Francis Bacon News












    Art collector and historian






Mr Douglas Cooper, the art collector, historian and critic, died in London on April 1 at the age of 73. A man of strongly held opinions, who could be withering in his attacks, he made a considerable contribution to knowledge of the Cubists, and of other painters of the 19th and 20th centuries, not least through the exhibitions he helped to organize.

He was born in London on February 20, 1911, of British parents who owned extensive property in Australia. He was educated at various European universities, including Cambridge, and on coming into a substantial fortune decided to devote himself to the study of 19th and 20th century art, and to the formation of a collection of paintings by contemporary artists.

He spent some time in Paris in the 1930s, making friends with many of the artists -who were active there, and building up a collection of mainly Cubist works, then much less fashionable and expensive than they have since become.

His earliest articles, written under the pseudonym of Douglas Lord, showed at once his learning, his critical power, and his pugnacity. In 1940 he was in France and joined the French Red Cross with a friend, their experiences later being described in a book written in collaboration, The Road to Bordeaux. Later he served in the Royal Air Force in Egypt and Malta.

At the end of the war he resumed his studies, and during the following years published a series of articles and short books on the great painters of the late 19th century — Degas, van Gogh, Cézanne, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Douanier Rousseau — and on the masters of Cubism, the style which he most deeply admired.

His monographs on Braque and Léger will long remain standards works, as will the catalogue he published in 1978 of the works of Juan Gris. His catalogue of the Courtauld collection of paintings, published in 1954, was something of a landmark in scholarship, since in it the principles of scholarship as they had been evolved in the analysis of earlier art were applied for the first time to the study of late 19th century painting.

For some years Cooper lived in the Château de Castille, near Avignon, which he had bought and restored, and which housed his magnificent collection of paintings.

The collection was formed on very strict principles to illustrate the art of Cubism in all its most important aspects. Picasso. Braque, Gris and Léger, were all represented by exceptionally fine examples of their works in the Cubist manner and in other phases related to the evolution of Cubism and in addition there were’ important groups of works by Miro and Klee.

The collection, the late 18th,century chateau in which it was displayed, and the ruined colonnade linking the housie with the road made the whole of unique charm.

In the world of art, Cooper enjoyed and sought controversy. If he disapproved of a scholar or an institution he attacked frontally, sometimes in the heat of the fight doing more harm than good to the cause he was supporting by the violence with which he pursued his opponents, and sometimes condemning in others faults of which he was himself guilty.

In the 1950s, he played an active part in attacks on Sir John Rothenstein, then director of the Tate Gallery, and in the attempts to dislodge him, Cooper criticized the Tate, and the British generally, of failing to appreciate and support modern rt.

That particular, hatchet was buried, however, last year when Cooper acted as one of the selectors for the remarkable exhibition at the Tate, The Essential Cubism, and part-author of the catalogue.

It followed an earlier exhibition, also on Cubism, which he had helped to organize at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1971; and was only the latest of the many exhibitions Cooper arranged, including one of Braque for the 1973 Edinburgh Festival, remarkable for the skill with which the works were chosen and the scholarship with which they were presented.

In 1957-58 he was Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, and for many years he contributed art criticism of great distinction to The Times Literary Supplement.

Cooper was a close friend of many distinguished artists, including Graham Sutherland among the British, and Léger and Braque among the French. Towards the end of his life he sold the Château de Castille, and moved into a flat in Monte Carlo, disposing of some of the pictures he could not take with him.

His last work, virtually complete at his death and due to be published in France, was a complete catalogue of the works of Gauguin.





Art: Recent Paintings By Francis Bacon






ONE of the most remarkable images that we have seen in New York lately is the variant after “Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Jean-Dominique Ingres that is included in the exhibition of recent paintings by Francis Bacon at the Marlborough Gallery, 40 West 57th Street.

The sphinx as subject matter has always brought out the best in Bacon. A recent example is the portrait of Muriel Belcher, done in 1979, in which sphinx and sitter become one. Mrs. Belcher, one of the most formidable London characters of her day, was a club owner renowned for her insubordinate spirit and hallucinatory freedom of speech. In Bacon’s portrait, she lends her fine-boned physical structure to the sphinx of tradition. As for her gaze – from which nothing that was material could ever be kept – it merged completely with the static posture and elongated forepaws of the Egyptian riddler.

In painting his variant of the Ingres (which exists in several versions), Bacon produced a chesty little sphinx, built somewhat like Goldie Hawn and on the face of it more sportive than terrifying. Facing her, with a clear-browed stare, is an Oedipus still not much disquieted. This Oedipus flaunts a leg and a foot that are covered with blood, as if still marked by his childhood experience on the mountainside. No mean hand at confrontations of which none can foresee the outcome, Bacon here comes on very strong indeed.

But then, the show as a whole is full of new notions. Bacon has still not got around to making the sculptures that he has long been thinking about, but two new paintings here indicate that the preoccupation is still very much alive. One shows a giant sculpture in a public space, with dwarfed human figures making a detour around it. Another deals with sculpture in terms of a subject for still life. We might take the sculpture in question for a fragment from the antique; did it not relate rather to recent paintings in which the human body is metamorphosed into a free-form jug or vessel to which genitals and legs happen to be attached.

Bacon in his 75th year is as inventive as ever. Not only has he a whole new slew of images  some based on that unmistakable piece of English sporting equipment, the cricket pad  but after nearly half a century of painting in oils, he began not long ago to use both oils and pastels in the same picture. To the idiosyncratic sweep and smear of his oils there is therefore added, in more than one of the paintings in the show, the soft crumble of pastel.

And although it is not in his nature to sit idly by and watch the passing scene, there is distinctly a new resonance to the triptych dated 1983 that occupies a predominant position in the show. Where at one time all three panels might have been filled with implacable activities of one kind or another, the left- and right-hand panels now bear images of something close to a monumental resignation. Only in the central panel – an abduction scene, as powerful as it is enigmatic – does he revert to the hyperactive imaginings that have made his work ’’an almost wounding presence’’ (I quote from Michel Leiris, a French admirer of long standing) ever since the last years of World War II. (Through June 5.)






                                             Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres (1983) Francis Bacon







New York



Marlborough Gallery






Francis Bacon’s new paintings demonstrate again his secure mastery of a by-now-familiar vocabulary, and yet, with the artist aged 75, still strike new notes. Bacon’s position seems toweringly high at this moment. Through the ages of abstraction and minimalism he remained one of the very few representational painters about whom even dedicated formalists could feel good. Now the forefront of things has caught up with him, in both his quoting–of Cimabue, Van Gogh, Velázquez, Ingres, and of photographic images–and his kind of exploration of space. The opposition between the illusionistic, three-dimensional space of representation and the flat, concrete space of minimalist abstraction offers a conceptual dilemma which Bacon was among the first to bring into the open, exploring, as he put it, “the difference, in fact, between paint which conveys directly and paint which conveys through illustration.” Since about 1950 his canvases have involved limited areas of illusionistic depth surrounded and separated by areas of flat paint suggestive of fabric. Certain areas remain highly ambiguous as to which view of space they more openly express. Recent work called post-Modern has been prominently occupied  with this question, juxtaposing and interpenetrating the two kinds of space in ways that often question the reality of either.

In Bacon’s new work his familiar vocabulary of depth definition is used. Hints of perspective poke through orange grounds (a feature of his earliest paintings) and create momentary theaters for the drama of the representation. Furniture also performs the space-thickening function of wresting an illusionistic platform from the engulfing bend of the ground. As in the “Pope” paintings of 1951, areas of three dimensionality are sometimes marked off by surrounding perspectival boxes or booths.

