Francis Bacon News









Bacon’s changing monsters



Richard Dorment on the revealing new vision by Francis Bacon of his famous 1944 triptych





WHEN an artist returns late in life to a subject first treated in his youth, we should ask the reasons why, and pay close attention to the answers. This year Francis Bacon is 80. As if in recognition that he is now working in a "late" period, he has painted a second and monumental version of his famous triptych of 1944, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, the picture that first brought him critical recognition in this country and which can be seen at the Tate Gallery.

We know the original painting as one of the most memorable and disturbing images in British art: the three armless and legless torsos, blind, mouths open, howling with rage or pain, placed against a lightly sketched in  background which gives the barest suggestion of space and depth.

Because of the title, and because the the wartime context in which they were painted, the three figures have inevitably been seen as symbols of metaphysical despair and suffering, a weird lamentation by the three Fates of mankind.

Bacon, it seems to me, has now painted the new picture (on display at the Marlborough Gallery until February 10) in part to dispel such hazy humanist fancies about the nature of his work. At six foot high and almost 15 feet long, it is more than twice the size of the original, signalling the importance Bacon attaches to the image. The title is Second Version of Triptych 1944; the motive word Crucifixion has been omitted.

More importantly, in the new canvas Bacon deliberately suppresses the sensuous use of paint. The earlier picture is painted in oil and pastel. In it the surface is varied and certain areas are built up with rich impastos. Paint is brushed on, smeared on, and scratched in, and the colours range from a predominant  hot orange to  crimson and violet. The viewer might recoil from the image, but he stays to look at the colours and admire the way in which the artist handles paint.

The 1988 picture is very different. Bacon uses turpentine to thin his dark maroon and black pigments before applying them to the canvas in an entirely unpainterly way, in places sprayed. He simplifies the background using a thin red line across all three panels, creating a bare box-like space. The effect of all this is to deflect our attention away from Bacon as painter and to concentrate on Bacon as an image-maker.

The alterations made to the three monsters after the 44-year interval separating the two pictures represent even more significant changes. The most human-looking of the three creatures, the gagged and dishevelled figure on the left, is no longer on an operating table, but on a wooden trestle. Now she bends her long neck towards a black coffin-like shape which was not present in the original.

In both versions the blind-folded central figure has its back turned from us, and has just swung its neck round to bare its teeth at our approach. But now this creature has two screws embedded in its soft flesh, and it stands on a dias. In both pictures it straddles a curious object that looks like the base of a three-legged table missing its round top, but in the new canvas a previously unclear circular shape swinging out from that table is seen to be a scythe. The central figure is therefore cutting down the two flanking figures, who offer the necks to its blade.

All this adds up to a new interpretation of what these three figures represent. The picture can no longer be viewed in a classical or Christian context, as the original was, but in what I can only call a psycho-sexual one. The creatures represent the state of mankind at birth when the new-born infant blindly experiences all sensation through the ears, mouth and anus. Through these orifices, some psychologists believe, we first experience feelings of aggression, fear or pleasure.

The psychic states depicted in the triptych are therefore infantile, but the appendages surrounding them are very adult indeed: the blindfold, the gag, the woman’s torn clothes, can only mean that the figures are not timeless archetypes, but sado-masochistic fantasies. They symbolise a state of being whereby, in order to feel anything at all, victims willingly offer their bodies to be violated, dismembered and killed. Every altered detail of the new canvas serves to stress physical suffering. Bacon eroticises pain and seems to deny that such a thing as the human spirit exists. Life is physical suffering, fear and death.

It is a cliché to say that Francis Bacon’s lifelong theme has been despair. But in the light of this latest painting I think we should begin to look back on his work and ask whether the cliché is really true. There is something here more deliberate, more chosen and more willed than despair.  Something vicious, and purely evil.



Teeth on edge






Lunch with Francis Bacon this week for the first time in quite a while. It used to be a weekly event but he has better things to do nowadays. I wish I had. We talked about the usual things, sex and death, over the salmon and reminisced about the Wheeler’s of yesteryear when Bernard Walsh owned it. The refurbishing — dreadful word — of the place took the charm away. There was such a nice little bar in a back room where we used to congregate. Sometimes we even got as far as lunch.

Francis was on to death within two minutes of coming into the pub. I asked him what he was up to and he said, ’I’m working on something I want to finish before I die.’ Never have I known a man so obsessed with death, not counting the one sitting at this typewriter. People’s various sexual kinks were also discussed and we thought it might make an interesting book if 200 famous people could be persuaded to come forward and own up about theirs. He then went on to say that he was a little bit fed up with homosexuals. Only Peter Watson and Peter Lacy came out well, and I must say Lacy was one of the really good men to have passed this way. A gentleman who could play a good cocktail piano, he died of pancreatitis in Tangier. Poor sod. What a place to get that illness.

After we parted I went back to the Coach and Horses to watch a couple of races on the box. It is serious stuff now. Trainers start to bring out the big guns at the first Newmarket meeting of the year. It was a bit irritating to be perched on a bar stool next to a man staring gloomily at a losing betting slip and complaining. He had lost £2. I lost a week’s money and shall cool it until the horse decides to open his mouth and talk. I bet too boldly after a good lunch. That could have been a week in Florence, which was what I had wanted, but the beast was running backwards as they came into the final furlong. Never mind. Next time. But, you see, I do mind. It will be on my mind for a few days like a nightmare always is.

Speaking of which, my nightmares are now very nearly every night and they are making me feel quite ill. Two friends told me that the way to cure myself of them is to resolve to turn myself into a hero in them. But how can a man clinging to a ledge 100 feet above the ground with no way up or down turn himself into a hero? I am not interested in the interpretation of dreams, I just want to get rid of anxiety. It is bad enough to have it in the daytime before the sun is over the yardarm. I am beginning to suspect that this frame of mind might be chemically induced just as madness can be. Dutch courage wears off during the early hours and I don’t intend to start drinking in bed.

I am also cheated in dreams for never have I had an erotic dream with a happy ending. Is there anything left not to feel anxious about? And the daughter has just phoned from Sydney. What the hell is going on down under, I wonder. Now I feel even worse about my bet at Newmarket. Never mind about needing the money to have two wisdom teeth extracted, with what I lost she could have had the lot pulled out. And now, with her teeth on my mind, I suppose there will be another nightmare tonight. You can bet that my dentist will be doing his business on the ledge of a skyscraper.





     The world according to

Francis Bacon



After 50 years as an artist,

Bacon’s credo remains the same:

Realism pushed to the edge





      Eighteen years ago, an international poll of curators and museum directors named British artist Francis Bacon the world’s finest living painter.

      At the time, it was a questionable choice, given that Bacon’s earliest and strongest influence, Pablo Picasso, was still alive. But Picasso had just reached 90, the re-evaluation of his late work had not yet begun and many felt he had already had more than his share of the limelight.

      Now, with Bacon turned 80, the phenomenon repeats itself. For while Europeans tend to canonize Grand Old Men, Americans react differently, taking them down a peg or two, denying in life precisely the honours that will be acknowledged at death.

      So the retrospective exhibition of 58 Bacon paintings at Washington D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum, may not be quite the celebration its organizers intended. At the artist’s last big show in an American museum-36 paintings at the Metropolitan in 1975-critic Tom Hess wrote that "Bacon’s energy seems to flag"  and artist Douglas Davis found  "a parade of predictable images, mottled and distorted in predictable ways."  The fangs already had been bared. Still, the biggest problem with Bacon today is less his work than nearly a half-century of its interpretation. After all, he was supposed to be the one painter who consistently tried to sum up the agony of modern man. He looked into the abyss and took away a tragic vision. He was the messenger who brought depravity, decay and death.

      What’s more, his images were said to have the strength of hammer blows. Crucifixions, screaming Popes, tormented animals, bestial lovers-all this was in Bacon’s painting. And there were few artistic refinements. Critics told us he was the mid-century’s most violent nihilist.

      But to those who asked the artist about his art, the answers were markedly different:

"I have nothing to express about the human condition . . . ."

"I can’t paint for other people. I can only paint to excite myself."

"I have never tried to be horrific."

"I believe that reality in art is something profoundly artificial and that it has to be re-created."

". . . with all the mechanical means of rendering appearance, it means that a painter, if he is going to attempt to record life, has to do it in a much more intense and curtailed way."

In sum, here was an artist who thought like an artist, and that should not have surprised anybody. But the fact that Bacon put aesthetics before philosophy and was less involved with ’message’ than with colour and form has surprised people. And critics who saw his early paintings as existential illustrations later turned sour upon finding his newer works ever more concerned with the issues of art.

      Admittedly, his view of life is unusual, insofar as he accepts calmly what others might find terrifying. But this way of seeing is an artist’s way, and it shows extraordinary detachment. Where viewers of his paintings may react strongly and rush to judge, Bacon himself does not. He is the archetypally cool observer.

He also is a miraculous portraitist who captures not only the subject’s appearance but what Bacon calls  "the energy within the appearance."  This he achieves through radical abbreviations and distortions. As he has said, "What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance."  Put another way, he uses extreme artifice to reach verisimilitude.

      Much of each painting Bacon attributes to chance. Working directly on the canvas without preliminary drawings, accidents often suggest new images, and so, what others again might see as a calamity, Bacon accepts as fortuitous.

      He has tried to explain how he got that view, by recalling how his father caught him dressed in his mother’s lingerie and sent him from his home in provincial Ireland. The happy result was that young Bacon ended up in Berlin in the 1920s, one of the most open cities in the world.

      He has cited, too, how he saw a Picasso exhibition in Paris and, with no formal training or idea of his skills, knew he would become a painter. Until then, Bacon had little schooling of any kind and a distracting appetite for pleasure. But happening upon that exhibition instantly gave him resolve. And notwithstanding a brief, moderately successful interlude as a furniture designer, his course remained fixed.

      The results have fallen into three distinct phases, only two of which are ever shown. Bacon destroyed nearly all of the Picasso-inspired pieces from the ’30s, and no museum exhibition has ever brought the remaining ones together. Thus, his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), which depicts mutants at once sorrowing and menacing, has often mistakenly been seen as a product of the war instead of a world view the artist developed long before it.

      The chief influences of Bacon’s second phase were again other artists, though now through two specific works: Velasquez’ 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X and the shot of the screaming nurse in The Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s film from 1925. These images together are behind nearly a decade of Bacon’s most famous works.

      Then, in the late ’50s, came the impress of motion studies by American photographer Eadweard Muybridge and Bacon’s decision to make friends and lovers his primary subjects. This phase, gradually becoming more seductive in colour and form, continues today. But in the early ’80s, Bacon also turned back to art, again taking inspiration from older paintings-including, surprisingly, his own.

      The show at the Hirshhorn begins with the raw Figure in a Landscape from 1945 and ends with Second Version of Triptych 1944, a refined reimagination of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. It is just this progression-rawness to refinement-that will once more disturb Bacon’s sternest critics. For the changes he has effected in scale, surface and colour make the grisly biomorphic subjects of the Triptych more aesthetically satisfying but have little to do with the images original power. Every painting on show is powerful, but not always in the way commentators once thought. They are powerful-and often quite beautiful-not as documents ripped from the psyche of an Everyman but simply as examples of painting, the practice that makes visible all sorts of accidents and deliberations.

      For many, this will not be enough. Generations of viewers may well prefer Bacon’s works when the artist was technically groping and his awkwardness enhanced an overall impression of rawness. But one should remember that Bacon’s view of the world was always calm, distanced, matter of fact, and it was only natural that his formal delivery should one day also carry that tone.

     The newer works are wonderful precisely in the degree that they intertwine beauty and ugliness without any great fuss and absolutely no recoil. However, at this stage in the 20th Century, everyone is anxious about the status of painting and its continued ability to communicate. In fact, everyone has such nostalgia for the days when painting was more central to life that it proves a terrible letdown to have to acknowledge painting is now only painting and not an agent of catharsis embedded in some incredibly far- reaching philosophical tract.

      Bacon has faced this like everything else. He has said: ". . .all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself." But he also has become awfully good at playing that game, and more’s the pity if viewers fail to see it.

Francis Bacon continues at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Independence at Eighth Street, Washington, D.C., through Jan. 7. Thereafter, it will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum (Feb. 11-April 29) and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (May 24-Aug. 28).



Bacon has always worked in an atmosphere of chaos, or as he describes it, "gilded squalor."











His canvases, worth millions each, hang in frames of burnished gold. They smell of blood and vomit.

      He is, as he set out to be, England’s greatest painter. He drinks the best champagne, competes with the old masters  and works in utter squalor. His stroke is magisterial. The howling beings he conjures — their  faces smeared, their bodies flayed  writhe within their cageslike men turned into meat.

      Francis Bacon’s paintings, with their screamings and their crouchings, their towering ambitions and their sordidness of subject, tear your soul in two. Sixty of the fiercest he has made since World War II have been picked by James T. Demetrion for the staggering retrospective that goes on view today at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. To see them is to shudder with amazement and disgust. The tension they engender  between faith in art’s transcendence and inconsolable despair, between imagined flesh and real paint  is just about unbearable. No master now alive  Bacon will be 80 on Oct. 28  applies paint with such lusciousness. Or portrays such lamentations.

      He understands completely the power of the paradox. When Bacon depicts love, he paints grapplings and grief. "If life excites you," he has said, "its opposite, like a shadow, death, must excite you, too." In everything he does, in his living, in his painting, he pries opposites apart. You stare into the void before his elegant yet awful, physically sublime, down-and-dirty art.

      He might dwell in a mansion now. One of Bacon’s Triptychs was auctioned off in May for $6.27 million at Sotheby’s New York. Instead his life is lived in what he calls "gilded squalor." He carries round a wad of bills, but wears the same black turtlenecks, and drinks in the same seedy bars, and paints his costly pictures in a filthy London studio, with paint smears on the wall and rags and refuse underfoot.

      He has said, "I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence ... as the snail leaves its slime."

      And yet he puts the paint on with brio and panache and absolute assurance. In his paintings, in his presence, one senses in his sufferings something close to joy.

      I met him only once, in New York in 1975, at a wet and costly lunch. He kept pouring the champagne. He said, "Life is wholly futile." He said all his friends were dead. "Wholly futile," he repeated, smiling at the waiter: "Another dozen oysters, please."

      When the painter, born in Dublin, speaks about his life, he relates, with that same friendly grace, a tale touched by horror.

      "I never got on with either my mother or my father," he once told David Sylvester. "They thought I was just a drifter. ... As you know, {my father} was a trainer of racehorses. And he just fought with people. He really had no friends at all. ... I disliked him, but I was sexually attracted to him when I was young. When I first sensed it, I hardly knew it was sexual. It was only later, through the grooms and the people in the stable I had affairs with, that I realized it was a sexual thing. ... {I} was brought up during the Sinn Fein movement. And I lived for a time with my grandmother, who married the commissioner of police for Kildare amongst her numerous marriages, and we lived in a sandbagged house. ... And then, when I was 16 or 17, I went to Berlin, and of course I saw the Berlin of 1927 and 1928 where there was a wide open city, which was, in a way, very, very violent. ... And after Berlin I went to Paris, and then I lived all those disturbed years between then and the war, which started in 1939. So I could say, perhaps, I have been accustomed to always living through forms of violence."

      You see that in his art. Men knotted like wrestlers copulate on Bacon’s beds, or furtively, at night, on the grass of public parks. The tortured souls that he portrays hug themselves in pain, or plunge hypodermic needles deep into their arms. His popes scream silent screams. His baboons raise their snouts to howl, his trotting dog (a strange pastiche of an Eadweard Muybridge photograph and Giacomo Balla painting) pauses at a grating as if to sniff the sewer rats scuttling below.

      Love, in Bacon’s pictures, is often twinned with foulness and with death. He’s said, "I’ve always thought of friendship as where two people really tear each other apart." Though he often portrays friends, he will not make his pictures with the sitter present. He’s said, "I don’t want to practice before them the injury that I do them in my work."

      After George Dyer, the painter’s friend and model, killed himself in Paris, on Oct. 24, 1971  two days before a major Bacon retrospective opened in that city at the Grand Palais  Bacon tore out of his grief his auction-record painting, a triptych here displayed. At left, the dying Dyer, doubled up by cramps, squats upon a toilet; in the panel at the right he’s sick into the sink; at the center Dyer dies. The darkness of his leaving, like the shadow of some devil-bat, flows out on the floor, its surface touched by powdered glass so that its blackness glistens like some peaceful starry night.

      Looking at these pictures, one recalls those pun-filled lines of Yeats:

For love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement

And nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent.

The Hirshhorn’s exhibition has a strange, compelling closure. The newest painting in it, from 1988, is a second version of a triptych he completed in 1944. Bacon’s art has grown of late more stately and assured. But since the dark days of the postwar years its spirit has hardly changed.

      "Head VI, 1949," the first of Bacon’s screaming popes, with its borrowings from Velazquez, is among the works displayed. "The shock of the picture," writes scholar Lawrence Gowing in the exhibition catalogue, "when it was seen with a whole series of heads in Bacon’s exhibition a the Hanover Gallery in London at Christmas 1949, was indescribable. ... It was everything unpardonable. The paradoxical appearance at once of pastiche and iconoclasm was indeed one of Bacon’s most original strokes. The picture remains one of his masterpieces and one of the least conventional, least foreseeable pictures of the twentieth century."

      Bacon is self-taught, and entirely original. Nothing of his style was predicted by the earlier paintings of his day. But something of his spirit can be heard, if only distantly, in his contemporaries’ words  in Samuel Beckett’s bleakness, in T.S. Eliot’s mix of the soaring and the low, in the Nausea of Sartre, and in the hymns to criminality sung by Jean Genet.

      Bacon’s paintings, at first glance, seem ready to tell stories. But as soon as one looks closer, the narrative dissolves until one is left only with the echo of a howling  and the beauty of the paint.

      In almost all his pictures, Bacon puts the paint on in two completely different ways. One is flat and harsh. You see it in his backgrounds, his toilets and his basins, and in the curving and enclosing walls of his odd No Exit rooms. The other, near its opposite, is apparent in his figures with their swoopings and their smearings, their accurate, unseizable, fluid layerings of paint.

      He works not just with brushes, but with rags and rakes and sprays. He sometimes squeezes tubes of paint into his palm, and flings the goo at the canvas with one gesture of his hand. Though formalists detect here some aura of abstraction, Bacon loathes most abstract painting. "With me," he’s said, "it’s nearly always a person." His allegiance to the figure, to summoning in paint people he has known, is central to his art.

      Bacon has no predecessors, or imitators either, but in one sense he has allies. His use of paint to summon human souls, while dying in America, is still alive in English art. The Hirshhorn in the past decade  and recently, with special force, under James Demetrion, its excellent director  has helped to make that clear.

The museum has displayed the art of David Hockney, R.J. Kitaj and, lately, Lucian Freud, all of whom, in some ways, owe, as does Frank Auerbach, a special debt to the paintings in this show. While kind and friendly Hockney has turned horrificness upside down, his gentle and affectionate portraits of the men he loves return the mind to Bacon. So do Freud’s compelling nudes. Bacon’s 1959 portrait of George Dyer  naked, vulnerable and boneless, sleeping on a chaise longue that flows from midnight blue to black  somehow holds the germ of all the wondrous portraiture that Freud has done since then.

      The English, since Chaucer’s day, through Shakespeare and through Dickens, through Alec Guinness and through Benny Hill, have clothed their various messages in voices, postures, faces. They give ideas personas.

      Bacon does that too. His paintings (he prefers to wall them off behind panes of glass) are more than just reports of his own despair. They somehow throw you back onto a truth, and dreadfulness that you already know. It is this that makes his art, with its savageries and beauties, so completely unforgettable. To peer into his pictures is to find within them the meat that writhes beneath our skins, the dying that awaits us all, the toothed and tortured beast that cries somewhere within us.

Through the almost unbelievable beauty of his paint, of his ragwork and his brushwork, Bacon, that Old Master, has made the unbearable seem bearable. Without recourse to God, he’s somehow made us feel that art makes suffering transcendent. The reflections in his glazings are easy to ignore. It is rather in his living paint, there behind the glass, that Bacon has devised his mirrors for us all.

      With Velazquez at the Met, Frans Hals at the National Gallery and Bacon at the Hirshhorn, figure painting in America may be freed at last of the flatness of the photograph and the license of cartooning, may seem again alive.

      Demetrion’s Bacon retrospective is exactly the right size. It would not have been possible without a grant from the Smithsonian’s Special Exhibitions Fund and a federal indemnity. It will travel to the Los Angeles Museum of Art and to New York’s Museum of Modern Art after closing at the Hirshhorn on Jan. 7.











      There is a loosely connected group of thinkers and artists who believe that it is salutary for us to take a peek at our own shadow, however disturbing the experience may be. For those who share this belief, Francis Bacon is an ideal painter. Bacon, whose work is on exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum, is a painter of tragedy, the tragedy of the body and the primal fear of those who inhabit it.

      The exhibit is the first retrospective of Bacon’s work in the United States in 25 years and the 59 works on display span his entire career up to the present. He is very popular and critically acclaimed, but don’t let that deter you from going to see his work. He is as masterful a painter as all the hype suggests.

       From the beginning of his career in the 1940s, Bacon found an articulation of the image which he continues to pursue today. A kind of grammar of fear in paint, the oozing flesh, the gaping void of the mouth, the threatening teeth were all present in his works in the mid to late ’40s, as was the odd choice of color. Bacon’s work is strange, but it’s the way it is strange that makes it compelling. The beauty of his handling of the paint plays off the gruesomeness of his subject matter, creating a rhythm of attraction and repulsion. And this reverberation focuses on the human figure, the figure in space and the insecurity of the figure in that space. In Study for a Crouching Nude, the figure is like a wild animal grabbing bars in a boxed-in space, bent over, a ball of muscle pushing up against the relentless pull of gravity.

      Bacon’s works hit you in the gut. His Reclining Figure of 1959 is reclining on a dark couch and the pink flesh oozes and swashes all over. As your eye traces this movement, your feeling shrinks away from the messiness of it. As tortured as the figures are, the space that surrounds them is often serene. Sphinx II is an expression of the serenity and the enigma of the space that enfolds our lives; a motionless statue rests on a wide open plane beneath a sky of pure black. In Tryptich Inspired By T.S. Eliot’s Poem Sweeney Agonistes, Bacon juxtaposes what may be his most bloody expression of the figure (the red paint gets as much as an inch thick) with the serene and indifferent back drop of a black window and royal blue shade.

      The serenity of space is scant comfort if we are condemned to the fear-filled inhabitance of uncertain flesh. But in Bacon’s work there is a vitality if not a comfort in the embracing of the ambiguities of life. The vitality that underlies Bacon’s work may be most simply expressed by Jet of Water (1988). It is just a splash of water suspended in space; indistinct and ephemeral, it crowds the canvas. Like the flesh of his other works, the water breaks free of the boundaries of boxed-in space to arc across the sky for one celebratory moment of life.





 Francis Bacon celebrates


   at 80 without the pomp



Daniel Farson toasts his painter friend’s birthday





IN MOST countries, the 80th birthday of their greatest painter would be the cause of celebration and ceremony. With Francis Bacon, always the exception, there is celebration but a welcome absence of ceremony.

Yesterday, reminding him of the scene in Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Yale, when Edward Driffield, based on Thomas Hardy, reaches 80 and the Prime Minister arrives at his home with the Order of Merit, I asked if he expected Mrs Thatcher to come knocking on his door.

"I think that’s most unlikely," he replied. Mrs Thatcher is alleged to have cried "not that dreadful man!" when told he was considered England’s leading painter.

As for the awards, he has been offered many and has turned them down. "In a sense I would be cordoned off from existence," he said.

His aversion to publicity allows him such anonymity that when we went into a Soho pub and someone heard that Bacon was a painter, the man said he was doing up an old house and offered him a job. Bacon was flattered.

He has been described as a recluse, but it is hard to imagine anyone who approaches his stature yet lives so freely. With his extraordinary stamina he works hard in the early hours of the morning, breaking off in the afternoon to visit the restaurants, pubs or clubs of Soho ending up at Charlie Chester’s Casino where he gambles with ferocious intensity and frequently wins.

He enjoys parties, yet did not turn up at the one held in his honour last Thursday by the Marlborough Gallery, which has guided and guarded him so faithfully over the years. Formal occasions are not his scene and he has earned the right to avoid them.

Instead, his presence was felt through the powerful paintings on loan.

If anyone expects a gloomy, introspective man, reflecting the despair which often features in his work, they are surprised to find a man of great charm and simplicity.

"It’s very nice," he said yesterday, "but I’m in a terrible mess. People have sent me all these flowers, but I haven’t anything to put them in. I’m not the sort of person who has vases."

Unable to afford a ton of caviare, I sent him nothing,  although I had taken him to the first night of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, unaware that Bacon was depicted briefly on stage as a camp painter in a smock, the negation of the truth. He had a convenient asthmatic attack in the interval and left.

Apart from flowers and caviare, what present can one give to a man who is so self-contained? A couple of birthdays ago, the artist Peter Bradshaw asked me to deliver a present he had painted in Bacon’s honour, a picture of the nurse, her glasses shattered, from the film still of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, a subject which has influenced Bacon.

Knowing Bacon’s aversion to material possessions and his detestation of contemporary paintings, I was relieved to see Bacon tear off the wrapping with the glee of a child at Christmas. It dawned on me that he rarely received presents because people assume he has everything he wants.

I was surprised even further as he studied the painting with such intensity that I dared not interrupt. After a minute’s silence, he exclaimed: "That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. The mouth. The colour of the tongue."

Telephoning him to wish him a happy birthday, I was startled when he suggested meeting for lunch. I had assumed that a gala lunch was being held in his honour somewhere, but that is not Bacon’s style. He is a free spirit.




                                                                     Francis Bacon  




The Master of the Macabre, Francis Bacon







WASHINGTON — Since he exhibited Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion at the Lefevre Gallery in London 44 years ago, Francis Bacon has remained master of the macabre. The writhing half-human, half-animal forms he painted in that triptych may have owed something to the German Expressionists and something to Picasso. But Mr. Bacon’s nightmare was fundamentally his own.

