death, you can see that these domestic spaces, unlike the studio, were modest, simply decorated, and, thanks to Ward, spick-and-span. “The dust wasn’t good for him,” Ward told me, “sometimes he could hardly breathe. I kept it down as best I could and when he went off on trips, then I would really go to town.” Ward likes to think her cleaning “helped him to stay alive a bit longer and do more work.”

The dust that he sometimes applied to his canvases was particularly dangerous to Bacon, who suffered from asthma so badly that he was declared unfit for military service during World War II. He volunteered for civil defense instead, working for Air Raid Precautions, but the fine dust of the London Blitz aggravated his asthma and he was discharged on medical grounds. He and Eric Hall rented a cottage in Hampshire where they sat out the war. “If I hadn’t been asthmatic,” the artist once commented dryly, “I might never have gone on painting at all.”

Dust for Bacon, therefore, contained a particularly poignant existential message. “The world is just a dung heap,” Bacon told Joshua Gilder in 1980, when he was seventy-one. “It’s made up of compost of the millions and millions who have died and are blowing about. The dead are blowing in your nostrils every hour, every second you breathe in. It’s a macabre way of putting it, perhaps; but anything that’s at all accurate about life is always macabre. After all, you’re born, you die.”

Bacon was an interior decorator and furniture designer before becoming an artist. His showroom at 17 Queensberry Mews West, also in South Kensington, was photographed for an article in The Studio magazine titled “The 1930 Look in British Decoration.” It is spotless, decorated with tubular steel furniture and Modernist rugs of his design. Only the circular mirror, which later had a prominent place in the painter’s studio, provides any sense of continuity with Reece Mews. An early pen-and-wash drawing known as Corner of the Studio (1934) depicts Queensberry Mews, making it one of Bacon’s first subjects, and it was here that he held the first exhibition of his paintings. Bacon thought that his previous career as a designer-decorator detracted from his prestige as a painter; his later messy workspace might be seen as an attempt to escape this past, even though the disarray itself can be understood as a form of décor.

It was while viewing an exhibition of Picasso’s paintings in Paris in the late 1920s that Bacon decided he too would paint. Picasso was often photographed in his studio for publicity purposes, and Bacon, who also liked to pose amid his own debris, might have self-consciously imitated Picasso’s bohemian clutter. In 1932, Brassaï met Picasso at 23 rue La Boétie in Paris. “I was expecting an artist’s studio,” Brassaï wrote in Conversations with Picasso, “but it was an apartment turned pigsty … filled with piles of pictures, reams of paper, stacks of books, packages, wrapped models for sculptures, all lying helter-skelter on the floor, everything covered with a thick coating of dust. … Except for a few friends, Picasso allowed no one in. The dust could fall and settle wherever it liked, without fear of some cleaning woman’s feather duster.” Picasso lived in the apartment below, which was very much his wife Olga’s domain, “no clutter, not a speck of dust.”

Picasso, whom Jean Cocteau called “the king of rag-pickers” because he never threw anything away, told Brassaı˙˙that his favorite outfit had been a grey suit because it best matched the dust (perhaps Bacon had this in mind when he painted Eric Hall). “I always forbade anyone to clean my studio,” Picasso said, “because I used to rely on dust for my protection … Dust was my ally. When I noticed that here and there the dust had disappeared, I would know at once that someone had been meddling with my things.”

Jean Ward was cleaning Reece Mews on 28 April 1992 when Bacon died of a heart attack in Madrid, age eighty-two. “I didn’t often switch the radio on but I did that morning. … It came over that he had passed away. I was half way through and I thought, well what do I do now? I was really upset, but I thought I’d better finish what I was doing.” After that, the studio sat empty, a shrine to its former occupant. “I kept on cleaning for a couple of years, once a month, after John inherited it. What used to worry me was that a few mice found their way into the studio. I had to inform them to watch that, because if they were hoping to keep anything, the mice would soon eat their way through and there’d be nothing left.”

In 1998, 7 Reece Mews, where Bacon had worked for thirty-one years, was dismantled by a team of archaeologists and transported in its entirety to Dublin, the city where Bacon was born but which he left at the age of seventeen, never to return. This was somewhat ironic given Bacon’s ambivalent relationship to Ireland: his friend, Lady Caroline Blackwood, who was married to Lucian Freud, once said that Bacon “developed a neurotic attack of asthma on the plane whenever he tried to get there.” Every time she tried to broach the subject of his traumatic childhood “he became agitated … he started to tug at the collar of his shirt as if he were trying to loosen some kind of noose which he found asphyxiating; for a moment he resembled the agonized figures in his paintings whose faces turn a truly dangerous shade of indigo purple.” In Dublin, the studio was reassembled as a permanent installation in the city’s Hugh Lane Gallery. Everything appears exactly as Bacon left it, including the dust.

Blaze O’Connor, one of the archaeologists who painstakingly reconstructed the studio (repositioning every scrap of paper, paint-smeared cashmere jumper, dog-eared book, and discarded tube of paint and brush), recalled: “The films of dust that lay upon the surfaces of the long shelves at the back of the studio were carefully curated. These ephemeral contexts had been lovingly but scientifically bagged, their precise provenance labeled, and archived along with all the thousands of other physical remnants.” These samples—“dust, fluff, minute and unidentifiable fragments”—were then painstakingly returned to their correct respective shelves.

After the London studio had been carefully emptied and its contents packed for shipping, the archaeologists had swept up all the remaining dust from the floor and put it in a bag that was simply labeled “Bacon dust.” The bag—which, like one of Ward’s Hoover bags, must have included Bacon’s own sloughed skin—was scattered like ashes over the final installation.


1. Cited in Sigmund Freud, Leonard da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1990), p. 10

2. In 1978, Barry Joule—Bacon’s handyman, chauffeur, and drinking partner—rescued three sacks of studio trash including unfinished canvases, diaries, and imagery culled from newspapers, books, and magazines that had been over-painted in ink and crayon. The so-called Barry Joule Archive is now in the Tate’s collection.



‘Please … just make it go away!’



New York vs. Francis Bacon: A Review of the Centenary Exhibition at the Metropolitan in New York”





“This painter of buggery, sadism, dread and death-vomit has emerged as the toughest, the most implacable, lyric artist in late twentieth-century England, perhaps in all the world. …Bacon is Ruskin’s antitype: in his ferocious sexual frankness, of course, but most of all in his denial that human life has any ‘higher purpose’, or that art and nature connect us in some way to God” (Robert Hughes, 2008)


I. Introduction

Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective (66 paintings and 65 objects from his studio) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (MET) seeks to reevaluate the artist’s work based on new interpretations and archival materials that have emerged since his death in 1992. The exhibition was organized by Gary Tinterow of the MET (along with Chris Stephens and Matthew Gale of the Tate Britain). The main point of the show is to demonstrate that Bacon did not lose his force and vitality as a painter after the 1960’s (he lived until 1992). The show, which succeeds in this goal, has already appeared at the Tate Britain, London, and the Prado in Madrid.

 A major Bacon retrospective is an event and an important part of such an event includes the critical reception of it. As such, I’ll not only discuss the show at the MET (in Section III) but also its critical reception (Section II). Most of New York’s leading art critics are so charged with predetermined vitriol for Bacon the man, and for his art, that it seems they would have preferred the show never took place. Bacon is a challenging artist and it appears that New York critics were not prepared to meet the challenges laid down by the exhibition.


II. Critical Responses to Bacon’s Centenary Shows
a) New York

Taken as a whole, the response of New York critics to the MET show is at best unfortunate, and at worst, embarrassing. The most intelligent and sensitive of the New York reviewers was Roberta Smith (2009). She explained Bacon’s significant contributions to artistic representation, including his path-breaking images of male-male sexuality, but could not stop herself from referring to the artist’s best known works as barely paintings.

Howard Halle unfavourably compares Bacon’s works to popular American horror films (Jason and Freddy Krueger in particular). Halle finds Bacon’s work “hard to take seriously” and most of his review does not. We learn more about Bacon’s choice of lovers than his art in this review. Halle acknowledges that Bacon was among the first to foreground photographs as subject matter for painting but ultimately finds his canvases “a bit of a mess”. In the end Halle finds it all “oppressive”.

Lance Esplund (2009) calls the Bacon show “a histrionic horror show”. Like other critics it is the surface tortures on the body in Bacon’s painting that Esplund finds most objectionable. Bacon’s influence has been a bad one says Esplund as he has led a generation “to take the path of least resistance”. Like many critics labouring under the burden of American mythologies of abstraction from an earlier generation of critics (Rosenberg and Greenberg in particular), Esplund is bothered by Bacon’s “mannerism”. Why is it that calling an artist a mannerist today in America is as damning as calling a politician a “liberal” there? Is it such a terrible thing for an artist to find his or her idiom and to elaborate upon it in ways that show us how the work was made? I think even Barnett Newman would be amazed at his lingering influence on New York critics today. Must all painting be flat, abstract, and look as though any one artist could have produced all of the works in a room?

Jerry Saltz says that Bacon is more of a cartoonist than a great artist (Saltz, 2009). Bacon is “an illustrator of exaggerated, ultimately empty angst”. What seems to touch a nerve with Saltz, who claims to have also seen the Bacon show at the Tate and the Prado (for someone who dislikes Bacon’s work he certainly goes out of his way to see it), is the tortured nature of Bacon’s figures at which viewers “gape in wonder”. Americans are perhaps more sensitive about images of tortured figures since photographs of Iraqi prisoner abuse by American GIs, at Abu Ghraib prison, grabbed headlines in the world’s magazines and newspapers. Perhaps Americans have not yet come to terms with being torturers and would rather that such things happen quietly, elsewhere in the night. The future of the naïve posture of American exceptionalism may depend on it.

Saltz offers up perhaps the most shallow critical comment of the year when he adds: “Bacon has no idea what to do with the edges of his paintings”. If Bacon’s edges trouble Saltz one can only wonder how he feels about all the edges of geometric abstraction. Ironically, British critic Adrian Searle (2008) notes that the edges of Bacon’s canvases are as controlled as those of Barnett Newman!

Saltz says Bacon stagnated after the 1960’s – a ludicrous claim as I show in Section III). Mark Rothko is invoked in whose shadow Bacon “seems mannered, conservative, simplistic”. The presence of Rothko is interesting here in that Saltz accuses Bacon of ceasing to innovate. That said Bacon’s Blood on the Sidewalk and a late Rothko sit rather well beside one another.

Jed Perl (2009) charges Bacon with “preferring to sacrifice pictorial sensibility to literary sensationalism”. Bacon produced, says Perl: “not paintings… [but] rectangles of canvas inscribed with noirish graffiti: angst for dummies”. Perl, who has erected for himself a lofty reputation as one of America’s foremost priggs, doesn’t like the “fact” (which is never established), that Bacon, like Caravaggio “is admired not because he was a good painter but because he was a bad boy”. To me this is utter nonsense. Bacon’s social “respectability” seems to still be an issue in New York – it is interesting that Perl chose the gay Caravaggio as another overrated “bad boy”. Perhaps what troubles Perl, and the right wing magazine he writes for, is that he might have to sincerely engage with Bacon’s homosexuality to take his art seriously. Perl, like many of the other New York critics, won’t allow Bacon the status of a painter and here he puts him in very good company as he has denied the same rank to Gerhard Richter (Perl, 2002).

If Bacon is aggressive it is only in shoving our face into an uncertain rendering of what we are – in all of our unspectacular, unholy, ignoble bestiality. Bacon’s Crucifixion represents not only his positive encounter with Picasso’s work but, in displaying the dead Christian God as Soutine presented a carcass of beef (Jesus as meat), the artist stresses the lack of holiness, nobility, and hence increases the kind of uncertainty that those who ascribe divinity to Jesus Christ attempt to stave off. Perl wants no uncertainty, no irony, nor anything unsettled – while living in a country up to its neck in all of these things. But that is the point isn’t it? Many American critics find Bacon so hard to take today because he painted unsettling and uncertain images which are like portraits of not only his own life – but the living life of history today. Many Americans have had enough of that history – it ended, they hope, with the beginning of the new order on the morning of September 12, 2001. For Perl Bacon leads a revulsion against painting and refuses to probe the meaning of Bacon’s remark that (like someone who has just finished eating a steak) “we live off one another”.

What is striking about most of the New York based reviews is that they do not often mention the paintings (if so only one or two) and objects on view. It is as though most critics attending the Bacon show at the MET had an axe to grind with Bacon and their mind was made up before going to the museum. I wonder if it is really Bacon the New York critics detest or is it the fact that he reminds us just how intolerable life has become – even in the freest and bravest of all nations. The isolated figures in “cages and boxes” make Perl, like so many other critics, uncomfortable. “Shock tactics” Perl says. Maybe so, but with all those gaping mouths on the gallery goer’s faces maybe what we have here is a genuine case of “shock and awe”.


b) Critical Responses to Bacon at the Tate Britain

While London too experienced a horrific terror attack (7/7) the damage done to New York by the attacks of 9/11 may have done significant harm to the city’s aspirations to be a world cultural capital. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (New York’s famous 9/11 mayor) perhaps indicated best the damage done to New Yorker’s higher cultural aspirations when he called for censorship (a decency panel) in deciding what could hang on the walls on New York’s museums. Most of New York’s art critics would not openly support such a position of course but it is interesting that the response to the current Bacon show has come together as one loud and pathetic plea: “please… just make it go away!”

Unlike their American counterparts, the British critics tended to focus more sincerely on the paintings on display and to take seriously the new research on Bacon which the MET show also stressed. Unlike most American reviewers, who often went out of their way to deride Bacon the man and the painter, the British critics arrive at his work with an acknowledgement that his art is simply an accepted aspect of contemporary culture (as are the Rolling Stones, the Internet, Picassos, or Americans. The British critics write with an élan and cosmopolitanism that we once would have expected from now increasingly insular New York. To the Brits the fact that many view humanity as just another animal in a universe without God, subject to the same urges and violence (Bacon’s understanding), is an accepted (if intolerable) aspect of existence. The British responses to the Bacon show did not seek to protect the public from Bacon [the message of New York critics is clearly “avoid this show”] but rather to see him in a new light (the focus of the exhibition). It is not the case that the British critics like Bacon because he is British and the American’s dislike him as a foreigner. While a little of that may underwrite the position of the reviewers what is fundamentally different about the British reviews is their willingness to take Bacon seriously – something the American critics so refuse to do and it prevents them from penetrating the surface of his canvases.

Among British critics John McAuliffe (2008) is typical in his focus on the art on display rather than feeling uncomfortable with Bacon’s “bad boy” reputation or his images. McAuliffe demands a show that does more with the artist and his work – especially his relation to abstract art which Bacon came very close to at times despite the care he took to express distain for it. While the show does deal with abstraction McAuliffe is right – much more could have been done with this artist who straddled both figurative and abstract realms (but not necessarily realism).

John Molyneux (2008), writing from a leftist perspective, encourages the Left not to reject Bacon’s work. Molyneux goes on to make an interesting, if unconvincing, argument that Bacon is staring down alienation as a man who takes on the horror of the world. In Bacon Molyneux finds hope for resistance. In Britain, apparently, even the socialists approve of Bacon’s art. One can only wonder: Do New York socialists, their newspapers having long ago been forcibly closed down during a succession of communist witch-hunts, like Bacon too?

Rachel Campbell-Johnson (2008) tellingly, in strong contrast to her American counterparts, penetrates the shocking and disturbing aspects of Bacon’s oeuvre and finds in it philosophical depth and sumptuousness. The straightforward correlations between art and life which so occupied American reviewers are found to be reductive by Campbell-Johnson. Indeed, a key point of the show is that Bacon’s work derived from images he encountered and kept in his studio as much as from his life. Unlike the New York critics, Campbell-Johnson analyzes and penetrates her own biases and fears to take seriously the fact that Bacon offered us a unique depiction of the meaninglessness of life in modern times. Typical only of the British critics she isn’t embarrassed when she admires Bacon and his work.

Tom Lubbock (2008) notes [...] that mature critics and gallery goers have experienced a great change of view toward his art, and its place in the history of the twentieth century. Lubbock says that Bacon’s work, which “used to look like death” now “looks like life in abundance”. Lubbock, like none of the New York critics, delves into Bacon’s work to find not merely violence and things that disturb the faint of heart, but also comedy, tenderness, and the artist’s generosity. Like most London based critics Lubbock refuses to be distracted by the theatricality of Bacon’s images as most New York critics were (by their own admission they went looking for it). Lubbock though seems to anticipate precisely what may have been the biggest problem the Americans would have with Bacon: “He doesn’t have any puritan qualms about being gorgeous. He’s a vulgar entertainer”.

Charles Darwent (2008) focused on Bacon’s painterliness (no tirades about mannerism here) and his “liturgical” use of colour and its role in Bacon’s understanding of evil as generic. The American critics do not speak of evil. As far as colour is concerned Bacon came alive after the early 1960s – why don’t the New York critics (who normally speak to colour with great expertise) recognize this?

Finally, Adrian Searle (2008) weighs the reasons why we might admire Bacon’s work one moment, and dismiss him the next. Searle captures very well the ambivalence Bacon’s work arouses in some critics while not forsaking his job as a critic to assess the work on display. Searle believes that Bacon’s best work was behind him by the 1960s but he is willing to assess the work, make his case for and against it, and to present an understanding of its seductiveness, plausibility, and relation it holds to the horrors of the twentieth century. Searle’s review, while ultimately turning a thumb down to Bacon, does so in an analytical and sensitive manner which was lacking in the New York critics. What Searle is aware of is that one can be distracted by the artist’s life and hence he is very careful not to let this get in the way of his criticism of the specific paintings. Searle, unlike the New York critics, relishes the experience of being taken out of his comfort zone and this allows him to criticize Bacon in a much more convincing manner.


III. Bacon at the MET

For my part I did not know that we required a Bacon retrospective in order to demonstrate something which has long struck me as obvious – that Bacon does not lose force as he ages. Indeed, I have thought of it the other way around – if anything, his artistic powers strengthened and became slightly more polished with time. Witness his last great Triptych of 1991 and his Portrait of John Edwards, 1988 (both on display at the MET). There is a precision and an economy of means in each which tells us that we are dealing with a more mature version of the man who painted George Dyer in Three Figures in a Room (1964) or any of the popes for which he is so well known. Bacon’s great care over these late works is not surprising as they include the two men most important to him at the end. In the 1991 Triptych Bacon’s Spanish Lover [left panel] bears a remarkable resemblance to that of then Brazilian Formula-1 race car driver Ayrton Senna (whom Bacon painted from a magazine cover).