Most of the new works show naked male humans whose anatomy streaks off into speed blurs and melts into drippings on the floor. Seen through the distorting veils of time, the figures are headless, often have legs and feet where arms and hands are expected, and, in their four-legged-monster aspect, seem homoerotic icons of a buttocks-centered humanity. These figures act out what Bacon has called “the shortness of the moment of existence between birth and death,” undergoing before hour eyes an impersonal drama of absorption into the void ground. Cadaverous as if on operating tables, partial as if on meat racks, they briefly and weakly state the message of their existence and their desire. Space itself, the property of being embodied, erodes them instantly, flattening the illusionistic self into mute objecthood. Here Bacon turns the contradiction between the two painterly models of space into pure content, crucifying his figures upon it. Though elegantly sweetened by pastel amid the acrylic, these works still exert something of the “exhilarated despair,” as Bacon called it, of the earlier works. Two paintings of less familiar type take Bacon’s sense of spatiality and expand it, first into an outdoor urban scene in Statue and Figures in a Street, 1983, then into cosmography in A Piece of Waste Land, 1982. These pieces hint at new wonders that may flow from Bacon’s confrontation with the facts of body, space and the world.






Francis Bacon at 75






FRANCIS Bacon (above) is “one of the few modern painters who can be called great in the traditional sense,” says critic Susan Sontag.

The artist, whose 75th birthday is being celebrated with a BBC television documentary and a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery, seldom gives interviews.

But in tomorrow’s TELEGRAPH SUNDAY MAGAZINE, he talks to SHUSHA GUPPY about his fondness for gambling and drinking as well as his work.













Francis Bacon has been described at the first British painter since Turner and Constable to achieve universal recognition.

For four decades his stark paintings have excited critics and collectors.

Now 75, he airs his unguarded opinions and recollections in this exclusive interview.






In 1945 a major exhibition of contemporary British artists work (Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Matthew Smith and others) included Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion a triptych by an unknown painter Francis Bacon. The Figures, isolated in an empty space, were nightmarish freaks, half human half beast, with necks like twisted snakes, eyes blind or blindfolded, mouths screaming. Seeming to express all the horrors of war, they were not a popular success in a postwar period when people were more concerned with trying to forget the privations of the recent years.

It was believed the perpetrator of the unrelieved horror would disappear without trace. Instead, in the decades which followed, he went on to produce some of the most haunting images of our time and became acknowledged as one of the century’s most important painters.

Today, Bacon’s paintings of screaming popes, crucifixions, solitary caged figures and distorted faces are part of the iconography of art. “He is one of the few modern painters who can be called great in the traditional sense, having affiliations with the heroic figures of Western painting; Michelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt, Goya”, said U.S. critics Susan Sontag, writing about a recent exhibition in New York.

In a new book full of praise for Bacon’s work, Michel Leiris, one of France’s most distinguished poets and critics, writes, “Francis Bacon expresses the human condition as it truly and peculiarly is today — man dispossessed of any durable paradise and able to contemplate himself clear-sightedly”; and philosopher Gilles Deleuze recently published a philosophical treatise, The Logic of Sensation, on Bacon’s art.

Bacon is a cult figure in France, and his last exhibition in Paris attracted 8,000 in the first 24 hours, causing the police to cordon off a whole street.

This year Bacon’s 75th birthday is being celebrated with a series of events. The BBC  is screening a documentary about his life and work on November 16 and the Tate Gallery is preparing a retrospective of 120 of his works which will travel subsequently to Berlin.

“Not since Turner and Constable has a British painter achieved such universal recognition”, says Richard Francis, the young curator who helped the artist select the works. “The interesting this is that so many young artists acknowledge his importance and influence without trying to imitate him”.

Francis Bacon looks uncannily youthful for his age. A blond forelock hangs over a face at once cheerful and tormented, cherubic and impish. His figure is firm and his gait springy. His clothes are elegant but casual and when he smiles he has the expression of innocent wonderment which artists tend to share with bright children. Since 1959 he has lived and worked in a two-room mews flat in South Kensington. One room is his studio, piled with 25 years of clutter: hundreds of paint tubes, brushes, rags, photographs. The walls are covered with thick paint, like an immense palette.

“I live in squalor”, he explained. “The woman who cleans is not allowed to touch the studio. Besides I use the dust — I set it like pastel”.

The other room, his living space, has an oval bed at one end, covered with a Moroccan bedspread — a tent cover — which provides a patch of dazzling colour in an otherwise stark room. At the other end is a large table covered with the overspill of books from shelves laden with everything from Aeschylus to Eliot.

Bacon was born in Dublin on October 28 1909: My father was a horse-trainer, he said, and my mother — who was 20 years younger than him — loved entertainment and parties. As a child I suffered from asthma so I had no proper schooling. At 16 he came to London. “I didn’t do anything much. I had one or two small jobs: once I worked a a servant for a solicitor and his wife in Holborn. I had to make breakfast, ‘do’ the house, and come back to give them dinner. When I gave in my notice, I remember him saying, I don’t know why he bothers to go — he never does anything.

“Then I worked in a wholesale shop in Soho, but generally I drifted. I confess I was not at all honest. I would rent rooms and disappear when I couldn’t pay the rent, and I’d live on petty theft and other people’s kindness. What you call morality has grown on me with age.

“When I was 20 I went to Berlin, But I only stayed about six weeks, just living and looking at things. It was before the Nazis took over, but there was already an atmosphere of unease and tension. Then I went to Paris.”

Paris was then the artistic capital of Europe: Picasso, Braque, Giacometti and many more lived and worked there: I never met any of them, as I didn’t move in those circles. But I went to an exhibition of Picasso’s paintings. I can’t remember if I liked them or not, but I was impressed and thought I might try and paint.”

Back in London in 1929, Bacon rented a converted garage and began to paint and design furniture. My designs were very derivative of what was being done  on the Continent, and not good. I didn’t really paint until I was over 30. I had one picture in a group show but no one took any notice of it and I later destroyed it.

“Then the war came. Because of my asthma I was not eligible for active service, so they put me in the Rescue Service in Chelsea. But the heat and the congestion of night vigil aggravated my asthma and I was discharged. Then I began to paint.”

Had all those years of drifting been constructive?

“One can only say you absorb all types of things which go into a kind of pulveriser in the unconscious and may come out as something quite different later. I was always fascinated by images, and I looked at everything. I destroyed most of those early pictures as I didn’t like them, but I was influenced by Picasso, especially the paintings he did between 1925 and 1927 of figures on a beach.

“Everybody is influenced at the start — it is the spark that sets one off. I don’t think it matters even if one goes on being influenced — some of the greatest paintings, like Cimabue’s Crucifixion, are based on what has been done before; only someone new comes along and does it better. Any painting that works today is linked to the past.

“In a way it was better when there wasn’t so much individuality. But because today there is no tradition and no myths, people are thrown back on their own sensibility. Abstract art was perhaps one attempt at getting away from this, but it never worked because the artists made their own patterns in their own ways.

“That is why American art is, on the whole, boring. They want to start from nothing. I understand their position: they are trying to create a new culture and identity. But why try to be so limited?

All through those early years Bacon lived a precarious life of insolvency, without patronage: “I had one or two friends who helped me and encouraged me to go on. In particular a friend of mine, Eric Hall, who bought that  early triptych and donated it later to the Tate Gallery Tate. The Tate didn’t want to have it all, but in the end they accepted it. It will be in their new exhibition.

“Then someone took me to The Colony Room, a drinking club in Soho, and the owner, Muriel Belcher, befriended me. I had met a few writers and artists through Lucian Freud, and Muriel offered to pay me £10 a week if I took friends there from time to time. It was possible to live on it, almost, before the pound went to confetti. Eventually, Erica Brausen, who had opened a gallery in London, came to see my pictures and offered me a show. She bought one picture straight away which she later sold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was called Painting 1946.

It was that one man show at the Hanover Gallery in 1949 which launched Bacon. Within five years he was Britain’s representative at the Venice Biennale of 1954. Other exhibitions followed in France and America. Francis Bacon became an international name. Few painters are so identified with the imagery of their pictures: the open carcases, the strings of offal, the screaming faces, are supposed to express human suffering and the primal scream.

“But I am certainly not trying to put across suffering, or violence, he says. Life is violent, though, just the fact of being born is a ferocious event. I grew up in Ireland with the Sinn Fein movement.. I remember my father saying: ‘If they come tonight, keep quiet and say nothing’.