Coming as it did at the end of World War II, in a city that had been devastated by bombings and spiritually enervated, the display of Three Studies at Lefevre seemed to many of those who saw it to epitomize the spirit of the time. Mr. Bacon had left his home in Ireland at the age of 17 and spent the next 19 years drifting throughout Europe and England. All at once, this show established him as the pre-eminent painter of psychological and physical brutality. During the last four and a half decades, Mr. Bacon has done nothing to shake that reputation.

Now he is the subject of a very handsome retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum for his 80th birthday. The show remains here through Jan. 7, after which it is to go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Feb. 11 to April 29) and to the Museum of Modern Art in New York (May 31 to Aug. 28). With nearly 60 works from public and private collections around the world, this is the first major overview of the painter’s achievements held in the United States since 1963. The exhibition has been organized by James T. Demetrion, the Hirshhorn’s director, who obtained many of Mr. Bacon’s best-known paintings.

There is, for example, one of the startlingly coloured works the artist based on van Gogh’s Painter on the Road to Tarascon. There are a handful of the Popes that the artist created by combining elements of Velázquez’s  portrait of Innocent X with the image of a screaming nurse from The Battleship Potemkin, the Sergei Eisenstein film. The artist’s arresting Man With Dog of 1953 can be seen here, and so can at least one canvas, depicting a paralytic child walking on all fours, that Mr. Bacon derived from Eadweard Muybridge, the 19th-century photographer whose studies of figures in motion have had a profound impact on the painter.

There are a dozen or so small and strangely beautiful portrait heads of friends and associates as well as a handful of large triptychs from the 1960’s and 70’s, including a work from May to June 1973 that is Mr. Bacon’s wrenching meditation on the death of a friend, George Dyer. There is not, unfortunately, the Three Studies of Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion from the 40’s, which was deemed too fragile to travel from the Tate Gallery in London. But a second version of this work that Mr. Bacon completed last year is on view, and to see it is to realize both how much the artist has changed over the years and how much he has stayed the same.

Mr. Bacon has stayed the same in the sense that his subjects have not really varied, nor have the essential elements of his imagery. His focus remains on the human body. He continues to twist it, mangle its features, X-ray it and make it evaporate, transmogrify and bleed. His figures huddle and struggle in windowless rooms lighted only by a bare bulb that dangles from the ceiling. They vomit into a sink, find themselves pinned to the bed with a hypodermic needle or face to face with one of the ancient Greeks’ Furies.

When two men are engaged in sex, as they sometimes are in his paintings, they seem to be wrestling each other to the death. When the artist paints himself in a state of repose, it appears as if he is recovering from a crippling hangover. Even when Mr. Bacon is creating imaginary creatures, as in the second version of Three Figures, the references to sex and violence cannot be missed. Mr. Bacon’s images are rarely subtle.

But over the years they have been more beautifully rendered. The encrusted paint and vibrating atmosphere of such early works as Head I of 1948 and Study for Portrait (Man in a Blue Box) from 1949 have given way to a more serene and fluent style. Mr. Bacon is one of the greatest painters of voluptuous flesh. Few artists can make the body seem so palpable or transform a man turning a bathroom faucet into a figure of Michelangelesque proportions.

The artist has always imagined himself as engaged in a dialogue with past masters, not only Michelangelo and Velazquez and van Gogh but also Manet and Picasso and Ingres. At the same time, his paintings make conspicuous references to the latest furniture and clothing designs and they borrow freely from photographs in newspapers and magazines. His figures even occasionally bring to mind Willem de Kooning’s paintings of women. But Mr. Bacon says he admires almost nothing contemporary in art. Abstract painting is to him a version of wallpaper. He insists he is a realist, that he re-creates the violence of everyday life.

There are times, of course, when Mr. Bacon seems more like a Surrealist. And there are times, it must be said, when he seems to have fallen back on tricks and melodramatic gestures. The images of cricket pads, the arrows, the swinging light cords and the slabs of beef are shallow devices to which the artist succumbs. The fact is that Mr. Bacon is often most affecting when his work is least theatrical.

It is clear, for example, from paintings like Study of Figure in a Landscape that Mr. Bacon can depict the outdoors vividly on those rare occasions when he puts himself to the task. His portraits, which at first look merely contorted, capture perfectly a likeness. They can also be witty. Several of the self-portraits are among the more endearing paintings in the exhibition because Mr. Bacon presents himself as charmingly ill at ease.

There are also striking images -like the darkened figure entering an empty house from the triptych In Memory of George Dyer (1971) -that speak in an unusually hushed tone. And there are a few works that seem to be the beneficiaries of chance. Mr. Bacon is a believer in spontaneity, and several of his paintings have been given a jolt of energy by a sudden splash of paint or a slip of the brush.

One of the most memorable canvases in the exhibition is also one of the artist’s most recent works, his Study for Portrait of John Edwards from 1988. Here Mr. Bacon somehow manages to create a figure that looks at once fleshy and spectral, ashen and roseate. There is, in some ways, more of Velazquez in this austere portrait than there is in the early Popes. The work is neither histrionic nor shocking. It is mysterious and introspective and it underscores that, at the age of 80, Mr. Bacon has not missed a step. A retrospective will visit New York next year.





 Francis Bacon at 80


Unnerving Art






The doorbell to Francis Bacon’s ramshackle mews house in South Kensington, London, has not worked for some time. Visitors knock loudly and then cling to a rope bannister while climbing the steep, narrow stairs that lead to the kitchen, bedroom and studio.

Bacon cannot paint anything so large it won’t fit down the steps and out the door. On those infrequent occasions when the artist permits someone to see him at home, he must usher guests past the kitchen that includes a bathtub to the cramped bedroom that doubles as a living room. He has lived in this place for more than a quarter of a century. Widely regarded as perhaps the greatest living figure painter, a man whose works have lately sold for millions of dollars at auction, Bacon presumably could live anywhere in London. A few years ago he set himself up in a handsome and spacious home on the Thames, but he says the speckled light that reflected off the river and into his studio’s windows proved too distracting, so he moved back here. Even more than most people, Bacon is full of contradictions. He will turn 80 in late October, yet his wide eyes, chubby cheeks, pouting mouth and hair failing casually over his brow give him an astonishingly boyish look. Although he moves gingerly nowadays, his step retains traces of the jaunty side to sidespring that was a characteristic of his youth.

He can be intensely private yet disarmingly frank. With almost no prompting he details his fondness for alcohol and for men, his kinship with gangsters and drunks, his antipathy toward certain politicians, fashion designers and fellow painters. If coaxed just a bit, Bacon tells wonderful stories about being in Morocco with the novelist and composer Paul Bowles or wandering through galleries with Giacometti (“He liked all the wrong pictures,” Bacon recalls with a laugh). Friends know he can be ornery and unpredictable, especially after a few drinks, but they also know him as a man of tremendous generosity, wit and vulnerability. Although he has created some of the most alarming and outrageous images ever painted, Bacon is in fact immensely likeable and kind, a true gentleman.

He is especially eager to express opinions about art and literature. A few days earlier, over a leisurely lunch of wine, oysters and deviled crab at Bentley’s in London, Bacon talked about Velàzquez and Degas, Boulez and Freud (“Does anyone go to analysis anymore?” he asked with apparent sincerity), Proust and Yeats (whose productivity in old age particularly intrigues Bacon) with the passion of the self educated. A recent exhibition of early works by Cézanne prompted waves of enthusiastic commentary, although when the conversation eventually turned to American painters, he became coy. “He does those women, nice man, what was his name?” is the extent of Bacon’s remarks about Willem de Kooning, and about Jackson Pollock he said: “I can’t see the point of those drips, and I think he couldn’t do anything else particularly well.” Subtly, Bacon manipulates a conversation so that it never strays from subjects he is prepared to discuss, and it is almost impossible to get him to talk about anything else.

He particularly dislikes analyzing his own work. “If you can talk about it, why paint it?” is one of his favorite ripostes and he tends to fall back on canned remarks as a way of sidestepping queries. Bacon hates pretense, and he can be modest to the point of self deprecation. When London’s National Gallery asked him four years ago to do the first of the “Artist’s Eye” shows, in which prominent British painters juxtaposed their works with favorites from the museum’s collection, Bacon refused to include his own canvases.

He eschews almost all the trappings of success. Whennecessary, he reaches into his pocket for a wad of cash to cover expenses, which may include an elegant suit, gambling debts, medical costs for an ailing friend, lunch at a swank restaurant or champagne for everyone at the Colony Room, the rundown drinking club in Soho he has been going to for more than 40 years. In an art scene that has become dominated by commercial excess and ironic posturing, Bacon seems like a character from an altogether different time, a genuinely serious painter, a survivor from the generation of post war intellectuals for whom culture was not largely a matter of money.

Now he is the subject of a retrospective, on the occasion of his upcoming birthday, that open in Oct. 12 at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. The first Bacon exhibition in the United States since a modest show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1975, it travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in February 1990 and to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in May 1990. e Museum of Modern Art in New York in May 1990.

Bacon settles himself behind a table next to the single window in his bedroom where four bare bulbs hanging on wires from the ceiling provide most of the illumination on a gray day. A cot is tucked at the far end of the room behind two old couches and a couple of dressers. There is a space heater in one corner. Years ago, Bacon owned paintings by the English artists W.R. Sickert and Frank Auerbach, but he gave those away. Several tattered photographs of his own works are now taped above the kitchen sink and around his studio. Otherwise the walls are bare. “I cant live with pictures,” he explains.

Only after a little while does the artist suggest taking a look at the studio, and even so, he clearly feels some hesitation about it, as if fearful of revealing one of his more intimate secrets. Bacon can appear very open and jovial to strangers, but he can be extremely reticent when it comes to certain aspects of his work, and this room is one of them.

The studio, on the other side of the kitchen, is shaped like the bedroom but has a skylight that Bacon installed some years ago. It is a mess. Aged paint tubes, discarded rags, brushes, papers and dust (he has incorporated the dust in certain paintings to suggest sand dunes) have at cumulated over the course of two decades and been swept into waist high piles around the floor.

Bare bulbs dangle from the ceiling. “I once bought a beautiful studio round the corner in Roland Gardens with the most perfect light, and I did it up so well, with carpets and curtains and everything, that I absolutely couldn’t work in it,” he once told an interviewer. “I was absolutely castrated in the place. That was because I had done it up so well, and I hadn’t got the chaos.”

Bacon has noted, only half in jest, that the closest he comes to abstract painting is on the walls of his studio: he uses them as a palette, and they are covered with multi. colored dabs of pigment. On one easel rests a small portrait of Bacon’s friend and, for the last several years, favorite subject, John Edwards, but all the other canvases have been turned to the wall, and the artist declines to show them. “There’s nothing on them,” he says. Bacon remains in the doorway throughout, anxious to leave.

He suggests a walk to the Victoria and Albert Museum before lunch. “If you’d like, we can see the Constables,” he offers, and a minute or two later slips a leather jacket over his turtleneck sweater and eases himself down the front steps and toward the street.

In April 1945, Bacon exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery in London a triptych entitled Three Studies for figures at the Base of a Crucifixion now at the Tate Gallery. Bacon’s trio of half-human, half animal creatures, mutilated and eyeless, their necks elongated and teeth I, were perched on tables or pedestals in rooms with disorienting fun house proportions. They were roughly, angrily drawn, suggesting both Picasso’s and Francis Picabia’s works from the 1920’s and something of German Expressionism. But nothing precisely like the “Three Studies” had been seen before. Bacon’s tortured and menacing figures seemed to capture perfectly the anguished claustrophobic of war ravaged England. At a time when painting in Britain, like so much else, had become enervated, these potent images were a sign of renewed vitality. Those who went to the Lefevre Gallery may not have liked Bacon’s work, but they surely wouldn’t forget it. Bacon had made his mark.

During the next decades the artist developed his now famous repertory of blurred figures, screaming popes, butchered carcasses and twisted portraits images that continue to occupy his attention today. They have inspired critics to classify him as a surrealist or an Expressionist, and skeptics to describe s a sensationalist or a lunatic.

Bacon insists he is a realist, that he does not paint merely to shock. “What is called Surrealism has gone through art at all times,” he says. “What is more surreal than Aeschylus?”
Bacon maintains he is simply aiming to reproduce as immediately and directly as possible, what his friend, the French anthropologist and poet Michel Leiris, calls “the sheer fact of existence.” This can encompass, Bacon points out, both violence and beauty, absurdity and romance. “You can’t be more horrific than life itself,” he is fond of saying. Still, his paintings have lost none of their power to unnerve.

 In part for this reason, private collectors have not stood in line to buy, and although the work has always been very popular in France, Italy and Germany, it has engendered more respect than enthusiasm in the United States and even in Britain. The poet Stephen Spender, one of Bacon’s oldest friends, says, “I wanted to get a painting, but no one in my house really wanted one.” Margaret Thatcher once described the artist as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures.” And in the recent film “Batman,” the only painting in Gotham City’s Flugelheim Museum that the Joker prevents his henchmen from destroying is a Bacon.

 “I think Americans have tended to measure him against de Kooning and find him less good,” says David Sylvester, an English art historian, author of a book of penetrating interviews with Bacon, and one of the painter’s most devoted friends. Spender insists that “American artists provide for Americans a foreground of activity that they can’t see beyond.”

 Yet a third view is held by Lawrence Gowing, the English art historian and painter who has been an admirer of Bacon for many years. “Abstract Expressionist taste was buoyed up by a solid optimism and a feeling that painting was getting better, that a way was opening to something fruitful,” he states. “But Bacon’s painting is rather tragic, and his whole work is an overt criticism of abstract art.”

 There are, however, few important museums of 20th century art that do not own, or at least covet, one of Bacon’s paintings, and his canvases are prominently displayed in London’s Tate Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. Bacon’s work has increasingly been so ambitious in scale and polished in execution that it looks specifically designed for public exhibition, as if the artist were demanding his place in the museum beside Manet, Picasso and the other modern masters. Gowing describes these latest canvases, even the most violent, as “classically serene”.

Consider, for example, one of his most recent works a second, much larger and arguably more affecting rendition of the “Three Figures,” in which Bacon has added an element of ambiguity to the gruff original by refining its forms. The new version is like a memory of the earlier one, still vivid but less tactile. After an initial reaction of horror or wariness, the viewer’s attention almost invariably focuses on the strange lyricism and meticulousness of the paintings. Bacon has a quirky and rather wonderful sense of color, and there have been very few artists who have ever managed to depict flesh in such a voluptuous way. The word “shocking” is still constantly used to describe Bacon’s works, but in fact they can be exceptionally beautiful and very moving.

The artist insists that his paintings be hung in gold frames and protected by a sheet of glass, which he thinks imparts evenness and sheen to his unvarnished surfaces. This style of presentation recalls the Old Master pictures that Bacon so admires; it also heightens the tension that comes from representing bizarre or subversive scenes in a highly formal, elegant way. He may depict two Michelangelesque nudes thrashing on a bed, but he shrouds the details behind seductive, titillating veils of paint. There is decorum to Bacon’s impropriety a paradox that describes the artist himself: He talks about sex and alcohol the way most people discuss the weather, but he also exudes a natural courtliness and grace, as if he were a good boy trying to be bad.

The son of a racehorse trainer (and a collateral descendant of the great Elizabethan statesman and philosopher), Bacon moved with his family between Dublin and London during the first years of his life. He was the second of five children He never got along with his parents, who, in turn, never supported the idea of his becoming a painter.

Asthma made school a problem, so he was tutored by clergymen at home, where in general he was left to his own devices. These involved what his heavy-gambling but strict father considered behavior so unacceptable-Bacon had sex with some of the grooms at the stables and was once caught trying on his mother’s underwear-that he banished the youngster. At the age of 16, Bacon set out for London, and then Berlin.

There, in a city devoted to extravagance and excess Bacon could indulge in sexual escapades and gambling sprees; he spent long nights in transvestite bars and endless hours with the sort of rough-and tumble characters who would always form a part of his social circle.

“Berlin was a very violent place emotionally violent not physically and that certainly had its effect on me,’ Bacon says. But I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in art until about 1930. 1 lived a very indolent life. I was absolutely free. I drifted for years.” He smiles. “You know, when you’re young, there are always people who want to help.”

He also spent time in Paris and although he says he was not interested in art, Bacon remembers attending an exhibition of Picasso’s surreal, biomorphic bathers painted in the 20’s. Over the years, he has given different accounts of how significant this event was to his own development but he certainly left Paris with a particular notion of artistic life properly spent. Bacon has always cultivated an image of himself as an instinctive painter, a loner, someone who is unconcerned with success qualities that make him resemble more the French artist of the 20’s than the celebrity artist of today.

He returned to London in 1929 and for a brief period deigned modernist furniture producing works that earned him a reputation as innovative and highly talented but that he now dismisses as “absolutely horrid” and “ghastly stuff.” A Cubist inspired pattern for a rug suggests Bacon’s interest in Picasso was not entirely casual. Unfortunately, Bacon came to consider the paintings from these years “so awful” that he painted over most of the canvases and bought back others in order to destroy them; virtually none exist.

Bacon participated in group show in 1933, the same year that the critic and historian Herbert Read reproduced the artist’s ghostly “Crucifixion” in his book “Art Now.” The next year, Bacon organized a solo show, and in 1937 his work was included in an exhibition at Agnew’s in London.

But that was the last time Bacon put his paintings on public view until 1945. More than lackadaisical about his career, he was totally indifferent. Bacon had never had any formal art training, and when he began to teach himself to paint during the 30’s it seems to have been little more than a distraction from drinking, gambling and wandering around the edges of London society. “Bacon before 1939,” writes John Russell in his monograph on the artist was “Marginal Man personified.” When the Second World War began, he tried to enlist but was turned down because of his asthma. He took a variety of odd jobs, working, for a time as a house servant and a secretary. It was not until 1944, when he began to work on “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” that Bacon says that his career as a painter began in earnest. Yet the years spent in Dublin, Berlin and Paris, and in London during some of its grimmest days, clearly left their mark. The emotional turbulence of Bacon’s life, the restlessness, the sexual indiscretions, the sense of frustration and claustrophobia he felt as a boy, the offhand disregard for social mores and, importantly, the complete lack of concern for what others might think all these became distinguishingly features of his art. Only towards the end of the war, when he was already 35 years old and just beginning to take himself seriously, did Bacon finally realize that painting was the best way for him to bring order to the chaos of his life, to translate what he calls his “obsessions” into concrete images.

Upon arriving at the Victoria and Albert, Bacon immediately marches down one of the museum’s cavernous halls looking for an elevator to the floor where Constable’s paintings are displayed. He quickly becomes lost, asks directions from a guard, takes another wrong turn and again loses his way. The circuitous routed leads him past some pottery, a display of raincoats, medieval wood carvings and jewelry, and in every case the artist becomes momentarily absorbed by what he sees. Just as he feels socially at ease with both petty thieves and wealthy patrons, he can become deeply intrigued by a Turner hanging at the National Gallery and also by a chair he glimpses in the window of Conran’s on his way to lunch. Not surprisingly, Bacon’s paintings are full of references to Ingres and the daily press, to Picasso-who, with Duchamp, remains just about the only 20th century artist he admires-and the latest fashion show.

Finally, Bacon stumbles upon the elevator and finds the Constables. “These are pictures I could live with” he says enthusiastically, bounding toward the great sketches for “The Hay Wain” and “The Leaping Horse.” Although Bacon spent a good portion of his youth in the Irish countryside, he has painted very few landscapes. Yet he feels a particular affinity with these scenes and with many of the small sketches displayed in cases nearby because, he explains, they exemplify Constable’s “free style, his tremendous spontaneity.”

“I know that in my own work,” he continues, “the best things are the things that just happened images that were suddenly caught and that I hadn’t anticipated. We don’t know what the unconscious is, but every so often something wells up in us. It sounds pompous nowadays to talk about the unconscious, so maybe it’s better to say ‘chance.’ I believe in a deeply ordered chaos and in the rules of chance.”

Bacon never makes preliminary drawings but works directly on unprimed canvas, where a, wayward brush stroke cannot easily be disguised. Sometimes he will toss a bucket of paint across the canvas in order to promote spontaneity. “I have to hope that my instincts will do the right thing,” Bacon says, “because I can’t erase what I have done. And if I drew something first, then my paintings would be illustrations of drawings.” Arriving at another of his favorite phrases, he adds, “I want to create images that are a shorthand of sensation.”

 Photographs have always been a source of inspiration for Bacon. Many of his ideas, and quirky compositional devices have originated in the newspaper and magazine snapshots that he collects, and especially in the famous sequential photographs of prancing animals and walking, running and wrestling men that Eadweard Muybridge took during the last quarter of the 19th century.

In the twisted, awkward, even bizarre movements of Muybridge’s figures, Bacon sees a potential repertory of images that are at once startling and commonplace, and it is this impression of something sudden and unposed, yet absolutely true to life, that the painter wants to convey in his own work. In painting portraits, he dispenses with a sitter and relies solely on photographs and memory. Bacon uses only intimate friends as subjects, and he fears they might be offended to see him maneuvering and rearranging their faces despite the unmistakable likeness that emerges.

Bacon has also based works on paintings by Van Gogh, films by Luis Buñuel and poems by T.S. Eliot During the 50’s, he combined references to Velázquez’s “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” and a still photograph of a screaming nurse from Sergei Eisenstein’s film “The Battleship Potemkin” to create his series of screaming popes, which have achieved a degree of fame he now finds tedious. “Those references were just mental starting points, armatures on which to hang the pictures,” Bacon says. “Actually, I hate those popes. I think the Velázquez is such a superb image that it was silly of me to use it.”

Bacon insists his paintings are not about anything in particular, that nothing should be read into his borrowings from certain images, and that even his triptychs, which might seem to, be recounting a tale in three scenes, are in no ‘way narrative. He compares them to police mug shots of a suspect’s face and profiles.. Nonetheless, his paintings often contain arrows, circles, mirrors and boxes that seem to single out one or two elements as having special significance. Bacon disagrees. “I’ve no story to tell,” he says.

It is early afternoon, and so far Bacon has had nothing to drink. Once, when asked to sum up his life, he said it consisted of “going from bar to bar and drinking and that kind of thing.” The walk is short from the museum to Bibendum, the elegant restaurant in a former Michelin tire factory where Bacon has made a lunch reservation and where he is greeted warmly as a regular. He orders oysters and the first of what will be many glasses of champagne. By the end of the meal he has also drunk the better part of two bottles of wine. When the idea of a trip to the Colony Room comes up, Bacon agrees, saying that he hasn’t been to the bar in months.

It is a small, oddly shaped and rather claustrophobic place not unlike many of the rooms in Bacon’s paintings and it is almost impossible to find the entrance from the street. Photographs and caricatures of the owners and regular patrons hang haphazardly on the dark green walls. The dozen or so people who are there getting drunk in the late afternoon seem very happy to see the artist, and he seems utterly at home joking and laughing with them. They are not part of the London art scene but clearly know he is a famous painter and don’t seem to care. This especially pleases Bacon. He offers drinks all around, then orders a bottle of champagne, then another. Most people couldn’t stand up at this point, but Bacon is just getting started.

Nikos Stangos, an editor at the British publishing house Thames & Hudson, who has edited books about Bacon and known the artist for many years, notes that “Francis never expresses moral indignation about anything.” And in fact, chatting easily over drinks, Bacon recalls without the least sense of outrage or distress episodes like his arrest in 1970 for drug possession. “It was obvious at the trial that the police had planted marijuana on me, because I’m asthmatic and can’t smoke,” he says drily. “I wasn’t really worried anyway, since I recognized some criminals on the jury.”

Still, a vein of deep compassion and sorrow runs just beneath the surface of Bacon’s images. These feelings occasionally emerge in conversation, as when the subject of George Dyer comes up. A heavy drinker, Dyer was the artist’s closest friend throughout the last half of the 60’s; he died in a hotel room in Paris in 1971 at the age of 37, just two days before a Bacon retrospective opened at the Grand Palais.

Bacon did a series of three triptychs that, despite the artist’s repeated statements about never painting narratives, are transparent meditations on Dyer’s death. Dyer, naked or almost naked, is shown slumped on the toilet, vomiting into a sink or slouching in a chair, either half asleep or in a drunken stupor. Parts of his limbs and chest are invariably missing, as if they had evaporated. In all the scenes Dyer is alone and in the sort of bare, windowless room that is a trademark of Bacon’s work but in this case specifically evokes the hotel in Paris. The flesh is both roseate and ashen voluptuous and deathly and in several of the scenes Dyer casts a pink shadow that does not conform precisely to the shape of his body but resembles a thick pool of liquid or a spectral presence, like a shadowy version of the beastly Furies Bacon later painted in a triptych based on the “Oresteia.”

Perhaps the most memorable of the scenes, the centerpiece of “Triptych August 1972,” represents Dyer as hardly more than a lumpy, oozing form, his face obliterated, his body prone across a blackened doorway. There is something of Muybridge and of Michelangelo in this twisted, fleshy figure, something, as well, of the Manet who painted “The Execution of Maximilian,” which was among the works Bacon chose to include in his “Artist’s Eye” exhibition at the National Gallery.

To see figures that look at once corporeal and ghostly; sensual and morbid, beautiful and horrific, is to understand why Bacon has come to be regarded as one of the most distinctive and difficult figure painters of the century. The triptychs of Dyer’s last hours demonstrate what the artist means when he describes himself as a realist, as a painter devoted not to Expressionism or Surrealism but to what he has called “the brutality of fact.” During lunch at Bentley’s, Bacon had described old age as “a desert because all of one’s friends die,” and the paintings of Dyer exude this despair. The only faith they can be said to express is in the power of paint.

“I am an optimist, but about nothing,” Bacon says, repeating another of his favorite phrases. “It’s just my nature to be optimistic.” He stops to polish off the last drops from a glass of champagne. “We live, we die and that’s it don’t you think?’