The 1991 Triptych is refined and accomplished and to me it is the last of his masterpieces – one that gathers up everything he ever knew about art and life and brings it to bear in these images. Bacon shows himself in the frame on the right – his face painted from a Polaroid of himself which he liked from the late 1960s. Interestingly, Bacon who was 82 when he painted this work, represents himself (and his significantly younger lover) as highly sexualized males. Two male figures are shown coupling in the middle frame. So much of Bacon’s severe philosophy (humanity is an accident – we live, we love, we die), is here in this extraordinary image. The whole story goes untold however and the enigma remains in all of Bacon’s triptych’s as Gilles Deleuze recognized three decades ago. Deleuze also saw the triptych as a form which allowed Bacon to engage in figurative painting without surrendering to conventional story-telling (Deleuze, 1981; see also Nochlin, 2008). The 1991 Triptych shows that Deleuze’s insight would remain relevant of Bacon’s painting to the end.

The Portrait of John Edwards is a painting of the man in London whom Bacon was closest to at the end – his illiterate heir and gentle companion. Edwards is an image of temporality – especially the unfixed nature of identity – a subject on which Bacon is the absolute master. The portrait of Edwards shows the man disappearing before our eyes. His left foot, and even the chair upon which he sits, have begun to dissolve into a puddle and his arms have evaporated. All that is solid melts into air, including all of our friends and loves, right before our eyes. Bacon understood that we capture, at best, only a fleeting glimpse of the real which is hidden under appearances which we rarely penetrate and then never for very long (see Coulter, 2007). Like so many of Bacon’s paintings the Portrait of John Edwards is painted from a photograph – the artist shifting his perspective to the left of an image which was originally taken straight on – of his former lover George Dyer.

Among the strengths of the MET show is the way in which it brings so much archival material (found in Bacon’s studio at the time of his death), to bear on his paintings. So many of these images have not simplified our understanding of Bacon but added a delicious complexity. This is only appropriate as Bacon’s paintings do not make our world more commonsensical, but rather, make it more enigmatic (Ibid). The MET show gave us a more complex Francis Bacon.

If Bacon’s work began to weaken in the late 1960’s (the dominant New York critical position), then you cannot see evidence of it in Bacon’s paintings of his friend and lover Isabel Rawthorne. His paintings of Rawthorne are not simply great; they are among the most sensitive images of woman painted by a man in the later half of the twentieth century. Rawthorne (who was also a model for Giacometti) is shown in one of her then fashionable outfits as a woman about town. She is shown looking cautiously (?) over her left shoulder at a bestial figure moving behind her in the street. We are left uncertain as to how she feels about this attention as that enigmatic swirl of paint representing unknowability appears in the middle of her face and she is just about to step out of the light into the darkness.

If, in a thousand years, this portrait of Rawthorne is the last surviving work by Bacon then people in the future will still know the artist. It will be possible for them to know what it was like to be a figurative painter while acknowledging the impossibility of realism. They will also know both the excitement and danger present for women in the streets of the great cities of the end of the second millennium.

If Bacon is exhausted by the 1960’s why then does his best portrait (of Michel Leiris) not appear until 1976? This is another way of asking why is it that critics cannot let go of the popes and heads of the 1940s and 1950s and realize that the portraits replaced them as a more sensitive and subtle (yet still highly evocative) form for Bacon? The portraits also signify that Bacon has moved on past Matisse who was very influential on Bacon at the time of the Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) where Bacon shows his élan with Matisse’s way of isolating figures on a monochrome background. Leiris is a wonderful portrait which is a strong likeness. The rest, as in all of Bacon’s portraits, remains behind the mask. There is a significant epistemology of identity at work in this manner of representation for which Bacon has not received sufficient credit (see Coulter, 2007). Leiris is also indicative of Bacon’s deep admiration for Picasso. This portrait, an homage to Picasso, is as close as Bacon ever came to cubism – it is also a great tribute to Leiris (and old acquaintance of Picasso’s) whose wife was, for a time, the great cubist’s dealer.

If Bacon is “over” by the 1960s then why do we find so much innovation in his later works? This includes a move into landscapes which are, according to an insightful take by MET curator Gary Tinterow, Bacon’s way of engaging with abstraction on his own terms (see Tinterow, 2009). Perhaps his Jet of Water is the best of these works in the MET show.

Against the narrativizations of abstraction Bacon uses abstract elements to reference the unknowable and enigmatic. Bacon’s genius is for touching on temporality without narration. He pushes the swirl of unknowability out into the face and in Jet of Water across the surface of an everyday scene. That white splash is a portrait of time itself, frozen, in the act of wasting each of us.


IV. Conclusion

Bacon’s work doesn’t attempt to lift us up rather; it puts us in our place and forces us to look at ourselves. It does so with sympathy and a generosity of spirit.

Why do Bacon’s popes scream? Surely because, after World War II, after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the pope realizes that only a few believe in God. Historically, even popes who believe in God are rare. Why do they wear purple and not red as in the Velasquez pope which inspired them? This is because the pope realizes that his churches are emptying out at one of the two most sacred times of the year for the Catholic Church – Easter, the time when priesthood wears purple in deference to the seriousness of the event of the crucifixion.

Bacon is not as violent as he is raw. I do not find him hysterical but he is very intense. When such a number of his works appear in one place the artist is humanized and it is a lack of recognition of this that makes so many of the words of the New York critics ring hollow. For them Bacon’s raw intensity cannot be just another view of us, he cannot be just like the rest of us – his vision cannot count as does “ours”. Besides, in New York these days, disliking Europeans is something of a popular if discomfiting sport.

he Metropolitan Museum has been attempting (with some success) to better serve contemporary culture over the past twenty years. The Bacon retrospective fits well into this programme and behind the show there has been some excellent curating and sound scholarship. I especially appreciate the way the MET show recreated previous showings of Bacon’s work (which were overseen by the artist in smaller galleries) specifically the artist’s popes (Durlacher Gallery, New York, 1953) and the heads shown in London (Hanover Gallery, 1949).

Every nasty thing the New York critics had to say about Bacon is true but only if you are willing to protect yourself in a prejudiced insular shroud before viewing Bacon’s work. Bacon does paint exaggerated figures, some of his work might be hysterical, it may not be gruesome but that’s a fair word, and his palate provokes the eye. Bacon is also not a better painter than Ingres, Velasquez, or Picasso – but he never claimed to be. Bacon had no illusions about his talent – far less than the New York critics managed to invent. When you are in the presence of his work, without prejudice, without the enormous weight of American modernism on your shoulders, you can simply relish the experience – the way Bacon’s paintings attract and repel at the same time. The ugly is as attractive as the beautiful – it is the lesson of fashion shows for the past fifty years.

Most intelligent people who find themselves with Bacon’s work, no matter how it may challenge them, realize how fortunate they are to be in its presence. This is something the British critics were very aware of unlike their American counterparts who fail, spectacularly, to explain why Bacon’s work is so compelling. While the New York critics attempted to convince everyone that Bacon’s work is a horror show, it isn’t good, it isn’t even painting, let alone compelling art – the people came in droves as to any major art event. In the rooms there were, as at all Bacon shows, many open mouths – not only the ones in the paintings – so many viewers transfixed and moving much more slowly than people tend to do in museums. The only horror actually present in the event was the embarrassing criticism. What irony that Bacon – the painter who understood and represented, perhaps better than anyone else in his century, the anxieties which swirl around seeing – is treated in this manner in the city Baudrillard described as “the epicenter of the end of the world” (2002:14).

Bacon’s work may suggest violence but no one is tormenting his characters more than they are themselves within the confines of the social. The social is the greatest terrorist the individual will ever face and Bacon, a gay man in London when gay men were put in jail, understood that very well. In 2009 he still isn’t acceptable among New York art critics. New York really is not the centre of the art world anymore and its critics show it to be, in the case of Bacon, no longer a cultural capital either. I think Francis Bacon would relish this kind of thing and would have gladly sacrificed his 100th birthday to the cause.


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Hughes, Robert. “Horrible!,” The Guardian, 30.8.2008.
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Nochlin, Linda, et al., “Francis Bacon,” Tate Etc. (Online), Issue 14, 2008.
Perl, Jed. “Slaughterhouse – Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective,” The New Republic, 17.6.2009.
Perl, Jed. “St. Gerhard of the Sorrows of Painting,” The New Republic, August 2002 (no longer available online).
Saltz, Jerry. “Francis Bacon at the MET”. New York Magazine, 25.4.2009.
Smith, Roberta. “If paintings had voices Francis Bacon’s would shriek: Francis Bacon, A Centenary Retrospective”. The New York Times, 2008.
Tinterow, Gary. Interview with Charlie Rose, 2009.




                                                                                                                   Francis Bacon, photographed by Cartier Bresson




Gaping Mouths and Bulging Bodies:


           Beckett and Francis Bacon







Embodiment and abstraction are a potentially problematic mix. Beckett’s statement that ‘Perhaps like the composer Schoenberg or the painter Kandinsky, I have developed an abstract language’ (Gruen, 210), sits uncomfortably with, say, the important contrast in the builds of Vladimir and Estragon or the audible mass of Mrs Rooney’s 200lbs of fat. With Beckett’s taste for abstraction and embodiment in mind we might consider an oeuvre of contemporary painting that acts as a guide with which to consider Beckett’s rendition of the body, particularly as it is performed in the television version of Not I, first broadcast by the BBC in 1977. Rather than consulting Kandinsky, however, we would do much better to examine the resolutely fleshly example of Francis Bacon, the proximity of whose papal images after Velàzquez’s Pope Innocent X to Beckett’s Hamm are briefly noted in the Faber/Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett (Ackerley and Gontarski, 36). When asked if he ever considered painting abstract pictures, Bacon admitted only of an interest in those Picassos, which, he says, use an ‘organic form that relates to the human image but is a complete distortion of it’ (Sylvester, 8). On the more conventional model of abstraction, when asked his opinion of the Rothko paintings in the Tate, he said, ‘I think they’re the dullest paintings in the world’ and complained that the American had not used brighter colours (South Bank Show, 1985). As such, it is in the OED’s sense of abstraction as ‘drawn, derived, extracted,’ or ‘distilled to its essence’ that we might call Bacon an abstract painter. He confirms this when he tells Melvyn Bragg that he seeks to make ‘not [an] illustration of reality but to create images which are a concentration of reality and a shorthand of sensation’ (South Bank Show, 1985). The methods of that concentration, which include contortion, mutilation and containment, bring the corporeality of Bacon’s distorted bodies to the forefront of his paintings. On show, then, is an abstraction based not on an abandonment of the subject but on an adherence to a central property of its being – that of its embodiment. If we are to take seriously Beckett’s claims for the abstract we must also give account of his irrepressible attachment to the human form. The space occupied by Bacon’s work stands to bequeath to us not an archaeology of imagery, but a painterly model that speaks eloquently to Beckett’s sarcoid figures.

It is a notably organic plasticity that fleshes out the figures of Beckett’s writing and Bacon’s painting. Rather than use the sort of geometric fragmentation of analytical cubism, which can only depict the sinuous curve of, say, a violin’s sound-hole by not dissecting it – by forsaking its very method – in Bacon and Beckett the human form is given through emphasis and exaggeration of the curved, the swollen and the bulbous. It is this attention to the arc that gives to the subject its fleshy roundedness; related to the masculine voluptuousness that Bacon so admired in Michelangelo’s drawings (Peppiatt, 225). We might recall the narrator of The Unnamable who, despite being unsure of the precise nature of his embodiment, stresses its tendency towards a featureless sphere. At one point he proclaims of his head, ‘no, no beard, no hair either, it is a great smooth ball I carry on my shoulders, featureless, but for the eyes, of which only the sockets remain’ (Beckett, 1994, 307). Later, in a sort of attendance register of physiological truancy the narrator says, ‘I don’t feel a mouth on me, nor a head, do I feel an ear, frankly now, do I feel an ear, well frankly now I don’t, so much the worse, I don’t feel an ear either, this is awful’ (Beckett, 1994, 386). Removing all that seems excessive or merely incidental in physicality, it is the spherical form that cannot be discarded. So, while embodiment is compulsively placed in doubt, if it does prove to be the case, its apparent form will be curved. Clearly, it is not the case that all the subjects painted or written by Bacon and Beckett are on the tubby side, or indeed are large cranial spheres; rather there is something about embodiment – any embodiment – that seems to elicit from both artist and author an account of voluminous roundedness, rather than flat, if precise, line. This is surely related to the fact that embodiment is what makes three-dimensionality into an experiential condition, that brings sense and sensation to the idea of spatiality. It is our bulging into 3-D – even of the slimmest figures – that is evoked with Bacon’s scoops and smears of paint and the unnamable’s gravitation towards roundness.

Moreover, the most basic form of the head and its necessary curvature, are repeated for the rest the body. Beckett writes, ‘For of the great traveller I had been, on my hands and knees in the later stages, then crawling on my belly or rolling on the ground, only the trunk remains (in sorry trim), surmounted by the head with which we are already familiar’ (Beckett, 1994, 329). Removing limbs with abandon, the condition of becoming a mere torso is specifically referred to as the trunk, evocative of a tree as well as a body. Consequently, it is given the characteristic motion of roundedness: it rolls. Whilst all of these profess a lack, there is, precisely because of this distorting focus, a gross emphasis on the fact of three-dimensional embodiment, like the bulbous view through a fish-eye lens. Indeed, it is the loss of limbs that uncovers and foregrounds the natural curvature of the body’s trunk. Like many of Bacon’s distortions of the human form, drawn from vivid photographs of invalids or bent and pinned photographs, the embodied form in Beckett’s work is thus pushed to the extremities of the humanoid. When we look at the Eumenides of Bacon’s 1944 Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, we see a grossly distorted human embodiment, rounded and limbless but not dissimilar to The Unnamable’s humanoid monster. In both, then, there is an emphasis not on the fixed form of the whole as constituted by its individual parts – limbs, hands, feet and so on – but on its underlying fleshliness; the essential meat of the matter.

Bacon draws particular attention to the practice of embodying a figure by distorting – by breaking – its body. He said to an interviewer, ‘You must know the beautiful Degas pastel in the National Gallery of a woman sponging her back. And you will find at the very top of the spine that the spine almost comes out of the skin altogether [. . . ] He breaks it so that this thing seems to protrude from the flesh. Now, whether Degas did this purposely or not, it makes it a much greater picture, because you’re suddenly conscious of the spine as well as the flesh, which he usually just painted covering the bones’ (Sylvester, 46–47). For Bacon the broken body is a striking, multi-textured body, the artist stating, ‘I’m always hoping to deform people into appearance’ (Sylvester, 146). The shiver one has at the sight of a vivid mutilation is surely an extension of that ‘shorthand of sensation’ sought by Bacon in his paintings. Without the blood and gore so characteristic of the artworks, Beckett’s figures are, of course, notably distorted by injury and bodily malfunction as well as the sort of strange embodiment seen in The Unnamable. In Beckett et le psychanalyste – which the artist himself read on the comparison (Archimbaud, 119) – Didier Anzieu aligns Beckett’s broken bodies with those of Bacon: ‘Bacon peint des portraits où les yeux, l’ouïe, la bouche, le nez, la marche, la peau, la posture sont dévastés’ (Anzieu, 151). Several characters, such as Watt and Clov, have the stiff-legged gait of an ataxic, as if malady had lent them their very substance. Molloy finds himself crawling through the woods, Hamm cannot stand, Nagg and Nell are again trunks, in cylindrical containers. The posture of May in Footfalls, over which Beckett laboured for so long with Whitelaw (Haynes, 43), is as contorted as many of Bacon’s figures. This brief list of pathological specimens recalls us to what James Knowlson calls Beckett’s ‘long-standing curiosity about medical matters [. . . whereby] Anything abnormal or macabre fascinated him’ (Knowlson, 668). This preoccupation with oddity is shared by Bacon, who also repeatedly turned to the clinically strange to establish the common, and so ‘at one time haunted medical bookshops in search of an ever greater precision in the portrayal of extreme states’ (Russell, 56). Michael Peppiatt confirms that the artist ‘loved to talk to scientists and doctors [. . . and] at one point he was a regular reader of The Lancet’ (Peppiatt, 221), whilst Russell records Bacon’s possession of the unpromising-sounding sourcebook Positioning in Radiography, which illustrated the advised poses for successful medical x-rays (Russell, 113). For both Beckett and Bacon the medical exception often provides the physiological exemplar; the distortion stresses the everyday condition of being clothed in tissue. In conversation with Michel Archimbaud between October 1991 and April 1992, Bacon responds at length to a comparison between his own works and those of Beckett. Betraying an extensive knowledge of Beckett’s work, he nevertheless denies any affinity, claiming, ‘I’ve always been amazed at this comparison between Beckett and myself’ (Archimbaud, 116). He admits to having ‘seen Waiting for Godot which I didn’t by the way find interesting, and some of his shorter plays which were, in my opinion, much better’ (Archimbaud, 117). Unable – or unwilling – to recognise the common attachment to renditions of embodiment and affect, he speculates of Beckett: ‘the idea may have been a good one but I wonder if, in his case, the cerebral didn’t take too much precedence over the rest [. . . ] there’s something too systematic and too intelligent about him, which is perhaps what’s always made me uncomfortable’ (Archimbaud, 118). He goes on to recall that,

There was a very good actress here in London who performed in them. Beckett often used to write for her. Unfortunately, I no longer remember her name. They were very short pieces, not more than half an hour long, barely twenty minutes, and they weren’t bad at all. (Archimbaud, 117).