“My grandmother was married to the chief of police in County Kildare and used to live with sandbagged windows and ditches dug on the road to ambush cars. And I have lived through two world wars. I suppose all that leaves some impression. You can’t separate life from suffering and despair. But life is also wonderful, and I believe the aim of art — however violent or sad or grim — is to produce joy.

“Otherwise it has failed. I am trying to work as close to my own nervous system as I can, but my painting is not illustrative and has no message; it is an image. If I wanted to express philosophy I would write — use words, not paint.

“People forget that, since photography, painting no longer has to record events. There are wonderful paintings of the past that have the function of recording, like Velázquez’s at the court of Philip IV. You can say that painting has become more limited, but its possibility of intensity is even greater. It makes images and people can interpret the images as they wish.

One of Bacon’s most famous paintings, The Screaming Nurse, was inspired by Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin. And there are his series of popes with similar expressions. Did these not convey human anguish?

“It is not the aguish in Eisenstein’s film which attracted me but the beauty and intensity of the image. The lips, the mouth, flesh, would look so beautiful in colour, I thought. I was obsessed by that image and at the same time by Velázquez’s portrait of Innocent X, one of the great paintings of the world. I thought perhaps I could bring the two together in a single image. But I don’t think it worked and I now regret having done them”.

One of Bacon’s influences was the work of the pioneer photographer Edward Muybridge, and he is known to use passport photographs of his sitters and of himself.

“I only paint people I know very well. When they are not around I use their photos to remember, not to copy. I have just finished three portraits of a friend and the problem, as usual, was how to make an image and keep the likeness. There is no point doing a portrait unless there is a likeness. To combine the two is what creates tension and excitement.

“However late I get to bed, I get up as soon as there is light, because the early light is so good. I work six or seven hours and then I stop — unless it is going very well; then I might go on all day. It is a terrible thing to be confronted with a blank canvas; it is only when an image begins to emerge that is becomes exciting.

“Sometimes I feel I am not working at all, just pushing the brushes here and there. In some of my most successful pictures the image has come through as a result of accidental movements of the brush.

Bacon has an answer for those who criticise his fondness for gambling and drinking. “Gambling comes from my background. My father used to send me to the Post Office to place a last bet before ‘the off’. It is the peculiar feeling that the gods are with you and you are going to win. I don’t go to a casino thinking I will lose.

“In Ireland there were professional gamblers who made a living out of it, but then they had very good inside information, The most stupid form of gambling — which depends entirely on chance — is roulette, which is what I play! But I don’t play for the high stakes that some do.

“As for drinking, well a drink relaxes me. But I certainly don’t drink to drown my sorrows, nor do I get drunk often, I have known a good many drunks and they are such crashing bores!”

Does he regret his homosexuality?

“In many ways it is an affliction, and limiting. But there it is! I am not at all unhappy about it and never have been. My father was a descendant of the Elizabethan Francis Bacon and the family have always called one son Francis. But funnily enough the original Francis Bacon was said to be a homosexual too, in Aubrey’s Brief Lives. But Aubrey was a gossip”.

Bacon’s paintings are among the most expensive by a contemporary artist. But how rich is he really?

“Listen, you don’t get rich in this country. Most of my money goes in tax. But I don’t mind. I don’t particularly want to be rich. I don’t mind the high taxes either, it is the price we pay for living in a country which is still relatively free. I have no wish to become a tax-exile — imagine all those rich people boring one another.

“However, I love living in Paris. I work quicker and better here, so I don’t often go there.

“You mustn’t think that I am popular and sell a lot. In fact they still have difficulty selling my picture here, and in America they don’t like me much. It is only on the Continent that they like my work”.

Bacon’s conversation is laced with quotations from poets and writers. He is supposed to have been influenced by Eliot’s early poetry: “Sweeney Agonistes and The Wasteland are my favourites”.

Although Bacon looks preternaturally youthful and in excellent health despite recurrent asthma, does he wonder about death and after life?

“I believe one is born and one dies and only what one does between these two absolute points counts.

“Also, painting is an old man’s occupation. Some of the greatest have done their best work in old age; Titian and Picasso and others. So I hope I shall go on and drop dead while working. When all is said and done what matters is instinct”.





 Arena  Francis Bacon

             Friday BBC2



        The loaded




The Arena portrait of Francis Bacon marks the painters 75th birthday.

Here the case for placing Bacon among the greats is argued by Brian Sewell





FOR MORE THAN a generation, the art establishment has concerned itself with young men who have declared themselves to be artists; they range from the bucket and slosh brigade, content with any accident of colour and texture, to those using spray guns.

Critics, dealers, collectors, museums and the Arts Council have offered them praise, support and patronage, without recognising that their self-indulgence is as limited in appeal and achievement as Bachs Air on the G String would have been had it consisted only of the note G.

David Hockney is the most widely known of the few painters to resist these trends, and his popularity must in part be responsible for their tentative reversal among art students today; but Francis Bacon has for far longer consistently rejected and ignored them, in his surviving work always deliberately pursuing the forms of realism, transformed and heightened by the painters perceptions and the painters paint.

Hockney is a virtuoso playing to the gallery. Bacon works in the tradition of a Renaissance master, and is only a painter — no etchings, lithographs, finished drawings, or designs for the theatre. His subjects are not pretty things for the drawing-room, and the scale of his work suggests that he makes no concessions to the private patron.

He deals with Renaissance themes of religious and temporal power, authority, corruption, conflict and lust, and has compiled his own pantheon of superhuman images with which to demonstrate them. Titian turned to the great texts of classical mythology, the New Testament, and to portraiture to express the human predicaments of an age riven by  Reformation, counter-Reformation, and political struggle; Bacon turns to Popes, presidents, businessmen and the tormented nude to make comments on our day — astute, perceptive and horrifying.

His figures are often caged; the effect can be as aloof and remote as the appearance of a bland politician on the television screen, but the same devise has become a trap, with the occupant screaming for release. He defines small spaces within his canvases, setting a stage for the action as in a circus or a fashion photographers studio, and what is beyond the bright light is irrelevant; the creatures performing are human, but they often have animal references in the way that they walk, or move, or squat, distorted far beyond our ape relatives and into the world of the butchered carcase.

Paired figures on a bed are not seen in any affectionate contiguity, but in the attitudes of erotic violence; they stem from photographs of footballers, boxers and wrestlers, but Bacon brings them close to hard-core pornography and then elevates them with his vision and technique into an abstracted allegory on which he makes a savage, shuddering visceral comment.

He is the master of the moving multiple image, not by the intellectual and analytical methods of Cubism, nor the near caricatural distortions of Picasso  though he recognises their power  nor by any obvious adaption of the photography that he acknowledges as his source material. Within a generalised and recognizable silhouette that makes a bold and simple statement of the pose or action, there are subsidiary indications of movement that may complement or run counter to it.

In a pictorial sense they are secondary, but they provide a limited narrative — even so simple a thing as the cord that switches on a single naked light bulb, symbol of imprisonment and torture, has another image that indicates movement, and, in relation to the naked figure below, that movement suggests a violent reaction to an unseen violent act just completed.

In more complex structures Bacon may introduce two profiles in a single head, facing in opposite directions, without destroying the integrity of the whole  it is a kind of re-thinking that Renaissance painters allowed themselves in their drawings, when looking for a more effective alternative to a first idea, but with Bacon it is not an alternative but an added dimension.

All this might suggest that Bacon is a draughtsman. In the mid-40s there was indeed a drawn quality to his painting, common to Graham Sutherland and a host of English painters of that generation descended from the romantic tradition of Samuel Palmer, but within a decade his handling of the loaded brush had become so assured, and so powerful, that he was no longer dependent on the careful delineation of an element to give it effect.

Now it is all pure paint, and the length, breadth, loading and pressure of a single brushstroke contains all the information about the structure, character and movement of the thing painted, as well as its more obvious colour and texture. Bacon has claimed that this painterly skill is often accident — I believe it is as accidental as Alfred Brendel playing a perfect scale.

All this is the more remarkable because Bacon is self-taught; he has no academic background, and his only technical training came from his friendship with Australian painter Roy de Maistre, but he has an intuitive and analytical eye that enabled him to learn direct from paintings. Inspired first by Picasso of the late 20s, his work refers openly to Van Gogh, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Grunewald and Giacometti; these were not merely the sources of his powerful imagery, but of his techniques.