Unnerving Art: Reply 

The New York Times, September 17, 1989


Twice in his article on Francis Bacon, described as ’’perhaps the greatest living figure painter,’’ Michael Kimmelman reports that Bacon ’’details his fondness for men,’’ apparently with some degree of pleasure and pride, yet no amplification of these observations made it into print, even in euphemistic form (Unnerving Art, Aug. 20). Given the hot debate over the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, another gay artist who wasn’t afraid to deal with his sexual preference in public, Francis Bacon’s forthright homosexuality, described in his own words and on his own terms, would have been fascinating, as germane to his paintings as to today’s censorial climate.

ED SIKOV New York, N.Y.




Under Bacon’s Black Sun


Timothy Hyman


Art International, Number 8, Autumn 1989


What effect has Francis Bacon’s painting had on a younger generation of British artists? In a recent conversation, the editors of Art International asked the painter Timothy Hyman to comment on Bacon’s impact in Britain today. Born in 1946, Hyman studied at the Slade School of Art in the sixties and has emerged in the last decade as one of Britain’s most uncompromising figurative artists. Known too for his writings on twentieth-century figurative art, Hyman mounted a controversial travelling exhibition in 1979 titled Narrative Painting in which he questioned the validity of Francis Bacon’s most recent work. As an artist and a critic, Hyman is well placed to describe the positive and negative effects that an artist of Bacon’s stature is bound to have on the generation that follows.


I can remember when I first went to the Tate Gallery as a child, at about the age of twelve. William Blake stood out. But there was also a Baconthe large Painting (1946) with the figure under an umbrellawhich had an effect on the imagination quite unlike anything else except Blake. While I was a school boy, in 1962, the first Tate retrospective of  Bacon’s work took place, so by the time I got to the Slade School of Art Bacon was already a looming figure. Shortly after, the Tate did a survey show of British painting in which Bacon’s recently completed triptychThree Studies for a Crucifixionhad an enormous impact. I can’t honestly remember very much else that was in the show, because Bacon totally overshadowed everything else. There was the feeling right through my art school days that Bacon was the obvious contender, and I suppose that feeling was general. Then I remember being very disappointed by a show of Bacon’s recent paintings at the Marlborough gallery the year before I left the Slade. I feel, looking back, that the Bacon I loved most ended in about 1961.

Quite a lot later, in 1971, I went to see a Leger exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris–Leger was an artist who had become very important to me. It just so happened that in the other wing of the Grand Palais there was a big Bacon show. I really hadn’t come to see that, but almost to my alarm it was Bacon who really struck home. I knew Leger so well by then that he didn’t surprise me as strongly as Bacon did. It has been like that ever since. Every time I think, well, I’ve had Bacon, it has proved to be not the case. I felt that the Tate retrospective in 1985 petered out in formulaic painting. Taken one by one, the paintings are powerful and expressive. If I’d seen them individually, if I was seeing them for the first time, I would be moved. But seen en masse they don’t  hold up. I found myself wondering what would happen if he changed the basis composition. There’s always the square field with the figure in the centre and the essentially flat background. But then in 1987 I saw a marvellous Bacon exhibition at the Galerie Beyeler in Basel which was full of surprises of every kind. It proved that Bacon was not limited by a single format.

Just after leaving the Slade I gave lectures at the Working Men’s College, and I always used to give a lecture on Bacon. I did feel then that we might describe a our era–that is the fifties, sixties and seventies in Britain–as the Age of Bacon, just as one describes a decade as the Age of Rembrandt or whatever. He seemed more than just a  painter. He seemed like a cultural hero and I think he played this role for many people abroad as well. The way Pasolini used him in Teorema or the way Bertolucci used those Bacon images at the beginning of Last Tango in Paris was significant. Those images were signposts and Bacon became emblematic of a whole period in culture.

There is no doubt that Bacon has a power to upset and to convey distress that reaches very far. Although he denies it, I think this has to do with a view of experience that comes close to existentialist ideas. In one of my classes there was a woman who had never heard of Bacon before my lectures, and she had to leave the room because she felt so physically distressed. There is certainly an enormous visceral power in Bacon’s  imagery. Some British critics go on now about Bacon being evil. This is the line that’s being taken quite often–that the implicit negation in Bacon’s work makes it impossible for him to be a truly great painter. I don’t agree with this. If you read responses in the late fifties and early sixties to Bacon, you find people within the Anglican church saying that he is a religious painter because his paintings convey poignantly the absence of God. The sense of absence is so strongly voiced that it amounts to a lament. That response can sound dated, but I think there is some truth in it. When Bacon talks about “exhilarated despair,” he he gives us a key. Somewhere else he says that although he has a very pessimistic world view, he has a very optimistic nervous system.

The David Sylvester interviews (1) are a whole issue in themselves. Because as much as Bacon’s actual work, those interviews bled into a whole generation. It was simply the most powerful book available about contemporary art. The painter Andrzej Jackowski wrote to me at the end of the seventies asking himself how close one can come to illustrating the objectwhich for him was the key issue with Bacon. In other words, the fear of illustration, the fear that by depicting someone more or less literally one would simply be an illustratorthese were the issues which came off the page. This fear was very much something one had to fight against in order to extend subject matter, or complexity of composition, or indeed any kind of literal depiction. It seemed that the highest authority we had, which was Bacon, had in a way tabooed depiction. All that was left to figuration would be a language made up of accident and chance. I felt this was a loss to painting. I think that Bacon has perhaps limited his own range through these convictions which are really just assertions. I dont think that as soon “the story-telling element enters the boredom begins.” This was quite a widespread feeling.

Max Beckmann, for instance, would be an obvious counter to Bacon in the use of the triptych. The way that Bacon has in some senses emptied out the triptych into a repeated image of the individual is very significant. I would almost take it right back to those debates in the 1920s between the Expressionists and the Neue Sachlichkeit painters where the Expressionists were saying that distress or alienation is located in the individual, and the next generation who had been through the war and seen their whole world crack felt, no, it is to be located in society as a whole. In the crowd, if you like. Distress is in the crowd rather than in the individual, or as  much as in the individual. I don’t think this is a simple issue and I respect Bacon’s view point. But my own bias is towards the crowd and I think that this was quite widely felt by my generation. Beckmann literally crowds so much into the triptychs. It isn’t the single individual but the whole world that’s brought together. Also he makes the triptych very explicitly into a dialectical thing. It’s most obvious in Departure–the triptych is there as a resource to make more than one state happen at once. Bacon never makes more than one state happen at once, except perhaps in that 1962 triptych Three Studies for a Crucifixion. Otherwise he repeats, making a variation on a single theme.

There are all sorts of areas that Bacon simply hasnt touched. I think there was a very brilliant piece of hanging at the Tate retrospective in 1985 when you were confronted by Stanley Spencers leg-of-mutton nude (Double Nude Portrait, 1936) as you came out of the show. In the 1960s I remember saying that someone like Stanley Spencer was just swept aside by Bacon because he seemed so much more urgent, more authoritative.  But suddenly it was as though that proved to be not permanently so. In other words its hard to say how these things happenI think most people feel now that the licence to describe, to depict, is much greater than it was twenty years ago. That the visceral is not the only truth. That picture by Stanley Spencer suddenly looked very powerful againand it is the picture that is nearest to Bacon in the area its dealing with.

Bacon does convey exhilaration. Its the kind of thing Nietzsche is on about, which many people Ive been close to in my life have had a sense of. Wilson Knight, the Shakespeare critic, wrote that the worse the tragedy becomes in Shakespeares plays the better the poetry gets. The poetry always rises. It may be a very obvious thing to say. I dont think it is just a mystique of suffering, rather it involves the Nietzschean view (and maybe this is true of all Greek tragedy too), that despite the horror there is something affirmative at the heart of tragedy. Bacon does affirm in a way that I dont feel other British artists of his generation do. He is much more explicit and more, in a way, eccentric than Frank Auerbach, for example. I would never describe a Bacon image of a person as a nude, whereas I think that Frank Auerbach is basically working within the traditional academic genres. In Bacon its not just a naked body, its an emblem of a human being. Bacon was like a dark sun around whom these other planets revolvedLucian Freud and Frank Auerbach and Michael Andrews. But the light they took from Bacon was a sort of darkness. I am talking partly about an art that had elements of miserablism in it. Although Bacon is in a sense amoral, there is a certain arduousness that goes with him which easily becomes overbearing and oppressive. Another artist you could oppose to Bacon would be Bonnard, and if you wanted two artists to free you from Bacon, then Bonnard and Beckmann might both be very useful. It seemed to me terribly obvious in the sixties that Bacons language came came out of Gaugins cloisonnism, the language that Edward Munch also used which consists of  flattened silhouetted areas. I dont consider him a Mediterranean artist at all, rather he is an Expressionist in the sense that I would relate him to Nietzsche and to that vocation for suffering which I think is very much part of a Northern consciousness.

Sometimes this comes over as something corny, as if he is hamming. And at that early Marlborough show I  mentioned I found it even chichi. There were an awful lot of devices. Ive felt that periodically since, but then Ive oscillated. Again and again I am thrilled by the paintings, quite often. Theats a very important emotion.

Note (1) David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.




    In Francis Bacon’s studio



Michael Peppiatt


Art International, Number 8, Autumn 1989


I first met Francis Bacon in 1963 when I was putting together an issue of the student magazine, Cambridge Opinion, and had turned up at a pub in Soho in the hope of getting an interview. The interview began over drinks, and in a sense it continued for many years since we met regularly and my interest in the artist and his work developed as I came to know both better.

I made notes of the places we visited, the people we met, the conversations we had. The atmosphere evoked by Jesse Fernandez’s remarkable photographs of Bacon in his studio is complemented by the descriptions of visits to Bacon’s studio I wrote at that time. Together they provide a fresh approach to Bacon’s art by concentrating on the physical and imaginary world where his haunting images have evolved.

The battered blue door lay ajar onto the near-vertical stairs up to the flat. High overhead, Francis was waiting, his bared forearms held out in welcome.

The landing with its darkened, cobwebbed ceiling was already like old times. A glimpse in the kitchen suggested letters getting lost  aid charred toast, of clothes on hangers hung on odd nails and ledges; then something amiss, a brokenperhaps the panel of a doorthat was not broken a short while before.

To the right, a door intactcolour-blotched with trial stamps of paint-soaked cloths, radiant and familiar as a sunsetopens onto the studio.

Years of gesture, tentative, imperious, in the exasperation of despair, cover floor and wall. Old paint skins, pigment squeezed out, mixed, applied, dabbed, smeared, dropped, thrown, left to run, on walls already curious with coloured marks, on bits of stiffened cloth, absorbed into sponge, emblazoned on cast-off sweaters. Left to run and mingle with the deep layers of document thickening underfoot, reproductions ripped from art books, news photos, cinema stills, snaps of friends, photomat portraits, head going this way and that, click, clack, click, clack, war scenes, men in the eye of the storm, images of power, an arm raised to the masses, Seig, Heil, images of disease, a paralytic child, rachitic, syphilitic, crawling on the ground; and photo after photo of the mouth, slipping over the teeth, flesh wound onto the bone eye-catching outrider of the gut, pretending to give way, an easy partingthen the hard, hungering pearly snap.

Pigment-glued, human images in movement, caught in a blur, limbs growing in, out, of each other, here and there, in one, substance and its trail, present swung out of past towards future, flesh distended beyond the frame. Energy moving on the spot, desire frozen, captured in a virtual eye, life wiped for a split second across the lens. To be recaptured, rewiped, artifice to artifice, appearance skimmed off and reformed; life passing, halted, flowering up.

Images broken, heaped, decomposing, flowing, a deep crumpled carpet over the floorboards. Grist to the mill. An old passport, its corner clipped, dips into the thick strew of pictures, and nearby a single shoe, caught under a net of paint, a multi-coloured crust. The visual foundations ankle deep and well-trodden; rubble of sensations, the sediment of an old eye. A room set with traps to stimulate and catch the new image while it breathes.

On one wall, trial paint marks rising, spreading, like fountains, trees, of colour. Beneath them so many old tins, each holding a thicket of brushes, that for a moment the sight does not look credible. This sudden dense bristling, clogged in dried paint cakesastounding archive of the tools of the trade.

From end to end, a complete cell of recorded signs, a sight bank, selective and retentive, sifting its information through boot scuff and paint drip, letting accident come kicked to the top. A room like memory itself, from which nothing is ever effaced, only repeated, with altered emphasis.

This glance through the door, onslaught of colour and layered confusion, then across the landing into the living room, instantly less living, emptier of the trace of time in a chaos of its own. Opposite, a wall  mirror receives me as I  go in,  amplifying my tarnished smile; a great starry smash reaches up the glass’s side perpetuating its wound as I move progressively fragmented through. Francis invites me to sit on the green velvet couch, directly under the naked lightbulb. I am smiling still, glad to be here once again, yet aware of an old apprehension, often brought in, investing everything with risk, childish and dark-rooted, evaporating a bit on the first stiff drinkbut escaping never analysed, never understood.

I opt for a self-conscious ease, my back pressed into the sofa’s pliant squidge, one leg tucked in behind the other. On this well-portrayed couch, all my attitudes self-consciously recall the famous paintings: the sitter with the corkscrewed legs, his hands and wrists driven between his thighs; the sitter, apparently expansive, arms spread along the velvety backrest, head snapped round into a blur of anxiety; the sitter, no longer sitting, a length of deflated pink skin, a used human chucked onto the cushions.... More drink is pushed into my tight-held glass. Ease you up, make the flesh of fear melt, the rush of warning images recede.

A number of small paintings stand on the nearby chest of drawers, face t wall; in front of them, piles of books, a few brand new, others broken by wear, plundered, their leaves falling out. Greek and Elizabethan tragedy, read and reread; the odd book on biology; novels sent in by friends, admirers, untouched, soon to be lent and never seen again. In the alcove opposite, propped up by a cluster of bottles, photographs of old friends, faces from the portraits, images of the loved dead, stare out at the slow ceremony of apéritifs.

New paintings, drying alive. Confusion and outrage, a nightmare torn from its evil dream and pinned to a background set to snap up the tragic, isolated human fact.

The struggle caught in the flesh. Reddened with fury, ashen with despair. Portraits of bodies abruptly stopped as they progress towards death. The painter’s hand on them, imperiously having his way. Limbs and features twisted to get new kicks out of their recreated frames A sexual attack down to the bone.

Appearance remade. Dissolved in drink, prised apart in the unforgiving, acid eye.

Appearance reduced. Less and less of even the flesh. From image to image, everything obliterated or taken away. One half a face plucked out, the other left stunned beside a huge curling black cut. Head swinging round, brush-whipped into a new clarity. Themselves and other. The face beneath the flesh. One head axed in two by a crescent of sky-blue light. Then punched into profile with the nosebone gone. Whirr and swish of limbs threshed back into confusion. Nothing but a clear ear and hair close-plastered on a blob of raging pink. Entire face smeared in a blink. Then an eye blasted, closed up in its murderous setting in the skull.

A detail or two left intact. A rose-and-cream muscle. Smile on the skin over the bone.  The mouth aglitter. Poignancy of the hale within the disorder, a measure of the destruction already done.

Survivors of the magician’s attack, like a new race they rise. Leave the canvas to root themselves in the eye, these ghosts of another’s obsession.

Friends and lovers, lusciously deformed. Flesh slipping, seized in the obscurity of love. Ancient panic-joy of bodies embattled, their contours blurred into one. A meaty frame coming down on the same, its just-competed heave left hanging like a shucked-off skin.

Muscles succulently acquiesce. One head broken in a shriek of pleasure-pain, the other hard-death-masked in desire. Pressed deep into the milky sheets, quickly, urgently, seeking the inner core of self and other.

Or humped in a field, figure slipped over figure, their edges woven with green lights from the field. Lover burrowed into and eclipsing lover.

The instant lived over again. Love here in the glass room, the blades sprouting between the heavy velvet drapes. A luxury arenabedroom field, best of both with the bare canvas earth showing in between.

Friends and lovers, memory of embraces. Pinned to a mattress or strung up over their shadows. Cadence of grey and pink running through their frames, surges of vitality and decay. Bodies brought to an extreme, held at the last point of longing, the shudder before collapse. Everything leading up to this one instantpassion point, death pointthen falling away. Here it comeshold it thereit’s gone.  Triptych. And wait to begin again.

Manflesh with manflesh. The turn of the face beneath, opened in your own despair. His scream, himself slipped out of himself. Thick-knit flesh failing on the bone. Lover comes back. Picture and meat. Last look before dissolve: the smile-snarl sliding off to dry into dust.

Manflesh melting, bruised and shadowed, shot through with crimson, faced with black and diseased green. Pulled through love, through each moment’s death, to be remade.

All the faces, the bewildered heads, closely watched over the years. Their disarray and brightness recreated in his own, reduced to what outlasts the painter’s rage. Mutilated stumps, left to endure.

Opening of wounds. Old loves, past friends. Renewing the pain. He into them, they, he, into us. Cannibal eyes, lapping up the dry grain, the quick exciting smear of paint and another’s hurt. Scrape of nail, chalk on board, urgent on the altered nerve. Direct nerve: the horror and sumptuousness going in togethereverything together, the blood flowing ruddy beneath the condemned skin.



                                                  Francis Bacon, London, 1978.   Photograph by Jesse Fernandez



A Magnificent Armature”



The Crucifixion in Bacon
s Art


Paul Moorhouse 


Art International, Number 8, Autumn 1989


In 1988 Francis Bacon painted a second version of the 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, a work which he has identified as marking his beginnings as a painter. The Crucifixion is a central  theme in Bacon’s oeuvre. His engagement with it, however, predates these beginnings, as the three Crucifixion paintings of 1933 demonstrate, and it is the subject of a number of subsequent works, notably Fragment of a Crucifixion (1950) and the triptychs Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962) and Crucifixion (1965). What are the reasons for the recurrence of the Crucifixion in Bacons iconography and why did he readdress a work painted forty-four years earlier?  

In order to arrive at answers to these questions it is first necessary to locate the Crucifixion within the wider framework of Bacons art, the rationale for which is contained in his statement “I’m not really trying to say anything, I’m trying to do something.” (1) In Bacons words his aim is to record ones own feelings about certain situations as closely to oneown nervous system as one possibly can. The main way he has achieved this is by making what he calls “irrational marks. These are the temporary suspension of conscious control, either in a spasm of impatience or exasperation, or when the painters hand is liberated by alcohol, as in Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962). Accidental elements can also be forced by the deliberate use of chancefor example, when paint is flung at the canvas. Bacon regards these methods as effective vehicles for recording sensation because, through them the will has been subdued by the instinct and consequently images are able to proceed from the unconscious, unchecked and unaltered by reason. These marks are then retained in the form in which they appear, as non-illustrative elements recording a sudden surge of irrational activity, or partially or entirely developed by subsequent mark-making which may be conscious and illustrative or also irrational.

But Bacon is not interested in recording feelings for their own sake. Although be believes non-representational marks possess a vitality and a poignancy lacking in marks made in order to illustrate appearance, he has never shown an interest in abstract painting.  Moreover, although the irrational marks in Baconpaintings are used to disrupt and distort figurative elements, appearance is not modified  simply to reveal extreme emotional states. Instead Bacons aim is to record sensation as directly as possible because sensation is an essential part of the experience of reality which he wants to re-invent. It may be, he has said, that realism is always subjective. (2)  This rests on the phenomenalist tenet that we experience reality indirectly, via the evidence of our senses, and consequently that perception constitutes our sense of reality.

However, perception is influenced by subjective forces, such as age, imagination and learning. Thus, the experience of reality is dependent on and influenced by the perceiver’s psyche Reality is therefore a construct of the perceptions of appearance and the subjective forces which are aroused by those perceptions or which we bring to bear on them. The coexistence of illustrational form(s)” (3) and irrational marks in Bacons  paintings results in distortion but this is neither a gratuitous violation of appearance nor evidence of a perverse taste for horror. Rather it is an attempt, as Bacon explains, to bring the figurative thing up into the nervous system more violently and more poignantly Distortion is also intended to capture the appearance together with the cluster of sensations that the appearance arouses in me.  The use of irrational activity thus functions in two ways. Firstly, it engages the viewers sensations as part of the perceptual process and, secondly, it records Bacons subjective response to the images he projects onto the canvas. In this way, these images are analogues for our experience of the real in which appearance and sensation enmesh and are held in tension.

Although Bacon has observed that Great art is a way of concentrating... what we know of our existence, (4) his is not an existential art. He is not concerned about making general statements about the nature of man, nor are these analogous images simply models for our experience of things. Bacons art is rooted in personal experience. Its purpose derives from his attitude to the nature of existence. Bacon regards life as a meaningless span which we invest with apparent significance and direction by the creation of attitudes, beliefs and goals which themselves lack meaning. Art functions in a similar way, as a game man uses to distract himself from the futility of existence. However, if art is to fulfil this purpose it must possess the cogency of reality. As Bacon says, the artist “must really deepen the game.” There are subjects to which Bacon has repeatedly returned for over forty yearsimages of the screaming Pope based on reproductions of Velázquezs portrait of Pope Innocent X, Van Gogh on his way to work, burdened by loneliness and despair, portraits of people Bacon has known or anonymous individuals in suits set in the confining space of a linear box or claustrophobic domestic interior, naked figures alone and splayed out on a bed or couples locked in throes of some desperate erotic act, self-portraits, images drawn from Greek mythology. All of them reflect, as Bacon put it, his “kind of psyche” which transforms appearance and invests it with a sense of  “exhilarated despair.” One subject in particular has been singles out by Bacon as “a magnificent armature” for his psyche: the Crucifixion.  

That the Crucifixion should possess this significance for Bacon is due to the universality which this subject has acquired through repeated representation by artists in the Christian world during the last two thousand years. The image of the Crucifixion is so immediately recognizable that the viewer is able to respond to the feelings it arouses and reflect on its particular treatment without having to decode the narrative components. It thus fulfils an aim to which Bacon’s painting has constantly aspired: to convey sensations directly and without the additional distracting machinery of storytelling. This is also the reason why Bacon has almost always employed the triptych format when painting this subject: the viewer is physically prevented from making connections between the various elements of the composition by the spaces which separate the canvases. What, however, are the particular feelings which the Crucifixion sustains?

While the titles of Bacons Crucifixions and their triptych format, reminiscent of altarpieces, invite the viewer to respond to these works within the conceptual framework established by art-historical precedent, Bacons Crucifixions are otherwise devoid of traditional Christian significance. A T-shaped form suggests the presence of a cross in Fragment of a Crucifixion (1950), and the painting may even have begun as a Deposition (see illustration overleaf). The final image, however, represents a winged creature with a shrieking human mouth in flight from a second figure hanging over the top of the cross. Motor cars in the background force a further disjunction. Similarly, in Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962), although the right-hand panel is based on the inverted serpentine form of the crucified Christ in the Cimabue Crucifixion (1272-74), this has undergone a drastic transformation and is represented as a suspended carcass with a screaming mouth (see illustration on pages 42 and 43). The carcass motif is balanced by two sides of meat in the lower half of the left-hand panel. The central panel, the most likely place for the crucifixion motif, is occupied instead by a blood-stained figure on a bed. Although in Crucifixion (1965) the form based on the Cimabue Christ has been moved to the centre panel, it has been subjected to further distortion: the twisted form slumps onto the ground and the forearms are encased in plaster splints (see illustration on page 27). In Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) any reference to the Crucifixion itself is absent and the traditional mourners at the front of the cross have been replaced by three nightmarish creatures representing the Eumenides, wreackers of vengeance on Orestes for killing his mother’s lover in Aeschylus Oresteia.

Because Bacons Crucifixions stand apart from traditional representations of this theme commentators have, in the past, responded to the horror, more evidently in this subject than in an other in Bacons work, and have interpreted them as being about human suffering and cruelty in general. The 1944 triptych, for instance,  has been seen as the painters reaction to the mayhem of the Second World War. While this is true to an extent, it must be remembered that Bacons fascination with the Crucifixion predated the war. Moreover, the artist has given an explanation which invests the subject with much greater personal significance. Bacon has commented, with reference to the imagery of carcasses in the 1962 and 1965 Crucifixion triptychs, that “slaughterhouses belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion.” There is a correlation in  Baconmind between the way animals being led to slaughter are aware of what is going to happen to them and the essential feature of crucifixion which is that the victim has to endure the torture of knowing that death is imminent and inevitable. Although the image of the crucified Christ is never present in  BaconCrucifixions, the presence of carcasses in these works reveals that this subject, for Bacon, is about his awareness of mortality, though not mortality in general. Bacon has stated, “I have a feeling of mortality all the time... Im always surprised when I wake up in the morning,” and has described painting a Crucifixion as “nearer to a self-portrait. You are working on all kinds of very private feelings... about the way life is.” The Crucifixion is thus a means of confronting the idea of an existence in which personal mortality is inevitable.

Although Bacon has used pre-existing images such as the Velázquez portrait and photographs as the basis for paintings, the essence of his method is that the work evolves in an unpremeditated way. This raises the question of why he re-created the painting which marks the emergence of his maturity? A clue lies in his own statement: “Why, after the great artists, do people ever try to do anything  again? Because... the instincts change. And... so there comes a renewal of the feeling of how I can re-make the thing once again.” The act of repainting does not therefore represent the desire to create a second similar composition, but rather the will to re-engage with an image. As a key image in the consciousness of the postwar generation, the 1944 triptych has, in itself, become an ideal armature for feelings connected with mortality. It is thus the way Bacon has recreated this image which must command our attention.

The 1944 triptych is vigorously painted, the descriptions of forms and background agitated by passages of paint dragged and smeared across its surface and, in places, overlaid with pastel. The 1988 version is altogether different in its restraint and economy of means. The canvas is stained and sprayed and in parts is left bare. Some of the forms are described in negative by painting the background around them. The treatment of space has also been transformed. The clamped boxes which imprison the creatures in the 1944 triptych have in the 1988 version been stripped away and the space around them expanded so that the effect is now one of monumentality. The change in colour from hot orange to blood conveys grandeur, albeit a horrific kind, effect heightened by the introduction of the dais in the central panel. Bacon has stated that “the greatest art always returns you to the vulnerability of the human situation.” There is a sense, manifest in Second Version of Triptych 1944, that at the age of eighty Bacon can confront this with a directness which equals that of the earlier painting. But in the interim his painting has attained the breadth of vision implicit in his statement that  “existence in a way is so banal, you may as well try and make a grandeur of it rather than be nursed to oblivion.” 