While the name eludes the ailing Bacon, whose death was to cut short this series of conversations, he is clearly referring to Billie Whitelaw. The short works that Bacon may have seen in London thus include PlayFootfallsRockaby and, of course, Not I. It seems rather alarming that this artist for whom the mouth means so much would damn the singular vision of Not I with the faint praise of ‘not bad at all’, couched amidst copious denials of any similarity. But examination of other evidence shows this to be at least consistent with a contrary streak that often revealed itself around questions of comparison and influence. Indeed, this might be illustrated by the conflict in opinion given in two of Bacon’s biographies. Andrew Sinclair writes of the painter that ‘Beckett was one of the writers he particularly admired along with Pinter’ Sinclair, 302), which suggests not only general approval but a special fondness. Pulling in the other direction, however, Peppiatt claims that the artist ‘rejected any comparison between Beckett’s work (“all those ghastly dustbins”) and his own’ (Peppiatt, 341 n1), which indicates not merely indifference but outright hostility. It cannot be disputed that the dustbins of Endgame – another play that Bacon apparently saw – lack the violent sexual charge that characterises many of Bacon’s numerous forays into the seedy and the insalubrious. Even so, it seems likely Peppiatt touches a sore spot in his question, and that the painter’s objection is not to Beckett’s work per se but to assertions of its proximity to his own. Alternatively, Beckett’s may be simply one of the many oeuvres that could elicit from Bacon coos of approval or scornful calls according to his mood. Certainly, Peppiatt recalls the disdain heaped upon respectable targets who would otherwise have been lauded: ‘sweeping statements sometimes turned into venomous outbursts of pique, with Bacon insisting (about Matisse, for instance, whose sculpture he nevertheless admired): “I really hate those squalid little forms of his”, or again (about many people): “So you think he’s good, do you? Then just tell me this: what’s he ever invented? Nothing, you see”‘ (Peppiatt, 301). Just as with Matisse’s ‘squalid little forms’, Beckett’s ‘ghastly dustbins’ may well be the victims of a theatrical tirade, no more than bluff and bluster.

Analysis of Beckett’s awareness of Bacon is altogether more speculative. Indeed, I can establish by inference only one occasion that Beckett would have seen a painting by Bacon. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was among the earliest purchasers of Bacon’s work, buying the striking Painting 1946 two years after its composition (Peppiatt, 118). Beckett visited the museum with Sidney Meyers, the editor of Film, in 1964 (Knowlson, 525) where he would have seen in Bacon’s painting what resembles a sinister re-imagining of Winnie from Happy Days, here turned into the upper body of an umbrella-shaded dictator. Submerged in shadow rather than sand, the figure has an altogether more explicit relationship to death, surrounded not by domestic flotsam but by the fragments of one or many carcasses. Apart from this likely encounter we are restricted to the examination of Bacon’s Parisian profile and the run of exhibitions that Beckett may have attended.

To be sure, though, neither of these are inconsequential. In a poll conducted by the Parisian magazine Connaissance des Arts in the late 1960s, with Beckett also nearing the peak of his renown, Bacon was voted the most important living artist in the world (Peppiatt, 233). This trend in public opinion was confirmed by Bacon’s full retrospective at Paris’s prestigious Grand Palais in 1971, only the second living artist, after Picasso, to be accorded such an honour (Peppiatt, 232). Furthermore, this was only the most prominent of numerous acclaimed Paris exhibitions held during Beckett’s lifetime. These include shows at Galerie Rive Droite (1957), Galerie Maeght (1966–67) – which owned a significant number of Bram van Veldes (Knowlson, 452) – Galerie Claude Bernard (1977), Galerie Maeght Lelong (1984) and Galerie Lelong (1987). One might also consider the possibility that Beckett encountered Bacon’s paintings in London or in any of many German exhibitions. Although we have no record of Beckett’s attendance at any or all of these exhibitions, the extensive profile of Bacon in Paris could not have escaped Beckett’s notice. Nevertheless, the image, if not the fact, of influence is present in the many shrieking mouths and contorted bodies shown to such widespread acclaim in Paris only the year before Not I was begun.

The mouth is undoubtedly the most prominent fixation shared by both artists, whether it is the jabbering panic of Not I or the screaming gape of Bacon’s numerous popes. The television adaptation of Beckett’s play, starring Billie Whitelaw, was produced by Tristram Powell in February 1975 for the BBC (Knowlson, 1996, 620), who screened it as the third part of Shades – alongside Ghost Trio and . . . but the clouds. . . – on BBC 2 on 17 April 1977. It has a particularly obsessive focus, the omission of the shrugging figure of the auditor leaving only the mouth, whose slick sogginess, lubricating its own mechanism as it runs, is relished by the camera. The effect was so significant, Whitelaw recalls, that it elicited Beckett’s only comment on her work in her entire career. After watching the film, ‘out of the darkness, came one word, spoken with an Irish accent a whisper that just managed to float across to me: “Miraculous”‘ (Whitelaw, 132). Enlarged to fill the screen, the mesmerising motion of the lips as they manage the words, draws the eyes with the suggestive swell of an obscenity. Indeed, the transition to television quite literally bloats the mouth to new proportions, creating a spectacle of magnification that cuts against the manifest smallness of the isolated, spot-lit mouth on stage. Combined with this enlargement, the rhythmic thrusting and opening captures well what Bacon described in portraiture as ‘All the pulsations of a person’ (Peppiatt, 208). Indeed, that combination of pushing itself out towards its observers, and drawing inwards with that dark central cave is, as Billie Whitelaw notes, ‘strangely sexual and glutinous, slimy and weird, like a crazed, over-sexed-jellyfish’ (Whitelaw, 132). That mixture of protuberance and pull is reinforced by the adaptation for television, which has a valuable serendipity to its manufacture of the mouth’s volume. Although we are likely to forget it in an era of oversised, flattened plasma sets, the play was filmed for a screen that would not only be much smaller than is now normal – albeit larger than life – but curved. Maintaining that tendency towards the bulge found in both of the corpora, the very medium thus thrusts the image into one’s living room, holding the gaze with its own ocular curve. Indeed, the play’s titular pun thus gains an additional twist in its second format, for now the play makes the television’s dilated image return our stare: our gaze is held by that mesmeric tube whose detractors have bestowed the nickname the ‘devil’s eye’.

The sexual overtones of the orifice in Not I are also very much present in Bacon’s many mouths. Many of the rounded mouths in particular, whilst recognisably screaming, are sexually inflected ambiguous holes, both inviting and forbidding penetration. As Michael Peppiatt writes, ‘There can be little doubt that Bacon’s interest in the open mouth was due in large part to its sexual suggestiveness’ (Peppiatt, 142). Quite apart from the multiple functions of any bodily orifice, both Beckett and Bacon were influenced by the same psychologically and physiologically ambiguous oddity. Amidst his readings in psychology in 1935 (Knowlson, 178) Beckett encountered the folklore notion of the vagina dentata. Otto Rank’s The Trauma of Birth mentions the figure of the toothed vagina in reference to the neurotic male’s fear of intercourse (Rank, 49), a notion that Beckett added to his psychology notes (Beckett, 1930s). Embodying the dread of castration during – indeed by – the very act of coitus, it is the ambiguous orifice par excellence, at once mouth and genitals, site of pleasure and pain, desire and fear. This fundamentally enigmatic figure is also one of Bacon’s key sources. Rather than a psychoanalytic origin, however, Bacon’s source was already transmuted into painting. The vagina dentata emerges time and again in Picasso’s biomorphic paintings, where the head of the victim/subject is morphed into a ferocious, consuming sex. The Blessed Virgin Mary in Picasso’s 1930 Crucifixion (Richardson, 399) is an early and spectacular example of these cross-bred body parts, which the artist associated with his lover Olga as their relationship soured. They were painted in the middle of that period of Picasso’s work most favoured by Bacon (Archimbaud, 34–35).

Whilst this oddity is undoubtedly one root in the genesis of Beckett and Bacon’s mouths, one must also recognise the specifically oral fixation shown by both. Certainly, Not I makes clear the relish for the peculiarly wide-ranging types of corporeality of this particular orifice, with its combination of wet saliva, hard teeth, fleshy and flexible lips, muscular tongue and non-present hole. This is to say, there is a care not only for ambiguity and curiosity but for specificity and normality; a real captivation with what constitutes the mouth in particular. The fascination with this unique combination of forms – living and not-living, there and not – is also found in Bacon, as if it signifies a property of embodiment that no other feature can. Prominent among Bacon’s sources are photographs featuring, amongst others, the particularly active maw of Joseph Goebbels in full rabid rant; the various shapes, shifts and substances on show as if the extremity and diversity shown cut to the core of the mouth’s essential nature. As in Beckett, the contrast between the part of the mouth is significant, particularly between the flesh and what John Russell refers to in Bacon as ‘the magnificence and purity of the teeth’ (Russell, 56). And, although painting cannot reproduce that significant motion of Beckett’s Not I, it does seek to capture something of the quintessential mobility of the mouth, following Bacon’s statement that ‘I’ve always been very moved by the movements of the mouth and the teeth’ (Sylvester, 1987, 50). Most significant are a couple of distinctly oral mouths captured in artworks seen by both Beckett and Bacon.

The first is Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents, held in the Château de Chantilly, which Bacon thought no less than ‘the best human cry in painting’ (Sylvester, 34). He saw it in 1927 when living near tothe gallery with a family whose matriarch had first been fascinated by the flamboyant seventeen-year-old Bacon when in Paris, and who had then proceeded to befriend, house, and instruct him in French (Peppiatt, 32). Beckett also admired Poussin immensely, and spent a good deal of time looking at The Entombment in Dublin’s National Gallery (Knowlson, 58). On the 17 June 1934 he visited the Louvre with his brother to look at the extensive collection of Poussins and various Dutch works, and the following day had an outing to Chantilly, where he would have seen The Massacre of the Innocents (Knowlson, 195). The second prominent source for Bacon was the screaming nurse shot on the steps of Odessa harbour in the 1925 film The Battleship Potemkin, which he saw first either in Berlin in 1926 or the following year in Paris (Peppiatt, 30). A decade later the film’s groundbreaking director Sergei Eisenstein would have received an application from a rather optimistic Beckett asking to become his assistant (Knowlson, 226), an eagerness that indicates a similar enthusiasm. The esteem in which Beckett held both Poussin and Potemkin places some particularly striking mouths in the author’s extensive mental repository of images, either or both of which may have fed into the central image of Not I alongside the acknowledged Caravaggio canvas, The Decollation of St John the Baptist, which Beckett saw in the cathedral at Valetta whilst holidaying in Malta in 1971 (Haynes, 55; Knowlson, 588). Indeed, Beckett’s note to James Knowlson in 1973 perhaps implies sources other than Caravaggio: ‘Image of Not I in part suggested by Caravaggio’s Decollation of St John the Baptist’ (Knowlson, 588).

Moving on from questions of influence and origin, the better part of comparison lies in a notable agreement in method. In both oeuvres a curved emptiness, undoubtedly related to the cavernous mouth’s curious combination of fleshliness and non-embodiment, becomes a strange sort of non-present prosthetic, stressing the three-dimensionality of the bodies not by extending them, but by containing, restraining and framing them in space. In his book on Bacon, Gilles Deleuze draws attention to the similar settings used by both artists. He writes, ‘Beckett’s Characters and Bacon’s Figures share a common setting, the same Ireland: the round area, the isolator, le dépeupleur’ (Deleuze, 35–6). Evoking both the ‘flattened cylinder’ of The Lost Ones and the notion of a space that strips its occupants of company, the description also points to the curved walls of many of Bacon’s painted rooms, to which one might add the round bed that features so often in the canvases. Indeed, this figure of curved isolation is rarely repeated to better effect than in MoMA’s Painting 1946, which, as Beckett would have seen, contains – and thus gives volume to – its central figure by the use of multiple curved forms. The head is partially obscured by an open umbrella, the foreground is occupied by what look like circular rails, while the figure’s upper body is almost fitted entirely within the cavern of a butchered carcass, opened into a kind of cruciform backdrop. The repetition of such containing forms might even demonstrate a spatial sense to Beckett’s desire to ‘find a form to accommodate the mess’ (Graver and Federman, 219), just as for Bacon, the containers on the canvas contribute to the ‘very, very ordered chaos’ (Kaleidoscope, 1991) he preferred.

Deleuze’s reference, made in 1981, to a specifically Irish space appears to anticipate a comment made by Bacon to David Sylvester in 1986 – and again to Michel Archimbaud in 1992 (Archimbaud, 154) – recalling a particularly handsome house his father had bought from his grandmother. Bacon recalls that ‘Farmleigh was a beautiful house where the rooms at the back were all curved: I suppose one never knows about those things, but perhaps this may be one of the reasons why I have often used curved backgrounds in triptychs’ (Sylvester, 184). We might also note that the large Irish house of Beckett’s youth, Cooldrinagh, had curved windows both upstairs and down. One of these upstairs bays may have provided the infant Beckett’s very first light: emerging from his own fleshly confinement into a room illuminated by the arc of an oriel window. To suggest that these glazed curvatures influenced Beckett’s own curved spaces is perhaps to go too far – although of course not as far back as the author’s memories were said to stretch – but his predilection for containing figures in such bowed spaces is repeatedly put to work to figure and figure out his fictional bodies. Nagg and Nell in Endgame are contained in those ‘ghastly’ cylindrical bins, Winnie in Happy Days is trapped in a cone-like mound, Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape is shown in an illuminated circle given by the overhead light, the three figures in Play are in shapely, almost human-esque urns, and The Unnamable’s narrator tries to pass off its embodiment for a while by maintaining that it is propped up in an urn outside a restaurant. To consider the medium of television in this way, the multi-dimensional curvature of the screen – a distinct protuberance with curved edges – might be said to hold and frame the curves of the mouth in Not I, giving an actual volume to the image of the mouth on screen. (The television screen is also, of course, yet another curved window that appears to illuminate the dark confines of its interior.) In a similar vein, the visual persecution of the title character of Eh Joe is as much a product of containment as enlargement, the organic shape of the screen giving substance to both the character and, importantly, the harassment itself. The stronger Joe’s persecution grows, the more uncomfortably he is squeezed into and confined within the television’s box, gaining an increasing fleshliness as his face comes to occupy ever more screen space. Although cubes are present in the corpus, as they are in Bacon’s, it is the organic and swollen arc to which both particularly gravitate. To take an example of where curve and line meet, we might consider how in Imagination Dead Imagine each body lies within its own warped semi-sphere; that is, in a semi-circle on the horizontal plane and a semi-ovoid on the vertical. The position of these pleated creatures is described in the form of vectors, given in relation to the geometry of the rotundas they are placed in. This arrangement suggests strongly that they are embodied by their containment. Thus, after the mapping of one folded frame in the space ACB we are told there is ‘the white body of a woman finally’ (Beckett, 1995, 184), that ‘finally’ suggesting that the efforts of narrating the coordinates within the dome conjures the inhabitant herself. Like cowering or imprisoned versions of Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man, the characters are given substance by their location within the geometry of the circle, albeit by an arrangement consisting of straight lines. This is also an important alteration of the unnamable’s bulbous hypothetical embodiment, as the later human frames are given substance by their points of contact with the curved lines of their circular habitat. So, while they become less curved themselves, turned into a series of vectors – head to arse, arse to feet – they are conjured, indeed fleshed out, by mapping this geometry within a curved space.

As a model for abstraction this is almost certainly not what Beckett had in mind when he compared his work to that of Kandinsky. But there is, even in Bacon’s resistance to analysis, a curious compulsion to place his work alongside Beckett’s, as Jane Hale has argued (Hale, 96). Thus it is with a resistance to classification and explication that the painter’s biographer records an inadvertent Beckettian echo, ‘Bacon reiterated throughout his life that his painting “meant” nothing, “said” nothing, and that he himself had nothing to “say.” “I’m not an Expressionist, you see, as some people say,” he would insist, sometimes adding as a last flourish: “After all, I have nothing to express”‘ (Peppiatt, 98). But the preponderance of bodies within both oeuvres demands an account of what, with their curious shapes and settings, they are doing here, in a space that, both have argued, has abandoned the task of expression. Beckett and Bacon share a process of modelling the body that includes reference to a broken or distorted model, and a predilection for swooping shapes in both the figure itself and its quasi-prosthetic containment. The repetition of these mutual acts of mutilation and distortion stresses (and distresses) the physical at the expense of conventional bodies and settings, forging a meaty mimesis of the atypical subject. Indeed, it is one of the paradoxes of the television Not I that the use of a medium that, unlike theatre, does not present embodiment itself creates such a striking rendition of substantial embodiment. The enlarged and isolated image displays the meat of corporeality down to the spit and dribble that theatrical scale would dissemble. The very insubstantiality of the medium – constituted of no more than dots of coloured light – becomes the means by which physicality is so strongly and viscerally created. There is, in Beckett’s increased use of television, surely a technological descendent of his call for visible artifice in Waiting for Godot, where acting ‘has got to be done artificially, balletically, Otherwise everything becomes an imitation, an imitation of reality’ (Haynes, 108). In this taste too, his tactics are also common to Bacon, whose portrayal of the subject is rendered by the overt, artificial distortion of illustrative forms: ‘I would like to make my pictures more and more artificial [. . . ] The more artificial you can make it, the greater chance you’ve got of its looking real’ (Sylvester, 146 and 148). The achievement of an art that is effective not despite its artifice but because of it is the talent and taste of both figures.

If Beckett’s creatures can be thought of as abstract, then, it is certainly not in the sense of being opposed to the concrete. On the contrary, abstraction here seems to mean the condensation of physicality; the obsessive, distorting focus not only on appearance but on the sensations of being clothed in flesh, and of bulging into three dimensions. It is to the notion of sensation, then, that we must finally appeal in this juxtaposition. In a letter to Alan Schneider – and repeated elsewhere – Beckett wrote that Not I is ‘Addressed less to the understanding than to the nerves of the audience which should in a sense share her bewilderment’ (Harmon, 283). Likewise, Bacon repeatedly described his images of faces in neural terms, as ‘an attempt to bring the figurative thing up onto the nervous system more violently and more poignantly’ (Sylvester, 12). As both artists make explicit, then, their depictions of bodies signify not through reference to a bloodless or theoretical notion of physicality but through the observer’s own physical participation. Their aesthetic bodies work not because they resemble a particular person or even present an actual body, but because they depict the condition of embodiment itself, and because they excite through the sparking of our own synapses.



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Kaleidoscope: Francis Bacon. ‘I’ll go on until I drop’; Francis Bacon’s Last Interview, radio programme. London: BBC, first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 17 August 1991.

Knowlson, James (1996), Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, London: Bloomsbury.

Peppiatt, Michael (1996), Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London: Phoenix.

Rank, Otto [1929] (1973), The Trauma of Birth, New York: Harper & Row.

Richardson, John (2007), A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years 1917–1932, London: Jonathan Cape.

Russell, John (1993), Francis Bacon, London: Thames & Hudson. The South Bank Show, featuring Francis Bacon, television programme. London: LWT, 1985. 

Sinclair, Andrew (1993), Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times, London: Sinclair-Stevenson.

Sylvester, David (1987), Interviews with Francis Bacon, London: Thames & Hudson.

Whitelaw, Billie (1995), Billie Whitelaw . . . Who He? An Autobiography, London: Sceptre




The Human Cry: An Appreciation of Francis Bacon







If, in 1964, you were to have asked me which two things excited me most, aside of course from ‘The Siren Call of Sex’ as the poet Philip Larkin put it, I would have answered, the Ronettes and the paintings of Francis Bacon. Oh, and the fact that I was leaving Hull College of Art intent on a life of painting, so three things.