From them he derived the strength to create some of the most ferocious images of this century, keeping open, as he said, the line to ancestral European painting while producing something that comes across as entirely new  when he paints the themes of crucifixion, it is as a commentator on the beastliness of man and not as a believer in Christianity, yet his paintings have all the conviction of passionate Christian belief.

David Sylvester, who interviews Bacon for Arena, has long been Bacons apologist, perceptively teasing him into statements s of shrewd self-analysis and revelation — without his published interviews, the response of most critics and writers would be floundering , and the public would be far behind, seeing only violence and ugliness.

But look at the paintings: any man who has handled a brush, or has an empathic response to the action of painting, must find in Bacons pictures an astonishing mastery. Among post-Renaissance artists he is a great painter; in the wilderness of post-war art he is the towering giant.










Richard Cork: Francis Bacon


Virtuoso manipulator

              of paint



Tomorrow evening Arena (BBC 2) marks Francis Bacon’s 75th birthday with

an exclusive film portrait of this great British painter. In it Bacon talks to his

friend of many years, the distinguished writer and critic David Sylvester.


Richard Cork attended a preview of the film





Anyone looking at Francis Bacon’s paintings might be forgiven for concluding that the man who made them was a tortured introvert, entirely absorbed in the turbulence of his own imagination. Bacon’s self-portraits do little to contradict this disturbing and reclusive image. Over the years he has painted a number of small triptychs exploring his face in close-up, the features battered and twisted into unnerving distortion. Bacon’s flesh, often livid and swollen like a boxer after a particularly bruising fight, seems to be spotlit against a midnight background which accentuates his isolation.

The sense of loneliness becomes even more acute in his full-length self-portraits, where Bacon maroons himself within characteristically vast and empty rooms. One picture shoes him perched on a small wooden stool, anxiously clutching his trouser-leg as if to retain his balance while the diagonal lines of steeply inclined floorboards rush beneath his feet. Although one eye appears to be hidden by a massive gash of black pigment, the other gazes pensively into the distance. Bacon looks withdrawn and resigned as he sits in a harshly illuminated arena with only a lilac door, a table and a crumpled newspaper for company.

His mood gives way to outright melancholy in another large self-portrait, where he leans against a sink and claps his bowed head in dejection. The carefully delineated watch on his wrist reveals that it is nearly eight o’clock, but there appears to be no way of telling  whether morning or night is intended. Under the remorseless glare of the light-bulb dangling from the top of the picture, he endures a private agony which the passing of time does nothing to alleviate.

But meeting Bacon himself quickly dispels the illusion that he must be gloomy, self-absorbed and incommunicative. When I interviewed him in 1971, just before his major retrospective exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, he confounded all my expectations. Although Bacon lives in a cramped, ramshackle Kensington mews and carefully maintains his seclusion, he is marvellously convivial. He takes an eager interest in the people around him, and discuses painting with a gusto which animates his entire body.  Far from adopting a diffident or enigmatic attitude to questions about his work, he throws himself energetically into the task of defining his aims as an artist.

An intensely physical man, Bacon always uses gestures to reinforce the meaning he wants to convey. When he talks about seizing and trapping the ‘brutality’ of life, his hands thrust outwards as if to grasp the image he is trying to describe. Watching him gesticulate and move restlessly across the seat he sat in  realised how this energy becomes translated into paintings which express a writhing and exclamatory vision of humanity. Although many critics have accused him of exaggerating and even sensationalising the violence of existence, Bacon is entirely sincere. He has never lost the capacity to be at once startled and captivated by the rawness of life’. The brooding awareness of mortality which haunts all his pictures is matched by an ebullient desire to clutch at the pulse of vitality while it lasts. It is surely no accident that the stark, cage-like structures which enclose so many of his figures bear a disconcerting resemblance to condemned cells, for Bacon finds that the imminence of death makes him still more determined to intensify his fierce involvement with life at its most frenetic.

The man who painted these images of galvanised humanity has just celebrated his 75th birthday, so I wonder whether David Sylvester’s new filmed interview would disclose that Bacon is becoming quieter and more sedate than before. His face has inevitably has grown deeply lined, and its shadowy crevices sometimes make him uncannily like the pummelled heads in his own self-portraits. He speaks more slowly too, pausing to collect his thoughts and occasionally appearing to tire of the effort involved in rehearsing the events of his life. But, on the whole, Bacon remains astonishingly alert, articulate and energetic. In one sequence he stands in a studio strewn with accumulated debris and talks about the unpredictability of painting, its capacity to surprise him even when he despairs of making a coherent picture at all. Bacon’s arms describe swift arcs in the air, almost mimicking the actions he employs while painting, and I was struck by the lithe agility of his movements. They seem to belong to a much younger man, an exuberant painter who should, with luck, have many active years still ahead of him.

Bacon is more at ease here than in the previous television interview he gave to Sylvester in 1975. It took place in an LWT studio for Aquarius and I recall that both participants looked wary, hunched and faintly embattled. They talked well enough, but the formability of the setting stiffened the conversation and at one point the crash of falling equipment somewhere in the background gave Bacon a shock which ran through his furrowed features like a  seismic tremor. He appeared as aghast as one of the screaming Popes in his series inspires by Velázquez’s portrait of Innocent X. At that moment his expression disclosed a great deal about the heightened sensitivity of his nervous system, but the Aquarius interview did not do justice to the Bacon I had met in the studio. The new programme succeeds where its predecessor failed. By filming him on his home ground, and dispensing with the solemnity of a formal interview, director Michael Blackwood allows Bacon to relax. Rather than sitting stiffly in a tubular television chair he is able to move around at will on his own sofa, leaning forward whenever an urgent point is being made but also breaking off to welcome his friend John Edwards into the room. Although separated in age by perhaps half a century, Bacon and Edwards are clearly very devoted to each other. Bacon has painted some unusually tender portraits of the younger man, who reveals a dead-pan sense of humour at one point in the film. They go into the studio, and after surveying the extraordinary chaos strewn across its floor Edwards says: ’It’s reasonably tidy at the moment isn’t it Francis?’

In other words, the programme shows us something of how Bacon lives as well as allowing him to air his opinions. Sylvester’s contribution should not be underestimated in this respect, for he has been a friend and admirer of Bacon for almost 40 years. The film opens with a steeply angled shot of Sylvester ascending the narrow stairs of the mews studio, and his commentary emphasises at the outset that familiarity has not dulled him to the compelling quality of Bacon’s pictures: They go on being mysterious’. Sylvester has conducted an extensive series of interviews with Bacon since 1962, and they have been published in an outstanding book which displays both men’s exceptional ability to talk about painting with clarity and precision. Occasionally, in this new programme, the realisation that they have already discussed Bacon’s work in exhaustive detail appears to inhibit them; they are understandably reluctant to go over old ground. But whenever Bacon seems to tire of attempting to explain his aims, Sylvester knows just how to give his old friend a murmur of gentle encouragement.

As a result, we learn a great deal about Bacon’s working methods. While the camera glides unobtrusively over the photographs scattered around the room, he explains his ambivalent attitude towards these often torn and creased images. Although he relies very heavily on photographs of friends as a springboard for his imagination, and finds them much less inhibiting than the people sitting there in front of me’, Bacon is at pains to stress that he has no intention of vying with photography. On the contrary: it frees him to explore a kind of imagery which the camera could never supply—more direct, less reliant on the illustration of observable reality. Coining one of his most memorable phrases, Bacon declared that you have to abbreviate it into intensity’, and he constantly emphasised the importance of reinventing’ the subjects he paints. Blackwood reinforces Bacon’s explanation by fading from photographs of sitters like Lucian Freud, George Dyer and Isabel Rawsthorne to the paintings they have inspired. In every case a dramatic transformation has taken place, retaining the essential structure of the face but moulding it like rubber and charging it with a furious new vitality.