(1) David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact. Interviews with Francis Bacon, third edition, London: Thames and Hudson, 1987, p. 198. Unless otherwise indicated all quotations in this article come from this book.

(2) Letter to Michel Leiris, quoted in Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, London: 1987. p. 13.

(3) Ibid, p. 56.

(4) Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Bacon, New York: 1986, p. 110 (in an interview with Hugh Davies).




An Interview with Francis Bacon

Provoking Accidents
Prompting Chance


Michael Peppiatt

Art International, Number 8, Autumn 1989



            The following interview was recorded in Francis Bacon’s London studio earlier this year.


You told me that you’d been to the Science Museum and you’d been looking at scientific images.

Yes, but that’s nothing of any interest. You see, one has ideas, but it’s only what you make of them. Theories are no good, it’s only what you actually make. I had thought of doing a group of portraits, and I went there thinking that, amongst various things, I might find something that would provide a grid on which these portraits could be put, but I didn’t find what I wanted and I don’t think it’s going to come off at all.

Are there certain things that you go back to a great deal, for example Egyptian images? You look at the same things a lot, don’t you?

I look at the same things, I do think that Egyptian art is the greatest thing that has happened so far. But I get a great deal from poems, from the Greek tragedies, and those I find tremendously suggestive of all kinds of things.

Do you find the word more suggestive than the actual image?

Not necessarily, but very often it is.

Do the Greek tragedies suggest new images when you reread them, or do they just deepen the images that are already there?

They very often suggest new images. I don’t think one can come down to anything specific, one doesn’t really know. I mean you could glance at an advertisement or something and it could suggest just as much as reading Aeschylus. Anything can suggest things to you.

For you, it’s normally an image that is suggested though, it’s not sound, it’s not words sparking off words. Words spark off images.

To a great extent. Great poets are remarkable in themselves and don’t necessarily spark off images, what they write is just very exciting in itself.

You must be quite singular among contemporary artists to be moved in that way by literature. Looking at, for example, Degas, doesn’t affect you?

No, Degas is complete in himself. I like his pastels enormously, particularly the nudes. They are formally remarkable, but they are very complete in themselves, so they don’t suggest as much.

Not so much as something less complete? Are there less complete things which do? For example, I know you admire some of Michelangelo’s unfinished things. And recently you were talking about some engineering drawings by Brunel and it sounded as though you were very excited by them.

In a certain mood, certain things start off a whole series of images and ideas which keep changing all the time.

Is there a whole series of images that you find haunting? There are specific images, aren’t there, that have been very important to you?

Yes, but I don’t think those are the things that I’ve been able to get anything from. You see, the best images just come about.

So that’s almost a different category of experience.

Yes, I think my paintings just come about. I couldn’t say where any of the elements come from.

Do you ever experiment with automatism?

No, I don’t really believe in that. What I do believe is that chance and accident are the most fertile things at any artist’s disposal at the present time. I’m trying to do some portraits now and I’m just hoping that they’ll come about by chance. I want to capture an appearance without it being an illustrated appearance.

So it’s something that you couldn’t have planned consciously?

No. I wouldn’t know it’s what I wanted but it’s what for me at the time makes a reality. Reality, that is, that comes about in the actual way the painting has been put down, which is a reality, but I’m also trying to make the reality into the appearance of the person I’m painting.

It’s a locking together of two things.

It’s a locking together of a great number of things, and it will only come about by chance. It’s prompted chance because you have in the back of your mind the image of the person whose portrait you are trying to paint. You see, this is the point at which you absolutely cannot talk painting. It’s in the making.

You’re trying to bring two unique elements together?

It has nothing to do with Surrealist idea, because that’s bringing two things together which has already made. This thing isn’t made. It’s got to be made.

But I mean that there is the person’s appearance, and then there are all sorts of sensation about that particular person.

I don’t know how much it’s a question of sensation about the other person. It’s the sensations within yourself. It’s to do with the shock of two completely unillustrational things which come together and make an appearance. But again it’s all words, it’s all an approximation. I feel talking about painting is always superficial. We have lost our real directness. We talk in such a dreary, bourgeois kind of way. Nothing is ever directly said.

But are there things that really jolt you? I know you love Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Yeats, Eliot and so on, but do odd things, like newspaper photographs, jolt you every now and then?

I don’t think photographs do it so much, just very occasionally.

You used to look at photographs a lot. Do you still look at books of photographs?

No. Dalí and Buñuel did something interesting with the Chien andalou, but that is where film is interesting and it doesn’t work with single photographs in the same way. The slicing of the eyeball is interesting because it’s in movement...

But is your sensibility still "joltable"? Does one become hardened to visual shock?

I don’t think so, but not much that is produced now jolts one. Everything that is made now is made for public consumption and it makes it all so anodyne. It’s rather like this ghastly government we have in this country. The whole thing’s a kind of anodyne way of making money.

I suppose one doesn’t have to be jolted as such to be interested, to be moved. One can be persuaded or convinced by something without it actually shocking one’s sensibility. And I am sure that people have come to accept images that begin by seeming extremely violent, war pictures for instance.

They are violent, and yet it’s not enough. Something much more horrendous is the last line in Yeats’ "The Second Coming," which is a prophetic poem: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?" That’s stronger than any war painting. It’s more extraordinary than even one of the horrors of war pictures, because that’s just a literal horror, whereas the Yeats is a horror which has a whole vibration, in its prophetic quality.

It’s shocking too because it’s been put into a memorable form.

Well, of course that’s the reason. Things are not shocking if they haven’t been put into a memorable form. Otherwise, it’s just blood spattered against a wall. In the end, if you see that two or three times, it’s no longer shocking. It must be a form that has more than the implication of blood splashed against a wall. It’s when it has much wider implications. It’s something which reverberates within your psyche, it disturbs the whole life cycle within a person. It affects the atmosphere in which you live. Most of what is called art, your eye just flows over. It may be charming or nice, but it doesn’t change you.

Do you think about painting all the time, or do you just think about things?

I think about things really, about images.

Do images keep dropping into your mind?

Images do drop in, constantly, but to crystallize all these phantoms that drop into your mind is another thing. A phantom and an image are two totally different things.

Do you dream, or remember your dreams? Do they affect you at all?

No. I’m sure I do dream but I’ve never remembered my dreams. About two or three years ago I had a very vivid dream and I tried to write it down because I thought I could use it. But it was a load of nonsense. When I looked at what I’d written down the next day, it had no shape to it, it was just nothing. I’ve never used dreams in my work. Anything that comes about does so by accident in the actual working of the painting. Suddenly something appears that I can grasp.

Do you often start blind?

No, I don’t start blind. I have an idea of what I would like to do, but, as I start working, that completely evaporates. If it goes at all well, something will start to crystallize.

Do you make a sketch of some sort on the canvas, a basic structure?

Sometimes, a little bit. It never stays that way. It’s just to get me into the act of doing it. Often, you just put on paint almost without knowing what you’re doing. You’ve got to get some material on the canvas to begin with. Then it may or may not begin to work. It doesn’t often happen within the first day or two. I just go on putting paint on, or wiping it out. Sometimes the shadows left from this lead to another image. But, still, I don’t think those free marks that Henri Michaux used to make really work. They’re too arbitrary.

Are they not conscious enough, not willed enough?

Something is only willed when the unconscious thing has begun to arise on which your will can be imposed.

You’ve got to have the feedback from the paint. It’s a dialogue in a strange sense.

It is a dialogue, yes.

The paint is doing as much as you are. It’s suggesting things to you. It’s a constant exchange.

It is. And one’s always hoping that the paint will do more for you. It’s like painting a wall. The very first brushstroke gives a sudden shock of reality, which is cancelled out when you paint the whole wall.

And you find that when you start painting. That must be very depressing.


Do you still destroy a lot?

Yes. Practice doesn’t really help. It should make you slightly more wily about realizing that something could come out of what you’ve done. But if that happens...

You become like an artisan?

Well, you always are an artisan. Once you become what is called an artist, there is nothing more awful, like those awful people who produce those awful images, and you know more or less what they’re going to be like.

But it doesn’t become any easier to paint?

No. In a way, it becomes more difficult. You’re more conscious of the fact that nine-tenths of everything is inessential. What is called "reality" becomes so much more acute. The few things that matter become so much more concentrated and can be summed up with so much less.



Interpretations of the Body  


A New Power of Laughter for the Living


Gilles Deleuze


Art International, Number 8, Autumn 1989


The body is the Figure, or rather the material of the Figure. The material of the Figure must not be confused with the physical material structure that occupies space but remains in opposition to it. The body is Figure, not the structure. Inversely, the Figure, being a body, is not the face, and in fact, has no face. It does have a head, since the head is an integral part of the body. The body can even be reduced to nothing more than the head. As a portraitist, Bacon is a painter of heads, not faces, and there is a great difference between the two. For the face is a structured spatial organization that covers an area of the head, whereas the head is an adjunct of the body, albeit its summit. The head lacks spirit; rather it is spirit in bodily form, the vital breath of the body, an animal spirit, the animal spirit of man: a pig-spirit, a bull-spirit, a dog-spirit, a bat-spirit... Bacon’s goal as a portraitist is to dismantle the face, to rediscover the head or make it emerge from beneath the face.

The deformations experienced by the body also represent the head’s animal features. This has nothing whatsoever to do with a correspondence between animal forms and facial forms. In fact, the face loses its form as it is subjected to artist’s wiping and brushing techniques that disorganize it and make a head emerge in its place. Nor are the marks or features of animality animal forms; instead they are spirits that haunt the wiped-off parts, deforming, individualizing and describing the head without a face.(1)

These two techniqueswiping and the use of animal featurestake on a special meaning. A man’s head might be replaced by an animal’s; not the physical form of the animal but a characteristic of itfor example, the quivering bird-like presence that that spirals into an area of wiped-off paint while mock-portraits on either side act as "witnesses" (Triptych, 1976). Sometimes an animal, a real dog for example, might be treated as the shadow of its master; or inversely, a man’s shadow takes on an independent and indeterminate animal existence (see Triptych, 1973, on previous page). The shadow escapes from the body like an animal that we have been sheltering. Instead of asserting formal correspondences, Bacon’s painting creates a zone of imperceptibility, of ambiguity between man and animal. Man becomes animal, but the animal at the same time becomes spirit, , the spirit of man, the physical spirit of man presented in a mirror, like the Eumenides or Fate. The forms are never combined; instead the stress is on the qualities common to both man and animal. Bacon pushes this  to an extreme, presenting even his own most isolated Figure  in a "coupled" form: man is joined with his animal self in an internalized bull fight.

This objective zone of imperceptibility is the whole body, but the body as flesh or meat. Of course, the body also consists of bones, but bones are only a spatial structure. A distinction is often made between flesh and bone, and even between the things related to them. The body is revealed only when it is no longer  supported by the bones, when the flesh ceases to cover the bones, when the two exist for each other but seperately, with, with the bones providing a supporting structure for the body and flesh as the bodily material of the Figure.

Bacon admires Degas’ After the Bath (1903), where the foreshortened spine of the young woman appears to break through her flesh, making it seem much more vulnerable and lithe, acrobatic. In an entirely different context, Bacon painted just such a spine for a figure in a contorted, upide-down position (see Three Figures and a Portrait on page 40). This pictorial tension between flesh and bone is something he strives to achieve. But it is the meat that creates the tension in the painting, as do its splendid of its colours. Meat is the bodily state in which flesh and bone are in confrontation instead of forming a structural whole. The same is true of the mouth and the teeth, which are small bones. With meat it could be said that the flesh hangs from the bones, while the bones hold up from the flesh. This is a distinctive feature of Bacon’s work, as opposed to Rembrandt and Chaim Soutine’s. If Bacon had a particular "interpretation" of the body, it is to be found in his prefernce for painting prone Figures, whose raised arm or thigh passes for a bone, so that the numb flesh seems to hang from it. [...]

Take pity on meat! There is no doubt that meat is the chief object of Bacon’s pity, the only object of pity, his Anglo-Irish pity. On this point, he is like Soutine, with his immense pity for the Jew. This meat is not dead flesh. It retains the sufferings and takes on all the colours of living flesh. If one sees convulsive pain and vulnerability one is  also such struck by a charming inventiveness, strong colours and acrobatics. Bacon does not say, "Pity the beasts." Instead he declares that all men who suffer are meat. Meat is the common ground of man and animals, it is a zone of indiscernibility, a "fact," a state where the painter identifies with the objects of his horror and his compassion. The painter is certainly a butcher, but in the butcher’s shop he feels as if he were in a church, with the meat as the crucified victim (see Painting, 1946, opposite). It is only in the butcher’s shop that Bacon is a religious painter. "I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion ... Of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher shop I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal."

But can one really say exactly the same thing about both meat and the head, namely that this is the zone of objective indecision in man and animal? Can one say objectively that the head is meat (just as meat is spirit)? Of all parts of the body, is not the head most like bone? Consider El Greco, or Soutine again. And yet it seems  that Bacon does not think of the head in this way. Bone belongs to the face, not to the head. According to Bacon, there is no death’s head. The head is boneless, not bony. Yet it is firm and not at all soft. The head is flesh, and the mask itself is not a death mask, it is a block of firm flesh separate from bone: this can be seen in the studies for a portrait of William Blake, for example. Bacon’s painting of his own head is one of flesh haunted by a handsome stare that emanates from empty eyes. Here he pays tribute to Rembrandt, whose final self-portrait resembles a block of flesh with no eye sockets.

In Bacon’s oeuvre, the relationship between head and meat becomes increasingly intimate as it grows intensity. First,  meatflesh on one side, bone on the otheris placed at the edge of a track or a balustrade where the figure is seated or standing; but the meat is also the heavy carnal rain that surrounds the head and that blurs the face beneath the umbrella. The scream that comes from the Pope’s mouth, and the pity in his eyes, are for meat. Later on, the meat is given a head, which enables it to flee and descends from the cross, as in the two earlier Crucifixions. Later still, Bacon’s series of heads assert an identification with meat, and some of the most beautiful of these are painted in meat colours, red and blue. Finally, meat itself becomes the head. The head symbolizes the general power of the meat, as in Fragment of a Crucifixion, 1950 (see illustration on page 26) where the meat cries out under the gaze of a dog-spirit perched on top of a cross. Bacon dislikes this painting because of its apparently simple process: a mouth has simply been cut into meat. Still, it is important to understand the affinity of the mouth, and its interior, with meat, to the point where the open mouth has become nothing more than the section of sliced artery, or even a severed sleeve representing an artery, as in the bloody bundle of the Sweeney Agonistes triptych (1967), illustrated on page 33. The mouth then acquires a general power which turns all meat into a faceless head. The mouth is no longer an independent organ, but a hole through which the whole body escapes, and from which the flesh hangs (the freely made, involuntary marks are an essential part of this impression). Bacon calls the Scream, the whole body’s response to the immense pity that meat provokes. [...]

The scream is of special importance. Why does Bacon see the scream as one of the highest aims of his painting? 2Paint the scream..." It is not a question of giving colour to a particularly intense sound. A musician, for instance, is faced with the same task, which is certainly not to make a scream sound harmonious but to establish a relationship between the sound of the scream and the forces that cause it. In the same manner, painting renders the scream visible, it shows the relation of the screaming mouth to these forces. But the forces that cause the scream, throwing the body into convulsions until they emerge at the blurred area of the mouth, must not be confused with the visible spectacle that causes a scream, nor even with the tangible objects that seem to cause or objectify our pain. If we scream, it is always as victims of intangible and invisible forces that obscure specific events, and which are not limited by pain and feeling. This is what Bacon means when he speaks of "painting the scream more than the horror." The dilemma is: either one paints the horror and not the scream because one wants to show what is horrible; or one paints the scream and not the horrorone paints the visible horror less and lesssince the scream captures or suggests an invisible force.

Alban Berg knew how to make music out of the scream in the scream of Marie, which is very different from that of Lulu. But each time he established a relationship between the sound of the scream and inaudible forces, those of the Earth in the horizontal scream of Marie, and those of heaven in the vertical scream of Lulu. Bacon creates the painted scream, because he establishes a relationship between the visibility of the screamthe mouth like an abyss of shadowand the invisible forces which can only belong to the future. It was Kafka who spoke of detecting the diabolical powers of the future knocking at our door. Every scream is potentially full of these. Innocent X screams, but behind a curtain, not just someone who can no longer be seen, but as someone who has nothing left to see, whose only remaining function is to make us see the invisible forces that cause him to scream, the forces of the future. This is expressed in the phrase "to scream at"—not "to scream because of" or "about," but to scream at death—which suggests a joining of forces: the tangible force of the scream and the intangible force that causes us to scream.

Curiously enough, the scream is an extraordinary source of vitality. When Bacon distinguishes between two kinds of violence—that of the spectacle and that of feeling—and declares that one must be renounced to achieve the other, he declares a kind of faith in life. Interviews with him are full of statements of this sort: cerebrally pessimistic, as he describes himself, Bacon sees nothing but horrors to paint—the horrors of the world. But, he says, his nervous system "is made out of optimistic stuff," because visible figuration is secondary in painting, and will have less and less importance, and he has reproached himself for painting horror too often, as though this in itself sufficed to go beyond figuration. His painting is increasingly oriented towards creating a figure without horror.

But is it an act of faith to choose "the scream rather than horror," the violence of feeling rather than spectacle? Aren’t the invisible forces, the powers of the future, already present and more insurmountable than the worst spectacle and even the worst pain? In a certain sense the answer is yes—all meat testifies to this. But in another sense the answer is, no. When the visible body confronts so great an adversary as the powers of the invisible, it transfers its own visibility to them. The body actively struggles within this visibility, affirming the possibility of a victory which would stay beyond its reach as long as these powers remained invisible, hidden in the midst of a spectacle that saps our strength and ultimately diverts our attention. It is as if combat had now become possible. The struggle with the darkness is the only real struggle. When the visual sensation confronts the invisible force that shapes it, a greater force is released that either vanquishes the invisible force, or befriends it.

Life screams at death, but death is no longer this too-visible thing that makes us falter; death is an invisible force that life detects, flushes out and reveals a scream. Death is judged from life’s point of view, and not the reverse, as we like to believe. Bacon, like Beckett, is an artist who, with an intensity of life, calls for a life which is even more intense. He is not a painter who "believes" in death. His figurative work deals with wretchedness, but it serves an increasingly powerful figure of life.

The same homage should be paid to Bacon that can be paid to Beckett and Kafka. In the very act of "representing" horror, mutilation, prosthesis, ruin and failure, his figures are indomitable through their insistence and presence. He has given a new and immediate power of laughter to the living.

This article is a first English translation of an extract from Gilles Deleuze’s Logique de la sensation, published in 1984 by the Editions de la Différence, Paris



        Francis Bacon: Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953



   Bacon at 80



       William Packer reviews the pick


               of the London galleries






WHETHER OR not there is a School of London that now leads the world, its leading light, primus inter pares by common consent, is Francis Bacon, just turned 80 and still prolific. And as with any show of his work these past 45 years, the small loan exhibition to mark that climacteric (Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albemarle Street W1: until November 18) is naturally of some considerable interest.

It is retrospective, though with only 15 works it offers simply a summary or sketch rather than any proper study of the career. But the token, even so. stands for the man. marking on the one hand Bacon’s remarkably sustained creative energy and formal consistency: on the other the quite extraordinary originality and power of his early surreal expressionism. The Figure Study of 1946, that sinister, hunched tweed coat and felt hat, lurking beside the hydrangea bush, by itself confirms the reputation as it justifies the visit.

Peter Coker (Gallery 10, 10 Grosvenor Street W1: until November 16). now in his early sixties, is one of the most distinguished of our landscape painters. His fluent, open-handed post-impressionism has been a feature of the Academy for more than 30 years, and yet his gallery career, and with it his broader critical reputation, has not prospered as it should. This is a show of landscape drawings and studies, from the 1950s up to the present, that is a virtuoso demonstration of consistency in variety — and variety in consistency for that matter, as we see him return to the same spot after 20 years. Drawings are often the greatest bargain to be had, so direct and immediate in the experience they offer.

For the moment there are no better drawings than these to be found on show in London. One of the more recent studies, of nets laid out to dry, is quite extraordinary, an image at first formless and hard to read, that slowly realises itself as we too begin to comprehend, with the artist, that very formlessness.

Mick Rooney’s reputation (Mercury Gallery, 26 Cork Street W1: until November 25), has been growing steadily for some time, but only now, in his mid forties and with this show, does he emerge as an artist of distinctive quality and power. It is not so much the manner of his painting that has developed. though it has grown somewhat broader and more authoritative, as the matter of it. Gone is the whimsical and anecdotal, almost illustrative subject matter, drawn with a grotesque and comic eye upon domestic experience. Instead there appears something altogether more dense, ambiguous and profound.

Rooney has been reading Primo Levi, hut not Co illustrate him. Rather it is that Levi’s real world has come to haunt Rooney’s imagination, furnishing it with oblique reference and association rather than particular incident. These are images of collective melancholy, deep sadness, fraught with a sense of imminent departure and immanent loss. The family clings together on the platform: the dark train goes by. “Perche partiamo?” asks the title to the painting. “Why are we leaving?

David Hepher (one of 3 individual shows at Flowers East, 199 Richmond Road E8; along with John Loker  prints; Nicola Hicks  sculpture & drawings: until November 26), in his mid fifties, is a painter of the urban landscape, and in particular that of the high-rise housing estate. The blank facade of the tower block, yet with each window and balcony rich with curtains, washing and potted plants, has been his familiar subject. But lately the space has deepened, as he has pushed the tower block back, to be seen across the older fabric of the city. An element of fantasy, too, has been openly admitted. Hepher has been looking at the career of Piranesi, and has superimposed, in larger and more vivid terms, that same vertiginous and vaulted space upon his blocks of flats. And with this opening out of the pictorial space has come a freer and more generous handling of the surface. These are impressive paintings.

Finally, Patrick Symons (Browse & Darby, 19 Cork Street W1: until November 25) is showing recent paintings and drawings of musicians, landscapes, and still lifes. Recent, however, is a word used advisedly, for Symons works with infinite visual scruple. This is only his third show since 1975, and the large composition of the string trio playing on the balcony has engaged him for most of the interval. It is a remarkable and major work.



                                 Francis Bacon: Self-Portrait, 1969




Speculation rife in contemporary art



In New York some collectors appear to be turning into dealers,

says Homan Potterton





NEXT WEEK in New York is the week of the big fall sales of Contemporary Art. If all goes according to plan about $150m worth of art, much of it by artists who are still alive, will change hands and prices of over $lm for single lots will not be unusual. From the purchasers’ point of view this is regarded by many as “collecting; but nobody, least of all Sotheby’s or Christie’s, could be so dumb as to believe that that is what it is. Nor is it investment, ft is speculation brought to One art but not, absolutely not. to a fine art What happens is that works of art. which are neither old nor rare and very often not even unique, change hands at record-breaking prices. There are only a few names to remember — Jasper Johns. Warhol, and Jackson Pollock suffice — and as their pictures can look remarkably similar, and can even have the same titles (“False Start” by Johns set the $17.05m record last year, “Small False Start” goes on offer this year), all that differs is the price.

The sales will cover four days with Christie’s kicking off next Tuesday evening when they offer a general auction as well as two special collections: the Mayer and the Manilow. The latter consists of some 30 works and is a small part of a larger collection owned by a Chicago lawyer and his wife. As most of the works in the sale were executed in the 1980s, and were only purchased by the Manilows in the past few years. this is certainly a contemporary collection in everv sense of the word. Furthermore. as Mr Manilow intends to keep buying, and as next week’s sale is estimated to bring about $7 million. this may only be the first of many Manilow Collection sales. This type of activity used to be referred to as dealing.

The 20 contemporary works from the Chicago collection of Robert B Mayer are estimated to fetch a total of about Slim. Later in the month Christie’s will sell further works from the Collection in their Latin American and Impressionist sales. At that time one of two Giacometti bronzes is estimated to fetch up to S6m: it was made in 1960. The emphasis in the Mayer contemporary collection is heavily on the 1960s and there are works by Sam Francis, Dine, Diebenkom. Frankenthaler, Stella, Warhol, and Oldenburg. A Jasper Johns 0 Through 9 and a Lichtenstein Torpedo . . . Los! can both be relied upon to make the sales headlines. The estimate for the former is S2.5m-S3.5m, the latter $3m-$4m.

In Christie’s main sale on November 7 and 8 there is a 1964 Warhol silkscreen an can- vas from Robert Mapplethorpe’s collection. It is in four panels, is estimated to sell at up to $1m, and its subject is based on newspaper photographs of the 1963 race riots in Alabama. Not surprisingly, a Warhol diptych of the same date showing Elizabeth Taylor is considered more attractive. This, which was not owned by Mapplethorpe, is estimated at The record for the artist was established last year when Christie’s sold his Shot Red Marilyn for $4 ,070,000. Top lot of the sale is the 1960 Jasper Johns Small False Start:” Johns Small False Start:” it is estimated at $3.5m-S5m.

As a major 80th birthday exhibition of Francis Bacon has just opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, there will be keen competition for Bacon’s pictures next week. A large Study for a Pope that dates from 1955 is at Christie’s. They last sold it for 5.550 guineas in 1964: it is now estimated at $1m-$1.5m. There are also major works by Willem de Kooning in the sale. Some of these come from the estate of the artist’s wife, Elaine, who died earlier this year. Included is $lm-$l.5m portrait of a woman dated about 1940 which might in a strange way have been painted by Marie Laurencin.