The first Francis Bacon paintings I saw were in reproduction, around 50 years ago. They had a great effect on me even in this diminished form. I recall my painting tutor, James Neill, being scornful of Bacon’s work. Telling me that Bacon was passé. The years leading to the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York show how wrong he was. The works reverberate with the energy of the painting and the violent intensity of the imagery they contain.

Bacon said that one reason for the violent component of his paintings might have to do with his upbringing in Ireland. He was born in 1909, a century ago in Dublin, the son of a racehorse trainer. They lived quite near the Curragh where the British Cavalry Regiment was stationed. He remembered them using the drive to their house for practice manoeuvres, galloping up and down the drive. This was just before the 1914 war. The family moved to London in that period because his father was in the War Office and Francis was instilled with the possibility of impending danger. After the war he returned to Ireland and was raised during the period of the Sinn Féin Movement, living with his grandmother who was at that time the wife of the Commissioner of Police for Kildare. He remembered living in a sandbagged house, and some roads crossed with ditches dug, said Bacon, to trap the unwary car or horse and cart for the waiting snipers.

When he was 17 he moved to Berlin. He said the Berlin of 1927 was violent, not in the military sense that Ireland was, but in the emotional sense. One thinks of Christopher Isherwood who lived in Berlin around the same time and later wrote Good-bye to Berlin, which was made into the musical Cabaret. One thinks of the latent violence too soon to become a reality that Bacon spoke of. For a young gay man it must have been very exciting, and later very dangerous. He went on to live in Paris during “all those disturbed years,” as he put it until 1939 when the war started.

What Bacon said about the violence of his life, the violence he has lived amongst, is that it is different from the violence in painting, “that to speak about the violence of paint, it has nothing to do with the violence of war, it’s to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality itself.”

Bacon himself was obsessed with mortality and said that “If life excites you then its opposite, like a shadow, death, must excite you,” that one is aware of it like the flip of a coin between life and death. In an interview with the writer and art critic David Sylvester, Bacon said he was always surprised when he woke up in the morning. Sylvester asked if that didn’t belie Bacon’s view that he was an essentially optimistic person, and Bacon replied, “Ah well, you can be optimistic and totally without hope.” That seems pleasingly Beckett-like to me.

The visitor to this magnificent exhibition, if not already familiar with Bacon’s work, may be surprised, perhaps even a little shocked if that is still possible today, at the visceral quality of the painting. Near the beginning of the exhibit is a triptych “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” painted in 1944. The phallic figures are against a stark orange background; one looks down while the other two with snarling and gaping mouths evoke menace or pain. Bacon said that he was influenced by Picasso’s paintings of organic forms relating to the human figure but distortions of it. But the mouths, full of teeth in the Bacons, make his work altogether more sinister.

Bacon said he did hope one day to make the best painting of the human cry, but that he was not able to do it. He thought the best depiction of the cry was in the still from Eisenstein’s great film Battleship Potemkin of the screaming nanny. In painting, he felt the best human cry was probably in the “Massacre of the Innocents” by Poussin of around 1630.

Again and again one can see the importance of the mouth as an expressive vehicle in Bacon’s works. When young in Paris he bought a second-hand book with hand-colored plates of diseases of the mouth. He tried to combine the Potemkin image with the images from the book, but it never worked out.

A friend once gave me a textbook of reconstructive surgery of victims of traumatic injury (there is always someone wanting to cheer you up). One photograph showed a face with the flesh almost entirely lifted from one side revealing the teeth, jaw and skull. I always associated the image with Bacon – though Bacon’s paintings are neither horrific nor literal. Yet it is as if he reminds us of the skull beneath the flesh, reminds us of our mortality

‘The mouth’ paintings evolved during the 1940’s. The work entitled “Painting 1946” has a dark figure whose jaw and mouth emerge from the adumbration of an umbrella. A flayed carcass is behind, its limbs spread as if crucified. This, the first work by Bacon to be acquired by a museum, was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1949 and it seems to point the way to the ensuing works sometimes referred to as ‘Scream Paintings’ of heads, figures and Popes, in the 1950’s. “Study for Innocent X,” 1962, seems a culmination of these, being derived from a reproduction of the Velazquez portrait (widely regarded as one of the finest portraits ever painted) . Interestingly, Bacon, though he spent two months in Rome, never visited the Galleria  Doria-Pamphili to see the Velazquez painting. He said he probably feared seeing the original after he had tampered with it

He needed only the reproduced image for his purposes. Bacon certainly preferred to work from photographs as a starting point, rather than with models, partly as he said because he thought that models would be upset by what he did to them

There is a delicious painting called “Portrait of George Dyer riding a Bicycle,” 1966. Dyer’s face is turned to the viewer whilst surrounding it, a larger shadowy profile with a faint smile rides obliviously on. Dyer was Bacon’s lover, but their relationship was always tempestuous and in 1971 on the opening night of Bacon’s big retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, Dyer committed suicide in his hotel room

I met Francis Bacon at the Chelsea Arts Club, London, which he occasionally came to in the late 1970’s, and in the 1980’s I’d occasionally see him walking in Kensington where I lived. He would nod but we never spoke. That was good enough for me. I met Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes too, but that is, as they say, another story.

David Remfry’s artistic career spans more than 30 years. A figurative painter born and trained in England, he is now living in New York City.






Francis Bacon’s Poetics of the Grotesque







Though Bacon seems to recycle the same sort of grotesque in his oeuvre to an extent that becomes exhausting there is something still powerful in his poetics of the grotesque. He reminds us of bygone times before the age of the laboratory and medicalization of illness when the temple was a site of ritual killings and sacrifice. As Yve Alain Bois remarks in his essay, “Base Materialism,” on Bataille and the photographer Eli Lotar: We live in an age where the slaughterhouse, just like the madman, is quarantined from everyday life.

In his triptych series titled after the T. S. Eliot poem Sweeney Agonistes, Bacon depicts enigmatic fragmented lumps of life matter. The extreme upward tilt of the paintings draws the viewer into the painting, while having the contradictory effect of flattening the picture plane. In portraying such liminal figures that hover between life and death and inserting them between flat and deep space, one confronts the return of the repressed. That which is repressed and sublimated inevitably intrudes as the signified momentarily catches up to and disrupts the signifier. The horror in these works is in their representing the repression of violence. As Bois argues: “To show violence purely and simply would be a way of incorporating it; it is more effective to underscore how it is evacuated.”

The retrospective for the twentieth century figurative painter Francis Bacon on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows Bacon’s belaboring exploration of the grotesque. He is fixated on both religious iconography such as in his paintings inspired by Velázquez, and malformed depictions of enigmatic carcasses.

Blood on Pavement similarly hovers between deep and flat space. The obscure blood stain is a trace of a violence and trauma that remains absent. The horror of Bacon’s imagery lies not in its portrayal of violence, but rather in its undefinability that places the viewer between the sublimation and intrusion of the trauma. It is a horror that remains truly other and resists incorporation and resolution in the quotidian. He reminds us that the comforting sanctity of our daily latte and other objects of commercial consumption is  continually haunted by wars, sweatshops, and environmental devastation. Bacon does not naively revel in the violence of the status quo, but rather exposes the ways in which we sublimate and expunge the traces of violence in presenting objects which remain liminal and resist foreclosure.




Francis Bacon at the Met

  Francis Bacon’s virtual reality






Francis Bacon, who died at the age of 82 in 1992, was the greatest British painter of the 20th Century, and by all odds the most notorious. His famous paintings of Baroque-era popes, distortedly rendering Diego Velazquez’s portrait of Innocent X as a succession of screaming funhouse faces, scandalized respectable opinion, while his treatment of gay life made him one of the first artists to unapologetically depict the gritty subculture of homosexual London. 

On a political level, Bacon’s postwar work seemed to decry violence, while on a personal one he appeared to embrace it. The result was an art that seemed both aesthetically disturbing and morally ambivalent. 

Bacon’s iconography is now familiar to us, and his bad-boy postures, after Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Greenaway, seem a bit old hat, not to say sentimental. We are really left, in the centenary exhibit of his work recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with the art itself. There’s a cool, classical ironist behind the Romantic figure painter, and the tension between the two—the eye of a clinician observing a particularly messy operation—is what engages us now.

Yet there’s a deeper issue in Bacon’s work, the issue that besets modern art in general: how to represent the world in an age of photographic reproduction. 


Fine art’s dirty little secrets

Before photography, the artist looked directly at the world and depicted it through hand and eye. Afterwards, anyone with a camera could reproduce that same world with a click of the shutter. This easy appropriation included the world of art itself, as the digital camera flashes that have added a new level to the visual pollution of our galleries and museums attest. 

At the Met, guards were diligently shooing would-be picture takers away from the Bacons, but I think Bacon himself would have been highly amused. That painters had themselves often worked from photographs was one of fine art’s dirty little secrets, but Francis Bacon may have been the first to work only from photographs, film stills and other forms of reproduction. 

Even when painting his friends and lovers, he would never pose them, but have photographer friends such as John Deakin give him snapshots to work from. To have museum souvenir-hunters turn his paintings back into photographs might well have seemed a fitting completion of his work to him, or at any rate a reduction back to first principles.


A gambit taken to extremes

What were those principles? I don’t think Bacon was merely quirky in insisting on having a prefabricated image to work from (a Velazquez painting might serve too, but only itself in reproduction—Bacon claimed never to have seen the original). He was making a programmatic or, if you will, a philosophic statement— namely, that the modern world could be seen only in mediated form, never directly. 

This is a very classic modernist gambit, of course. But Bacon took it to the extreme. Photography had, as it were, usurped the natural world, and banished it to Kantian exile. The photograph was the primary datum of experience now, and art could only work off it, compete with it and, if successful, in some sense displace it. This displacement was the actual artistic gesture, the triumph of art itself.

This conviction, I think, was at the core of Bacon’s rejection of the dominant aesthetic of his generation, Abstract Expressionism. In photography, the image of a thing replaced the thing itself, but the Abstract Expressionists, by ignoring both, had retreated into what Bacon regarded as a sterile manipulation of form and color. 


Like tennis without a net

The Expressionists might say that, in rejecting the image, they freed themselves from the tyranny of representation in order to project emotions onto canvas directly. But to Bacon (not to mention Picasso and Matisse, among others), that was playing tennis without a net. The real issue was whether art could exist in what Walter Benjamin had called the age of mechanical reproduction, and any art that failed to engage the question— to grapple with the image, particularly the human image—was simply irrelevant.

The matter was not nearly so simple, of course. Picasso himself had broken up the conventional visual field with Cubism, and it was this gesture that made Abstract Expressionism possible, even if Picasso himself had chosen not to follow it. From this point of view, modern art was not about the image—temporality—but about space, reconfigured and reconceived. Photography had little to say about this issue, being in that sense an actually retrograde method for interrogating the world.

Bacon, too, despite his mock obeisance to the photograph, recognized this. The primary question in depicting the human image was, for him, not its color, outline or expression, but its placement in space. 


Baboons and the pope

I think the gaping or grimacing features that recur so regularly in his work attest to this spatial instability; they’re like the distortions caused by exposure to compressed air or a destructive wind. On a psychological level, one might say, Bacon’s gaping mouths are meant to reveal our animal kinship to other primates; thus, in the room that exhibits most of the papal images, figure studies of a chimpanzee and a baboon are included, as well as studies of dogs. 

But all the figures, human and animal, seem unlocated. The popes sit on their thrones, and there is no image more apparently grounded than a throne; but Bacon encloses them in the cage patterns characteristic of his early postwar work, thus making them appear suspended in a menacing void—menacing to them and to us. 

Or sometimes his figures are seen through drizzling screens of paint, like curtains that leave us uncertain whether the figures stand in front of or behind them (or are rather bombarded by them, like cosmic particles). Rain is spatially disorienting, especially when it appears without signpost or background; and Bacon’s existential rain—coming from no apparent source and proceeding to no apparent ground—is particularly riddling. 


The spoor of the human 

In his later work, these devices are replaced by large slabs of unbroken color, which, even when they suggest a pictorial referent (a bare room, for example), give us no real purchase. Bacon’s figures are as isolated, as ungrounded, as they can be, and the twists and gaps in the figures themselves leave them, too, at the margins of substantiality. It is as if Bacon (who adapts many of the devices of Expressionist space) wants to take the image as close to dubiety and unintelligibility as he can, while still leaving an inexpugnable trace, the spoor of the human.

This is a new kind of reality, but one that we can recognize about us everywhere today, and which Bacon was prescient in anticipating, particularly in his sensitivity to photographic processes—the chemical trace that leaves, mysteriously, a simulacrum of the object world. We live, increasingly, in this virtual reality, whose reach has been enormously extended by the computer and the world of video games and simulations that it has generated. Without noticing it, we have largely disappeared into this virtual reality, organized for us by unseen hands, which is now replacing the messy, unframed, chaotic natural world that, in our animal fear of it and our distrust of the instincts that once permitted us to navigate it, we are in the process of abandoning.


Paint itself as a victim

There is no reason why we ourselves should not some day be absorbed into this looking-glass, and that is the mirror Francis Bacon’s art holds up to us. Its ambiguity—and perhaps its violence, too—is born of the frisson we experience as we confront this brave new world, which fascinated Bacon himself as its prophet. 

One of the things we will lose in it, as he was well aware, is paint itself. A painter friend of mine, recently returned from Venice, remarked to me about how few paintings the Biennale contained, as opposed to videos and installations. What, look at a cloth canvas daubed with vegetable dyes and hung, immovably, on a wall? Titian is as far from us now as a cave dweller.


The one reality we can’t escape

Bacon, though, insisted upon paint, as he did upon the material core of humanity, distant and difficult though it had become to our perception (the difficulty was precisely his subject). Two paintings from the Met show may illustrate this for us. In one, his lover, George Dyer, is shown, nude and from the back, sitting on a toilet. He is surrounded by white space except for the piping that conducts Dyer’s waste away from him and toward us: a man, in effect, shitting in our faces. 

In another, Blood on a Pavement, a smear of blood is all that is left of the absent figure, and the background itself is rendered as three Rothko-like panels (another appropriation from the Expressionists, despite Bacon’s expressed disdain for Rothko). 

The Dyer portrait is, among other things, the ultimate send-up of the papal thrones; here, Bacon suggests, is where we all sit. We don’t see Dyer’s waste, but the image makes us inescapably conscious of it: shit is the one natural reality we can’t escape, however politely removed by modern plumbing, and however antiseptically white our bathroom walls and fixtures. 

Similarly, blood is also our trace: the one testimony to our existence when the murdered corpse has been removed from the scene of the crime. We live, and therefore shit; we die, and therefore bleed: however virtual our reality may become in between, these signatures reveal us.



                    Portrait of Michel Leiris (1976): Our kinship with animals





Francis Bacon shutters at the Met








Filleted carcases, ghostly dogs, screaming popes, and wrestling men, all conjure up Francis Bacon: A Centenary which will close at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sunday August 16. If you have not seen it yet, you should before it leaves. The Bacon retrospective is an amazing collection of his work and includes a curious display of photos and artifacts from his Chelsea studio. As you walk amongst his paintings, you become part of them  just as he wanted. Bacon requested that his paintings be presented behind glass so that his audience could be part of his twisted world.

Walking though the horror show, it’s hard to decide which works are more disturbing. The paintings that use shuttering, where the image fades in and out, or the works with minimal backgrounds. The simple ones take the cake. Although the canvases with shuttering were darker in appearance and more dramatic, the brighter and lusher colours of the minimal backgrounds put the terror into the everyday realm. Pain and suffering isn’t hiding in his cluttered studio in Chelsea, but out on the streets and in the landscape of the living.

Bacon painted a number of wrestling men, possibly to work out his affliction as he called it or homosexuality. Homosexuality was a no, no back in his day, punishable by law. The black-widow Bacon painted his lovers, two of whom committed suicide on his watch. Most of his lovers were thieves or transients, and he met one of them while being robbed in his home.

Leaving the Bacon show you’ll be exhilarated with his take on the grotesque figure. He twist and turns them inside and out with smears and kicks to the guts, pulling you inside and out and sometimes leaving you a little weary and sick.




Love is the Devil 








Two weekends ago, I was in New York, where I’d gone specifically to view the Francis Bacon exhibition, a centenary retrospective of his work put on jointly by the Tate Britain in London, the Prado Museum in Madrid, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (through this weekend, August 16). Bacon’s paintings are few and far between – most appear to be in private collections – so it was a particular joy for me whenever I’d come upon one in a museum or gallery, since he is one of my favourite painters. I couldn’t miss something like this, an exhibition representing his entire life’s (which was organized to commemorate 100 years since his birth on October 28, 1909). And I am still thinking about it. Bacon continued to paint astonishingly powerful works even into his eighties, and died at 82 of a heart attack in Madrid.

As I wandered through the galleries, I was trying to figure out just why I’m so drawn to Bacon’s work. It’s probably partly because he represents my quintessential ideal of an artist -- one who clearly listened to his own, very unique (and sometimes controversial) drumbeat. And he was an absolute master of paint. Self-taught, he possessed the ability to render fantastic imagery within his works with just a couple of well-placed strokes of his brush – he clearly was someone who spent hundreds, thousands of hours learning his craft.

But he also was one who was not afraid to express his own vulnerability and sometimes horrific reality, and in doing so, highlight the strengths and vulnerabilities of our own lives. As French anthropologist and writer Michel Leiris remarked, "[Bacon’s paintings] help us, most powerfully, to feel the sheer fact of existence as it is sensed by a man without illusions."

I’ve been haunted by one particular work I saw at the show, Self-Portrait, 1973. In it, a desolate figure leans on a sink painted in mid-air. In 1971, two days before the opening of a major exhibition of Bacon’s work at the Grand Palais in Paris, Bacon’s friend and sometime lover George Dyer (who Bacon had brought to Paris for the occasion) died in their hotel bathroom of an overdose. Although Bacon appeared nonplussed at the opening, he revealed the trauma caused by this death in the dark triptychs he painted during the subsequent two years.

Maybe it was because I also was suffering through the July anniversary of my own father’s death nine years ago. Or thinking about the recent news that the sister of a friend had just died of breast cancer, leaving behind her husband and young children, or hearing just yesterday that another friend’s father had just died of brain cancer. Whatever the case, there was something about that painting that was so poignant and powerful in evoking enormous loss, that it reached out to me, and became indelible.