Bacon points out how much he admires the brutality of fact’ in Picasso, whose exhibition at the Rosenberg Gallery in Paris first stimulated him to start painting around 1928. Picasso’s influence is clear enough, especially in the most cartoon-like of Bacon’s distortions (there is a fascinating book to be written on the impact of the comic strip on 20th century art). But I have always wondered about the German paintings Bacon must have encountered in 1927 during a formative stay in Berlin. He remembers it as one of the great decadent years of Berlin’, and explains that the night life was very exciting to me, coming from a very puritanical society like Ireland’. But apart from describing Berlin in a suggestive phrase as a wide-open city’, Bacon fails to mention German art. He has always flatly refused to be categorised as an Expressionist, and is far too sturdily individual to deserve pigeon-holing as a follower of any avant-garde movement. All the same, the ferocity of his work marks him out from most other British painters, either present or past, and I suspect that Bacon’s debt to German art may be more substantial than he imagines.

Ultimately, though, Bacon’s work derives much of its distinction from his ability to combine aggression with nicety, headlong abandon with hair’s-breadth calculation. He knows the virtue of restraint as well as the exhilaration of onslaught, and the convulsive passages in his art are always countered by areas of extreme understatement. Bacon’s paintings are exquisite as well as impetuous, and one of the most revealing moments in the programme occurred when he talked about the fastidiousness’ of Velázquez. The theatrical disorder of Bacon’s studio is deceptive. Although he is genuinely attached to the shambles in his room. and felt utterly castrated’  when he tried moving to a beautiful studio round the corner’, Bacon also has a passion for exactitude. The jumble of paint-pots, books, magazines and photographs gives way, at one telling point in the film, to a shot of faultlessly clean and neat brushes laid out with care on a white sheet. Bacon is a virtuoso manipulator of paint, and he pointed with particular pride to the picture where the image of water splashing wildly from a tap was surrounded by large expanses of bare canvas. He liked the fact that its pristine surface was undisturbed by even the tiniest smudge of pigment.

Thriving on an audacious delight in improvisation and accident, but at the same time driven by a stern desire for order and discipline, Bacon manages to reconcile these two seemingly opposed urges in his finest work.

On the evidence of this programme, however, he is less certain about the meaning his pictures finally convey. Bacon insists that I don’t think there’s anything horrific about my work’, and he does seem genuinely unaware of any wish to cultivate violence. But the fact remains that his art can become oppressive in its relentless preoccupation with rawness and brutality.

Sylvester asked a very thoughtful and pertinent question about the possible elements of both disgust and self-disgust in the paintings. Bacon’s reply was untypically evasive, and he was no more illuminating when Sylvester  inquired why he had once painted a nude woman with a syringe stuck in her arm. Bacon admitted at the end of the programme that he never thought anyone would by his pictures at the beginning of his career, and even today he still maintains an attitude of stubborn indifference to what people think of his work. It is a defiant stance, essentially, and may have prevented him from appreciating quite how threatened we can feel when confronted by his narrow but compulsive vision of the world.





                        Photograph by John Edwards





Artist’s brush with the grotesque




                        TELEVISION REVIEW BY MARY KENNY






I HATE modern art : it is usually ugly and frequently meaningless.

The collector who paid £3 million for a Picasso the other day was well and truly swindled by the old fraud, it seems to me.

Picasso was the great inspiration for Francis Bacon, it emerged in Arena (BBC 2). Until he saw a Picasso in 1928 he had been hanging around doing nothing in particular.

A pity it wasn’t a Vermeer or a Delacroix which inspired him, for Francis Bacon certainly has a powerful sense of image and is a gifted artist. It is just that the end result is so painful. Like the gargoyles on Notre Dame his pictures have a prominent place in the Pantheon of art, but let us not pretend that they are pretty.

Despite his preoccupation with the brutal and the grotesque, Bacon came across as an amiable figure, 75 years old and living with hit young friend John in a studio flat of winning Bohemian untidiness.

Though English, he was brought up in an Irish RM world where they ate 11-course Edwardian meals, and to this day he retains the madcap Anglo-Irish streak. Cooking a stew recently, he added a £90 bottle of wine to flavour it. He was, he giggled, fairly stewed himself when he did it.





                                   AMIABLE : Francis Bacon






Edible bacon






At the Francis Bacon exhibition I was overcome by a series of yawns. That is not meant as a piece of art criticism, or even as a comment to please the philistines. The yawns descended on me, volley after volley of them, making my eyes water, so I thought I had better leave.

Yawns are involuntary, of course, but not necessarily insulting. I had a wise old French master who liked people yawning in his class, it meant they were trying to pay attention, which is true. If you allow your thoughts to wander in their own sweet way you do not, I think, yawn.

However, I found when I was again outside his exhibition and in the narrow gallery by the entrance to it where I peered up at the Stanley Spencers and William Roberts and Edward Burras — other English painters gathered together, perhaps unwisely, as a prologue to him — that I stopped yawning. So I tried to apply my mind to the reasons for the yawns.

First, as far as I could discern through my welling eyes, the pictures, room after room of them, were very similar to each other, there was little variety, or none. Secondly, they were rather pretty. This may come as a surprise to some, but I stick to it. Those mauve backgrounds, or rust-coloured ones, are pleasant to look at, and the event inside the painting is placed elegantly within them; all is in the very best of taste. That the event may be a distorted human form, dripping a bit, or sitting on a bidet, seems to me neither here nor there. These are prettily painted too, if you look closely at them. The distorted heads of portraits, where a cheek or a jaw goes un- expectedly concave, are done with broad strokes of a brush that contains many colours at the same time: cream, strawberry, a delicious purply-grey that is also reminiscent of good puddings. It struck me as possibly lucky that Mr Bacon’s vision leads him to distort in this way, for people love to wince and sigh and frown in the presence of Truth. In fact the more they wince the Truer they think it is, I don’t know why. But were it not so I suspect that Mr Bacon, with his natural tendency towards the tasteful, even the edible, would be hanging in the back room of a paint-shop in St Ives and, being the man I am told he is, he would be equally content.

It was when I read the catalogue that I began to open my eyes and let them dry out. His own work sets the standard for our time, for he is surely the greatest living painter;’ — well, if you say so, squire — no other artist in our century has presented the human predicament with such insight and feeling.’ Now, it is important, not to hold such statements against Bacon himself, he makes no such claims: this Is Alan Bowness and when the cultural bullies really get going they let you have it with both barrels.

What Bacon himself says is more interesting, and made me sit up. I want very, very much to do the thing Valery said —10 give the sensation without the boredom of the conveyance. And the moment the story enters, the boredom comes upon you.’

I take it that is an expression of Modernism, that he wants to get straight to the expression of sensation without intellectual preconceptions and hesitations. It is an enormous and natural ambition and the mention of Valéry reminded me that it is precisely what poets want to do and are always held up by, ’the boredom of the conveyance’, by words. That is the problem. The trouble is, the ones who brush away the boredom of the conveyance are usually extremely boring themselves because it is so difficult to know what they are going on about. And the remark about greatest living painter’ made me wonder who in that sort of Introduction-Speak would be described as the greatest living poet and I guess it would be a man who has gone in precisely the opposite direction from Bacon, away from the grand manner towards an immediately recognisable real- ism, Philip Larkin.

On the whole, poets, English ones anyway, seem to have given up Bacon’s attempt and do seem the more interesting for it.








Douglas Cooper (1911-1984)







ONE of the points that Douglas Cooper would want his obituarist to emphasise is that he was not Australian. True, his antecedents had acquired a considerable fortune, not to speak of a baronetcy, down under, but they returned to England around the turn of the century; and they sold their Australian holdings, including much of the Woollahra section of Sydney, some years later. Given his father’s lifelong possession of a British passport and his mother's Dorset lineage, Cooper understandably resented his countrymen’s tendency to endow him with an erroneous — i.e. Australian — provenance. A very minor irritant, one might have thought. Unfortunately resentment made for paranoia; paranoia made for anglophobia; and anglophobia made for the outlandish accents, outré clothes and preposterous manner that Cooper cultivated. Bear in mind, however, that many of his idées fixes only made sense if turned upside down, or seen in the light of wilful provocation or perversity. Anglo-phobia was the only form of patriotism that Cooper could permit himself.