The same could not be said of a $4m-S6m de Kooning in Sotheby’s Contemporary Sale (November 8, 9 and 10). This was painted in 1955 and is an abstract rendering of a human figure in an urban landscape. It comes from the collection of Edgar Kaufmann, whose modern art will be sold by Sotheby in a separate sale later this month. There are lots of multi-million dollar pictures at Sotheby’s. A Francis Bacon Study for Portrait IX (estimate $1.5m-S2m) that dates from 1957 is really a variation of the composition of the Pope in Christie’s sale. Works by the abstract expressionists include a 1958 Rothko (SL5m-82m); two paintings by Jackson Pollock, one datable 1949 ($2m-$2.5m). the other 1951 ($3.5m-$4m; pictures by Barnett Newman also dating from the 1940s($500,000-$600,000) and $700,000-$900,000); and a Franz Kline “Leda ($600.000-$800,000).

Again Jasper Johns is expected to make the top price: one of his late flag paintings is estimated at $5ra-$7m. It dates from 1973. A widely-exhibited and well-known black painting by Frank Stella that dates from 1959, “Tomlinson Court Park (Second Version),” is estimated at $3m-$3.5m. There are eight works by Warhol ranging in price from $200,000 to $2.5m. The latter price is for an Elvis of 1964 while Elizabeth Taylor yet again  this time “Silver Liz — is marginally cheaper at $2m.

These estimates must certainly be off-putting for the genuine collector who is attempting to form a real collection. Nor for that matter is there much chance of these works being bought by any museum. But in the “Part II sections of both Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales there are more modestly priced pictures of quality that are at the same time representative examples of the main movements in art of the last 40 years.

In Sotheby’s sale, with estimates of less than $100,000, the following are appealing: several small Calder mobiles, a very early and colourful Franz Kline, canvasses by Karel Appel, a Motherwell collage, Hockney water colours, some small drawings by Jean Dnbuffet, works by Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Lichtenstein, and a Warhol silkscreen. and collage of The Queen. By the same criteria one would pick out in Christie’s sale a Tom Wesselman “Coca Cola: works by Josef Albers and Joseph Cornell chat are being sold by the Hirshhorn Museum; a de Kooning of 1928 (yes, 1928): tiny sculptures by Claes Oldenburg; and Vasarely of 1967. All of these would make sensible purchases for sensible collectors and, believe it or not, there are still some of those around.













Few painters in this century have pursued an aesthetic agenda with the single-minded intensity and persistence one finds in the work of Francis Bacon, who turned 80 on Oct. 28.

In 60 years of making paintings, Bacon has restricted himself to one theme, the existential helplessness of human beings in the face of an incomprehensible universe, and the agonies they suffer in trying to muddle through lives that are, in his view, essentially meaningless.

The 58 paintings at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden that make up a retrospective of Bacon’s work over the last 45 years confirm his dedication to this single grand investigation. His paintings from the mid-1940s, when his mature style emerged, are much the same as those from the mid-’80s.

They aren’t precisely the same, of course  Bacon’s imagery becomes more focused as he grows older  but there aren’t any digressions in content or style. Since the end of World War II, Bacon has remained committed to the figure, to symbol, and to his intuition and obsessions, of which death is perhaps the most prominent.

His art is about as stripped-down as painting can get. He rejects any suggestion of narrative or context. He refuses to offer any insight into what his paintings are supposed to mean, even assigning them bland or neutral titles - Study for a Portrait, for instance - that are obviously intended to deflect critical interpretations.

"I’m just trying to make images as accurately off my nervous system as I can," he said in a 1973 interview. "I’m not saying anything. Whether (I’m) saying anything for other people, I don’t know."

With disclaimers such as this, Bacon tries to portray himself as a kind of passive communicator of truths that emanate from the collective human experience. His deformed, distorted and sometimes grotesque figures represent not what he sees but what he feels.

When those feelings materialize as the large-format paintings that Hirshhorn director James T. Demetrion has assembled in this retrospective, viewers are apt to be startled, puzzled, disturbed or perhaps even repelled, for Bacon’s art is neither pretty nor facile.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to remain apathetic to Bacon. One is either mesmerized by the individuality and primal force of his images or one retires from the arena, for he offers neither emotional reassurance nor decorative flair and fashion.

Bacon is a loner; even though his painting has often been described as expressionistic or surrealistic, he neither belongs to nor espouses any movement. He has always worked by himself and within himself, avoiding the influences of whatever style happened to be in vogue at the moment and the status of celebrity artist.

One senses this even from the several books about him that have been produced in the last several years, including the catalogue for this exhibition. Bacon refuses to be photographed while working, and one presumes that he isn’t crazy about being photographed under any circumstances, for the books contain very few pictures of him.

As Bacon moves into his 80s, he’s being anointed as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Clearly, he’s the premier British artist still working. He already has had two retrospectives at the Tate Gallery in London, the most recent in 1985, and the Tate rarely mounts more than one such show for a living artist.

The Hirshhorn exhibition is the first full-scale survey of his painting in the United States since a show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1963. After closing in Washington Jan. 7, it will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Feb. 11 to April 29) and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (May 31 to Aug. 28).

The angst implicit in Bacon’s often bizarre images  contorted bodies, screaming heads, dissolving faces  reflects the mood in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. It’s the same mood that sculptor Alberto Giacometti expressed in a more melancholy way in his attenuated figures.

Even after 45 years, Bacon hasn’t softened his pessimism about man’s condition or his prospects. Yet although they’re psychologically bleak, the paintings convey a heroic eloquence through the way they’re conceived and painted and in the way that Bacon insists on presenting them in plain but substantial gold frames.

Bacon is a curious figure among 20th-century artists in that before 1944, when he completed Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, there weren’t many indications that he was going to amount to very much.

He was born in Dublin, Ireland, of English parents. His formal education was spotty, and he left home when he was about 16 to live in London, where he supported himself with various odd jobs. During his late teens and 20s he travelled in Germany and France, working sporadically as an interior decorator and furniture designer.

In 1927, inspired by a Picasso exhibition in Paris, he began to draw and make watercolours; two years later he began to paint in oils. As with his decorative work, he’s self-taught in art. Picasso appears to have been his only influence, although he has drawn source material from other artists, including Velazquez and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

The oddest thing about Bacon’s career, evident in this exhibition as in the one four years ago at the Tate, is that it appears to begin at full throttle in 1944. Bacon destroyed most of his early work in 1943, so the retrospective is incomplete in that it presents only his mature efforts.

Bacon’s life offers only one obvious clue, his early family existence, to the genesis of his bizarre and occasionally horrific imagery. He told art critic David Sylvester in 1984 that his relationship with his parents "was never good. We never got on."

The antipathy was strongest between Bacon and his father. "He didn’t like me and he didn’t like the idea that I was going to be an artist," Bacon observed. He had two brothers, both of whom died young.

Because Bacon had severe asthma, he was rejected for service in World War II. So he didn’t experience the boredom, terror and random killing of the battlefield, which may be the ultimate existential experience.

One shouldn’t make too much of these circumstances, however, for belief in the absurdity and pain of existence can be induced in many ways. However his philosophy formed, Bacon has always expressed this belief through the figure; he considers abstraction formalist decoration that’s inadequate to the task.

He also has relied extensively on art-historical tradition - in his fondness for the triptych format, his references to mythological and religious themes such as the crucifixion, his reliance on the conventions of portraiture, and his custom of presenting his paintings as precious objects.

One of his more sensational pictures combining several of these issues is his 1949 paraphrase of Velazquez’s famous portrait of Pope Innocent X. Bacon portrayed the Pope as a spectral figure who seems to be screaming in agony or defiance. The bust-length Pope is framed by a box-like outline, a device Bacon uses frequently to focus attention on the central figure of a painting.

The primal scream is Bacon’s essential concern and message. A gaping mouth bristling with feral teeth and sometimes planted in a hideous, alien skull is a frequent motif. But Bacon uses other motifs that are equally unsettling - fantastically deformed bodies, contorted faces and impolite situations, like a naked man defecating.

Specific paintings refer to the Greek myths of Orestes being pursued by the Furies for murdering his mother, Clytemnestra, and of Oedipus murdering his father and marrying his mother. The visual references to these sources are obscure and distorted beyond recognition, but the agonized spirit of the paintings is consistent with them.

Bacon’s aspiration to Old Master gravity is pronounced. It’s evident not just in his themes but in his use of large formats and human-scale figures, along with his insistence on framing his paintings under glass to establish distance between the image and the viewer.

If the paintings were not so compelling, one might consider these tactics pretentious and arrogant. But one accepts Bacon’s strategy as reasonable because of his extraordinary ability to capture one’s attention and hold it, regardless of how one responds to a particular image.

Part of this is compositional; Bacon keeps his designs simple and devoid of extraneous details. He highlights figures with the framing box or by setting them against homogeneous black or pastel grounds.

The other part is the balance he strikes between "realism" and eccentricity; the pictures are recognizable and logical up to a point, but their ultimate fascination and meaning derives from their ambiguities. If the universe is the ultimate mystery, then Bacon’s paintings represent an intuitive leap into its infinite depths.

Their fundamental nature is clear, however: These are images from hell, from the deepest, darkest depths of the human psyche. If they fascinate, it’s because we recognize in them not just the soul of an individual artist but the souls of each and every person on earth.







Francis Bacon, sometimes described as "the greatest living painter" was 80 last October.
Peter Jenkins, political columnist for The Independent, visited the current Bacon retrospective in Washington, for Modern Painters.





Francis Bacon has been the haunting presence of our age. Belonging to no school, possessing no clear artistic antecedents, by no means quintessentially English, un-explicit in meaning, he has been seen to embody, more than any other painter, the spirit of his age. To have exerted so powerful a fascination for so long is in itself a tribute to the immense power of his imagery. The viewer may not like what he sees, sometimes may recoil in horror or disgust, but seldom is unmoved by the experience. During his 45 active years as a paintera late starter, Bacon is unbelievably, 80—he has inspired successive generations of younger painters, not to paint like him but to paint. Through his conversations about art, notably with David Sylvester, he has opened many eyes to painting and painters. Laurence Gowing in the catalogue to the American retrospective notes his ‘gift of making sense of the original art of his time, a sense that escaped and still largely escapes conventional taste’. As a result of Bacon there is much that we see differently.

If art history is, or should be, about artists, Bacon will make a fine subject. He has lived the life of the romantic artist and his habits and predilections are as well known as his imagery. When I first encountered him at a drunken Soho party in 1960, I was convinced he had sold his soul to the devil. The chubby baby-faced man, with his barrel-chest and strong muscular forearms displayed from the short sleeves of a dark-knit shirt (the arms are the most recognizable feature of his self-portraits), unsteadily swaying in too-tight khaki trousers, looked not a day more than 30. Yet Bacon was then past 50. Later, when coming across him on licensed premises, it was easy to imagine Mephistopheles at his side, his companion in the lower depths of Soho, guiding his hand occasionally at the roulette wheel, supping his champagne. Bacon would buy even the devil a drink. I do not mean to suggest, as some of his critics have, that his painting has a diabolical quality, only that there seemed to be some kind of nefarious arrangement between, on the one hand, his genius and apparent immortality of his liver and, on the other, the horror which stalked him daily. And if Faustian pact there were, it was of a twentieth century kind, involving the eternal damnationBacon doesn’t believe in any of thatbut hell on earth in the here and now; this he does believe in, or so he told John Rothenstein for the introduction to the catalogue for the 1962 Tate show.

Bacons’ reputation as a major painter was established in the short space between the display of the Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944, and the purchase by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1948 of Painting, 1946, which will join will join the retrospective exhibition when it reaches New York next year. Bursting upon the scene in the way that he did at that time it was inevitable that he would be seen, as Gowing records, as having ‘stated the case for post-war European despair with a vehemence and originality that earned him a special place among contemporary Cassandras’. His first and most famous triptych, the Three Studies, was a contemporary of Camus’s The Outsider the bleak absurdity of which is echoed in Bacon’s many utterances on the futility of life. ‘At what age did you come to realise that death was going to happen to you too?’

I realised when I was 17. I remember it very, very clearly. I remember looking at a dog-shit on the pavement and I suddenly realised, there it is, this is what life is like.

The vulgar existentialism, exceeding even Sartre’s vituperative self-hared, positions Bacon at a particular moment in the twentieth century when despair was all the rage. Not without reason: Sartre was ‘obsessed by torture’, says Camus, who saw Europe as a ‘charnel house’ (a Baconian image). The MOMA Painting, 1946, has a strong sniff of Paris, an echo of Juliette Greco or the broken chords of be-bop. L’enfer, c’est les autres’, decided Sartre. L’enfer, c’est moi’, was Bacons view.

Bacon was born (in 1909) at about the moment when the young Arthur Koestler, his mind filled with Freud and Einstein, concluded it to be a self evident truth that reason was absurd. Bacon much later would say:

Man now realises that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game with no reason.

He came of age as a painter in that post-war moment when, for Sartre, abandoning literature for politics, the birds had ceased to sing. Artists, said Shelley, ‘reveal less their spirit than the spirit of their age’, but it is probably a mistake to read too much of the times into Bacon’s images. People have read into his early paintings Baconian evocations of Belsen and Buchenwald, or the mass murderer Christie, who ran his own cottage Bruchenwald in North London. Later, they credited Bacon with prefiguring Eichmann’s glass cage (Study for Portrait [Man in a Blue Box], 1949), although, as he was to explain, his boxes and tubular frames (often like a conductors podium) were intended only as technical devices for concentrating the image.

At a time when, no doubt, he saw pictures of the tangled and emaciated corpses of the extermination camps, we know for certain that he as consulting medical books, including his beloved volume of colour plates of disease of the mouth (in conversation with John Russell he refers to a ‘beautiful wound’), and of course, Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of animals and human beings in motion. We know also that he had read accounts of the behaviour of animals in slaughter houses and it would be characteristic of Bacon if he found that as instructive as the behaviour of the creatures herded to the gas chambers. Images are what interest him, he insists over and over again, not stories or illustrations. Nor, he says, is he a preacher—‘I have nothing to say about the human situation’.

The twentieth century has been a manic-depressive affair with ups of great hope and downs of deep despair. It had begun with high hopes of all-conquering  technology, of secular heavens on earth, and the grasping even of the origins of the universe. But out of the knowledge sprang new irrationalisms, out of technology instruments of war and mass destruction, while from the pinnacle of high civilisation Europe plunged into new depths of barbarism Yet from the ashes of hope rose new hope, prosperity, and new flowerings. The mid-century mood which Bacon’s early paintings seemed to exemplify was soon to pass while his own dog shit weltanshaung was to persist. Shelley was wrong in Bacon’s case: his works reveal the spirit of the artists, less the spirit of the times.

Two main themes run through his own account of what he is about.  One is the role of accident, the other the impossibility of painting. About accident it is necessary to be very clear. ‘All painting is accident’, he says, and the best things are likely to happen when the artist is out of control, conjuring new visions of reality from the subconscious. But the result is disciplined accident, paint a ‘fight between accident and criticism’. ‘I think that great art is deeply ordered.’ In other words, what happens with paint by chance is subject to the painter’s decision, and what survives the veto of the slashing palette knife is no accident. As to the difficulty, or near impossibility, of painting, Bacon attributes this variously to to the death of God, to surfeits of images and information, but especially, to photography—the consequent redundancy of the painter as a mere depicter. Velázquez is, for him, the painter par excellence who, before photography, had been able to ‘keep so near to what we call illustration and, at the same time, to deeply unlock the deepest and greatest things that men can feel’. Today, the painter works in constant peril of lapsing into ‘description’ or ‘illustration’ when his task must be to ‘trap’ reality, to ‘reinvent realism’ in the face of all the media-competition, to achieve in an image the essence of something.

How does he succeed in capturing ‘the truth’, or ‘what used to ne called the truth?’ That life is not a bowl of cherries but a plate of dog shit? Is that all? A major retrospective—50 canvases are on show in Washington —is an opportunity to reconsider. The gathering of paintings together in one place at a moment in time, and also their juxtapositions on the walls, can cause familiar images to be seen differently. What struck me most about this 80th birthday show was how unshocking Bacon has become, partly perhaps through the familiarity of so many of his images—the carcases, the defecating dogs, those ectoplasmic Eumenides, most of all the screaming popes—but chiefly, I suspect, because many of the stereotypes concerning his works are false. For example, I could count only some half dozen paintings whose subjects were explicitly shocking or repugnant—for example, theDiptych, 1982-84, which seemed to owe more to Thalidomide than Ingres. This maybe a somewhat sanitised Bacon show, without the buggery scenes or anything as unpleasant as the Triptych, August, 1972, which was part of Marlborough’s 80th birthday show, or as silly and camp as his naked male figures in cricket pads (of which there was also one at the Marlborough show). Some of the most powerful images, it seemed to me, are the earlier ones—in Washington Figure Study II, 1945-46 (which used to be known as the Magdalene in which the umbrella of the great MOMA Picture, 1946, makes an earlier appearance) and its companion Figure Study I at the Marlborough with the striking image of the draped hat and coat with or without a man inside.

The shock quality of Bacon is also diminished by his painterliness. The Washington show reminds us what a traditional and conventional painter he is at hear, mostly tonal, his palette mostly conservative (the more expressionist period of the red-orange fields did not last long) and the formal structure of many of the canvases, while concentrating the eye on the image, at the same time sanitising it. Striving to avoid story-telling or illustration,  he quite often fails to avoid elegance. The repetitiveness of much of his work, the familiar furniture of the paintings, the same flat backgrounds to his figures, leads the eye to grow accustomed where, coming across a single powerful image on a mixed gallery wall, it might be stunned. Finally, the much discussed and explained glass and the traditional gilded frames he insists upon in order to hold the viewer at greater arms-length from the image, succeed all too well in giving gloss to what are ostensibly raw images. At the Washington show Americans unfamiliar with Bacon’s work found the paintings powerful and fascinating but showed few signs of shock-horror at his imagery.

His best work, on the evidence of the Washington show, are the portraits he painted, mostly in the ’60s, of friends. It seems to me, although it may be surprising, that Bacon paints women better than men; that may say something about the kind of men he paints, but possibly has to do with a greater detachment and curiosity on his part. Certainly one of hi great masterpieces is the wonderful Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing In a Street in Soho, 1967, but the 1967 head and shoulder portrait of her is also very beautiful. Bacon exactly describes the success of these paintings, but especially of the first, when talking of portraiture in general he talks about ‘trapping’ the ‘pulsations’ or ‘emanation’ of a person.

The way in which the Washington show opened eyes afresh was, for me, as a chronicle of the artist’s Odyssey. From the ‘exhilarated despair’ of the bold and provocative images of his early work, through the mature portraits of the middle period, through much personal agony on the way, we come in 1971 to the suicide of his lover and model, George Dyer, on the eve of his retrospective at the Grand Palais, one of the greatest honours available to a living artist. A room at the Hirshborn is devoted to this painful subject, featuring the wash basin over which Dyer failed to die and the lavatory pan on which he succeeded. Here everything that Bacon says about story-telling flies to the winds; it is impossible not to look at these powerful images in terms of the story they tell about Bacon, most moving of all of the artist stumped against a wash basin and clinging to it for consolation.

From this point, on the evidence of this show, Bacon was too often struggling for effect, ay times as if going through a second enfant terribilism, too often repeating himself or borrowing images from others, splashing water from Hockney for example. Finally, we come to the 1988 version of his 1944 crucifixion triptych. The contrast is striking, although sadly the first version is in no condition to travel from the Tate. The emotional, blazing Van-Gogh-like orange-red has given way to a deep Rothko-like purple-blood field. The whole work is more formalist, static, austere, and even more sculptural than the earlier version; the expressive, painterliness of the first version has given way to post-painterly spray and stain, in one of the panels the canvas left bare in large part. In this setting even the Eumenides have become house-trained, their fury cooled What kind of comment is intended here, we may wonder? Surely not a conscious mellowing, an old man’s scream, nor a repudiation of the early work, perhaps some kind of monument to it or to its painter; or, perhaps, the ‘accidents’ of 1988 were simply different to the ‘accidents’ of 1944, less exciting ‘accidents’ in my view.

There is no gainsaying Bacon’s power of image-making. He has become part of the visual vocabulary of the age. As Gowing points out, he was alone in realising that Picasso’s distortions of the 1920s offered an exciting and unexplored figurative alternative to abstractionism. His relentless pursuit of the ‘real’, his aspiration to the duality of form and meaning which finds perfection in Velázquez, combined with the seriousness  and quality of his thought on the subject of painting, make him something of an artist-hero, if a tragic one. For the Faustian spree must be nearing its end. Eighty is not a bad measure of eternal youth. One wishes only that Bacon had had a better time of it, less of the dog shit. For the tawdry bleakness of his vision does less than justice to the times, but, we must fear, paints the true portrait of the artist as young and old man.





A master of destruction? 




PETER FULLER cannot share the general enthusiasm for Francis Bacon, who is 80 today 





ACCORDING to Alan Bowness, former director of the Tate Gallery, Francis Bacon’s work, sets the standard for our time, for he is surely the greatest living painter. Such is the accepted judgement on Bacon who is 80 today; but it is not one I can share.

Bacon is certainly an artist of considerable power who has shown an exemplary contempt for fashion and trivia. No one can be indifferent to his work. When his pictures are gathered in a major retrospective they exude what theologians call kerygma, or a “call to decision”. Yet the response they demand is not so much admiration as a moral refusal: for if Bacon is possessed by genius, it is of a life-diminishing kind.

He was born in Ireland, the son of a pugnacious race-horse trainer. He did not like his father but was plagued by confused sexual feelings about him. Late on, he described boxing and bull-fighting as suitable aperitifs to sex. He left home after an incident in which he was discovered wearing his mother’s clothing.

After an uncertain beginning as a designer and a ne’er-do-well, Bacon turned to painting. He was to destroy most of the pictures he made before the war. Asthma exempted him from military service; but in 1945 he painted Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, now in the Tate Gallery. This triptych shows monstrous, amputated, bandaged, bleeding and shrieking creatures, coarsely drawn against a background of livid orange. Bacon had found himself.

In the years that followed, he produced some pictures of figures in distressed landscapes; but his heart was never in them. His imagination retreated behind closed doors into a world of bestial heads, screaming popes (après Velázquez), hell-hounds, and scenes of violent embuggerment après Eadweard Muybridge, a 19th century photographer.

Bacon said he wanted a feeling of “exhilerated despair.” He paints the world after the death of God. He has always tried to eschew consoling aesthetic illusions and has preferred to numb his pain with alcohol, gaming and what he once described as “the sexual gymnasium” of the modern city.

Even so, the heavy presence of God’s absence — or at least the ghost of the great tradition of European religious painting — hangs over much of what he produces, For him, Cimabue’s Crucifixion may be no more than, as he once put it, an image of  “a worm crawling down the cross”; but in his own pictures, crucifixes and triptychs abound.

In the 1960s, however, Bacon’s emphasis shifted: he began to focus much more on self-portraits and portraits of a group of close friends, including his lover, George Dyer. There were certainly no precedents for these works. Some critics have argued they are really caricatures; but a caricaturist exaggerates particular facial features to travesty character. That doesn’t interest Bacon. Unlike most portrait painters, he is also indifferent to his sitters’  “social masks” and psychological depth.

Whomsoever Bacon paints, what he finds is always the same. The nearest parallel is perhaps the 18th-century artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who also searched for some universal aspects in everywhere: only where Reynolds idealised and ennobled, Bacon denigrates and destroys. He once justified this saying:  “If I make people look unattractive, it’s not because I want to. I’d like them to look as attractive as they are”.

In Bacon’s more recent works, the emphasis has shifted again towards more anonymous and mythological subjects. The familiar themes persist; but something stereotyped, repetitious and smooth enters into his forms. The lonely figures still throw up in lavatory bowls beneath naked light bulbs; occasionally, they hunch together on couches for some barbarous act of congress, or lie sprawled disgorging their abdomens. But these gross scenes are often displayed against sickly, sometimes lavendery, pastel backgrounds — the sort of tones with which, I imagine, Cynthia Payne decorated the walls of her suburban bordellos.

In the interviews which, over the years, David Sylvester has recorded with Bacon, the artist makes it clear how he wants his work to be seen. He insists he has nothing to say about “the nature of man”  or “the human condition”.  “I’m just trying to makes images as accurately off my nervous system as I can.” He claims that the violence which concerns him is not his own, but that which is to be found in reality itself. “Perhaps,” Bacon comments, “I have from time to time been able to clear away one of two of the veils or screens.” And so, he sees himself as an uncompromising realist.

But none of us is the best judge of our own work. For myself, I don’t accept that Bacon is a “realist” at all. Perhaps it was unfair to visit his current retrospective in Washington so soon after seeing the great Velázquez show in New York; the experience certainly confirmed my prejudices about Bacon’s art.

When the wicked and suspicious Pope Innocent X first viewed his portrait by Velázquez he exclaimed “Troppo Vero!” (“Too true”). Even today, we know what the Pope meant. Bacon, of course, painted screaming travesties of this picture, which he himself now rejects as “silly”. They certainly have none of Velázquez’s devastating power to reveal truth, and none of his sumptuous, scarlet beauty. Indeed, I doubt whether anyone who looks at any Bacon portraits thinks anything except, “How very like Francis Bacon!”

Even when Velázquez was painting freaks and dwarfs, he did so in a way which celebrated their defiant human dignity. He handled his paint and composed his pictures so as to bring about what I like to call a “redemption through form”. But for much of his life Bacon applied pigment as if he hated the stuff, dragging it across raw, unsized canvas which drains it of beauty and of all semblance of life.

Bacon’s technical inadequacies seem inseparable from his spiritual dereliction. Psychologists describe certain individuals who are driven to reunite themselves with a reality from which they have lost emotional touch by perpetrating terrible acts of injury on others. Bacon’s paintings seem to me to offer a pictorial equivalent of such behaviour. They owe more to the violence and perversity of his imagination than to any love of the facts, let alone of truth.