[P]eople say you forget about death, but you don’t. After all, I’ve had a very unfortunate life, because all the people I’ve been really fond of have died. And you don’t stop thinking about them; time doesn’t heal. But you concentrate on something which was an obsession, and what you would have put into your obsession with the physical act you put into your work. Because one of the terrible things about so-called love, certainly for an artist, I think, is the destruction.

Francis Bacon, from a December 1971 interview with David Sylvester

I’ve been thinking a lot about why people go to museums and sit and stare at paintings that are hundreds of years old, and are about narratives and times that seem to have little or no relationship to the present. But still, we go, and we sit and stare. I think it’s because in those lifetimes, although there was papyrus instead of I-phones, in the end, I guess the stories of our lives aren’t that much different. As Bacon once remarked:


In a way, it becomes more difficult [to paint]. You’re more conscious of the fact that nine-tenths of everything is inessential. What is called reality becomes more acute. The few things that matter become so much more concentrated and can be summed up with so much less.

And, there are some things that painting can do that nothing else can.

Love is the Devil is a 1998 film of Francis Bacon’s life directed by John Maybury and produced by the BBC, with Derek Jacobi as Francis Bacon, Daniel Craig (yes, 007) as George Dyer, and Tilda Swinton as Bacon’s close friend Muriel Belcher. You can check out the trailer here. Adam Low also created a detailed documentary on the painter in Bacon’s Arena.




Chaos theory: Francis Bacon’s creative process

is revealed in a new book Incunabula




Honor the error as a hidden intention.”
– from Oblique Strategies

    (set of published cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt)



in•cu•nab•u•la:[in-kyoo-nab-yuh-luh] – plural noun, singular [-luh m]


1. extant copies of books produced in the earliest stages (before 1501) of printing
from movable type.

2. the earliest stages or first traces of anything





During the life of the painter Francis Bacon, journalists became fond of photographing his studio that was famous for its unique disarray. Piles of photographs, books and newspaper clippings were strewn, torn and spattered with paint, creating a veritable archaeological dig of source material for Bacon’s work.

Francis Bacon didn’t work from life. Rather, he used imagery to inform his paintings by surrounding himself with a living collage of reference material. The authors of Incunabula describe the deliberate means in which Bacon’s studio was recently disassembled and scrutinized to achieve a glimpse of the artist in process.

Bacon’s paintings are a subconscious, dreamlike view into floating interiors featuring twisted, flesh-like appendages sometimes resembling people or hanging slabs of meat in a slaughterhouse. The figures often appear pushed into strangely angled corners or trapped in undefined violence, yet the compositions are rendered with an air of serenity.

The evolution of Bacon’s paintings is revealed in random selections of source material. For example, the books that cluttered Bacon’s studio were deliberately shelved with the spines facing away from his sight. A book would be selected at random, pages torn, and imagery folded into the shape of a cone designed to stand beside Bacon’s easel without falling down. The abstraction created by the folds often translated into the final painted image – another degree of separation from the props that aided in creating the dreamlike quality of his canvases

In Incunabula, source materials sit on the pages side by side with the paintings that developed from them. On one page, a torn newspaper photo showing an opera singer in profile with outstretched arms is transformed into a sphinx, the head further transformed to resemble a second photograph of one of the artist’s friends. Thus, a portrait is created. A photograph with sharp diagonal folds becomes a self-portrait of the artist with similarly distorted features as in the photo. On another page, a clipping of hanging birds stripped of their feathers becomes a painting of a red cubist interior featuring a trompe l’oeil bird hanging in space. Here the authors take a biographical aside and explore Bacon’s interest in meat imagery: Was Francis Bacon fascinated with hanging carcasses, (which became the trademark image in his paintings), because his namesake, Sir Francis Bacon, died of pneumonia after stuffing dead birds with snow in an attempt to find a new way to preserve meat?

During his life, the painter Francis Bacon made no secret about the reason his studio was kept in what might at first glance appear to be only cluttered wreckage. The environment gave him the impulse to create order out of chaos. Paintings were the result. His studio could be regarded as his final work of art, a work that will remain a gloriously unfinished testament to an artist’s creative process

Francis Bacon: Incunabula, by Rebecca Daniels and Martin Harrison (Thames & Hudson, $75).

Sharon Anderson is a Los Angeles-based writer and painter, and a frequent contributor to Northside San Francisco. She also often appears in Art in America.




Francis Bacon: A Centenary  Retrospective



Metropolitan Museum of Art, until August 16





Sod off.  To escape the lingering odour given off by the career of Francis Bacon, you’d have to be hanging from a refrigerator hook in an abattoir. Not an unlikely place to meet the artist, actually. His paintings of anguish and horror make many avert their faces, not so much from offensive art as from an offensive smell. Goya’s blunt, black sketches of rotting corpses hanging from trees in the aftermath of the Napoleonic invasion strike the same note of crossing sensory boundaries. Bacon joins Jonathan Swift as obsessed with socially aberrant smells, in Swift’s case the smell of a lady farting, in Bacon’s the sweat of a man having sex with another man. But he is quite willing to throw in the rank odour of bloody meat and dog shit on the sidewalk (Bacon once spotted the latter and proclaimed, “Now there’s what life really is. ”)  The artist’s renegade sex life has been vividly portrayed in a film titled Love Is the Devil, which summarizes his rough-trade view on the subject of love. Such is the sainted renown of Bacon at home — he passes for the English Jean Genet but without a hagiographer on the order of Sartre - that every drunken careen through the low dives of Soho could be a station of the Cross.

Yet there are a host of critics who aren’t buying any of it. Before I attended the current large exhibit of over sixty Bacon canvases at the Met, I read New York squibs that labelled him a cartoonist, if not himself a cartoon, a shabby shocker, a Johnny One Note of screaming popes and butcher-shop variety meats.  In addition he was a blowhard who never met an interviewer he didn’t want to talk to, and a tireless careerist stage-managing his own fame.  Why did so many articles proclaim that Bacon was at once great but not credible? A painter famous for telling society to bugger off was being handed the same in return.

Yet even if every accusation were true, and there’s a viable argument for each, Bacon’s work jumps off the canvas and aims a dart into the soul as obviously (one should think) as Rembrandt’s or Turner’s.  If the greatest achievement of art is to communicate the consciousness of the artist, how can anyone deny Bacon’s power?  When you visit the Tate Britain in London, whose walls are lined with honourable accomplishment, the two painters capable of flaying the heart (in a good way) are Turner and Bacon.  They are supreme expression of a culture that managed to produce heroes no culture can contain.

I think ordinary viewers grasp this instinctively. Bacon, like Van Gogh, is critic-proof.  The Met’s gallery is all but silent (as an unscripted theatrical effect, an infant was screaming a siren wail on the day I visited), and people stare at images from a modern Hieronymus Bosch, cataloguing a hell of the interior as convincing to contemporary non-believers as Bosch’s was to post-medieval Christians.  An appalled shiver unites the crowds, which are thick and constant at this exhibit. In addition to the paintings themselves, the Met has devoted one dimmed side room to a display of flotsam and jetsam from Bacon’s famously chaotic studio (now transferred in toto to Dublin), where layer upon layer of compositing photos, news clips, magazine articles, and artistic shards formed a sedimentary deposit. Bacon left the studio in that condition, he said, because he was inspired by chaos, and he liked to await the arrival of happy accidents, a chance glance at a scrap or image underfoot that caused his mind to take flight.

Bacon never took a lesson and never painted from life.  He rose almost fully formed after an early start at interior decorating and street hustling, with a small grey Crucifixion in 1933 that resembles an x-ray of the Shroud of Turin, should it happen that the enshrouded figure was a splayed cow. Within months the picture appeared in a book on modern painting opposite a Picasso, the master whom Bacon adored above all others.  I imagine there was a certain shyness he felt before the living. A prowler of public toilets, gambling dens, sordid bars, and cruising spots wouldn’t exactly frolic in the normal, and when all is said and done, a model posing in a studio is decidedly normal.

Among all the detritus that satisfied his nesting instinct, I was struck by two images from Bacon’s studio. One was a page torn from the studies of bodies in motion taken by the nineteenth-century photographer, Eadward Muybridge.  These became famous as the first stop-action portrayals of men running, leaping, wrestling, and the like. Muybridge married science and art. His images supplied painters with thousands upon thousands of new poses, all in real-time motion, never dreamed of in anatomy classes. At the same time, they removed any hint of idealism, since not every gesture made by the human form is beautiful.

Bacon used Muybridge as a major inspiration; in this case, he saved a page showing two nude men wrestling, amounting to over a hundred postage-stamp sized shots in sequence. It’s not only that he transmuted them into men having sex (never explicitly portrayed – they could be men fighting or even merging like melting jelly or pooled liquid flesh). The startling part is how literal Bacon could be in lifting Muybridge’s poses while simultaneously making them so disturbing, as if his own desire-repellence was a transmuting force all its own, capable of damning-celebrating, looking-not looking, touching-cringing at the same time.

The other scrap that caught my eye was of one of Bacon’s young, usually thuggish, moody lovers, George Dyer. After Dyer’s suicide by overdose in 1971, a grief-stricken Bacon began to paint him even more obsessively than he had in life. According to the painter, the two met in 1964 when Dyer was attempting to burgle Bacon’s apartment, a likely story given that Dyer later planted some marijuana in the apartment, which he now shared with Bacon, and then called the police to come and seize it, arresting Bacon in the bargain.  Rough, handsome, and no doubt adept at various tinges of sado-masochism, Dyer happened to have a classic Roman nose in profile.  But in this particular photo he sits grinning in a chair facing us. It’s an ordinary snapshot.  What makes it striking is that Bacon has trampled and folded it many times, adding streaks of colour such as a red slash here and there. This deliberate manhandling – forget the psychological overtones – gave Bacon access to visual distortions that leapt on to the canvas as distortions of face, figure, character, and mood.

Similar mangling can be seen in much outsider art, the kind produced by schizophrenics who obsessively carry out hallucinatory visions. Bacon was certainly an outsider, and yet he calls from beyond sanity with screams that make more sense of life than one would imagine possible.  Psychosis is ultimately sterile when trying to dig deeper into life. It’s too repetitive, self-involved, and private, a maze luxuriant with growth but devoid of fruit. Bacon returns to the same themes with similar compulsiveness – the Met show includes six of his Screaming Popes, luridly purplish takes on a painting he thought the greatest ever done, Velasquez’s famous portrait of Pope Innocent X.  But when he stretches the Pope’s head into an elongated melon, pries his mouth open like a doctor looking for a festering wound (Bacon kept a Victorian volume on mouther. I must admit that seeing them in person doesn’t necessarily add as much as seeing Rembrandt or Titian in person. The pictures have gained some impact of scale, since all but a few are large and at times larger than life. Each is framed, per Bacon’s instructions, in heavy gold frames fronted with glass (he wanted the viewer’s reflection to become part of the painting – it doesn’t really work).  But Bacon’s existential surrealism hits with brute force no matter what the scale, and his habit of putting single figures on bright grounds of green and pink make it impossible not to focus on them. diseases close at hand), cages him in a rectangle of gold bars like a papal menagerie, and furrows the grey space all around into curtains of dripping sorrow, the final effect isn’t remotely psychotic. It’s despairingly religious, as seen by someone who called himself an optimist in a special sense: an optimist of nothing.

In an age of Google images, you can gaze at Bacon’s iconic paintings with the flick of a finger. I must admit that seeing them in person doesn’t necessarily add as much as seeing Rembrandt or Titian in person.  The pictures have gained some impact of scale, since all but a few are large and at times larger than life. Each is framed, per Bacon’s instructions, in heavy gold frames fronted with glass (he wanted the viewer’s reflection to become part of the painting – it doesn’t really work).  But Bacon’s existential surrealism hits with brute force no matter what the scale, and his habit of putting single figures on bright grounds of green and pink make it impossible not to focus on them.

Still, this is the first major Bacon show in New York in two decades, which makes it unmissable. A final point.  In the audio guide and a projection at the end of the show, there’s quite a bit of Bacon talking about himself in his upper-crust drone that’s peculiarly at odds with his tomcat-crawling-the-alley habits. He tends to carry on, almost like an Alec Guinness parody of Francis Bacon.  More to the point, he’s constantly evading the pain and honesty of his canvases. Despite some cogent remarks, Bacon was a celebrity poseur as flaccid as Andy Warhol but without the mesmerizing looks.  Bacon flouted a quotation he lifted from Aeschylus: “The reek of human blood smiles out at me.” He actually meant it, which is horrifying, but how can such an appetite ever be put into words.



                                                                 Three Studies for a Self-Portrait 1979  1980  Francis Bacon





Religious Musings on Francis Bacon:



  A Review of the Francis Bacon Retrospective Exhibition

at Tate Britain from September 11, 2008–January 4, 2009






Francis Bacon is arguably the most well-known British artist after J.M.W Turner, and his forthcoming centenary in 2009 has been well documented in both the art world and the mass media. !e BBC archive contains a comprehensive range of interviews and footage with the artist. To commemorate the centenary, the Tate has put together the third retrospective on Bacon (the previous ones were in 1962 and 1985 and were also held at the Tate), which has brought together some of his best works from different periods of his life. This extensive exhibition will then move to the Prado (Madrid) from 3 February–19 April 2009, and then on to the Metropolitan Museum in New York from 18 May–6 August 2009

On entry to the exhibition the viewer is faced with the Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988).1 This immediately sets us on guard. Three menacing beasts, one in each panel, either turn their back to the viewer (as in the left panel) or snarl and snap. !e notable absence of eyes in these figures means that the viewer cannot challenge the positions that we are being placed in because we cannot confront these figures, but are instead confronted by them as they grimace and growl at us. Fixed on podiums, and against a blood-red background, these creatures foretell doom. The monumentality of these figures, each featured on a panel measuring 198 x 147.5 cm and together spread across the entire wall, engulfs the viewer. Even before stepping into the room this painting is visible from the open niche and gives us a foretaste of the show. The conspicuous placement of this triptych is deliberate and gives an indication to the viewer who is perhaps not so familiar with Bacon’s work of the preoccupations of his subject matter and also the alarming effect that his paintings have on viewers.

As the title of this review suggests, I want to demonstrate the preoccupation that Bacon has with themes that are addressed in religion: the relationship between life and death, the role of evil in society, the position of the human being in a world that is bereft of God and of ultimate meaning or purpose. In a world without God, the human is drawn closer to the beast, and this is an ongoing theme in Bacon’s work (which is given a particular focus in Room 1: Animal).

Bacon employs religious symbols, namely the crucifixion (which is the subject of Room 4: Crucifixion) and the figure of the pope (of which there are innumerable examples in the exhibition, from Head VI, 1949, to the papal portraits such as Study after Velázquez, 1950, and Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X, 1953). In statements about his work he claimed to be resolutely atheistic. Why then was he relentlessly drawn to these two popular iconographical reference points of the Christian tradition? I suggest that he did not use these symbols to support the Christian narrative or any other theological tradition, but that he used these symbols to explore questions about the meaning of life and existence. He explores the human nature of mortality and the plight of being thrown into a Godless world. The alienation of the individual and the realization of one’s fate are questions relating to what Tillich would describe as being of ultimate concern.


Rooms 1 to 4

The exhibition consists of ten rooms, which the viewer weaves his/her way through, and the paintings are largely arranged chronologically (Room 4: Crucifixion is an exception). Each room is given a name that corresponds to the subjects of the works. Room 1: Animal examines the significance of our animal instincts, which are usually latent, and demonstrates what happens when they come to the forefront of human expression. In these instances we experience the brutal, ravening capacities that exist beneath the veneer of civilization. For those unfamiliar with Bacon’s art, this room, rather in the manner of Second Version of Triptych 1944, presents a startling and immediate connection to the central issues of Bacon’s concerns: his expression of the proximity between the human and the animal, and the inevitable mortality that encapsulates the universal condition. !e sense of universality is conveyed by the absence of distinctive features in the works. In Figure in a Landscape (1945) and Figure Study I (1945–1946) the presence of a body is suggested, but the faces are hidden from view. More information is given in Figure Study II (1945–1946) and Painting (1946), where we witness the face that breaks out into a scream. More concentrated studies of the scream are conveyed in Head I (1947–1948) and Head II (1949). In the crossover from the human to the animal, and the generalized sense of despair articulated in these examples, Bacon is conveying the existential predicament of the human in post-war life.

Room 2: Zone focuses attention on another characteristic of Bacon’s work, the pictorial frame. In his works of the early 1950s Bacon was thinking about the presentation of form and he devised the three-dimensional space-frames that operate as powerful devices in his work. They serve to draw attention to the three-dimensional figure within the “pictures’ fictive space” (Gale 2008, 107). Study for a Crouching Nude (1952) and Study after Velázquez’ Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) conveys the effects of this device. In both these examples the striated vertical veil of brushstrokes breaks up the surface of the painting and draws the eye to the focal point of the scream. In the former example it draws attention to the taut musculature, of the body and in the latter example we are led to the point of disintegration, symbolized by the screaming mouth.

The literal darkness of the palette and metaphorical darkness of the sensibility pervades Room 3: Apprehension. The paintings in this room concentrate on a single anonymous male figure in a dark suit. These include Study for a Portrait (1953), Study for a Figure II (1953–1954) and Study for a Portrait (1953), Man in Blue V (1954) and Man in Blue (1954). Other paintings in the room focus on the animalistic tendencies in the human to mate—Two Figures in the Grass (1954) and cry—Chimpanzee (1955). The black backgrounds overwhelm and engulf the viewer, bringing with it a sense of doubt, despair and apprehension, which characterizes the atmosphere of the room. This apprehension is translated into real fear in Room 4: Crucifixion. If Room 3 can be described as encapsulating the anticipation and limbo-state of modern man, then the fears are actualized in Room 4. !e fear and aggression evidenced in the screams and cries of so many of the earlier figures are now taken a step further in the crucifixions, as we see the mechanisms of torture: from the figures who are tortured to the torturers themselves.