Cooper’s importance for art history is that he was the first person to study and systematically collect cubism with the reverence and scholarship hitherto reserved for the old masters. Cooper’s education was somewhat random: Repton, which he loathed, and a year or so successively at Cambridge, Marburg in Hessen and the Sorbonne. When he was twenty-one, (1932), he came into £100,000. This enabled him to defy his Bouguereau-owning parents, who tried in vain to make a diplomat or a solicitor of him. Instead he chose to become a scholar like his erudite uncle, Gerald Cooper, the musicologist and collector of Purcell manuscripts. Cooper did a brief stint as a dealer — in partnership with Freddy Mayor of the Mayor Gallery — but he was not prepared to make the concessions that this metier demanded. Thenceforth he devoted all his energies to chronicling modern art (an edition of Van Gogh’s letters to Emile Bernard, published under the pseudonym of Douglas Lord,* was his first contribution to scholarship), and to collecting cubism.

Most orderly by nature, Cooper set aside a third of his inheritance; and with this he went to work charting the development of the four most important artists of the cubist movement (Picasso, Braque, Gris, Léger) subject by subject (still life, figure, landscape), medium by medium and year by year. Cooper was lucky in that his chosen field was still relatively untilled. Much of the cream of cubism, which had been thrown on the market ten years earlier, by the four forced sales in Paris of Kahnweiler's stock, was not only still available, but prices had hardly changed over the previous decade. Moreover, Cooper found he had very few serious rivals. Thanks to his fastidious eye, hard-headed scholarship and sufficient means, he managed in less than ten years to put together a collection that was unique in scope and quality. The very few gaps — a major Braque figure composition (a necessary pendant to Picasso’s Homme à la clarinette of 1911), a Picasso landscape of 1908-09 and a ‘rococo’ still life of 1914 — were more than made up for by Cooper's acquisition of such landmarks as the first recorded papier collé (Braque's Nature morte à la guitare of September 1912), and an incomparable group of Léger’s Contrastes de forme (four paintings, and several large gouaches bought from Léonce Rosenberg in about 1935 for around £5 each).

In his initial phase as a collector Cooper was greatly helped by his friendship with the shadowy German marchand amateur, G. F. Reber. Reber had originally made a collection of major post-impressionist paintings, most of which he subsequently exchanged (except for Cezanne’s Garçon au gilet rouge, later sold to Emil Bührle) with Paul Rosenberg for important works by the artists that Cooper was acquiring. In addition to Cooper the principal client for Reber’s remarkable stock was a young Sudeten art historian, the late Ingeborg Eichmann, who was also in the market for great modern paintings. According to Cooper, Reber always hoped — in vain — that marriage might ultimately link the two collections that he had helped to form. When short of cash — a frequent occurrence — Reber would sell one or other of his protégés a Picasso or a Braque. This is how Cooper acquired his greatest treasure, Picasso’s Trois masques, (1907) — the most important work of the ‘Negro’ period left in private hands — but only after redeeming it from Geneva's municipal pawnshop.

On the outbreak of war Cooper characteristically chose to remain in Paris and join a French ambulance unit organised by a fellow mécène, Comte Etienne de Beaumont. When the Germans invaded, Cooper’s valiant care for the wounded won him the Médaille Militaire. He subsequently recounted his adventures in a book, The Road to Bordeaux (written with Denys Freeman), part of which was reissued by the Ministry of Information as a pamphlet against panic. On disembarking in England, Cooper — who had a lifelong horror of passing unperceived — contrived to get himself gaoled (the loathsome English again!), for no better reason, he claimed, than that he was wearing French uniform. Thanks to the intervention of a former Minister of Air, Cooper was rescued and commissioned in the Intelligence (R.A.F.). Given linguistic abilities that included a mimetic command of German — Hochdeutsch to Fiakermilli — Cooper proved to be a demon interrogator of prisoners-of-war during the North African campaign, but the nervous strain was considerable, so was the toll on his psyche.

After a further spell of intelligence work in Malta at the height of the siege, he was transferred to the Monuments and Fine Arts Branch, Control Commission for Germany. Once again his knowledge of the German language and character proved invaluable, and Cooper briefly found fulfilment in passionate pursuit of Nazi art thieves and the dealers who had collaborated with them. He was especially proud of the hornets’ nest he stirred up when he discovered the reason why Herr Montag — one of Hitler’s leading looters — kept eluding his Vautrin-like grasp; Montag owed his liberty to having taught Churchill how to paint. One of the by-products of Cooper’s work for the Commission was a small collection of fine works by Paul Klee, which he made in the course of investigative visits to Switzerland.

Back in London, Cooper moved in with his old friend, Lord Amulree, hung as much of the collection as the walls of 18, Egerton Terrace would hold, and embarked on a career of Kunstwissenschaft punctuated by controversy. The articles on nineteenth- and twentieth-century art which poured from his pen were at their best brilliant, trenchant and innovative; at their worst, petty and spiteful — sometimes all these contradictory things at the same time. For instance, Cooper's catalogue of the Courtauld collection abounds in original ideas (some of them Benedict Nicolson’s), but his searching analysis of the impact that impressionism had on English art and collecting was so marred in its original draft by attacks on Roger Fry that the Vice Chancellor of London University (the book’s sponsor) was moved to ask if Fry had made off with Cooper’s wife. And despite many remarkable contributions to The Times Literary Supplement (thoughtful essays on Ingres and Fénéon in particular), Cooper too often used the anonymity of the journal as cover from which to snipe on friend and foe alike, castigating them in interminable sottisiers for misplaced accents and typos rather than more significant shortcomings.

No wonder the British art establishment felt wary of Cooper, and vice versa. No wonder official recognition failed to materialise. And no wonder he decided to ‘get the hell out!’ When Cooper (and the present writer) discovered an abandoned folly, the colonnaded Chateau de Castille, for sale in the depths of Provence, he lost no time in moving — lock, stock and paintings — to the country he had always preferred to his own.

By the summer of 1950, the chateau was habitable, and for the first time Cooper’s collection could be seen in its plenitude. Since there was no comparable conspectus of cubist art in France — public or private — Castille soon became a pilgrimage place for anyone interested in the subject. After LOeil magazine published an article on ‘Le chateau des cubistes’, the trickle of pilgrims grew to a stream — art-historians, dealers and American tourists poured through the house. Cooper basked in their interest and adulation, but what he most enjoyed were visits from the artists whose work was represented on his walls. Léger came for his second honeymoon, but Picasso was the most assiduous guest, so much so that Cooper saw himself in some respects replacing Gertrude Stein in the artist’s life. Besides giving Cooper countless drawings (including a major study for the Demoiselles d'Avignon, later bequeathed to the Kunstmuseum, Basel), Picasso made a series of maquettes for the great murals (carried out in sand-blasted cement by Karl Nesjar) in the former magnanerie at Castille. These decorations are still in situ, unlike Léger's vast Circus painting — executed (largely by assistants) for the chateau’s staircase — which is now in the National Gallery of Australia. Besides artists, students were always especially welcome; however, given the split in Cooper’s personality — it was as if an angel and a demon child were perpetually fighting for control — there was always the risk, indeed the probability, that the chatelain’s solicitude and hospitality would change abruptly into irrational ire.

From his Provençal stronghold Cooper continued to collect — later works by former cubists for the most part — and he made all manner of contributions to modern art history. He proved to be a most effective organiser of exhibitions, remorselessly brow-beating artists, collectors, dealers and institutions, the world over, into making loans (seldom reciprocated) to a succession of path-finding shows: Monet and Braque in London and  Edinburgh, Picasso in Marseille and Arles, Braque in Chicago, The Cubist Epoch in Los Angeles and New York — to name but a few. He wrote books on Picasso, Gris, Léger and de Staeil, and edited a coffee-table compendium on great collections. He was Slade professor at Oxford in 1957-58 and visiting professor at Bryn Mawr in 1961. He also was a tireless lecturer — in French, German and Texan as well as his own tongue. But he never outgrew his penchant for controversy, as witness countless reviews of books and exhibitions whose point was apt to be their shock value. Alas, even when he was in the right, as he often was, Cooper would press his case to such vituperative lengths that he would consolidate the targets of his wrath in their job, opinions or reputation, rather than the other way round. A case in point was ‘The Tate Affair’, which wasted much of his time and energy in the mid fifties. This business was the more regrettable in that it not only failed to right a wrong, but put Cooper under an un- fortunate obligation to his comrade-in-arms, Graham Sutherland.