Away with the abstract




The Arts in the Eighties: John Russell Taylor looks at 

how the visual arts have re-embraced representation






In 1980 there was a big show at the Hayward Gallery entitled Pier + Ocean, which summed up a lot of the minimal and conceptual art of the previous decade under a label borrowed from Mondrian, who happily was not around to be consulted. Thank heavens, I thought, that we are in the Eighties now, we do not even have to pretend to take most of this nonsense seriously any more. And I was right, though I had not at that point foreseen the creation of the Turner Prize to substitute establishment endorsement for serious assessment. For what the Eighties have signified above all in art has been a .return to representation.

Exhibitions are usually the heralds of such changes; they focus and dramatize what many people are vaguely thinking and feeling, and offer a formulation, often no doubt too snappy and simplistic, which grabs the imagination. The first thing of that bud to happen during the Eighties was an enormous show in Paris, at the Pompidou Centre, entitled Realismes 1919-1939. It sounds harmless and historical enough, but what it did was point oat that even among the most serious and forward-looking artists, there had always been a representational alternative to abstraction.

Far from being isolated reactionaries who could be overlooked while we surveyed with satisfaction the highroad leading from Impressionism through Cubism to Abstraction, Minimalism, Conceptualism and, presumably, silence, the painters of the Neue Sachlichkeit in Weimar Germany, Leger and his associates in France, the Magic Realists in Italy, and even our own cherished eccentrics like Spencer and Buna began to seem intensely relevant.

Revolutionary shifts of sensibility seldom start in Britain. But the next big happening was the Royal Academy’s 1981 show A New Spirit in Painting, which followed up such questionings of abstraction by launching internationally some dozen Italian and German artists who came to be known as Neo-Expressionists.

Whatever Kieferand Penck and Baselitz and Chia and Clemente were about, it was definitely representational; and when the same organizers followed up with an even bigger show of the same in 1982 in Berlin, the title Zeitgeist for once seemed to sum it up: like it or not, this was the spirit of the times.

Possibly the British participants in Zeitgeist were trailing a bit, but in 1985 it became evident that something really significant was happening North of the Border when New Image Glasgow showed beyond doubt that we had our own thriving school of Expressionist Realists just out of art school and ready to conquer foreword.

It has bean a decade of big shows. In 1980 people were confidently predicting that the international blockbuster of the Seventies, spawned by Tutankhamen, had had its day, rendered logistically impossible by the soaring costs of insurance and transportation, not to mention increasing concern for conservation.

Although this may be true, it has not appreciably reduced the number of blockbusters. Only in this decade the accent has been taken off the “treasures” show (that great British export to Washington Treasure Houses of Britain being an honourable exception), and squarely on to in-depth explorations of individual artists.

Naturally, given their approachability and the spectacular rises in their prices, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists have led the field, with giant travelling shows devoted to Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec, and no fewer than four of them to cover Gogh.

It has been a rather disturbing sign of foe times that Britain has missed out on most of these (of those mentioned we have had only Pissarro and Renoir), but we can claim credit for foe one which most spectacularly opened eyes and changed opinions, the Royal Academy’s Cézanne: The Early Years in 1988.

We can also say that with many of these artists we have too little to bargain with, in the way of essential works in our own collections, and it is natural that the shows should go where the essential exhibits are to be found. And yet this does not apply only to shows of early modems. During the decade, for instance, Spanish art has been re-explored in enormous moveable feasts devoted to El Greco, Zurbaran, Goya and Velázquez, but all we have seen is the saccharin Murillo.

Credit where credit is due: the Royal Academy has done well by us with its biennial series of surveys devoted to German, British and Italian art in the 20th century. Of course they have maddened just about everybody, for one reason or another, but they have started us talking and thinking, and put us on the spot to come up with better formulations.

We have also been, on a more modest level, exploring our own Romantic history in a series of shows which began with the Tate Gallery’s exemplary Pre-Raphaelites in 1984 and included the Barbican’s The Last Romantics this year and, out of order, A Paradise Lost (about the Romantic painters of the Forties) in 1987. Other memorable shows along these lines included Hard Times, also in 1987, which for those who made the trip to Manchester was most enlightening about the strain of working-class realism in Victorian art.

Coming more up to date, a decade which has seen the deaths of our three artist O.M.s, Sutherland, Moore and Nicholson, has also seen the universal (well, almost universal) acceptance of Francis Bacon as the greatest living painter, and the arrival without major mishap of David Hockney at his half-century, still amazingly public, amazingly private and following his own star.

Major disappointments were foe Royal Academy’s much touted Neapolitan show and foe Tate’s Gainsborough, both vitiated by  being apparently put together by scholars for scholars, with no care for the public at large, while the Saatchi Collection, in itself a fascinating phenomenon of the decade, fell spectacularly on its face by launching its acquisitions of NY Art Now in 1988 to almost unrelieved ridicule and contempt.

Particular delights for me were the revelation of Nordic Symbolist art in foe Barbican’s exhibition, Dreams of a Summer Night and foe rediscovery of such neglected Brits (or Brits-by-adoption) as Glyn Philpot through the National Portrait Gallery and Marie-Louise von Motesiczky through the Goethe Institute. If there are more such delights in the Nineties, we should not have too much cause for complaint.



One great artists tribute to another: Francis Bacons poster for the 1988 Van Gogh exhibition held in Arles







Francis Bacon, Master of Despair



At 80, Francis Bacon would seem to belong to another era;

Why do his paintings still take us off guard?






    In the mid-1950s, a UCLA exhibition included a new British artistFrancis Bacon. He was represented by Study after Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Awed faculty dragged their budding-genius students down to have a look. It wasn’t surprising that the kids had never seen anything quite like it, but neither had grizzled art teachers, who had seen a good bit.

    The sinister, crafty Pope was pictured suddenly screaming. That seemed significant enough, but the painting’s technique was even more strikingthe Pope appeared flickeringly through vertical, thinly applied striations that suddenly gave way to the crazy, free-brushed drapery of his gown and then firmed up to an illusive but deftly realized rendering of his face and purple cap. The image seemed less seen than hallucinated.

    Anti-Establishment beatniks roamed the campus in those days wearing black, drinking espresso and acting cool. Cool was the colloquialization of Alienation. Everybody was still learning about the Holocaust, Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism; Giacometti and Dubuffet; Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter. Smart people were learning that the Second World War had rendered the world Absurd.

    In that ambiance, Francis Bacon had a certain inevitability. Besides, it looked to conservative artists as if this was the guy who would give new meaning to figurative painting in an era dominated by abstraction. Even among the Abstract Expressionists, there was a lot of talk that dribble-and-splash painting was washed up.

    Now, some 35 years later, Samuel Beckett has recently died and the County Museum of Art presents a 58-work survey of Bacon’s oeuvrethe first in the United States in some 25 years. The occasion marks the 80th birthday of the artist who has been called the world’s greatest living figurative painter. Notable parallels exist between Beckett and Bacon. Both were born in Ireland but moved awaythe playwright to Paris, the painter to London. Although Bacon is technically English, he joins Joyce, Beckett and Camus as either real or philosophical exiles. All startled and shocked the world with radical, disturbing art. By now, Bacon would seem to belong to a past era and thus in a neutral chronological slot where his work can be sorted into the bin marked Modern Classic or that labeled Period Piece.

    Things about Bacon’s art invite dismissal. Formalists like to kiss him off as little more than a juiced-up version of Picasso in his surrealist period. The art often seems overly theatrical, calculating its effects like the curtain-line in Pinter’s The Caretaker whenafter a long silencea character blurts out, "What’s the game?"

    Bacon’s work is increasingly full of empty, flat spaces punctuated by dramatically placed scumbles of figures. A recent diptych of studies from the human body is little more than a series of stagey red rectangles and risers bearing grotesque mutations of torsos. It’s all about effect and we remember that Bacon started his career as a decorator and designer.

    His art is intensely mannered and has changed only in nuance over the decades. His stylization invites impersonation and has affected a long string of artists from the now half-forgotten James Gill to Bay Area Figurative Art in general and Ron Kitaj, David Hockney and recent James Dine in particular. Bacon’s mannerism leaves observers with the impression that he has made a career of impersonating himself. This effect is heightened by the character of the art. It seems fair to ask how anyone as immensely successfuland presumably wealthyas Bacon can go on making art about despair.

    The quick answer to that is that the rich and famous are not necessarily content and Bacon has been strange and haunted all his lifean out-patient recluse, compulsive gambler, serious boozer and a homosexual of sometimes self-destructive bent. Alsowhen so inclinedalmost predictably viciously witty and charming.

    Given all this, one approaches the retrospective ready to snicker. At first, the once-haunting Pope looks like the payoff of a Monty Python skit where mouse has just run up the pontiff’s skirt. The snarling succubus in the 1950 Fragment for a Crucifixion has long since been made cuddly as E.T. Looking at a Bacon portrait where the skin of a face is peeling off, we think of a spy in Mission: Impossible pulling off the mask of a latex disguise. A study for a portrait of  Van Gogh trudging the road begs for some such caption as, "Pardon me, madame, can you direct me to Arles?"

    Today, we view Bacon across a gulf of time, with electronic culture on our side and modernist culture on his. On our side is a detached art inspired by the media and on his, an art that filters history through intense personal experience. His modernist culture included appreciation for ancient classical literature like the Oresteia of Aeschylus, which inspired one recent triptych, and then-contemporary culture, which still included T.S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes. Bacon’s gang includes Rembrandt, lots of Goya, Muybridge, Eisenstein, Bunel, Godard and Eric Rohmer. Our side stands four-square with MTV.

    As you begin to wonder if you haven’t somehow gotten onto the wrong promontory, Bacon begins to get to you again. Of course there is an element of humor in him as there is in Beckett. Humor and muffled horror combine to produce Absurdity. I was once in a head-on car crash I thought was going to kill me. I saw the face of this perfectly nice chap in the other car and thought, "So that’s what death looks like." Dying felt, well, ridiculous.

    Bacon’s art still contrives to take you off guard like an unexpected anxiety attack in familiar, comfortable surroundings. Just as he rarely wanders far from his Chelsea studio, the paintings rarely stray from homey street corners or dowdy apartments. A sudden rush of Angst in such reassuring places peels back the armor of conventional assumption and gives us a glimpse of cauterizing fact.

    Bacon jolts us into remembering that we are animals. There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the dog he painted after one Muybridge photo and the paralytic child he took from another, walking on all fours like his brother simians. All beasts are subject to sudden and violent extinction at the hands of other beasts. When he paints two nude men embracing in a field, they are like creatures in a zoo. You can’t tell if they are copulating or killing each other. Maybe both.

    The 1946 Painting is a charnel house where a flailed carcass presides and a bloody-mouthed man grimaces. He hides under the umbrella of middle-class convention. It is another version of those invisible glass boxes where Bacon paints us imprisoned in rationality, bellowing against its constraints.

    The artist is exquisitely aware of human vulnerability. If he weren’t so tough about it, he might seem sentimental or self-pitying. Actually he does sometimes, but not in "Portrait of George Dyer Riding a Bicycle, "where he transforms the innocent business of a nice peddle into a metaphor of life’s precarious balance. Dyer rides as if on a tightrope just as the Fool of the Tarot gambols on the edge of a cliff.

    Bacon is a master of the tentative. Even his most finished paintings are called "studies." He has a genius for the illusive, the not-quite-stated, the ominous. And he gets at it through plastic means. Triptychs like Three Studies for a Crucifixion do woozy things with space. We are in a red, circular room. Two men look over their shoulders at carrion lying in the foreground. In the next panel, we see a grinning, suppurating corpse on a bed and finally another dematerialized side of beef. It is never clear if the flailed meat is all human or if it is all the same thing viewed from different angles, so we seem to be floating around the room like a jerky balloon, a witness to something as vague as it is awful.

    He also has a talent for the telling detail. In the midst of some hairy, unclear scene of muted violence our attention is drawn to a pack of cigarettes, a light switch or porcelain cabinet handlethe kinds of small realities that keep us from dismissing the unpleasant as just a bad dream.

Bacon’s recent art is sometimes an unconvincing attempt at getting up to his old tricks. He is more persuasive these days in a mellower mood. There is subtlety and gravity in a triple self-portrait that doesn’t need to be anything but the thoughtful record of a man thinking quietly about himself.

    Significantly, the exhibition (through April 29) runs concurrently with a retrospective devoted to the pioneer New York stain painter Helen Frankenthaler, an artist sometimes thought of as a maker of exceedingly pretty abstractions. Hearing of this unlikely juxtaposition, one immediately wants to title the coincidental pairing Beauty and the Beast.

    So much for our ideas about art. She turns out to be much tougher than her reputation and he much more tender.

The coupling leaves a nice reminder that we can’t experience art according to our notions about itonly looking at it face to face.





BaconStaying Power



Steven Dornbusch

In a letter to the Editor, The Los Angeles Times, February 25, 1990


       Regarding William Wilson’s Feb. 11 review of the Francis Bacon exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art:
I admit to snickering at a recent LACMA exhibition. Not at Francis Bacon’s paintings
I snickered at all the people fawning over Robert Longo’s superficiality.

      So Bacon belongs to the era of Existentialists and beatniks. Fine. Kurt Schwitters belongs to the era of Dadaists, revolutionaries and prophets. Cezanne and Goya belong to their times. I do not snicker at art because it belongs to another time.

      Francis Bacon has not changed much over the decades. He paints the same images. He chooses to refine, rather than add new techniques. His subjects death, alienation, violence and sex  remain unchanged.

      Bacon rescues the viewer from Western sophistication of not feeling anything about much of anything. His paintings make us feel. Over and over again.

      While his art belongs to another era, his place in art will not pass like so many fads. Wilson’s confused opinions will soon be forgotten. Like his MTV and electronic culture.

      Violence, sex and death do not bore me. Banality does.
















A WRITER, COLLECTOR, connoisseur, and patron of the arts, James Thrall Soby (1906-79) became associated with The Museum of Modern Art in 1940, when he was appointed to the acquisitions and photography commit[1]tees. Soby had previously been an assis[1]tant to A. Everett (Chick) Austin at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, from 1928 to 1938. During that decade he began to collect and write about the art of his time. Soby was Director of the Museum’s Department of Painting and Sculpture from October 1943 through January 1945, and Chairman of that department on an interim basis during 1947 and 1957. He served as a Trustee of the Museum (1942-79) and in various capacities on the Committee on Museum Collections (1940-67).

Soby directed and wrote the catalogs for more than fifteen important exhibi[1]tions at the Museum. These included one-person shows of works by Jean Arp, Balthus, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali, Juan Gris, Paul Klee, Ren6 Magritte, Joan Mir6, Amedeo Modigliani, Georges Rouault, and Yves Tanguy, and exhibitions on subjects such as Romantic painting in America (organized with Dorothy C. Miller) and twentieth-century Italian art (with Alfred H. Barr, Jr.). In the 1940s and 1950s he wrote a monthly column for The Saturday Review and was editor of Magazine of Art. His writings are models of solid scholarship combined with a sympathy based on personal acquain[1]tance with the artists about whom he wrote. Enriched by his broad experience as a museum man, his art criticism balanced a sense of history with discerning analyses of works of art.

Soby was an early admirer of Bacon. In 1948 Soby mentions him in an essay on younger British artists. Two paintings by Bacon, including Study of a Baboon (1953), which is included in the current exhibition, were part of Soby’s magnificent collection of over fifty paintings and sculptures, which he bequeathed to the Museum along with his papers. In 1959 the Museum asked Soby to write a monograph on Bacon, and in 1960 a circulating Bacon exhibition was proposed. Neither event occurred. Nevertheless, Soby did complete his text in the summer of 1962. The typescript was discovered in his papers along with related correspondence with Bacon’s dealers, Erica Brausen (The Hanover Gallery), Robert Melville (The Arthur Jeffress Gallery) and H. R. Fischer (Marlborough Fine Art, London), with the English critics David Sylvester and Lawrence Gowing, and with the artist.

In July 1962 Soby sent Bacon the typescript for his monograph. Bacon cabled him: “TEXT RECEIVED PLEASE AWAIT MY LETTER BEFORE PUBLISHING.” Soby wrote to Bacon on August 7, 1962: “I’ve had a terrible struggle in writing about you because so little first-hand information was available and the accounts of you and your work often con[1]flict absolutely, as when Robert Melville . . . writes one thing about your technical methods and Mr. Sylvester now tells me the precise opposite. . . . [T] he only way we will ever resolve these problems is for you and myself to talk them out . . . If we can’t meet personally . . . I know that we could adjust the points to which you object by mail. I do want (and so does the Museum) to have my book ready at the time of your New York show in the spring [at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1963] . . . ”

Bacon replied, “As all the information you have about me is second or third hand I think it is very difficult to do anything until we meet. Of course, if you leave out everything that I am supposed to think or say and just make your own interpretation of this work, it is another thing I do not care what is said about my work: what I do care about is being quoted and supposed to have ideas about painting which I simply do not have. ” Bacon avoided meeting with Soby and would not talk about his paintings or discuss this text. Soby was greatly troubled by the book for he had never encountered such frustration in writing about other artists.

Soby also sent his text to Alfred Barr, then Director of Museum Collections, who suggested that Soby mention the Museum’s 1948 purchase of Bacon’s Painting (1946) as a factor in establishing Bacon’s international reputation. Barr wrote: “It was bought . . . two years after it was painted, before the one-man show at Brausen’s. . . . It was shown often in the Museum. . . . I know this purchase had an effect in England and encouraged the shows in Venice and NY. (The Tate [Gallery, London] didn’t buy or acquire a Bacon before 1950).”

The Museum of Modern Art was, in fact, the first museum to acquire a painting by Bacon. In July 1948 Barr had seen Painting at The Hanover Gallery in London. That October, when showing the picture to his colleagues, Barr told them that the artist had destroyed all but six of his paintings and that this canvas was one of the strongest and most original he had seen by a European artist under fifty. Barr mentioned that he had asked the artist what it meant and that Bacon had said that if he could have put it into words he wouldn’t have painted the picture. Painting is fragile and has not been permitted to travel in almost two decades. It will be seen only in New York during the tour of the eightieth anniversary exhibition Francis Bacon.




An excerpt from an essay on Francis Bacon, written by James Thrall Soby,

appears for the first time in this issue of MoMA, beginning on page 8.


Francis Bacon, a retrospective, opens June 3 at the Museum.





A Trail of Human Presence



On Some Early Paintings of Francis Bacon (1962)





Considering Francis Bacon’s present-day eminence, it is surprising that many details of his life and career remain obscure.1 In part this is because he is himself almost totally indifferent to autobiographical information. As an example of this attitude, which is felt profoundly, he was once asked whether he was descended from the great Elizabethan writer whose name he shares. He replied that he had no idea whatever nor any curiosity about finding out. For a very long time it has even been difficult to discover his exact birthdate, which has varied from one biographical account to the next and, according to a close friend, on at least one occasion was invented by the artist himself as suggesting a fortuitous numerical sequence in playing roulette....

It is typical of Bacon that combinations of numbers in roulette should have prompted him to invent his own date of birth. His passion for gambling is well known to his intimates. On many occasions, after selling a canvas or two, he has set off for Monte Carlo to try out a self- invented and presumably fallible system for breaking the bank. This passion plays an important part in his philosophy as an artist, as he confessed when he wrote of his colleague, the late Matthew Smith, “I think that painting to-day is pure intuition and luck and taking advantage of what happens when you splash the stuff down ...”2 He prefers to paint very rapidly with a large brush “a loaded one-inch brush of the kind that ironmongers stock,” to use Robert Melville’s words.3

Bacon generally chooses big canvases, as if he were playing for big stakes. Moreover, he is frighteningly quick to accept miscalculation and failure in his gambler’s choice as a painter. No one really knows how many pictures he has destroyed after completing them and finding them lacking. The number is great, and once more Robert Melville’s words are pertinent: “Francis Bacon has a horror of giving proofs of his powers. He paints at such phenomenal speed that, if the bulk of his work had been preserved, he would almost certainly have more large pictures to his name than any other living artist.”4 ... Bacon’s technique is ... impulsive and ... rapidity of execution is an integral accompaniment to his creative vision, as though he feels obliged to make his decisions before hearing an invisible and implacable croupier cry “rien va plus!”... Bacon’s destructive impatience with the slightest flaw or lessening of conviction in his work is refreshing in an era when many artists, good and bad, preserve and market the merest scraps from their studios. Sometimes, however, according to London friends, Bacon has destroyed pictures w4ose shortcomings were apparent to no one but himself. Even so, one cannot but admire the almost desperate severity of his self-criticism.

Though born in Dublin [in 1909], Bacon came from English stock.... His father was a trainer of race horses, and for professional reasons he preferred Ireland to his native England. The family was moderately prosperous, and Bacon’s upbringing seems to have been conventional except for the important fact that he was not for long forced by his parents to have the usual supervised education. In his own words, possibly exaggerated, “I had no upbringing at all, and I used simply to work on my father’s farm near Dublin. I read almost nothing as a child as for pictures, I was hardly aware that they existed.”5 He did, however, travel often with his father to England, and in his late teens left home for good and made his way to France and Germany, settling for awhile in Berlin, whose sinister and debauched post- war atmosphere very likely appealed to him. In the late 1920s he moved to London and kept alive by designing rugs and furniture and acting as an interior decorator of considerable talent.

Bacon had no formal training as a painter, and he did not aspire to become a professional artist until he was nearly thirty. In reply to the writer’s question as to what had decided him to paint, he declared that he had no idea whatever. He added, typically, that he profoundly wished he had never started!6 During the later 1920s he began to execute some relatively abstract works of which perhaps the most ambitious is a tall screen in three sections. There is little indication in this or any other very early work of the kind of painter he was to become. These images, insofar as one can judge from reproductions, seem mild and purposefully decorative; they show some influence from older artists such as Edward Wadsworth in England and Lurpat in France. Obviously Bacon himself thought them derivative, since so far as is known none survive.

If Bacon’s progress as an artist was at first uncertain and halting, explosive forces of temperament must have been making themselves felt. In 1932, for example, he painted The Crucifixion (a picture better known as Golgotha, though Bacon apparently dislikes the latter title because of its dramatic overtones).... Around 1936 Bacon continued his search for authentic personality as a painter in a curious picture which portrays a monstrous seated figure accompanied by the dog which has recurred in [Bacon’s] art at intervals.... But it was not until 1945 that the theme of the Crucifixion once more gave Bacon the creative impetus he needed. At that time Graham Sutherland was making the preparatory studies for the large Crucifixion he had been commissioned to paint for the Church of St. Matthew in Northampton, England. There can be no doubt that Sutherland’s example acted as a catharsis on his younger colleague. Indeed, Bacon himself confirmed this fact when in a recent interview he said that “all his life he had been looking for some help to find a Theoretical Background’ for his painting.” He added: “Once in [his] life he hoped Graham Sutherland might provide him with it.”7

Sutherland’s influence was important, but it must quickly be said that Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944)] are infinitely more distraught and violent than those of his elder. Sutherland’s interest tended to focus on such details from nature (or Grunewald) as the Crown of Thorns, while Bacon’s centered on images of human bestiality and deformation. The anguished spirit of the latter’s “studies” for the Crucifixion has been eloquently described by Stephen Spender: “These appalling dehumanized faces, which epitomize cruelty and mockery, are of the crucifiers rather-than the crucified. And this remains true of [Bacon’s] work until now. His figures are of those who participate in the crucifixion of humanity which also includes themselves. If they are not always the people who actually hammer in the nails they are those among the crowd which shares in the guilt of cruelty to the qualities that are-or were-beneficently human, and which here seem to have been banished forever.”8

It seems possible that during the mid-1940s Bacon was experiencing belatedly the effect in England of the International Surrealist Exhibition, held at London’s New Burlington Galleries in the summer of 1936. Specifically, as several critics have pointed out, there is some affinity between Bacon’s malformed figures for the Crucifixion and the ferocious imagery of a late recruit to the Surrealist movement, Matta Echaurren. But Bacon’s figures of 1945 announce the emergence of a thoroughly personal talent.... The scream now takes its place as a recurrent accent in Bacon’s lugubrious, pierc- ing iconography, as though at intervals he has continued to be haunted by the agonized shrieking nurse in S. M. Eisenstein’s great film of 1925, Potemkin.

Bacon’s subject matter, though never fixed or predictable, began to assume its basic psychological identity in 1946, the year in which he exhibited a group of his studies for the Crucifixion at the Lefevre Gallery in London. His was and remains an iconography primarily concerned with the torments and hysteria of contemporary existence. Its aim has been well stated by the artist himself: “I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them like a snail, leaving a trail of human presence and memory traces of past events, as the snail leaves its slime.”9 But what gives his art its extraordinary force is that it is expressed in seduc- tive rather than satirical terms. His technical handling is so deft and magic that he seems to caress rather than belabor his monstrous subject matter. In Sam Hunter’s words, “Bacon’s thoroughly modern horrors are connected still with a neo-Edwardian sense of luxury; and his satanism, despite an up-to-date clinical note, can suggest the Yellow Book. If Aubrey Beardsley’s generation were alive and given the benefits of a modern education, it would no doubt be painting in the style of Francis Bacon.”10 And Robert Melville has reinforced the point of the voluptuousness of Bacon’s art: “Never has there been more elation of execution, never a greater sense of freedom: yet it occurs in the atmosphere of a concentration camp.”11

In 1945 and 1946 Bacon created two unforgettable paintings: Figure in a Landscape and the major work known simply as Painting. It is astonishing to learn from the Tate Gallery’s fine catalog of the [1962] Bacon exhibition that the first of these two pictures was painted from a snapshot of the artist’s friend Eric Hall dozing in a chair in Hyde Park. But what an amazingly imaginative transcription of so commonplace a scene! The figure is seated outdoors before a railing on which a machine gun is mounted; his head is completely enshrouded by his upturned coat; the mood of the picture is distinctly ominous and certainly not at all suggestive of a friend asleep in a public park.