The crucifixions

In his interviews and written statements Bacon denied using the symbol of the crucifixion in a Christian way to support a particular faith. Among his many explanations he suggested that the crucifixion operated as an armature, which enabled him to explore human relationships and the behaviour of one human to another (Sylvester 1993, 44). The crucifixion revealed the cruelty and violence of human interaction. In three of the four crucifixion images that feature here, Crucifixion (1933), Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962) and Crucifixion (1965), at least one figure looks as if it is being crucified. Comparisons are made between Christ on the Cross, which is well represented in the history of art, and the figure on a cross in a generic crucifixion. In Three Studies for a Crucifixion Bacon makes the connection, between the figure in the right hand panel and Cimabue’s Crucifixion 1272–1274, explicit. He states, of the representation of the Christ figure in Cimabue: “I always think of that as an image—as a worm crawling down the cross. I did try to make something of the feeling which I’ve sometimes had from that picture of this image just moving, undulating down the cross” (Sylvester 1993, 14). The interplay of brutality in Bacon’s crucifixions, as seen by the bloodshed of the figures on the cross, or the perpetrators of the act, such as in Second Version of Triptych 1944, and Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) reinforces the sacrificial dimensions of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, and the concomitant religious feelings that this act symbolizes. The viewer is indirectly made aware of the ramifications of this act, even if they do not subscribe to the faith. The symbol of the crucifixion, which has been banalized and sanitized, now takes on a renewed sense of aesthetic and spiritual focus. The irony is that Bacon may be vehemently atheistic, but by continually referring to the crucifixion he is drawing attention to the very tradition he denies. His atheistic stance is dependent on the affirmation of theism in the first place. In the Godless world of Bacon’s generation, the propensity for violence and brutality is given a sharper focus and these sentiments are expressed in Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944).

This painting is comprised of three strange figures separated into three panels with each figure on a podium and placed against a burnt orange background. It has already been referred to in Second Version of Triptych 1944, which as the title suggests was clearly influenced by this earlier triptych. Three Studies was painted in 1944 and exhibited for the first time at the Lefevre Gallery in 1945. This is now regarded as a seminal painting because it established Bacon into the art world. The art critic John Russell described this work as causing “a total consternation” (Russell 1993, 10–11). In contrast to the other exhibits in the 1945 show, Bacon’s contribution was regarded warily and offered a vision that many would have preferred to put behind them. Instead of deflecting or distracting the focus from post-war malaise, Bacon fixed the focus entirely on suffering, pain and despair, which these three figures articulate. These Tiresian figures are prophets of eternal doom. They cannot see and we are placed in this space to see what is in front of us. These figures, like the figures in the Second Version forty years later, are incomprehensible forms that defy easy classification. They have qualities that are unmistakably human and also animal/bird-like. In the earlier example, it becomes apparent that the reference to the crucifixion

in the title is not reflected in the image itself—the crucifixion is absent. Furthermore, contrary to one’s immediate reflection on the title, we are not looking at the, but at a, crucifixion (Russell 1993, 11). The use of the indefinite article alters the potential meaning of the work, and may provide explanations for his repeated use of the symbol. Bacon is discussing the crucifixion in a more generic sense. Given the political context of post-war Europe, it is plausible that this is a statement on the violence of wartime, but also more banally in day-to-day living. In his interviews with Sylvester Bacon spoke of the pervasive sense of violence that he felt he lived with (Sylvester 1993, 81–82). His background and early childhood were certainly tumultuous. His early memories were of upheaval due to the First World World. He also experienced the Blitz of the Second World War and the Irish Civil War (growing up as a Protestant in Catholic Ireland).

The presence of Second Version of Triptych 1944 on the way into Room 1 is a reminder of the monumental effects that the earlier “version,” Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, had on its viewers and singles this motif out as being amongst the most powerful in Bacon’s oeuvre. If the 1944 example established Bacon in the art world, then this second version undoubtedly consolidated his reputation. One possible attribution of the figures in the 1944 example is that of the Furies who seek eternal justice and hunt down wrongdoers. These Furies stalk us on our journey through the exhibition from room to room and appear in different guises.

The main themes reflected in the exhibition are Bacon’s preconception with the human form and the ontological questions about the status and place of the human being in the late twentieth century. In all his depictions, whether of anonymous and generic figures who epitomise the human condition, or in more specific studies of his friends in the portraits (the subject of Room 7), Bacon examines the mortality of the flesh and the proximity between life and death. These concerns are revisited in the final room, Room 10: Late. In these later works, which Bacon painted when he was in his seventies, he is seen facing up to his mortality. The disintegration or dissolution of figures’ heads and the palpability of the shadows (of death) in Triptych (1983) reveal the workings of death.


Religious musings

Interpretations of the religious content and sensibility of Bacon’s work are often thwarted in Bacon scholarship. Many defer to the endless statements that he made about his virulent atheistic stance. They interpret his use of the religious images as formal devices, which allowed him to explore aspects of human nature, but they do not concede a religious explanation of behaviour. I argue that his attitude to religion was problematic, but we can speak of the implicit religion in his work. His images do not support a theological tradition and hence cannot be described as explicit, but they do engage in theological debates and speak of existence in a Godless world. God is featured as a palpably absent presence: the grimace of a biomorphic form, a shadow that overspills a body, the numerous dark, black abyssal backgrounds. Bacon dealt with the primary themes about the meaning and purpose of existence by examining the mortality of the flesh and the intricacies of human behaviour. In the absence of any of the religious structures of the afterlife, his figures are left contemplating the void. The reflecting surfaces of the glass, coupled with the spatial inclusion of the triptych devices pulls the viewer in. We see our reflections in the glass and are variously positioned in a cage, at the base of a crucifixion and in a background where we find no familiarity and hence no solace. The Godless world is not a myth that is narrated to us but something that we are confronted with in the very fabric of the work.

I walked around the rooms sometimes following the rooms in sequence and at other times backtracking. The gravitas of the first image preyed on my mind and became weighted down by other similar images of distortion and degeneration. Bacon is inescapably imparting a message about the human condition that is pessimistic insofar as it makes us engage with our mortality and transient position in the world but it is also uplifting because it is energizing and has an urgency and immediacy that makes us rethink our place in the world. I walked away feeling that I had experienced a narrative of the evolution of the human which turns back in on itself thus revealing the animal in the human. Somehow this did not feel stultifying but progressive and paradoxical. !rough his sophisticated pictorial technique Bacon takes the viewer back to the natural body, which is undone of all its cultural fetters, and we experience it in all its spasmodic ways.


Critical appraisal

The arrangement of the paintings enabled the amateur to make sense of the broad themes of Bacon’s oeuvre, and, for the more accomplished viewer, to trace the development of Bacon’s style and technique. Whilst the division into named rooms is interesting, it might have been valuable to make more thematic comparisons. Bacon was a painter who emphasised the importance of process and the influence that chance exerted in his work. However, this was not adequately conveyed in the selection of images. The curators deliberately chose his masterpieces but it might have been an interesting contrast to see lesser works, whether in development or technique, in order to make the adjustment. The array of works was at times simply too much to take in, and certainly so for one visit, but when I considered the volume of work against the purpose of the show—a retrospective and a commemoration of his centenary—then I began to revise my opinion. The earliest wall text states that philosophical notions run through the exhibition like a spine, but there was a dearth of philosophical commentary to bolster the images, or rather the wall texts did not provide adequate information. !is could be construed positively, to make the case that the power of Bacon’s paintings is such that they can speak for themselves and do not require texts to impart meaning.

Another apparent mismatch between intention and delivery was the presence of Room 6: Archive. In 1998, John Edwards (Bacon’s former lover) gave the contents of Bacon’s studio and living space at 7 Reece Mews (in South Kensington) to the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin. An incredible amount of source material, preparatory sketches, photographs etc was unearthed in the reconstruction and transplantation from the first to the second site. Room 6 chronicled the posthumous investigation of Bacon’s studio. This body of sources was revelatory because it gave us important information about Bacon’s working processes and modus operandi. In his statements and articulations of the brush on canvas it would appear that Bacon utilized the role of chance in his work, the accidental mark. The virtuosity of his brushwork in the examples of images from Room 1 to 5 certainly indicated this. The archival material presented here revealed the mismatch between Bacon’s statements and his actual practice, as it was revealed from photographic and other sources that he did preparatory paintings. The evidence here to a greater or lesser extent undermines his professions of spontaneity, the role he awarded to chance and intuition.

Whilst I understand the significance of this archive material both in authenticating Bacon’s method of working and also as contributing to Bacon scholarship, I feel that it was poorly placed here. It was deeply idiosyncratic and strange to go from Room 5: Crisis, to the orderliness of the archive. It interrupted the flow of being absorbed in the depth of his visions to having suddenly to retract from those recesses to a stark room filled with a proliferation of images and sanitized glass cases containing source material. !e wealth of material was tremendous and had been classified with astonishing precision. But it would have been well placed in an adjunct room, or at the beginning or end of the journey. !e experience of the subsequent rooms represented a deviation from Rooms 1 to 5 and invoked a more critical perspective on Bacon’s intentions. Bacon left an indelible mark on my imagination when I first discovered his work in 1998 and this exhibition bears testimony to this great artist. In spite of the familiarity of individual pieces of his work, which fetch millions at auction houses, and the growing trend of contemporary artists to explore distortion and the grotesque, Bacon’s art still has the power to wound and strike the nervous sensibilities of the viewer. In his engagement with the pain and suffering of the mortal condition, his portrayal of the evil in humankind, of the reality of the death of God and the subsequent redundancy of the symbol of the Pope in the contemporary age, Bacon can be said to be working out problems that are resolutely religious. He was a militant atheist who was haunted by the presence that the absent-God exerted in the world.



1. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Second Version of Triptych 1944, 1988 is featured as the tail end of Room 10: Late. However, we actually see the painting before we enter Room 1.



Gale, M. 2008. “Zone.” In Francis Bacon, edited by M. Gale and C. Stephens, xx-xx. London: Tate Publishing.

Russell, J. 1993. Francis Bacon. London: Thames and Hudson.

Sylvester, D. 1993. The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon. London: Thames and Hudson.





CBS 2 At The Met: Francis Bacon 






NEW YORK (CBS) ― Brace yourself for artist Francis Bacon. Passionate about painting, the Dublin-born Bacon, who never went to art school, is considered one of the most influential European painters of the 20th century.

In this exhibition, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Bacon’s birth, the artist’s twisted, tortured human figures, and dramatic interpretations of screeching religious icons, demand your attention.

Surrounded by 65 dark, and dramatic works, at the met, you might think bacon was a tormented soul. But Curator Gary Tinterow tells CBS2’s Dana Tyler, "Actually he was a very cheerful person. He talked about not believing in God, being a confirmed atheist. But he said there is no meaning to life, there is only meaning one gives it through daily work, through what we achieve on a daily basis. There’s no predetermination he would say, but he would say I’m an optimist, an optimist about nothing. In other words, there’s not grand scheme but he took pleasure in his daily life."

World War II is the subject in Three Studies For Figures at the base of the Crucifixion from 1944. For Curator Gary Tinterow, it’s the most remarkable painting in the exhibition. He said, "This is a work that Bacon showed in London in April 1944. The month when Mussolini was hung. Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin, and FDR died in the United States. So it was a earth changing, shattering, momentous moment. And he releases this painting that he had been working on for about a year showing these strange, nightmarish creatures that look like an amoeba. We recognize that we want to anthropomorphize them and we want to see human aspects right in the mouth and the eye. But they’re horrific."

Tyler says, "Of course my eye is drawn here?" Tinterow responds, "Yeah, and the mouth is so fascinating with Bacon. Bacon said many times that I’m fascinated by mouth. He had books on diseases of the mouth and radiology."

Bacon was fascinated by Nazi imagery. A 1946 work, called Painting, shows Adolph Hitler’s reception room in his chancellory in Berlin.

Tinterow: "The architecture of power and that’s the statement that he wanted to make with his pictures. He wanted to explore our fascination with power. Our complicity and holding people up who in fact are just empty hallow men. And the colors are meant to be shocking and vibrant and harsh and to go against conventions of good taste. He wanted to, he said, unlock the valves of feeling, in other words he wanted to grab you by your guts."

Bacon’s personal life plays out on canvas, in his 1971 triptych In Memory of George Dyer. Tinterow explains, "This is one of the most moving pictures in the exhibition because it was painted after his companion, long time lover, and his muse George Dyer, who is seen there on the right, committed suicide in their Paris hotel room the night before his big opening of a retrospective at the grand palace. Bacon went on to the opening and pretended nothing had happened but it was tremendously devastating for him."

An artist who never lost his edge, Francis Bacon died in Madrid in 1992. He was 82 years old. Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective, on display until August 16th.










The large Francis Bacon show currently drawing multitudes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art really speaks for itself. You don’t need any theory to love it. The hits are all there — the wailing Popes, the naked wrestlers, the melted portraits of the British artist’s colleagues and lovers. All of these are crowd-pleasers, exuding an atmosphere of fertile angst that is immediately accessible. (The first thing you see as you enter, in fact, is Bacon’s triptych of serpentine, phallic monsters, inspiration for the chest-bursting creature of Alien fame, a curatorial decision that hammers home the populist appeal of Bacon.)

As I passed through the galleries one Tuesday morning with the crowds, however, I recalled that despite the horror-movie vibe of it all, there is a particular reference that gives Bacon’s work a sheen of intellectual mystique for me: Gilles Deleuze’s small book, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, first published in 1981. The much-cited postmodern philosopher, part of the canon in any college theory class, was a Bacon fan. That fact by itself has always made Bacon’s work seem somehow important in a way it might not otherwise have.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. I know because the Met show quotes Deleuze in its wall text about one of the iconic Pope paintings: “Bacon’s scream is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth.” Every single writer in the Met catalogue feels bound to reference Deleuze’s book (though Martin Harrison does acknowledge that Deleuze is wrong to ascribe to Bacon a fundamentally anti-narrative agenda; more on this in a sec.) Even Bacon’s biographer, Michael Peppiatt, whose Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma was recently republished to coincide with this show, tells us that Deleuze’s treatise “put discussion of Bacon’s painting on a new plane of pure, often playful and always inventive intellectual conjecture” — though he doesn’t say that much more about it (Bacon and Deleuze apparently did meet, once, in the early ‘80s; as Peppiatt puts it, “no friendship evolved”.

A few years ago, University of Minnesota Press sent me a copy of a new edition of The Logic of Sensation when it was reissued in a new translation. After seeing the show at the Met, I decided to pick it up and see if its insights still held today.

I’ll spare a build up and say that I don’t think The Logic of Sensation does hold up to scrutiny (though any book that contains a sentence as crazy as “The head-meat is a becoming-animal of man” can’t be all bad either). Before I get into the details of why, however, I will note that Deleuze’s sibylline manner, which I think connotes a sense of timeless intellectual mystery for his admirers, today strikes me as a dated, period style. Overcomplex and bombastic, it’s a bit like the philosophical equivalent of prog rock. The Logic of Sensation was published the same year Rush released Tom Sawyer — coincidence? (Deleuze himself would probably prefer a comparison to Talking Heads; he quotes Crosseyed and Painless somewhere in this book.)

What, in essence, is Deleuze’s argument about Francis Bacon? The Logic of Sensation amounts to 17 tangentially connected essays, each one a different formal/philosophical analysis of one aspect of Bacon’s practice. Deleuze considers, to pick a few random examples, the fact that Bacon tends to isolate figures in a round area at the center of the frame; the recurrence of animal imagery in his paintings; his recourse to the triptych format; and his use of colors. He postulates a common “logic” that underlies all these various choices. In essence, Deleuze sees in Bacon’s liquescent brand of Expressionism an illustration of his own philosophical thesis that what is most real about bodies is their virtuality, their irreducibility to any one fixed form or identity. Thus, for Deleuze, the isolation of Bacon’s figures at the center of the frame is a way of cutting them out of any narrative relation that would ascribe to them a fixed meaning; the animal imagery reflects the blurring of the self and other; the triptych is a way of showing different aspects of a single form without reducing it to a common essence; and Bacon’s use of colour is a way of escaping the hypostatizing effect of linear representation, instead rendering spaces and bodies as flows of mercurial energy (“Each dominant colour and each broken tone indicates the immediate exercise of a force on the corresponding zone of the body or head; it immediately renders force visible.”

And what’s wrong with all of this? Nothing — unless you actually take it seriously. I’ll proceed through four counts, from the most inconsequential to the most compromised aspect of Deleuze’s adoption of Bacon.

First of all, Deleuze’s adventure into art is thrilling — but when he actually tries to talk about art history, he plays so fast and loose with references that it is distorting. One of Deleuze’s least helpful contributions to understanding Bacon, for instance, is his pronouncement that “Bacon first of all seems to be an Egyptian.” This is fine as a superficial bit of colour — there’s nothing outrageous about the observation that Bacon’s squashed spaces might resemble the absolute space of Egyptian art a little. But this is not a flourish for Deleuze; he repeats it multiple times, and actually seems to think that Bacon’s Egyptian-ness is a matter of world-historical import. When he asks the reader what accounts for the difference between Bacon’s painting and Egyptian art, Deleuze actually replies by stating the following: “What is at stake here is no longer just Bacon, but undoubtedly the entire history of Western painting” (Gotta love how art theorists who reject all historical “meta-narratives” can let a statement like that slide). But then it turns out what is important about “Egyptian art" for Deleuze is just one thing — bas-relief, an art form which (so he says) collapses the opposition between visual and haptic space, a quality that Deleuze also values in Bacon’s painting. Never mind that bas-relief is not really particular to Egypt, or that there is really a lot more to Egyptian art than bas-relief. . . I suppose if I defined an apple as any sweet round fruit, then an orange would also be an apple.

Second, while the power of The Logic of Sensation is due largely to what translator Daniel W. Smith calls Deleuze’s “extraordinarily specific and detailed analyses of individual paintings,” in fact the account has a yawning blind spot when it comes to the actual work of Francis Bacon. If you had to describe the characteristic tone of Bacon’s imagery, you’d probably think of claustrophobia, of dread, of a sense of visceral repulsion. And yet, Gilles Deleuze’s entire argument is based on bracketing this aspect of the work out as insignificant. From Deleuze’s own introduction to his book: “Bacon, to be sure, often traffics in the violence of a depicted scene: spectacles of horror, Crucifixions, prostheses and mutilations, monsters. But these are overtly facile detours. . . What directly interests him is a violence that is involved only with colour and line: the violence of a sensation (and not of a representation).” Later, he tells us that “Bacon’s deformations are rarely constrained or forced, they are not tortures, despite appearances,” and still later, he asserts that Bacon “is not a painter who ‘believes’ in death. His is indeed a figurative misérabilisme, but one that serves an increasingly powerful Figure of life.”