 An implicit quid pro quo for Sutherland's resignation as a Tate Gallery trustee — a key move in the campaign to unseat a director they thought inept — was that Cooper should write a monograph on the artist. The text that materialised discredit to the author or his subject. As Cooper later confessed, ‘a taste for Sutherland was incompatible with a taste for cubism’. He should have resisted, he said, the pressure to accord a minor British painter the accolade he had hitherto reserved for ‘the giants’ of the Paris school. Cooper’s much publicised fight with Sutherland, many years later, was an inevitable outcome of the false position in which the author found himself vis-a-vis the artist. In the circumstances it is a wonder that the portrait commemorating this ill-starred friendship escaped destruction. Cooper was always threatening to ‘do a Lady Churchill’ and consign it to the boiler, but allowed himself to be dissuaded from doing so. It is only appropriate that a preliminary drawing — far livelier than the finished portrait — is published here for the first time (Fig.57), since Cooper owned a block of shares in THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE, bought, as Benedict Nicolson ruefully observed, for their potential nuisance value.

After thieves broke into Castille in 1974 and made off with some of the smaller works (yet to be recovered), Cooper decided to sell the château and move somewhere safer and less remote. In 1977 he acquired what he described as ‘a bunker’, a couple of small apartments in a modern building overlooking the sea in Monte Carlo. Since space was limited, he sold some of his larger paintings (including Picasso’s Homme d la clarinette, now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection). However, even in its reduced form the collection retained its historical integrity; and enough fine things remained — indeed still remain in the hands of the collector's adopted son, William McCarty Cooper — to constitute a monument to the cubist movement as well as to Cooper’s discrimination. In his later years a self-destructive taste for feuding (he even managed to quarrel with his hero, Picasso), combined with failing health, condemned him to a relatively reclusive life. This was a good thing in that it enabled him to concentrate on such serious tasks as putting the finishing touches to the Juan Gris Catalogue raisonné, on which he had been working for forty years, and to complete an as yet unpublished catalogue of Gauguin’s oeuvre. Did Cooper, one wonders, come to have second thoughts about his native land? The last major exhibition he organised (with Gary Tinterow), Essential Cubism (1983) at the Tate Gallery, constituted something of a rapprochement with England. This and the loan of his Braque Atelier led the Tate to believe that the hatchet had been buried. However, the collector's fickle old heart had found yet another target, the Prado. And the pride of Cooper's last years was that he was the first foreigner to become a member of that museum’s Patronato. In gratitude he gave the Prado a masterpiece by a Spanish master virtually unrepresented in Spain: Juan Gris’s portrait of his wife. He also left the Prado his no less important Nature morte aux pigeons (1912) by Picasso and the palette that this artist had used while working on his Déjeuner sur l'herbe versions.

Cooper had started his career as a rebel in the cause of cubism; he ended as a rebel without any cause at all except a loathing for contemporary art, as witness his hysterical denunciation of the Tate’s Carl Andre. It is not hard to see how this change of heart came about. His view of cubism as the only valid yardstick by which to judge the art of this century doomed Cooper to regard virtually everything done by post-cubist artists, above all non-figurative ones as a perversion or a dégringolade.

In line with his old fogeyism, he adopted an apoplectic manner and took to dressing up as one of his horsey forebears, only in mas tu vu colour schemes. Like Evelyn Waugh in old age, he relished the role of sacred clown, and cherished the belief that everyone was out of step but himself. As Cooper was often in considerable pain, the clowning must have taken a lot of courage to sustain, but his alternately fiendish and childish wit never failed him. His end was in character. I propose to die on April Fools day, he announced as he went into hospital for the last time. And after three days in a coma, that is exactly what this clown of genius did. 


*This pseudonym was inspired by Lord Alfred Douglas





                                            Douglas Cooper, by Graham Sutherland.

                  Pencil, ink and water-colour, 30.5 by 23.4 cm. (Private collection).








Today there are no records to be bought of the great French singer Suzy Solidor. But her face lives on for she asked dozens of artists to paint her picture. Many of these drawings and canvases she retained — a unique record of the image she presented in life. Now, Just two years after her death, they are on show in a château-museum near her home. Here Bryan Robertson completes the portrait





She sang mainly in Paris at her own nightclub, La vie Parisicnne, to a mixed but mostly cultivated, upper-class and well-dressed public which included the more affluent and better turned-out members of Bohemia, from Jean Cocteau, Marie-Laure de Koailles and the Princesse de Polignac to Louise Jouvet and Georges Simenon. Her love affairs among both sexes in this milieu were frequent and unmentionable, either because of the married status or because of the unorthodox sexuality of her many lovers.

Her time was from die late Twenties through to the end of the Fifties and she was at her peak in the Thirties: a vividly, luminously blonde woman with a strong, elegant presence, above average height, with long arms and legs, a strong back and a good figure sheathed in tight-fitting silk. She dressed well and kept her own style. Her face was memorable: eccentrically beautiful with its long hooked nose, like an aristocratic prizefighter’s, and calm but oddly reserved, rather quizzical smile.

Half singer, half diseuse, she sang in a warm, deep voice songs about the sea from her native Brittany and she recited poems about ports and voyagers. She sang Miss Otis Regrets and Night and Day and most of the other songs heard in New York or London — and she sang a lot of those edgy, catchy popular French songs about the tyrannies of love which have such a plaintive call upon our memories with their lilting, nostalgic fragments of waltz-time and short, insistently-stabbing melodies. She died in France in January 1983, the same age as the century, in her home at Haul-de-Cagnes, just outside Nice.

What Suzy did and how she did it is still within the memory of an older generation scattered around the world, for in her day Solidor was almost as familiar in France as Ambre Solaire, but her voice now is unknown to anyone under 50. The homogenising pressure of the pop music industry in the past 20 years, with the parallel decline of interest in more serious singers, means that you can’t find any Suzy Solidor recordings on the commercial market in Paris or London. The voice, the style, has sunk without trace; the name is barely known in the record shops.

But unlike all the other singers and dancers and entertainers who leave only memories for a few years and then enter oblivion, Suzy is still here among us, exactly as she was as a smartly dressed performer, in almost every stage of her life. She commissioned portraits of her self, from her early youth onward, from an extraordinary array of distinguished or sometimes merely fashionable painters and this collection of portraits was given by Suzy, a decade before her death, to her local museum — originally one of the beautiful Grimaldi residences, like the Picasso Museum in Antibes. In a recently opened room in the Chateau-Museum at Haut-de-Cagnes, the 42 portraits fill a naturally-lit, spacious but intimate room, and Solidor lives forever.

To be surrounded by these portraits of a youthful and eventually well-preserved blonde singer permanently on show in her grande tenue as a cabaret singer is a bizarre experience, at first less touching than it might be because of the well-dressed, guarded, carefully made-up character of the sitter — and the conventional three-quarter length or head-and-shoulders format of the paintings. Historically, the idea of successive images of one person has mostly rather solemn precedents: the rich humanism, for example, and the increasing inventiveness of execution in Rembrandt’s handful of questioning self-portraits.

It is odd to be continually face to face with a sophisticated woman, always “on stage”, whose carefully lipsticked mouth and bright blonde hair hardly changes from the age of 27 to 70—by which time Suzy sang occasionally in retirement in a friend’s night club at Haut-de-Cagnes next door to her own house, dressed in a black hat and cape rather like the posters of Aristide Briand. As a cumulative document the portraits are moving. They provide also a fascinating record of our changing attitudes to portraiture itself, with the dash and wit of the Twenties and early Thirties well represented by Tamara de Lempicka’s bare-breasted, wide-eyed Amazon or Picabia’s garlanded and mischievously calculating Persephone.