In Painting the man has moved indoors to what would seem to be one of the butcher shops which Bacon is said to have visited often in youth. Behind him hangs a huge carcass, its arms or legs outstrung as if it were crucified. The man’s face is now half-hidden by the shadow cast by an umbrella a symbolic reference to the umbrella of Chamberlain, which became an uneasy token of appeasement in Europe? Before him on a circular metal structure are placed other carcasses, flanked by a battery of those microphones which have been the constant instrument of perverse oratory in our time. Behind the figure hang curtains with tassels, and here again as in the case of Bacon’s recurrent use of the human scream based on that of the wounded Potemkin nurse, a photographic reference is implicit. We know that Bacon always has been deeply interested in press photography in its more macabre aspects and that a snapshot in his possession shows Hitler exhorting a crowd in his hoarse and lurid rhetoric. Beside the dicta- tor on his balcony hangs a tasseled curtain whose idling tranquillity adds an ironic note of contrast to public hysteria. In physical terms Bacon’s Painting is rich and subtle, as though the artist intended to give a beguiling veneer to an image of frightening portent.

It is difficult to determine at what precise moment Bacon first made effective use of that scumbled technique which often gives his figures a quavering ambiguity of placing and stance. In the Head No. V also known as Figure with Monkey, for example, the man’s face merges with the curtain through which he peers at an ape whose head, too, dissolves in the drapery’s folds. The result is an uncanny evocation of motion through a rippled vibration of contours, as when a stone is dropped in a pond. One thinks of the magic sequence in the 1924 Buster Keaton film, Sherlock, Jr, wherein through trick photography the comedian disappears into and for the briefest second becomes part of a solid wall.

It seems to the writer among others that Bacon’s treatment of motion will rank as one of his most original and successful contributions to painting.... It is true, of course, that Bacon’s elders, like Marcel Duchamp and the Italian Futurists, had also sought a pictorial solution to the problem of representing figures and objects in motion. But their forms in transit were separately and quite well defined, whereas Bacon’s are often suggested through a deliberate blurring of the image, as if the figure moved during a time exposure. The difference between Bacon’s approach and that of the Futurists is apparent if we compare his Man with Dog (1953) with Balla’s celebrated Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912), a painting which Bacon had almost certainly seen when it was exhibited at the Tate Gallery in the summer of 1952.

By 1949 the year of his first one-man exhibition at the Hanover Gallery Bacon’s art had assumed its own special character both in technique and iconography, and the influence of Sutherland had all but disappeared. In that year he painted Head VI, the first of an extensive series of pictures inspired by Velasquez’s famous Portrait of Pope Innocent X in the Palazzo Doria at Rome. It is interesting to note that Bacon has never seen the Spanish master’s famous portrait because, as he told Sir John Rothenstein, “When I was in Rome I felt reluctant to look at it.”12 But working from a reproduction he transcribed the Velasquez into a fascinatingly original image. The Pope’s head is bisected by the Hitlerian tassel, already mentioned, his mouth is agape in a scream like that of the nurse in Potemkin or in one of Goebbels’s more frenzied exaltations or in the figure in Munch’s great image, The Scream. His Holiness is shown within a glass case which isolates him from the outer world and muffles the sound of his despair. Later, in Bacon’s second series of paraphrases on the same subject, we ... discover a strange and personal solution of the kinetic problem, as though the artist were projecting still photographs in rapid succession.

Whatever its psychological implications, Head VI announces with full vigor an abiding obsession of the artist: the enclosures within which animals and humans alike live out their lives. When the Pope Innocent series reaches one of several high points of authority in the Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953), its resplendent but horrified central figure has emerged from its glass case only to be imprisoned again by curtains and railings, even by the spiky ornaments of the Papal chair. Throughout a number of Bacon’s pictures in the Pope series there persists an odd physical illusion of the figure being elevated above the ground. In this connection it should be noted, as Sam Hunter was the first to observe, that among the many press photographs in Bacon’s studio is one of Pope Pius XII borne aloft on a sedia gestatoria. At least two of the three paintings from the Pope series which Bacon completed in 1951 are closer in pose and spirit to this modern snapshot than to Velasquez’s famous portrait in the Palazzo Doria.

In the final analysis Bacon’s paintings, whatever their theme, suggest the pangs of excommunication in its literal rather than sacerdotal sense. His apes are usually caged, his dogs slink helpless and cringing from their broken leashes, his humans are often segregated within small chambers or otherwise shielded from the ignominies of contemporary civilization. And yet in his paintings an inexplicable sense of opulence prevails, and David Sylvester is right in saying that Bacon prefers settings which are luxurious and simple: lush velvet curtains and a gilded armchair: like prison-cells for highborn traitors.13


1. This article is excerpted from an unpublished text completed by Soby in 1962.

2. Francis Bacon, “Matthew Smith-A Painter’s Tribute,” in Matthew Smith: Paintings from 1909 to 1952 (London: The Tate Gallery, 1953), 12.

3. Robert Melville, “Francis Bacon,” Horizon 20, 120-121 (London, December 1949-January 1950), 422.

4. Melville, “The Iconoclasm of Francis Bacon," World Review (London, January 1951), 63.

5. John Rothenstein, introduction to Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon (New York: The Viking Press, 1964), 8.

6. H. R. Fischer to J. T. Soby, 25 January 1960, The Museum of Modern Art Archives: James Thrall Soby Papers. Soby sent a questionnaire to H. R Fischer, then a director of Marlborough Fine Art, London, which represents Bacon, in late 1959 or January 1960. (A copy of it is in the Soby papers in the Museum Archives. ) Fischer and Robert Melville interviewed the artist and Fischer summarized Bacon’s answers and remarks in this letter.

7. Ibid.

8. Stephen Spender, “Francis Bacon,” Quadrum 11 (December 1961), [off-print, unpaged].

9. Francis Bacon, statement in The New Decade: 22 European Painters and Sculptor (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1955), 63.

10. Sam Hunter, “Francis Bacon: The Anatomy of Horror,” Magazine of Art 45, 1 (New York, January 1952), 15.

11. Melville, “The Iconoclasm of Francis Bacon,” 64.

12. Rothenstein, Francis Bacon (London, 1967), 4.

13. David Sylvester, source not located.




Francis Bacon 1950s The Museum of Modern Art Archives





 Visions of a Violent Century

 In Francis Bacon’s Paintings



 Many images of the primal human howl, but not primal smile.






The Francis Bacon exhibition that opens Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art comprises 59 paintings. Most of them are large, and some are made up of two or three canvases, each measuring 78 by 58 inches. They cover the years from 1945 to 1988. (Bacon was 80 years old last October.) Many of the images in the show acquired classic status long ago and have been regarded by enthusiasts as central to the concerns of our day.

The Francis Bacon exhibition that opens Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art comprises 59 paintings. Most of them are large, and some are made up of two or three canvases, each measuring 78 by 58 inches. They cover the years from 1945 to 1988. (Bacon was 80 years old last October.) Many of the images in the show acquired classic status long ago and have been regarded by enthusiasts as central to the concerns of our day. This was already true when Bacon was believed, as the critic Sam Hunter writes in the catalogue, to have echoed the ''paralyzing, affectless settings of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit of 1942 and Samuel Beckett’s Endgame of 1957.'' And to this day, in a sustained tracking shot that has been going for half a century, Bacon seems to have prefigured many of the images that look out at us every day in the news pages and on the television news.

We see men discarded like rotting meat. Behind what is presumably bulletproof glass, we see other men preaching, talking, hallooing, ranting, raving or prey to manic, uncontrollable laughter. (The primal human cry, King Lear’s ''Howl, howl, howl!,'' is a lifelong obsession with Bacon, though we should not forget what he said in 1962 to his friend, the critic David Sylvester: that often as he had painted the primal cry, he had always wanted to paint the primal smile but had never succeeded in doing it.) In the Bacons that everyone talks about, we see violence taken for granted, and the bloodied messes that result from it. Voyeur and victim are set before us in ways that suggest they may soon change places. Second-rank and second-rate people stand around, just as they do in life, to see what will come of it all.

In the windowless echo chamber that Bacon knew so well how to evoke, (as in Study for a Portrait, 1953), we see an archetypal C.E.O. revert to babyhood in his single hotel room. We see prefigured the hideous ordinariness of Adolf Eichmann, on trial in Jerusalem. Bacon could also (as in Fragment for a Crucifixion, from 1950) give a new and sinister meaning to the phrase ''dog eat dog.''

These are one-shot images, and most of them date from 40 years ago, but they still pack a formidable punch. Those who have grown up and grown old with them would have trouble imagining a world in which they had played no part. They are by now a permanent part of the furniture of the European imagination, and the paintings as we see them in the Museum of Modern Art come over again and again as grand formal statements in which order and clarity have long ago won out over disquiet.

That is why, for this critic, the present show does not come over as in any way sensational. Dreadful things are seen to be done, but they are nothing to what is done routinely, day by day, in the world around us. Besides, there is a whole other side to what Bacon does with paint. There are paintings in this show in which no one does much of anything except hang out, talk, ride a bicycle very, very slowly or sit bunched up as if in readiness for some tremendous outburst of erotic energy.

Once or twice, as in the Double Portrait of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, from 1964, we glimpse a duet between two fellow painters and champion talkers that would be unforgettable if only we could hear it. (The high-keyed colour and the literally laid-back postures of both Freud and Auerbach leave an unforgettable impression). An understated intimacy and a gift for direct statement are the mark of Bacon’s portraits of his old friend, the French anthropologist and autobiographer Michel Leiris.

In the Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho, from 1967, we glimpse a rare, unfettered and galvanic human being the beloved at one time of Jacob Epstein, Andre Derain and Alberto Giacometti among artists, and of Constant Lambert and Alan Rawsthorne among composers who has the world at her feet and expects nothing less. As a record of an aspect of humankind that we must hope will always be with us, that painting is an astonishing achievement, and one powered by a boundless affection.

No less essential to any anthology of rare human beings is the portrait of Muriel Belcher, the owner of a drinking club in London of which Bacon was for many years a habitue. Mrs. Belcher was notable in life for her piercing gaze, her almost unbelievably free speech and her sense of the precipitous ups and downs of metropolitan life.

Bacon portrays her as a sphinx, with long, delicate forearms that double as forelegs and feet. As no one was ever more ready than she with a plain answer to a plain question, Mrs. Belcher could be said to set here a new tone for sphinxes. But it is a glorious impersonation.

Images like these are not gratuitous violations of either the face, the limbs or the dignity of the people portrayed. Nor did they seem to me to deal with what Mr. Demetrion believes to be Bacon’s ''real subject'': ''man as animal, stripped to his bestial nature to his real nature.''

They have come to look, on the contrary, like the contemporary equivalent of the ancestral portraits that we find in museums and palaces and great country houses all over Europe. In psychological terms, they have of course been pushed infinitely farther than the Old Masters would have thought it either possible or appropriate to go.

Bacon’s way of painting is, moreover, peculiar to himself, and to our own time. Faces have been taken apart and reconstructed on an inspired whim that flouts every known canon of likeness. But far from looking battered or abused, the people in question are right there, and have never looked more completely or irreducibly themselves.

The show also includes one of the most mysterious of all Bacon’s paintings: the Sand Dune of 1983, in which a huge shelving area of sand would seem part indoors and part outdoors. When his longtime friend Mr. Sylvester, the English critic, asked Bacon some years ago why he had painted landscapes at one time in his career, he said simply, ''Inability to do the figure.'' But in his 70's he found a way of painting a landscape in such a way that it reinvented the human figure.

Those shifting, heaving, rolling sands do a double duty, in other words. Though perfectly convincing as one of the more precious features of the foreshore, they can also be read in terms of human bodies that form and reform themselves, half in and half out of the sand. Once we get the point, we may consider this as one of the most voluptuous evocations of the nude in 20th-century art.

Yet there are many observers in the United States especially who think of Bacon's work as simply a freak show, a horror show, a gratuitous monsterscape. Bacon himself is, of course, well aware of this. ''Who ever bought a painting of mine because he liked it?'' he once said to a friend.

That is doubtless why the last full-career museum retrospective of Bacon’s work in this country was in 1966. ''Difficult'' is still the American code word for them. It should surprise nobody that, in the words of James T. Demetrion, who organized the show, ''traditional sources of sponsorship have not generally been available.''

But Mr. Demetrion could count on the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, where he has been director since 1984; on the Smithsonian Special Exhibition Fund and on an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art took the show, and so did the Museum of Modern Art, which in 1946 was the first museum anywhere to buy a Bacon for its permanent collection.

Mr. Demetrion could also count on John Elderfield, the Modern’s director of drawings since 1980. who has installed the show in a grave, uncluttered and unhurrying style that allows the big paintings to ride the wall at the height, and at the pace, that suits them best.

This, in short, is a very grand show, an affair of huge and often shattered presences that are entirely of our own day and yet seem on occasion to stretch back into antiquity. Bacon deserves a long second look in New York, and this show makes it possible.

Francis Bacon remains on view at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53d Street, through Aug. 28. The New York showing has been made possible by a grant from IFI International.







“...Francis Bacon is a one-note painter, an eccentric, who has

achieved effects within a claustrophobically small horizon...”





Francis Bacon is the grand old man of British painting, and it might be expected that his survival to an eighth decade (as though to spite the horrendous vulnerability in his art) would prod someone to celebrate. So, even though New Yorkers last saw his work in 1975, when Henry Geldzahler brought it to the Metropolitan, we get another chance to see it this summer, in a show (organized by the Hirshhorn Museum) at the Museum of Modern Art. I hadn’t noticed anyone waiting breathlessly or the sequel, but perhaps it’s just me.

Bacon is one of those lucky painters who have had the consensus of history on their side from their first exhibition. One of the first pictures he sold (in 1948, two years after it was panted) went straight to the Modern and became everybody’s image of postwar existential anguish. This is MOMA’s famous meat-rack painting of slabs of butchered beef and strings of sausages draped like tinsel around a slack-jawed black-robed authority figure whose eyes are shadowed by a black umbrella — a blind judge, if you will. The "judge" holds court in a sterile U.N.-style amphitheatre you could associate with the Kafkaesque trials of individual and collective guilt that preoccupied Europe after the Nazi fell. Modern life unfolds in a panorama of sterility and butchery, ruled by the terrifying figure of an eyeless justice who talks with bared teeth and who shields himself from the rain of Heaven with a proper bureaucratic umbrella. As a primal cry out of the crumbling London of the Blitz, this painting had no match in its time. Because it holds pride of place in MOMA’s collection, it has carried Bacon’s reputation locally for decades.

I can’t buy it, unfortunately. On the basis of this exhibition (which is better at winnowing duplicates and editing weak spots than others I’ve seen), I’m more convinced than ever that he’s a minor master, with the emphasis on minor.

Bacon is now untouchable. You can gauge the grandeur pegged to his name by noting who wrote the catalogue entries - Sir Lawrence Gowing and Sam Hunter, two of the most eminent living art historians and adding up the superlatives that fall like snow. The English, Sir Lawrence included, place him in the same camp as T.S. Eliot, who wastelands he populated with squashed faces pulverised under modern boot heals.

What Bacon does best is suggest what it’s like to have your skin stripped off and your flayed nerves rubbed in the dirt. There is no small talent in being able to irradiate a painting with feeling. In the forties, Bacon proved himself in his fist show (and has adapted his style only slightly since). He seemed at the time to have sprung out of nowhere, an interior decorator turned painter who felt shattered as much by the open-mouthed screaming nurse in Eisenstein’s Potemkin as by Poussin.

To arrive at the state of painterly disintegration that would express that primal scream, the looked for his model, not surprisingly, from Picasso. (And in Surrealism and Hieronymous Bosch). In taking the lesson to heart, Bacon steered himself in an unusual direction. Most Picasso followers tried to extend and elaborate on the stunning formalist possibilities suggested by Cubism’s shattered viewpoint: Bacon focused on the pychic consequences of Cubist disintegration. In his hands, a profound formal invention an invention of the way we see — was dismantled and reconstructed in order to convey his turbulance. Very early in his career, he found a new path out of Picasso but one that led toward illustration (of emotion).

In the forties, the distinction between formalism and emotionalism was still new and crudely cut; it wouldn’t carry the weight it would acquire in the next decade, when the Americans (who also came out of Cubism and Surrealism) would create Abstract Expressionism by pushing the formal possibilities to the limit. Bacon’s reputation in England, where the British cast a glum eye on developments in America, continued to soar. He means something more in his homeland, you could speculate, because Abstract Expressionism and its descendants mean something less.

On this side of the Atlantic, Bacon’s achievements don’t look so glossy. He is undeniably a powerful illustrator of despair. On this bleak theme he produces as many plot changes as Stephen King; his sense of the grotesque is as developed as Salvador Dali’s. Like Dali and King, he’s a tactician of emotion. But when you reach saturation (with me it happens fast) and you look further, for evidence of painterly experiment and formal brilliance, form becomes formula rather quickly. Like Balthus or Henri Rousseau, Bacon is a one-note painter, an eccentric, who has achieved charmed effects within a claustrophobically small horizon. As I said, a minor master. 

Describing himself, he says, "I’m just trying to make images as accurately as I can off my nervous system as I can." The comment helps explains why he considers himself a realist. It all depends on how you define what’s real. Comparing him with that other grand British gent, Lucian Freud, you can see both painters as the poles of a continuum, a very British line of pragmatic observation. Freud screws his microscope to the surface of flesh whose minutest bumps and hollows form a topography of obsession. For Bacon, searching for catharsis, the ferocity and ugliness lie beneath the surface, and he mangles skin and bone to reveal it.

That the English buff him to such a golden sheen is slightly perverse, considering that the undercurrent of these paintings his homosexuality. The theme didn’t openly declare itself until Bacon began to let his figures roll in the grass together in the fifties. But even in the beginning, these pictures were about nakedness and carnal loathing, corruption, and the disease of humanness. The open-mouthed screaming orifices mounted on long throats are receivers as well as disseminators, attractors as well as repulsers. You’re not sure whether the gaping mouths aren’t getting ready to suck you in. Bacon revels in the ambiguities, surely, or he wouldn’t keep returning there, much as Joseph Conrad did in Heart of Darkness, mucking around in the horror within. Bacon, again like Balthus or Rousseau, has proved nearly impossible to imitate, and his spasms of conscience seemed dated and irrelevant for a long moment. But now his timing coincides the AIDS specter. The thin, toxic atmosphere inside Bacon’s generic rooms reminds me of the phosphorescent gloom of Ross Bleckner’s paintings in memoriam to the dead. Bacon’s pictures only work if you care about the message than the means, but the world supplies enough genuine horror  to keep the message coming round again.

(11 West 53rd Street; through August 28.)       


  Francis Bacon




      By ARTHUR C. DANTO | THE NATION | VOLUME 251 | ISSUE 4 | JULY 30, 1990  



Grammar makes certain sentences available to us that are useless for any purpose other than philosophical jokes. "I am screaming" for example, is what philosophers term self-stultifying: The conditions under which it could be true are inconsistent with its being uttered, so it cannot but be false if said or even written. Thus the lie is transparent to all but the writer when the hateful and ludicrous Fanny Squeers, in Nicholas Nickleby, puts into a letter "I am screaming out loud all the time I write" as an excuse for mistakes. One cannot scream and write letters at the same time, in part because the circumstances that explain the scream rule out the possibility of concurrent rational action. The scream ordinarily implies some loss of will, something the screamer cannot help despite resolutions of silence, as in the torture chamber or the pit in hell. But that does not leave the will free for other pursuits. Or, if we can imagine someone knitting and screaming, it would have to be someone mad, and the scream, like the lunatic’s laugh, disconnected from the network of circumstances in which either expression has the meaning of terror, say, or mirth.


Much the same considerations apply to cases in which an artist paints a scream. It is always a reasonable inference in such cases that the scream cannot be the artist’s own, for the mere fact that the representation is clear enough to be recognized as of a scream is inconsistent with that. Painting, in whatever way it facilitates the expression of emotions, cannot be a kind of scream if it is in fact of a kind of scream. This is an important truth to keep in mind when viewing the painted screams of Francis Bacon.


Bacon’s images of screaming popes are among the great defining images of twentieth-century art, and certainly they were taken, in the early postwar years when they first appeared, to be artistic summations of an era of unspeakable agony and horror. And they affect us even today, and against the body of Bacon’s far less compelling subsequent work, perhaps because we cannot be indifferent to screams-not even when we know, for example, that someone is only practicing for a part that requires him to scream, just because that particular sound, issued through a human mouth, must trigger in us reflexes over which we have as little control as screamers themselves are supposed to have at the moment of impulse. And a painted scream comparably summons up associations through which it is vested with moral meaning. This is especially so when, as with Bacon’s popes, there is no context, within the painting, to account for the scream. When Poussin paints a woman screaming in his Massacre of the Innocents (a painting frequently cited as among Bacon’s early influences), her scream is a natural response to the butchery of helpless children. When Eisenstein shows the screaming nurse in Battleship Potemkin (another source unfailingly cited for Bacon), there is, in the massacre on the steps, all the explanation we need for the grimace of impotence and despair and pain condensed in the shape of her mouth. Seen just as a frame, clipped out of the film, the scream of Eisenstein’s nurse still implies a narrative which the shattered glasses and shot-out eye enable us to fill in. There is no available narrative for Bacon’s screaming pontiff, all the less so when we appreciate that the painting is itself a modified appropriation of the celebrated portrait by Velázquez of Innocent X. The occurrence of the word "innocent" in two of Bacon’s acknowledged sources is possibly worth keeping in mind, though the papal name, in the case of this particular bearer of it, was one of the great examples of ironic nomenclature in the history of mislabeling. Velázquez’s portrait simply shows the wily churchman, in white lace and red silk, enthroned in a curtained chamber, wearing an expression that rules out screams.


Everyone in fact admires the psychology of Velázquez’s portrait, and the larger meanings to which the psychology must contribute. Innocent is looking up from some document held loosely in his left hand, and looks out at us beaming authority, power, mercilessness, guile, defiance, resolution and contempt from his terrifying eyes. It is the look a shepherd might direct to his sheep only if his mind were fixed on mutton. Innocent may have been indifferent to the expression Velazquez gave him, or possibly he was pleased by it as an outward sign of a man dangerous to trifle with, but one cannot, today at least, refrain from drawing lessons from the fact that this highest position in the universal church should have been occupied by a man whose character was so at odds with the charity and love that ought to be emblemized physiognomically. It is a tension not easily rationalized, though in its own right it may express a deep truth of Catholicism. Bacon’s pope has no psychology to speak of, since the scream leaves no space for other expressions and is in any case not really an expression of someones character. A scream implies an absolute reduction of its emitter to whatever state it is that the scream outwardly expresses. There are no wry screamers, no crafty screamers. The scream is a momentary mask. Still, the fact that it is a pope who screams raises some delicate questions of interpretation. In the language of symbols, the image of the pope carries the obvious meanings that flow from his position as Christ’s surrogate on earth and intercessor for the salvational needs of mankind. The question is why someone with the extreme moral weight of a pope should be shown screaming when, within the canvas, there is nothing that accounts for the act.


It must of course be decided whether the pope is screaming at something whether there is an object-or whether, like the screams of the damned and the tortured, he cannot help screaming because of unendurable pain. There are screams of horror, after all, where the witness is overcome by something seen or heard. The pope’s scream cannot be objectless, one feels, since he is seated in his throne or on his palanquin (which is one way of reading the yellow curves in Bacon’s painting), unless he is supposed insane, like a crazy in the park. He could, if this were an internal symbol for Christians, be screaming at Christ’s agony, or in grief, like one of the Marys so often shown at the base of the cross. Whatever the object, it must be commensurate with the stature of the pope as pope. Think, for contrast, of the famous screamer in Munch’s The Scream, of 1895. A woman (one assumes) is shown running toward us, over a bridge, with a couple in the distance walking away, as if indifferent to her anguish. The screamer’s object (if there is one) must, one is certain, be some fraught personal situation she finds unendurable: The image is a depiction of personal extremity. And this fits with Munch’s work-his themes are sickness, jealousy, bereavement, madness, sexual torment-as well as what we know of his character and his life. But none of this would fit with the screamer’s being a pope, all got up in ecclesiastical regalia. Neither, in truth, does it fit with Bacon, from what we know of him as a person. And the assumption would have been, in the postwar years, that the pope was screaming as the only appropriate moral response to the fallenness of mankind and the world as slaughter-bench. As such, it could not but be a powerful image, even if somewhat crudely painted, save for the lavender capelet. Somehow, if a message, it must have seemed too urgent to be conveyed through a piece of elegant painting. The powdery white, the swipes of yellow and the vertical slashes that are vestigial reminders of Velazquez’s drapes, though they also suggest a deluge, are secondary marks of the moral lamentation of the howling prelate. One would have wanted to scream in sympathy: And with that cry I have raised my cry," as Yeats writes.


All of Bacon’s work in those years, whether or not of popes, appears to be of screams or to call for screams. In his, painting, of 1946, an early acquisition by the Museum of Modern Art, which is honouring Bacon  with a retrospective exhibition (until August 28), the screamer is in a business suit, a yellow boutonniere in his lapel and the upper half of his face cast in shadow by his umbrella. He is surrounded by butchered meat, including, behind him, an immense gutted carcass hung by its legs. The carcass of beef, in Rembrandt’s painting of one, seems to connote helplessness of a nearly cosmic order and comes across as a symbol of suffering, as it does in a bloody painting by Soutine. There is a harsh contrast in Bacon’s image between the regular rhythm of bones and teeth and that of torn flesh and a world torn by the scream of the man, whose umbrella is an affecting symbol of ineffective protection, certainly against the forces that rend flesh, eviscerate bodies, consume in pain and flame. Painting, in context, had to have conveyed some political message and, to use the irrepressible word from those days, existential mood. And there are several images of heads that bear out this heavy inescapable reading, for they seem to have no discernible features other than toothed cavities, as if their owners had died, beaten to some pulp, with a terminal scream on their lips. In some cases, the screamer is seated, as the pope is, but in such a way and in such a space that it could be the electric chair they are in. And in all or most of these, the vertical lines rain down, cleansing perhaps, purging, or just adding to the agony, having no connection to the vertical fall of drapes from Velázquez.