But no, wrong — Bacon’s paintings are inescapably about crucifixions, monsters, torture, death, albeit of a surreal variety. That is part of their “logic." A work like Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (1961), on view at the Met, is pregnant with all sorts of meanings — but it does invoke the image of a disabled child, and owes some of its impact to the fact that this referent is explicit (we can be certain, because it is citing a frame from an Eadweard Muybridge serial photo). Deleuze, admittedly, is interested in championing the concept of the “diagram,” a manner of representing bodies that, he tells us, doesn’t try to replicate an original referent, but instead strives toward “a creation of original relations that are substituted for the form.” Apparently, such an operation renders subject matter indifferent; or, better said, it seems that technique is the only real subject matter for Deleuze. In effect, what Deleuze is doing is saying that Bacon is not “really” interested in what he is clearly most interested in, then rhapsodizing over how well his own edited version of the work fits his own thesis

Now, of course, one can argue that some secret life-affirming force is at work underneath Bacon’s imagery of horror and loneliness — but in that case, you still have to account for how the explicit and buried contents interact. If Bacon’s painting is fundamentally about unleashing powerful flows of desire, why do these primarily manifest themselves through horrific imagery? It is not as if sometimes he paints blood and ghouls, and sometimes he paints rainbows and frolicking puppies; he’s not indifferent to content. Similarly, it is no good to state that what is most fundamental about Bacon is a bracketing out of all narrative suggestion, when this is clearly not the case — at the Met, a work like Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh VI (1957), a depiction of the shadowy Dutchman slouching across a yellow field weighed down by painting instruments, as if in a funk, proves that Bacon is interested in plugging his paintings into recognizable figures and stories, however fragmentary. (As a matter of fact, you can even say he had a taste for stories — Peppiatt notes that the van Gogh series was inspired by the Kirk Douglas film Lust for Life!)

Deleuze fans will say that the philosopher is not interested in “interpreting” paintings, but in generating new ideas about them. However, if such a method is not going to operate just as a license to make shit up, it must be based on a reading of the actual material at hand. In his famous readings of philosophers, Deleuze prided himself on a method of overreading, using their own words to create something new and “monstrous” by pushing their internal logic to its limit — “the author had to say, in effect, everything I made him say.” This is not the method he follows in the much more openly “monstrous” case of Bacon’s art. Here he is simply superimposing his own affirmative philosophy onto his object.

Both of these problems with Deleuze’s reading of Bacon — his haphazard use of history, his tone-deafness when it comes to the paintings themselves — are symptoms of a more fundamental issue of approach. For, despite his attentiveness to specific artworks, it is not really art that interests Deleuze. He is only interested in art as it relates to a specific problem in philosophy, which is the representation of being. Thus, the history of art and the quirks of Bacon’s particular oeuvre both get reduced to responses to the dilemmas of representation — the space of “classical” painting, for Deleuze, is reducible to a manner of establishing an “objective” space which separates out the subject from the object, while he defines the achievement of Bacon as having to do with the way his work undoes this separation, collapsing visual space and returning the subject to its vital co-dependence with its environment.

There is some truth to this reading (though I will take David Harvey’s account of the Renaissance production of objective” perspectival space as a function of a nascent mercantile capitalism’s needs for objective cartography and scientific knowledge over Deleuze’s placeless, causeless account any day). The real problem lies in the way that The Logic of Sensation reads artworks as nothing more than responses to intellectual problems, turning philosophical pertinence into a device for evaluating artistic quality. Despite the protestations of both his translator and Tom Conley, who writes an afterward for the most recent edition of the book, The Logic of Sensation does in fact amount to a philosophical aesthetics. It is full of casual generalizations about the ontology of art that are used as evaluative tools. Take the following: “[T]here is a special relation between painting and hysteria. . . Painting directly attempts to release the presences beneath representation, beyond representation.” Deleuze then goes on to judge the success of various styles of painting against this definition of painting’s essence.

The paradoxical result, given this thinker’s reputation as a champion of difference, is that various artworks are conceived of as offering right or wrong answers, thereby strictly limiting the modes of appreciating art: “There are two ways in which the [modern] painting can fail,” Deleuze pronounces confidently, “once visually” — that would be abstraction of the Mondrian/Kandinsky variety, deemed to be too wrapped up in a quest for ideal Forms — “and once manually.” The latter case is that of Pollock-style abstraction, which Deleuze finds not merely distasteful, but demonstrably false. “By liberating a space that is (wrongly) claimed to be purely optical, the abstract expressionists in fact did nothing other than to make visible an exclusively manual space.” Marcel Duchamp, likewise, comes under fire for being too random, and therefore still implicitly posing a difference between human agency and impersonal chance. In the end, it seems Deleuze’s theory is only flexible enough to accommodate Cézanne, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Bacon.

Which brings me to my final point, which is about the self-undermining nature of Deleuzian “logic” in general. Even philosophical rivals like Alain Badiou will admit that Deleuze constructed a system that is formidably suggestive. However, it must be admitted that any attempt to actually do anything with his thought has mainly added up to nothing, or worse. The most successful attempt to put Deleuze’s insights into political form, for instance, is Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s tome Empire, a work that essentially amounts to proposing not having a plan as a strategy for the anti-globalization movement (This is not a surprise, really — Deleuze’s frequent role-model was French philosopher Henri Bergson, whose reflections on the "élan vital" famously became reactionary when taken up as a political philosophy; the Bergsonian tendency to leave politics to "the irrational, to chance" is a subject of critique in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks).

Who was Gilles Deleuze? He was a French leftist philosopher who wrote all his major works in the ’60s and ’70s, most of them in the wake of the uprising of May 1968. As such, his work partakes of the sense of radical intellectual experimentation of that period, but also of the New Left’s disillusionment with material and historical explanations for reality (somewhat understandable, given the Stalinized nature of the French Communist Party’s politics, and the major role it played in French intellectual life). The philosophy Deleuze offers, in his book on Francis Bacon and elsewhere, gets much of its appeal because it still resounds with liberatory rhetoric. We live in a world that brutally instrumentalizes bodies, tries to sell people unrealistic Platonic ideals of what they can be — so Deleuze’s anti-Platonist philosophy that bodies cannot be confined to any one definition, that they are indisociably part of a constantly surging flux of self-differentiating energy, has a potent social content. (It’s always worth remembering that Deleuze, like his colleague Michel Foucault, had a famous — if equivocal — association with the gay liberation movement.)

Nevertheless, the problem with Deleuze’s attempt to write difference into ontology is that in reality what is “different” is determined in relation to actual, historical events, not in some abstract, free-flowing psychic space. Without anchoring concepts in relation to a real context, there is no way to stop one’s prescriptions from becoming ahistorical formulae, no matter how many times you state that they can’t be. In some contradictory way, I think that it is precisely this formalistic character which explains the continued appeal of Deleuze in art circles today: He allows his followers to insist that they are committed to liberating desire from all pre-established structures, while in fact confining themselves to a pretty narrow, predictable structure (Badiou rightly declares Deleuze’s oeuvre to be conceptually “monotonous” underneath its superficial complexity). In What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and collaborator Felix Guattari tell us that philosophy is not about establishing fixed axioms and rules, but about creating new concepts, new trajectories of thought. It should therefore be deeply embarrassing that 99 percent of all writing on Deleuze is simply slavish blow-by-blow recapitulation, and that the Met show pays homage to him as a kind of aphorism-spouting sage.

In the final analysis, Francis Bacon’s oeuvre itself provides a tremendous example of the necessity of a historical approach. Read Jerry Saltz’s recent biographical sketch of Bacon’s career [see Sacred Monster, May 27, 2009]. Whereas in The Logic of Sensation, it often seems that Bacon’s career trajectory is nothing but a circling ever closer to Deleuze’s own position, Saltz shows how Bacon’s style, at one point an expression of a potent and unique worldview, eventually became a gimmick, a defense mechanism. The very same formal tics that had been an expression of an original thought became a way of resisting confronting further original thought. “What’s especially poignant about Bacon is that he knew he’d built his own prison. As early as 1963, he referred to ‘my rigidness.’ He talked about the ‘drawback’ of his style and how he used painterly tics as a ‘device.’ ”

My sense is that these days the gleam is off the postmodern apple. But intellectual life moves slowly, weighed down by the structures of tenure, inherited prestige, institutional inertia and so on. There will always be room for difficult-to-understand figures, simply so that curators and scholars who need to establish some kind of objective authority in the profoundly subjective field of art can invoke something that goes over the head of the average person. But it seems to me that these days the recourse to Deleuze’s flawed Bacon book is its own kind of rigid “reflex,” its own kind of inert intellectual “device.” In invoking its authority, it’s worth wondering whether we aren’t building a prison around Bacon, rather than seeing him well.

BEN DAVIS is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.  





Night in the Museum


John Haber in New York City


Francis Bacon




In Three Studies for a Crucifixion by Francis Bacon, no one and everyone is on the cross. Each panel, as the title suggests, may show the same room. Its oval and red walls hint at decorative luxury. Its vomit-yellow carpeting terminates in the dark yellow wainscoting of period England. Repeated across three panels, the room could easily mark an estate.


It could also mark a museum. Museums used to affect these lavish tastes, before Modernism’s white cubes, and still may today in much of England. Those black rectangles in place of doors and windows could be the paintings. The towering side of meat at right could be sculpture. The grisly, contorted nude on a couch at center could have come right off the wall. Two men in the middle ground at left, cautiously edging their way toward the center panel, could be trapped in the museum at night. 


That pretty much describes, too, the experience of a Bacon retrospective. It also describes the experience of art for Bacon. He had no sympathy for Modernism, but he felt cut off from the past. He could not or would not train academically, in a country that clung to academic standards, but he could not help judging himself accordingly. He paints revulsion—against fine art, against the flesh, and against himself. As in Three Studies for a Crucifixion, even the dead are dying.



Biography of a slow death

They can take their time doing so. Critics vilified his early work, from the 1930s. And in his usual mix of loathing and self-loathing he burned it all—except for a single Crucifixion. By his death in 1992, at age ninety-two, he had become England’s modernist old master, with two Tate retrospectives in his lifetime. A reactionary like Robert Hughes can champion him, while expressing Hughes’s own revulsion at the work. Most people will know Bacon’s Pope Innocent X better than its source, a portrait by Diego Velázquez. 


In that early Crucifixion, he sketches Jesus in quick, white curves like a stick figure. Yet he gives it a solid cross with a traditional footrest, like a sculptural base. In 1944, with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, he already aspires to a triptych. What Bacon gives to art history, he takes away and then gives back again. He often lives much the same way, on a mix of art and petty theft. He drifts to and from Europe, barely getting by.  


In his next work, he sticks to heads rather like cows and to half figures in a dark, shallow space. It is again the space of inexplicable torment, and it is again the museum. Hints of a box enclose the figures. It could stand for a jail or a witness stand. A homosexual then faced criminal charges. It could also stand for the glass case for sculpture in older museums.


He has discovered Pablo Picasso. Naturally he interprets Cubism as distortion, and naturally he loves it. He has also discovered his most famous subject, the Velázquez portrait in Rome’s Galleria Doria Pamphili. Bacon depicts the pope screaming over and over, to the point of self-parody. Sometimes the picture plane forms vertical stripes or a kind a veil across and through the figure. It, too, is a kind of dismemberment and confinement.


Bacon has a new lover in the 1950s and early 1960s—and his most intense work. It includes Three Studies for a Crucifixion, from 1962. It includes a sudden burst of colour into drawing, in an imitation after Vincent van Gogh, whose free charcoal strokes also influence a painting of a baboon. This lover dies of various forms of self-abuse. The artist starts over, while he returns to the same compositions. In the late 1960s, again with a new lover, Bacon finds a larger scale, calmer colours, and a kind of openness.


His subject, however, remains harsh. When this lover dies of an overdose, the artist finishes his career with an extended memorial. It may signal a final repose, a well-earned simplicity, or more glib repetition. A shadow or a bloodstain may interrupt an open expanse. A repeated head may seem to melt. And it, too, is likely to form a triptych—displayed, as always with Bacon, behind museum glass.


iptoeing around Modernism

None of this may mean much to Americans. It can seem like internecine warfare in a country that never quite got it. Margaret Thatcher still considered Bacon’s art immoral. By her time, too, it had become modern. Even now, one can see critics straining to be fair—and to tiptoe around his relationship to Modernism. I am doing the same thing.


A magazine profile evokes the psychic drama of Bacon’s homosexuality. It also describes the art as cartoonish and the late work as worthless. A newspaper review seems to defend it, but the reviewer repeats several times that she must withhold judgment. You may love or hate his work, but she has a job to do in describing it. Another critic says at the start that he will stick up for American art. Then he qualifies his account to the point that neither nation is a winner.


The Met and the Tate, which together originated the show, strain in order to boast. Gary Tinterow, the Met’s curator, compares Bacon’s flat colours to Mark Rothko. Bacon did much the same thing, although without mentioning Rothko. In his Heads from the 1940s, he said that he was exploring every shade of an open mouth. In practice, they all look slate grey, and the edges of the canvas look emptier still. Colour interrupts at last, all at once, in the rich purple of the papal cloak. Even then, it enters as symbolism rather than as formalism.


The Irish-born artist truly belongs to England—along with what Jed Perl, ever the angry conservative, calls his "literary sensationalism. It echoes his lifelong status as an outsider. If he had a breakthrough, most would name Painting Painting of 1946. That work gives flayed flesh the outstretched arms of a Crucifixion. In front of it, the misshapen man carries an umbrella. René Magritte would recognize him as a Londoner.


Modern art did not have to fuss so much over the past, or did it? It could break with art history, as with the Futurist manifesto, without looking back. It could appropriate the past tenderly and mournfully, as with Joseph Cornell. It could parody the past joyfully, as with Dada. It could claim its inheritance from the Louvre and Nicolas Poussin, with confidence, through Paul CézanneIt could also descend into violence, especially in performance.


By the same token, Bacon has an ironic heritage today, now that the struggles are past. As Roberta Smith notes, the Young British Artists are incomprehensible without him. For Tracy Emin, her whole life is about sex in the meat market. The late Picasso, too, struggles with Velázquez. And then Martin Kippenberger ends his short career with self-portraits after Picasso. Where Picasso looks quizzical, weary, or jaunty, Kippenberger looks simply in ruins—like a head by Bacon.


A revulsion at art

Bacon has managed to become both postmodern and quaint. On the postmodern side, he is tailor-made for Julia Kristeva and her Powers of Horror. Kristeva, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, could have captured his revulsion, with what she calls abjection. She describes it as a condition of the marginalized, outside the symbolic order and before words. She also considers it central to art, much as for Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. Early on, Bacon in fact devoured an ancestor of her canon, Nietzsche, and he liked to say that he painted meat because it is beautiful.


One might, I hope, refuse to accept revulsion—or Bacon’s life—as a given for homosexuality. He may have hated himself, but he knew what he was doing. In a photograph of 1951 by Cecil Beaton, he shrinks back against a wall of framed art. He looks like a figure out of Magic Realism or a slightly puffy William F. Buckley. A notoriously charming bully, he is going along with the game and creating the illusion. And yet he means it, too.


He paints Velázquez from postcards, many of them. Even when he is in Rome, he avoids seeing it in person. He never paints from life, and the Met supplements its sixty-six paintings with a packed room of photographs. As usual, the loathing cuts both ways. Is he refusing academic tradition, or is he unable to deal with the flesh? Art history is dead, and nothing else will replace it.


It is clearly a place of confinement. In Three Studies for a Crucifixion, its shape and colours press in. The right panel has no windows all—just an extra partition and, behind it, a circle of bones on the floor. Alternatively, that partition could represent another sculptural display case and another enclosure. Sides of meat or perhaps fighting dogs, flatly painted, press against the picture plane at left. Another shadow laps up from the bottom of the picture plane at right.


The scene is also the place of art. Despite the title, one can see the three panels as a single drama, like a Renaissance triptych. The figures at left face toward the center, like disciples at the foot of the cross. Even so, they follow ambivalently. They may sneak about, and they refuse to swoon. Bacon has also displaced the closest parallel to a Crucifixion to the right panel.


The two men at left could stand for him and a lover. Bacon is furtive and trapped, but also desperate to enter the main action. The man behind him hangs back, his arms thrust out. Is he impatient, defiant, or just a thug? He does not notice that this brings him in closer parallel to the meat. Bacon is drawn to both and in revulsion at both, and no one can appreciate his revulsion but himself.

Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 16, 2009.



Francis Bacon’s Strange Sizzle






“Francis Bacon”, a retrospective timed to the centenary anniversary of the artist’s birth (he died in 1992 at the age of 83) is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his toothy monsters, humping, anonymous men and slabs of meat installed directly off the European wing, a stone’s throw from Rembrandt, Goya and Velazquez.

Bacon would have been pleased by the proximity. Though his contorted figures owe a significant debt to Picasso—their roiling distortions being an almost sculptural equivalent of Cubism’s pictorial fracturing—Bacon’s charnel-house dioramas are, in pivotal ways, unmodern. (Given Bacon’s distaste for abstraction, the pictures could be considered anti-modern.) The ready-made gravitas and epic nature inherent in the tradition of Western painting suited Bacon’s flashy ambitions—hence, the bald reliance on Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece and the heaving musculature of Michelangelo’s nudes.

But Bacon was, if not a strict Modernist, then certainly a creature of the modern age. A niggling strain of Surrealism infiltrates the work, as does the collage aesthetic: His compositions are piecemeal affairs, with their uninflected planes of flat color, malleable forms and decal-like figures. His philosophical mien, a lean variant of Nietzschean atheism, is reflective of a more-jaded-than-thou postwar intellectualism. “I haven’t got any morals to preach,” Bacon stated. “I just work as closely to my nerves as I can.” A miserable narcissism permeates the work.

Then there’s the almost Warholian poaching of mass media. Bacon mimicked to startling effect the filmed image—his gauzy slurs of oil paint take on a ghostly, cinematic allure. His sources ranged from Eisenstein’s Battlship Potemkin and Eadweard Muybridge’s The Human Figure in Motion to beefcake magazines like MANifique and Man-O-Rama, newspaper clippings of Himmler and Goebbels and photo-booth self-portraits. You can see actual examples of Bacon’s image stockpile at the Met, much of it grubby with paint. It’s a devastating testament to Bacon’s paintings that the reference materials are sometimes more diverting than what he made of them.

The Met show is fairly selective, but it’s endless all the same. How much designer Grand Guignol does one person need? Bacon’s vaunted embrace of chance incident—that would be the ejaculatory blurts of paint flung directly from the tube—are no less false than the late triptychs, wherein we see an artist who’s become a sheepish victim to his own style. It’s the overweening calculation of Bacon’s art, its soulless theatricality, that marks him not as a descendant of the Old Masters but as a progenitor of corporate nihilists like Damian Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Jenny Saville. Like them, Bacon makes a provocative first impression, but then leaves us with little more than a cold rush of artifice.

Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until August 16th





Bacon and the Old Masters






I was at the Metropolitan Museum today for another look at the terrific Francis Bacon retrospective that I’ve written about a few times. What struck me this time is how being surrounded by galleries of Old Masters at the Met brought forward aspects of Bacon’s work that didn’t come to mind so readily when I first saw the show last year at Tate Modern in London.

At the Tate you could go from the Bacon show to the Tate’s permanent collection, which is strictly 20th century, and your thoughts were turned to how Bacon stood in relation to other postwar artists, to the anxiety in Giacometti or the Year Zero distortions of form in Dubuffet. Which is another way of saying it was the desolate quality of the Bacons that got reinforced in the other galleries.

But at the Met you’re decanted from the last Bacon gallery straight into a room of 16th and 17th century Italian painting, including a couple of Caravaggios, and you find yourself thinking about Bacon’s affinities with a more distant past. You realize that his stutter stop way of applying paint reminds you of Tintoretto and that his big backgrounds of monochrome color have sources in Velázquez as well as Ellsworth Kelly. Not that Bacon would ever have acknowledged a debt to Kelly.

We know of course that Bacon was infatuated with one particular Velázquez, the Portrait of Pope Innocent X, which he used as the jumping off point for his long series of screaming Popes. And it’s perfectly obvious that he quotes liberally in his work from Michelangelo, classical sculpture and whatever other sources he needs. But what struck me this time wasn’t simply that Bacon quotes from the past but that he works in the line of a particular type of painterly virtuosity that stretches back to Velázquez and Tintoretto, to name just two. He was exploiting — insisting upon, glorying in — the sensual power of paint, its power to impart pleasure, even while he was using it to make scenes of utter dejection. It had never occurred to me before how much of the fascination of his work rests on the tension between Bacon the existential desperado and Bacon the voluptuary. What other word can you use?






Bacon’s Centenary At The Met







Nothing to do with fresh pork belly: move along.  Just to say that you have a long month left to see Francis Bacon, born ’09, in retrospective at the Met.  Which you certainly should, if you’ve not seen enough of his work over the years.


Aficionados will find little new here, but aficionados will go anyway, like I did.  Bacon’s painting, and to be honest his life as well, has been part of my intellectual furniture for more than twenty years.  I can’t have kept it much secret either, as when I moved on from a job in the late ’90s, I was given as a leaving present not a tie, as was usual, but a book of Bacon’s paintings.  In fact, since I drew my conclusions about his work so long ago, I was inspired to say little about this show.  And then I read the review in The New Yorker by Peter Schjeldahl, and found some points worth making.


Schjeldahl begins by tagging Bacon as his "least favourite great painter," and proceeds to lay out the faults he finds in his work, from theatrical shock tactics to dead space.  And yet the piece is fair to Bacon, for the most part.  It does him more honour, for example, than the juvenile prurience about his sexuality exhibited in many of the wall plates at the Met:  his lover Peter Lacy was violent to him?  Well, so what as far as this painting is concerned?  And Bacon was a masochist  you didn’t know?  put some jelly on your shoulder, baby.


Schjeldahl makes about as good a (serious) case against Bacon as could be made, and I disagree with it, and I’ll try to say why.  He gives Bacon generous credit for anticipating the revival of narrative painting of the last decade or so, and in particular its reliance on photography and reproductions as a rich source of material. 


 Bacon worked from photographs rather than from life.  Not only, as is well known, from beefcake (as opposed, I guess, to cheesecake) magazines and Muybridge’s clinical photographs of nude figures in motion  it’s worth noting that the paintings he did after the grand masters, his studies after Velasquez’s Pope Innocent X for example, are themselves studies based on reproductions of the works, and not on the works themselves.


To cut to the chase, there is a book which captures both Bacon’s personal and artistic sensibility as well as his mental image trove between two covers in comprehensive fashion.  It’s called Century, and it’s edited by Bruce Bernard.  A small format edition of this disturbing book was issued by the publisher, Phaidon, but I own the original  huge, almost unliftable, twelve hundred pages of the twentieth century captured by the camera.  As befits that century, the book is grimly, almost unremittingly violent, its merit being that of holding the atrocities captured in a steady, unflinching gaze.


Bruce Bernard was a friend of Francis Bacon.  Brother of the writer Jeffrey Bernard, he drank in the same Soho pubs and clubs as Bacon, while marinating a career as an art critic, photographer and curator of photographs.  Century is Bernard’s masterpiece, and I am convinced it’s a close reproduction of the contents of Bacon’s mind.  Images of violence, atrocity, torture, ripped human bodies and the swastika (or the sickle) float through this endless, harrowing book, just as they float across Bacon’s canvases. 


If the twentieth century at its bloodiest was one of Bacon’s primary sources, filtered through the camera lens, and great art of the past, similarly filtered was certainly a second, the third was unquestionably his personal life.  Looking, for once, from the inside out, this was a nocturnal, urban-bohemian life of very heavy drinking, unsentimental sex in the glare of unsentimental electric light, with some gambling and violence thrown in, lived in unlovely rooms, on rumpled beds, indoors in London.  Bacon’s closest friends were for the most part either gay  long before it was called that  alcoholic or drug addicted, dangerous, suicidal, or a combination of all.  One lover killed himself, in an excess of spite, on the eve of one of Bacon’s most important openings.  (In fact, the devastatingly frank work based on his partner, George Dyer’s, last hours is one of the paintings sorely missed at the Met.  It is titled with emblematic, undeceived impersonality Triptych May-June 1973.  It is so important in understanding Bacon to understand why such a picture could not be called For George).


Usefully, the exhibition includes a pertinent selection of the pictures from which Bacon painted.  Of especial interest are his own copies of photographs by another Soho friend, the photographer John Deakin.  Deakin’s intrusive, aesthetically first rate portraits of people falling apart  Henrietta Moraes, for example, painfully naked and full of morphine  are the real-life coordinates of Bacon’s personal imagery.


So much for theatrical shock tactics.  Globally-politically as well as in his backyard, Bacon exaggerated nothing.


Schjeldahl gives Bacon credit too for formal innovations: the use, for example, of lines to indicate cubical space or "proscenium stages."  The stage, I fear, is in Schjeldahl’s head.  A striking, overwhelming proportion of Bacon’s paintings are set indoors.  Not merely indoors  not in palaces or cathedrals -but in small, tight, overheated, single rooms.  Details  a bare bulb, a light switch, a door  are often deployed to indicate the setting.  Otherwise, the sketching of a cube does the trick.  It’s a studio, a bathroom, a bedroom, and where Schjeldahl sees a stage, one might more accurately see a bed; although it’s a bed which quickly transforms to a wrestling ring.  Speaking of beds, sometimes bloody beds (see the Sweeney triptych), it’s not emphasized enough that one of Bacon’s immediate precursors was Walter Sickert, painter of bedsits, prostitutes and shabby murder;  Patrick Hamilton with a brush.


(I admit there are a handful of landscapes in Bacon’s oeuvre, but they occasionally have the feel of having been brought indoors to be painted.)


Schjeldahl’s main formal objection to Bacon seems to be that he failed, unlike the Abstract Expressionists, to grasp the principle of all-over painting - the effect of filling the entire canvas with brushwork of interest rather than creating a frame for a central figure or narrative.  Or, as Schjeldahl puts it  in the context of a comparison with de Kooning  the effect of reconciling   "figure and ground."  He acknowledges the vigorous painting of the grappling forms on which Bacon focuses our attention, but objects to them being increasingly surrounded "by dead space."


There can be no objection to Schjeldahl’s description here.  That is exactly what Bacon’s paintings are like.  Again, I disagree with his conclusion.  For one thing, it is fundamental to Bacon’s sensibility that the passions, screams and horrors he wrings from the paint (viscerally, as Schjeldahl admits) be surrounded by dead space, whether it be the realistic dead space of an electrically lit two a.m. bare-walled apartment, or the metaphorical - and for Bacon equally decisive - dead space of an entirely godless universe. 


Schjeldahl mentions Bacon’s militant atheism, but doesn’t give it full due.  Bacon imbibed Nietzsche  and Schopenhauer through Nietzsche  and is a rare example of someone who profoundly understood the consequences of god’s "death."   In this respect, carcasses were an important subject.  In Bacon’s early works especially, great bloody sides of beef seem to have been drawn from still lives and cast as characters in a Pinter play.  In an interview, he mentioned that he found the contents of butchers’ windows lovely in terms of colour and form.  I am sure he did, but he also had a profound conviction to express  that we are meat, and nothing but meat, in a frightening and deadly world.  The sense of space and liberation found in the Abstract Expressionists, or indeed de Kooning’s compulsion to set his fragmented figurative art in the context of a canvas full of vigorous painting  related, as Schjeldahl says, to the viewer’s body  was all absolutely alien to Bacon.


For Bacon, there is the sensation  and it is one of terrifying intensity  and then there is dead space.  "I want," he said with characteristic insouciance, "to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance."  And also, I suspect, to give the sensation without the pretension that it has any contextual meaning.  This is an example of a starkly irreligious artist, educated in the tropes of religious art.  In Bacon’s many "crucifixions,"  it is never Christ that is crucified.  Bacon’s significance as an artist lies in the fact that he found in oil paint an extraordinary vehicle for the conveyance of that which tortured not him, so much, as the century in which he lived.  One need not share Bacon’s sensibility in order to understand it, and be perplexed at the complaint that it’s a different sensibility from that of heterosexual outdoorsmen like Pollock, Still or David Smith.  (Too much for now, but a topic to reflect on  just how  not self-destructive Bacon was  an adolescent grab for attention aside: and compare the AbEx’s)


I’ll just note that, despite its gaps, the exhibition does include some works I, at least, hadn’t seen before, such as an unusually ornamental tryptych from a private collection, related to the Oresteia.  Otherwise, I could write all night.  Rather than impose that burden on myself or the reader, two snatches of poetry to close.


Je pense à toi Desnos qui partis de Compiègne
Comme un soir en dormant tu nous en fis récit
Accomplir jusqu’au bout ta propre prophétie
Là-bas où le destin de notre siècle saigne 




Tossed on these horns, who bleeding dies...


I haven’t yet decided whether the Met’s decision to sell tee-shirts bearing Bacon’s signature cheer  "Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends"  is despicable or gloriously funny.





                 Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends.  Francis Bacon






A Histrionic Horror Show







You do not have to be squeamish to dislike the paintings of Francis Bacon (1909-1992), the Irish-born British artist who painted crucified sides of beef; screaming popes and apes with gaping mouths; headless bodies, bodiless heads; and contorted, copulating figures who resemble balls of flayed and knotted flesh. Your aversion to Bacon’s work may lie in how, not what, he painted. Perhaps you, like me, favour formal coherence over stilted melodrama. The French painter Balthus, who considered Bacon a great friend, never cared for his work. Aligning Bacon’s grotesqueries with those of Lucian Freud, Balthus said in a 1994 interview, "The idea of craft is taken away. And what has been given is that strange taste for horror. And who can explain to me from where that comes? That shrinking back from beauty . . . ?"

Bacon’s "strange taste for horror" and "shrinking back from beauty" are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the artist is being honored with a centenary retrospective of some 65 paintings and an equal number of archival items. The exhibition, which originated at the Tate Britain and was organized in New York by Gary Tinterow, has transformed one of the Met’s most prestigious suites of galleries into something closer to an amusement-park funhouse. Bacon worked almost exclusively from photographs, and along with the gory and sexually overt scenes he painted is a densely installed gallery devoted to the artist’s sources: mostly magazine clippings and photos — including scenes of eroticism, violence and athleticism — as well as some sketches and Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic studies of humans and animals in motion.

Bacon is considered by many art-world aficionados to be one of the most significant and influential artists of the 20th century. Since his death, museums and collectors have pushed the auction prices for his works ever-higher. Influential Bacon most certainly is. But his significance seems largely due to the "prescience" with which many critics and historians credit him. Bacon is a standard bearer for current art world tendencies — tendencies that include the slick, photo-realistic smudges of Gerhard Richter, the sensationalist videos of Bill Viola, and Jenny Saville’s monstrosities of flesh. Perhaps instead of being lauded for being prophetic, Bacon should be singled out for influencing artists to take the path of least resistance.

In the early 1940s, Bacon made his name as an angst-ridden, self-taught figurative painter in Blitz-bludgeoned London. A Surrealist as much as an Expressionist, Bacon shunned abstraction and, after World War II, believed that the world needed nothing less than a viciously honest figurative art that mirrored man’s brutality. His macabre, psychosexual paintings merge blurred, cinematic effects (after the Futurists) and rites of torture (after the martyrdom of saints). They are the disfigured, film-age offspring of the carnage of war and the animalism of sex. Unfortunately, Bacon was first and foremost a calculated illustrator prone to mannerisms, hyperbole and histrionics. His art skims the surface of the human condition, never getting to the real business of psychological portraiture.

The show opens with Crucifixion (1933) and Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (c. 1944), the painting that launched Bacon on the London scene. Crucifixion, possibly influenced by Rembrandt’s and Soutine’s sides of beef or Chardin’s Ray, is a black-and-white painting of a crucified, surrealistic shape — a white form that resembles a ghostly skeleton or an X-ray. Three Studies is a triptych (a common format of Bacon’s). Each of its three panels contains a monstrous phallic form, baring teeth, that occupies the center of an orange ground.

Many of Bacon’s paintings isolate the action or figure, as if on a stage or in a circus arena, within a single-coloured void — a technique later seen by some as a harbinger of Pop art. The large, bold, flat planes of colour — red, orange, yellow, black, grey, pink or mint-green — are Bacon at his best. These are the colours of pills and waiting rooms; and Bacon can give medicinal, almost bodily fluid weight to these hues. Here Bacon comes closest to some of the religious art he emulates, that of the Byzantine era, in which fully formed Madonnas, for instance, are held in tension within the flat, gold leaf ground. But Bacon’s forms — all of those snarling mouths, human stains, swirling phalluses and torrents of paint — remain caricatures that have no volume, weight or tension in the plane. Bacon’s paintings of figures — floating or squirming in expanses of emptiness — rather than explore an idea about isolation, tend merely to leave the paintings feeling empty.

The show, organized in loosely chronological order, continues through Bacon’s homosexual lovers, wrestlers, murderers, self-portraits and portraits. His paintings very loosely inspired by van Gogh and those made after Velázquez demonstrate virtually no understanding of what these masters were doing.

Despite variations in subject or approach, Bacon’s work tends to follow the same strident path from 1933 through 1991. Often, while walking through the exhibit, I felt that the single greatest problem was that Bacon abandoned his figures too soon — that he could not nail them, or his own feelings about them, down. I believe that this ambivalence, fuelled by his misunderstanding of the artists he looked up to, forced him to rely on artifice and theatrics. In the end, Bacon’s forms are formless, aborted — stillborn — as if the artist had left them out in the cold. Their sense of isolation and abandonment feels not like an exploration of the frailty of the human condition but, rather, like a shortcoming of the artist himself.




                  Crucifixion (1933) Francis Bacon 





We’re All Screaming Popes







Broadly speaking, the Irish-born painter Francis Bacon was an expressionist, although that hardly begins to describe his often violent and always difficult paintings. The subject of a large exhibition at the Met (running through August 16). Bacon, who died in 1992, lived an anguished life. Looking at his paintings evokes pain and even fear — probably not nearly the pain and fear he himself experienced as an artist — and some people literally can’t look at them.

Years ago, for example, I was with my sister, who had always struggled with mental illness. We were spending the afternoon doing the galleries in New York and strolled into a show of Bacon’s work at the Marlborough Gallery. She took one look at the paintings and said, “I can’t take this. I’ll wait outside.” (She stepped outside and immediately lit a cigarette.) I’d be the first one to admit that you don’t have to have mental-illness problems to empathize with my sister’s reaction.

With 65 paintings concentrating on his work from the 40s through the 60s, as well as a true-to-life photograph of the artist’s famously messy London studio, this exhibition is the perfect opportunity for an artist like me — who’s spirit is by nature the very opposite of Bacon’s — to ponder his work. Artists and critics I know are evenly split on their opinion of him. There are those who think he’s dreadful — hardly a painter at all, merely an illustrator using designy colors and an affected line. Then there are those for whom he’s one of the greats.

I don’t know about great, but to me, Bacon — taken in a small dose (the Met exhibition is a huge dose, probably too huge) — is a healthy antidote to the bourgeois insistence (which I, for one, appreciate no end) to plaster a cheerful veneer across existence itself. It’s understandable. We need our illusions in order to avoid dwelling on the thought that lurking inside each of us is nothing but gurgling, roiling, rotting mucky stuff.

Bacon’s paintings — most of which are portraits of one kind or another — reflect the way this man always drifted over to this terrible fact. For him, forgetting was impossible. His is a dark and existential vision, the painterly equivalent of the saddest and most despair-filled lines of poetry in T.S. Eliot. His famous “screaming pope” paintings (which had been the cause of my sister having to leave the gallery) are violent riffs on Velásquez’s famous portrait of Pope Innocent X. Bacon strips the pope of the authoritative, commanding and deeply wary personality revealed by Velásquez to expose instead a terrified and terrifying monster.

Bacon’s other pictures — of mad spinning dogs, silently screaming baboons, and alienated, open-mouthed businessmen alone in hotel rooms — are equally terrifying. For Bacon, the mouth, in particular — whether part of an animal or a man — is a riveting orifice. It’s ugly. He likes to portray it wide open, or screaming, or collapsing, or mangled. Bodies and faces are horrible as well, torn into pieces and then mangled into bloody blobs that can resemble hunks of meat. His art is often homoerotic, but not always. Sometimes it’s merely the stuff of misery. Always it’s dark, sad and lonesome.

So why subject yourself to this stuff, you might ask? Well, first off, don’t if you don’t want to. (This should hardly be necessary to say, but when artists are honored at a place like the Met, visitors often think they’re “supposed” to like them.) Some people want their art to always come up sweet, and for those I can only say look out — there’s a lot of art that doesn’t do that. Second, if you suffer from chronic depression or mental illness of any kind, definitely don’t look at Bacon. Art is always potentially disrupting, since it stirs up repressed desires that would otherwise remain dormant.

Bacon is hardly the only artist who’s full of horror. Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon, Goya’s series on the disasters of war, Grünewald’s Isenheim altar — all are terrible, horrifying images. Bacon’s are no worse. If you want a dose of the bleak to keep you honest, this show is for you.




                                                                                              Head VI, 1949 Francis Bacon (British, 1909–1992)





Bringing Bacon home