So, if not strictly Bacon’s screams, these depicted screams seem to entitle us to some inference that they at least express an attitude of despair or outrage or condemnation, and that in the medium of extreme gesture the artist is registering a moral view toward the conditions that account for scream upon scream upon scream. How profoundly disillusioning it is then to read the artist saying, in a famous interview he gave to David Sylvester for The Brutality of Fact.- Interviews With Francis Bacon, " I’ve always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset." As if, standing before one of those canvases, Bacon were to say, "Well, there, I think, I very nearly got a screaming mouth as it should be painted. Damned hard to do." Or to read that "Horrible or not ... his pictures were not supposed to mean a thing." So Cezanne painted apples, Renoir nudes, Monet sunsets, Bacon screams. To paint a scream because it is a difficult thing to paint, where the difficulty is not at all emotional but technical, like doing a human figure in extreme foreshortening or capturing the evanescent pinks of sunrise over misting water, is really a form of perversion. As a perversion, it marks this strange artist’s entire corpus. It is like a rack maker who listens to the screams of the racked only as evidence that he has done a fine job. It is inhuman. As humans, however, we cannot be indifferent to screams. We are accordingly victims ourselves, manipulated in our moral being by an art that has no such being, though it looks as if it must. It is for this reason that I hate Bacon’s art.


Bared teeth and exposed bones play a referential role in some of Bacon’s later works, particularly in two triptychs, one of which, Three Studies for a Crucifixion, shows the victim hung upside-down in the right panel, like an emptied carcass, with his head lying in what one supposes must be his own spilled viscera. But by this stage in his development, Bacon had begun to treat his figures virtually as viscera, as lumps and gobbets and tubes of flesh, not easily identified anatomically, pink and red and white, as if his subjects were what was left when skin and bones were removed. So shapeless are they, as piles and puddles of scraped and squeezed paint, that one is grateful at times for the mouths, as dentated wounds, to serve as some point of orientation. In the middle panel of this triptych, for example, a figure lies, like a pile of guts, on an elegant chaise longue, blood splattering the pillowcase and rising, like red bubbles, up past the black window shade in some piecemeal ascension. The teeth locate us in the gore, so we can identify eye sockets and a neat wound in one foot. In the left panel stand two uncrucified figures-witnesses, perhaps, patrons, executioners-one of them in a business suit, which could be Bacon  himself, the other a blob in what might be black leather. The three panels, paradoxically in view of their content, are done in cheerful decorator colors, apart from the figures themselves: flat planes of pompeian red and cadmium orange, with black window panels. One cannot help thinking of Auden’s great poem on art and suffering, as the old masters showed it: "how it takes place/while someone else is eating or opening a window or just/walking dully along:' Auden went on, marvelously, "They never forgot that even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course/anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot/where the dogs go on with their doggy life."


How appropriate, one thinks, that the crucifixion should transpire in a tasteful salon, amidst the sort of fin de siecle color scheme Odette de Crecy would have favored when Swann at last found his way to her body. After all, the act of love, thrashing bodies and flashing teeth and animal hoots, also takes place in those ornamental spaces. (Bacon, who had some success as a decorator and designer of Art Deco furniture, also likes to paint coupled figures smeared against one another in damp intercourse.) Or one thinks of the crucifixion as a metaphor for terrible interrogations that took place behind shuttered windows on quiet boulevards that the screams couldn’t reach. There is a certain insight in Nietzsche that it is not suffering so much as meaningless suffering to which the human mind is opposed, so that it was, in Nietzsche’s view, the genius of Christianity to have made all suffering meaningful. Certainly, we stand before works Uke this-or the Triptych Inspired by the Orestia of Aeschylus-compelled, despite our will, to cover the brutalized bodies with a balm of interpretation, a redemptive coating of allegory, if only to comfort ourselves. So again one feels oneself to have been manipulated in some way when the artist disowns any meaning whatever, and draws our attention, in his interviews, just to paint, almost as if he were some sort of Abstract Expressionist with no antecedent view of what he was going to do when he faced the canvas. Why is he then not an abstract painter-why choose these charged images only to elicit, as involutarily as a scream, an interpretation he rejects, categorically, as beside the point? We cannot see gore as just so much scraped red pigment, cannot disinterpret a writhing limb as simply a marvelous wipe of white paint. And this stance is reinforced by the fact that we cannot succeed in giving meaning to a lot of what Bacon does in his portraits and figure studies, where the subjects are liable to distortions that ought to have an explanation in the world to which the figures belong but which will standardly be given an explanation from the world in which painting takes place-as something that happens not in meaningful spaces but on meaningless surfaces.


There is one absolutely marvelous painting in the show, worth anyone’s time to see. This is Study for Portrait of Van Gogh III, of 1957. It shows us what Bacon could have done had he given to the whole painting what he instead gives to isolated faces and figures. He shows Van Gogh as Van Gogh might have shown himself in a world that looks the way he represented it in paint-as if the world were made the way paintings are-trees of black paint squirming up out of fields of red paint, past fields of yellow paint and green paint. The artist stands on heavy feet, the kind that belong in his famous shoes, in a field of pink mud, casting blue shadows. He has a black all-purpose face; it could be the face of a horse as well as a human, or even of a fish. The face does not matter: It is the world according to Vincent, and we are seeing it from within. For its allusiveness, its power, its brilliance, its total engagement with its subject, it makes the rest of the show look like posters for some avant-garde guignol of yesterday. The portrait of Van Gogh is an homage, a celebration of the only values Bacon allows himself to mention, the values of painting as painting. It shows what his deflected talent is capable of when his heart is in his subject.










Eminent outrage British painter Francis Bacon





IN HIS MOST recent avatar at the Museum of Modern Art, Francis Bacon appears before us defanged and declawed. The primal rantings now sound like a petulant whimper. The spastic gestures and maimed movements now savour almost of balletic adroitness. And yet nothing has changed in the heart or mind of this octogenarian artist, the elder statesman of the British art world. The latest paintings in this retrospective manifest the same unyielding, implacable anguish that has been his hallmark for almost fifty years.

Rather it is we who have changed. For the past two generations at least, we have been assailed on all sides by art works of such calculated grotesqueness that we have lost all power to be genuinely shocked by anything. We analyze the forms or assay the political correctness of the artifact, depending upon our orientation. Sometimes we even go through the motions of outrage. But we know that ultimately it is only art. Anything Bacon can pitch, we can catch.

Yet, by any reasonable computation, Francis Bacon is as great an outrage as any generation should have to endure. And if the eminent artist has a sense of humour, as I suspect he does not, he must be chuckling heartily at the public’s eagerness to embrace each festering and deformed carcass he throws at it.

Though Bacon was born in 1909, he becomes relevant to us and to himself only after 1943. That was the year in which, through a negation verging on self-parody, he studiously destroyed almost all of the art he had made up to that date. That was the year in which he was reborn as the shrill, tormented sociopath the art world loves. Since that time, Bacon has evolved remarkably little. His art has consisted in endless variations upon a closely circumscribed canon of themes and forms. Bacon was and remains a surrealist, an unrepentant irrationalist. But whereas others of that strain turned to Freud and to the dream world of the unconscious mind, Bacon reverts with a vengeance to Darwin and to the jungles of instinct. Whereas the other surrealists never lost their grounding in the man-made world, Bacon voids his paintings of most human traces, filling them with shrieking gibbons, salivating dogs, and subhuman apemen cast against a chillingly blank field.

His earlier works, it is true, are busier than that, overladen as they are with props: umbrellas and whole sides of beef, densely patterned Oriental rugs and landscapes whose nervously thin lines reveal a lingering debt to British modernists like Henry Moore and John Piper. A few later works, such as Sphinx II and Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh III, represent slight departures as well. But by the late Forties, with the "Head" series, Bacon had defined the highly idiosyncratic style in which he would work for the rest of his life. Emerging from a blackness qualified only by those wiry perspectival lines that have become something of the artist’s signature, a massive, disembodied head appears. An ear floats absurdly to the side, perhaps torn away. The ill-defined eyes are shut in suspended rage; the mouth-like orifice is fixed in a noiseless ululation, exposing molars and fang-like canines. Were is there an end of it/The soundless wailing?" asks T. S. Eliot. For Bacon there is no end. That wailing, bitter, gnashing, self-consuming is the sound of life itself. All other sounds are lies.

Everything Francis Bacon depicts he distorts. And yet every depiction, even if we cannot describe or name the thing depicted, has the infallible ring of truth. An indescribable biomorph hangs down from a wire cage. A boneless, quivering mass of gelatinous flesh drowns in a sink or sits huddled over a toilet. Bacon is obsessed with movement within suspension, and with the suspension of movement. An expressionless face decomposes before our eyes into a psychotic omelette. A violent jet of water is frozen and immobilized as it streaks across the canvas.

To glance even cursorily at these paintings is to understand why they have come to seem the quintessential, unequivocal statement of the modem mood. But precisely for this reason it is too early to tell how good they really are. We shall need to be well out of the twentieth century before we can finally say whether Bacon was ever really on to something, or was merely a cantankerous, maladjusted misanthrope. Formally, his brilliant, stylish works are closer to masterpieces than anything else being done today. If some of the colouristic choices are of debatable merit, his way with a laden brush comes very close to perfection. What is wrong with the larger, spiritual dimensions of these sixty paintings at the Modern is their one-sidedness. To Bacon’s binary mind, man, because he is not an angel, can only be a beast. In this belief Bacon is surely not alone in contemporary culture. Rather he is the foremost embodiment of the prevailing trend, the regnant humbug of the age. This is the wilful fallacy which, in an age more happy than our own, may one day qualify the esteem in which we hold Francis Bacon and everyone like him.




"Body Language"







En masse, the way [Francis] Bacon’s pictures are painted takes visual priority over what they depict—which is what should always happen, though we cannot help our conditioned impulse to look for what the areas of paint are “about.” Bacon might be accused of being something of a tease in this matter, for despite his understandable protests about his art neither illustrating nor narrating, he frequently alludes to circumstances of his own life that are bound to pique human curiosity.

But to enter a room of his pictures is to encounter paint first. It is the large-scale areas of applied pigment, often semiabstract in form, that make what can be a lasting impact: a curved pink-and-biscuit-colored expanse of a blackish brown rectangle slotted, half-Mondrian-like, into a far bigger rectangle of fawn. Such shapes have their own tautness and vitality. Although it may be that they have been added by the painter as backgrounds to his figures, they often appear fundamental to the composition. The surfaces of his paint read as though they were expanses of fabric stretched tightly over some invisible drum. In fact, they are much less formal than anything in Mondrian. Nor do they have anything of the sensuousness, in color and in shape, of Matisse. Color is altogether where Bacon’s art is least sure. yet there is a clean-cut, clear-cut feel to these sweeping fields of paint.

They may well be indications of austere interiors, with bare floors and blank windows. Fashionable analogies hover, prompting commentators to mention the constriction of urban modern life or even of prisons. But looked at directly, without literary overtones, they fail to be oppressive or claustrophobic. In much the same way, the paint in the foreground crisply defining a complex human shape, can enchant the eye before it resolves itself into the unpromising suggestions of mutilation and pain.

The apparent paradox between form and content brings one to the artist himself. It is difficult to think that he has experienced any particular disgust at the style of images he has created, or that he means his images to shock. There is neither horror nor pity in his pictures. Bacon’s art is not likely to produce a Guernica. It is too sealed in, within a narrow circle of self-reference merging into self-regard. His work partly draws its power from that concentration. After all, an artist is not necessarily a social commentator—or a social worker. There is no guarantee that the good artist will be a good citizen. Bacon can be seen as admirable in his refusal to be anything but an artist, refusing to let society have claims on him and scrupulously refusing to make claims on it. Such an uncompromising and isolated position has its romantic aspect. It may encourage the idea that the resulting art is bleak, severe in its emphasis on the individual, and finally pessimistic about the human condition.

Nevertheless, in what is perhaps the clinching paradox at the heart of Bacon’s art, there is about his pictures a sensation profoundly more positive than negative.





Francis Bacon


 Museum of Modern Art




The revelation of this carefully selected, historically self-conscious retrospective of the work of Francis Bacon is the progression over the course of the artist’s career from a loaded, murky painterliness, to a spare, even linear, handling. This evolution toward an evanescent thinness, even when colour is boldly uniform, goes hand and hand with his schematization of format and figures. Usually considered vitally and uniquely individual, Bacon’s grimacing faces and tortured bodies, his general sense of the sickness of human existence, his ironic secularization (profanation?) of the traditional format of the sacred triptych, his spontaneous appropriation of high art and media images, guided by inner necessity—which makes him look contemporary (if eccentrically excited) in this age of studied appropriations—seem secondary issues. Here Bacon’s signature tortured subjects progressively reveal themselves  as tropes, even clichés, of stylized suffering.

Is the late economy of means successful? Certainly it is another way of sustaining the expressionist attitude at a time when its language of direct expression seems to betray it. There is the sense that the dryness of the late works may not be the result of a diminution of anguish—did Bacon become habituated to his own psyche, and thus less overtly mad, more sane?—but simply the exhaustion of artistic means with which to articulate it. Indeed, the late works look redundant, as though Bacon is pedantically driving home the predictably painful lesson life inflicts on those who expect comfort from it. The late works seem less visionary, as though Bacon, having grown accustom to his insanity, now saw it with mundane eyes. The least that can be said is that Bacon seems tired—of himself? Of the habit of making pictures? In contrast to the compulsive early works, in the last paintings he may be taking himself, and art, for granted.

But perhaps his reduction of everything in his oeuvre to a predictable pattern is the indication of a new compulsion. With age, according to some theorists, one is supposed to see life less experimentally and more abstractly, that is, to finalize and order it. There is no sense, however, of a grand summing up in Bacon’s last works, no sense of wisdom—visual or existential—distilled from all the year of labor. At the same time they hardly constitute the whimper that T. S. Eliot thought came with the end. Rather, Bacon has become a mannerist of himself. His late works index his earlier works, but they look like a table of contents to paintings that were never made. That’s the way an artist signals he’s at the end of his tether, has nothing more to say: his works begin to look like an index to themselves, an index easily confused with a table of contents. Why, one wonders, is there no living work to read, and only the denuded text?

—Donald Kuspit





Home thoughts from an incurable surrealist




Absorbed by his art; he scorns decoration; in fear of death, he is fascinated by the macabre.


Francis Bacon, master of the incongruous, talks to Richard Cork.


Photograph by Graham Wood.






Entering Francis Bacon’s surprisingly Spartan bedsitting room in an uncanny experience, like finding yourself inside one of his own paintings. The walls are bare, and dangling from the ceiling are the same naked light bulbs that swing like demented pendulums in his pictures or bear down glaringly on a nude sprawled across a bed. Bacon’s preoccupation with reflections in many of his paintings is also echoed, with a startling dash of he macabre, by a wall-sized mirror. Its surface has been partially riven by a spectacular crack, as if somebody had picked up the small electric fire perched on a near by chair and hurled it straight at the glass. Rather than replacing the mirror, Bacon has taped up the largest slivers to prevent them falling off. The crack’s explosive power has been preserved, almost as disturbingly as one of the figures writhing in the immensity of a Bacon canvas.

When I remarked on the austerity of the room, with its single bed flanked by an angle-poise lamp at the far end, Bacon replied: "My surroundings simply don’t interest me very much." In one sense, his comment is understandable enough. The studiously neutral colour of the walls implies an utter lack of concern for the niceties of decoration. Two sofas, half-obscured by rows of clothes, likewise suggest that their owner has no time for wardrobes. The interior looks like a student’s digs, inhabited by somebody who disdains bourgeois propriety and feels impatient with the whole notion of possessions.

"I once had a very early Frank Auerbach," Bacon said, after I asked him about the absence of pictures. "At one stage I also bought a Sickert of a woman lying on a bed with a man seated next to her. But, like a fool, I gave it to Lucian Freud. I wish I had it now." He spoke like a man who lacked the financial resources to remedy his loss, and Bacon’s home certainly seems untouched by his ability to command millions of pounds for a single painting. "Earning vast amounts of money doesn’t affect me one bit," he said. "I’d be quite happy going back to the income I had as a young man, when I worked as a cook and general servant."

Looking round the room, I could see what he meant. There is nothing fixed or settled about this interior, no hint of and expenditure having been lavished on a place Bacon moved into 30 years ago. It resembles the room of a man in transit, someone unshackled by any of the conventional ties binding most people to their houses. Perhaps the truth is that Bacon is so absorbed in thinking about his art, and reading the books which festoon every available surface, that he has no time left for the external details of life.

In another sense, though, the parallels between this strange environment and his work indicate that it nourishes him as powerfully as the life-mask of William Blake once did. He still keeps it, on a cupboard next to an electric fan  a very Baconian juxtaposition. Its blanched and enigmatic features inspired a mesmerising sequence of paintings in the mid-Fifties. More recently, it also prompted him to have his own life-mask taken, an experience he regretted as soon as they started smothering his face with plaster. Now Blake’s life-mask presides over the room, mediating with stoicism on the inevitability of his eventual demise.

What, I wondered, did Bacon feel about the prospect of death of death? "Well, Picasso abhorred the thought of death: he loathed being reminded of mortality so much that he didn’t even want anyone to mention his  75th birthday when it arrived." Bacon, who refers to Picasso a great deal and regards him as by far the greatest artist of our century, understands exactly why he felt that way. "I hate the thought of death," he said. "I hate the thought of it all coming to an end." He paused, stared out of the window for a moment, and then brightened with a defiant rallying cry: "Shall we have some champagne?"

He leapt up with astonishing agility and, betraying no sign of an 81-yea old’s stiffness, disappeared into the kitchen. While he was away, I reflected that anyone who retains o much energy is bound to regard the whole notion of extinction as anathema. Within seconds he was back, bearing a bottle which he uncorked with seasoned ease. The two stemmed glasses he placed on the table were elegantly inscribed with the initials FB in flowing script. They were the gift, apparently, of an admirer in Germany, where his work is regarded with almost as much veneration as in France.

Did he think that his paintings are appreciated more warmly over there than in Britain? "Oh, they don’t like my work here at all," he said bluntly. "Maybe it’s the savagery they find in it, or maybe it’s the homosexuality which I suppose is in my work. I don’t go about shouting that I’m gay, but Aids has made it all much worse, you know. People are very, very odd about it. The other day a telephone engineer came round, so I offered him a drink. He looked at me strangely and said: ’You’re gay, aren’t you?' "

With characteristic honesty, Bacon has never made any attempt to hide his homosexuality. Some of his finest and most erotic paintings depict male figures embracing or making love. Moreover, he is intrigues by the fact that his distant ancestor, the celebrated Elizabethan Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon, was also homosexual. "It comes up in Aubrey’s Brief Lives," he said, bounding up from the table again and moving swiftly over to a pile of books on a cupboard near the bed. The search proved fruitless: "Where is it? What have I done with it? I’ve thrown all my books away, you know, because I’ve got no room for them."

I challenged his about the British perception of his work. He is, after all, widely regarded as this country’s most outstanding living painter, and over the past 30 years the Tate Gallery has paid him the unique honour of staging two great retrospectives. Now, in the Tate’s latest rehang, he has been given the accolade of a large room devoted solely to his work. It is immensely powerful, and prompted me to telephone him on impulse after I had visited the gallery. Bacon’s line was engaged for almost an hour, but then, quite suddenly, started ringing. He answered at once, and I told him that I had been particularly impressed at the Tate by his loan of a grand triptych, which he painted three years ago.

Bacon conceived it as a second version of a smaller and far more rasping triptych called Three Studies Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Painted in 1944, it seemed at the time to encapsulate the horror of war, by showing three monstrously deformed hybrids, half human and half beast, yelling their despair against a vehement orange ground. This disconcerting trio reappears in the 1988 version. But the two figures at the sides now point inwards rather than outwards, seeming to direct their anguish towards a blindfolded form with bared, vicious teeth in the centre. This time the extra space around each figure intensifies their isolation, and Bacon exchanges the parched, angry orange of the earlier triptych for a sumptuous deep crimson.

Having mentioned my fascination with these two versions, I asked Bacon if we might meet. To my surprise he agreed, and the next morning I went round to his mews home, in South Kensington, armed with his warning that its entrance had no name-plate to identify it. Although his work might suggest that Bacon is a reclusive and difficult man, he could not have been more convivial. Unusually for an artist, he is also very frank in his criticism of the work he had produced. "I did that second triptych because I’d always wanted to do a large version of the earlier one," he said. "I thought it might work, but I think the first one is the best. I should have reiterated the orange to give it a kick, because the red dissolves. But I may had been dissuaded by the boredom of putting it on, because mixing that orange paint with pastel and spraying it was a terrible lot of work."

Why, I asked, had he remained so obsessed with the crucifixion theme? "Well, I’m not in the least religious," he said, "even though I was brought up in the Protestant faith and went to church as a child. At my age, I’ve known many people die or commit suicide and I’ve never thought they were anything other than dead. I’m certain there’s nothing after that, and I like the finality of the American expression 'drop dead'. But I am fascinated by the great crucifixions which have been painted in the past by Cimabue and Grünwald.   

Lying on the table beside us, next to an assortment of bottles and a Linguaphone course, was W. B. Stanford’s book on  Greek Tragedy and the Emotions. It reminded me that Bacon’s gruelling interpretation of the crucifixion had been profoundly affected by his love of Aeschylus. One of his most haunting late triptychs was "suggested by" the  Oresteia plays, and although he can only read Aeschylus in translation, "the whole surrealism is there". Picasso’s paintings of bathers from the surrealist period likewise influenced Bacon profoundly, to the extent of  inspiring him to start painting. "But I’ve been influenced by everything," he said, "even the extraordinary colour photographs in medical text books, which I get from a bookshop in Gower Street. I got one there recently on small wounds."

He rose again and returned this time with a well-thumbed, paint-smeared copy of A Colour Atlas of Nursing Procedures in Accidents and Emergencies. I flinched from the pictures of syphilitic sores and other excruciating painful afflictions inside, all reproduced with glistening vividness. But Bacon seemed captivated rather than appalled as he leafed through the pages Why did he never even shudder at them? "I suppose when I look at these photographs, I think: 'My God, I’m lucky I don’t have that," he replied, pointing at a particularly gruesome wound. "But they don’t alarm me in the way that they do other people. Once I was driving through France with a friend, and we came across a terribly bad motor accident. There was blood and glass all over the road. But I remember thinking that there was a beauty about it. I didn’t feel the horror of it, because it was par of life."

Sensing that we were approaching the central reason why some people still recoil from Bacon’s art, I pressed him to speculate on the origins of his preoccupation with the normality of violence. "Well, you musn’t forget that I was born in Ireland," he said, "where my English father trained racehorses very unsuccessfully. I grew up there at a time when Sinn Fein was going around. All the houses in our neighbourhood were being attacked,  and on all the trees  you’d see the green, white and gold of the Sinn Fein flags.."

Although Bacon’s family moved to London at the beginning of the the first world war, when he was almost five, the atmosphere of fear did not abate. "We lived near Hyde Park, in Westbourne Terrace, and after the bombing started they sprayed the park with a phosphorescent substance from watering-cans. The idea was that the zeppelins would identify this glow as the lights of the city, and drop their bombs there. Then we went back to Ireland again, so I was brought up to think of life having this violence."

Even today it remains a powerful force driving his work. At an age when most men have mellowed and lost some, at least, of their youthful fire, Bacon stays close to his old obsessions. "I was planning this year to do a series of paintings about places where murder has been committed," he said, describing how there would have been, "one in a field, one on a pavement, and one in a room. But I’m going to abandon the idea."

One of these canvases sat half-finished on an easel in his studio, a modestly proportioned room reached by passing through a kitchen lined with colour reproductions of his work. A grey upper area in the painting led down to a central section spattered with blood. It had the rudiments of an authentically chilling image. But Bacon, an inveterate and ruthless destroyer of pictures he considers to be failures, said it was no good. He seemed reluctant to show me any of the other works-in-progress stacked against the wall.

Responding to my interest, though, he did allow me to explore the rest of the studio. It was cold, probably because his anxiety about the risk of fire prompts him to leave unheated the rooms he is not currently not using. The walls, like the doors, were gaudily covered with paint-splashes of every conceivable colour. As for the floor, it was heaped to the point of outright congestion with books, paint pots, squeezed-out tubes of pigment and smeared rags. How Bacon moves around in such a cluttered space remains unfathomable, but I did manage to bend down and retrieve a small canvas from the wreckage. The painted face it once contained had been cut out with a few swift slashes of the knife, leaving only a tantalizing vestige of a head behind.

In this cramped interior, lit by a skylight window which Bacon inserted for the purpose, he manages even to work on even the largest of his triptychs. When assembled, they must stretch across virtually the full width of the room, but Bacon finds this restriction oddly stimulating. "The best exhibition I’ve ever had was in 1977 at the Galerie Claude Bernard, in Paris, where the spaces are all small and the paintings looked more intense." So here, hemmed in by detritus in a studio which most artists would find claustrophobic, the indefatigable octogenarian repairs every morning. Unlike Lucian Freud, who painted a masterly little portrait of Bacon from nocturnal sittings almost 40 years ago, he prefers working in daylight. "I get up very early  and paint in here until 1 pm. Then I’m finished, I’ve had it. I hate afternoons, I think they’re absolutely revolting, they’re a wash-out. But I feel better again in the evenings."

HE looked spry enough as we talked, and while walking to a nearby Italian restaurant for lunch his gait seemed positively jaunty. The laced-up gym shoes, fawn pullover and corduroy slacks only accentuated the inner vitality of a man whose enthusiasm for work, and eagerness to talk about the artists and writers he admires most keenly, remains undimmed.

"I’ve thought of doing dozens of things which I’ve never done," he said, with an old man’s acute awareness of the role played by temporality and chance. "One’s energy fluctuates, and there’s never enough time. With life passing so quickly, you can never talk in ultimate terms, never plan for the future. It just happens." But, judging by the paintings he continues to produce, Bacon’s ability to seize the moment is still as formidable as ever.