The frugal exactness of Picabia’s full-faced smiler and de Lempicka’s more massively Léger-like caryatid are conspicuous, but so are the superb drawings by Dufy and, surprisingly, by Cocteau who also wrote material for Solidor. Well to the fore are the beautiful paintings in the Twenties by Foujita — whose Japanese fine taste and strength in placing a quintessential image perfectly in silver space like an ikon is well served by Solidor’s rather mannish, cravatted costume and severely bobbed hair — and Marie Laurendn, whose painting is only an elusive, shadowy likeness of the singer but still remains a strong link in her airy sequence of doe-eyed, pensive sitters. Van Dongen, that under-rated flàneur, gets it right, of course, with the fringe and sailor suit, and so does the equally under-valued Paul Colin, the great stage designer, illustrator and poster artist, an inseparable member of the small group of artists and writers, which included Suzy, who met each week for years in Paris in the Thirties for lunch at Moise Kisling’s.

Suzy showed courage in allowing Bengt Lindstrom to paint her in her old age, probably to please a connoisseur friend: the painting is really a travesty of her aged but still strong face. Francis Bacon painted her from photographs sent from a friend of Solidor’s who commissioned the painting. Bacon had admired and enjoyed Solidor’s performances in Paris in the late Forties but, given the lack of personal contact or friendship, he could only use the photographed head and features as the basis for a characteristic Bacon essay in portraiture, the pretext for another disruptive re-examination on of physical shape and feature rather than identity. The Bacon painting was not included in the donation to the museum at Haut-de-Cagnes — it is known to have been sold — and a number of other portraits were also sold or given away over the years.

Finally, in the ultimate resonance of the collection as a whole, artistic excellence gives place to the authority of the total record, the sheer sweep of time articulated by the images. Many links in it are disagreeable, or faintly tawdry, or smack of academic commercial art but there are enough vibrant paintings of their period to redeem the sequence. It must be unique in its scrutiny of a courageous public personage: glamorous, but also abrasive in the later studies of Suzy in tough-faced deliquescence.

Suzy came from a good background in Brittany and was descended from the Corsican filibuster Surcouf, who changed sides and became an heroic figure in French naval history. Suzy was proud of her historical connection, and had the enamelled plaque “rue Surcouf” fixed to the side of the house that she eventually retired to at Haut-de-Cagnes in 1962.

She was a self invention. When she came to Paris as a young girl, she changed her family name, Rocher, to Solidor, after a well-known coastal tower in St Malo near her birthplace, and gravitated instantly to the intellectual world of artists, writers and actors and actresses. After she was established as a singer, Suzy had learned enough from her friends to run her own antique shop on the quai Voltaire. She kept the business going at Haut-de-Cagnes in her retirement.

Without doubt, she was one of the great singers of popular songs in this century, chronologically and stylistically half way between Piaf and Juliette Greco but with a richness of timbre, feeling for words and faintly grand manner all of her own. Although Solidor only appeared a few times as a serious actress in Giraudoux’s L’Ecole des Homines and in the Brecht/Weill L’Opfni de Quatre Sous (The Threepenny Opera) there was in her nightclub performance always a slight sense of grande dame, of a serious actress letting her hair down.

But it was a wholly uncondescending performance: she sang with warmth and evident relish. There was a highly personal intelligence in her presence and in each syllable of her majestic intonation. She bad a deep, vibrant voice, more mezzo than soprano, too richly mellow to be called acrid or smokey, the usual tags for women with strong voices and strong material, but her voice had a seriousness of intonation — a steadiness rather than sobriety — and a certain implacable edge that was dead right for her sadder songs. The pathos and the rasping despair of Piaf were quite different.

Suzy had the kind of faintly androgynous beauty that can disturb some women but also give some men pause, although it’s a kind of beauty that doesn’t generally appeal to men. She had the smoothly carved clarity of mouth, cheekbones, nose and eyes that made the luminously beautiful Michèle Morgan a household name. Such a kind of beauty is essentially northern French: you find it in the carved faces of saints in French churches and it floods through all the popular representations of Jeanne d’Arc.

But Suzy wasn’t saintly. Her sexually ambiguous presence basked in the new sportif atmosphere of the Thirties, when the actively gallant identities of Suzanne Longlen, Amelia Earhart or Amy Johnson co-existed with an original fictional breed of crisply sophisticated adventuresses who defied convention. At the popular light-weight level there was Iris March in Michael Allen’s The Green Hat. On stage there was Tallulah Bankhead — both heroines to a fair-sized public, but hardly the female type that mothers would wish their daughters to emulate. In the movies, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Bette Davis or Myma Loy projected various degrees of feminity but they werent weak sisters. A madcap like Clara Bow or a sweet tomboy like Lillian Harvey were the last intermediaries between the Lilian Gish kind of purely girlish girl and the new species. The sphinx-like impassivity of Garbo and the voice, the legs and the disbelieving smile of Dietrich struck the ultimate notes of equivocal liberation: something for everyone, but not for long.

In this discreetly permissive climate, Suzy dressed with great flair to embody the new emancipation. All-white or all-black outfits, or long, shimmering, metallic dresses of silver or gold suited her blonde good looks. They also reflected the new stylistic tonalities invented by the decorator Sam Marx in Chicago with his all-white interiors to offset jet-black patent-leather and tubular-steel furniture, a style in décor transmitted on a popular front by those sophisticated film comedies of the Thirties in black and white, directed by Lubitsch, Borzage or Sturges.

Suzy’s singing, her material and its phraseology and intonation, stemmed from an established and wholly French sequence of dramatic women singing of prostitutes and their pimps, girls betrayed by brutish lovers, the loneliness and (he pain of love rather than its felicities, and they sang with a new realism in their despair and urgency, deep-throated, rasping or plaintive. Cocteau and many other writers paid tribute to Solidor, whose sultry voice and original material extended the tradition of a special understanding between artists and a handful of gifted entertainers in Paris.

Long before Greco, Suzy sang songs with lyrics by Jacques Prévert, the poet and immortal scriptwriter for the film-maker Marcel Carné. Cocteau wrote panegyrics about her. She sang, faultlessly and more movingly than anyone else, the most poignant and haunting of Reynaldo Hahn’s songs, D’une Prison, a setting of Verlaine’s verse, and this is perhaps because the song is also a great poem, a wonderful vehicle for her expressive delivery. Most famously, Suzy sang La Filles de Savu-Malo, songs about sailors and the sea, and the lilting but weirdly menacing La Fiancée du Pirate, a great song by Kurt Weill with its staccato jabs from an accordion building up tension between the verses.

She read poetry very well, in a slightly declamatory way but with a dry wit, also, and she was never a mere performer, content to come on and do her number and then go off to supper. La vie Parisienne was very much her own place where she was the centre of a kind of salon, receiving homage from regular admirers and greeting old habitués after absences of many years. She wasn’t a serious intellectual but she was shrewd and knowledgeable — as a girl, she had heard Breton ballads and legends sung and declaimed by one of the last travelling bards in Brittany, Botrel, who visited great chateaux or simple cottages in his travels as a troubadour and story teller, and this affected her choice of subjects, ports, sailors and love affairs, and her own style.

Her songs have gone and so has her style. The irony is that soon hardly anyone will know what Suzy did and how she did it, unless the record companies risk the reissue of a record or two, but what Suzy looked like will live forever as a celebration in the gallery in the Château Musée Grimaldi at Haut-de-Cagnes and her portraits say something also about visual, human style, meretricious or profound, and endurance in our century.




                                      Suzy Solidor, 1957: Francis Bacon





Bringing Home the Bacon





MELVYN BRAGG   |   PUNCH   |   WEEKLY     MAY 1, 1985


We are sometimes sniffy about calling a particular artist the best, and often rightly so. Dickens represents one kind of excellence, Chekhov another and Evelyn Waugh yet another. And so it is by colours, and not by degrees, that we know them. Gambling, though, is compulsive on this course — especially as no one will be alive to confirm the real winners or collect any of the prizes. Time is perhaps the truest and the only real critic. Yet the very length of the odds encourages the sporting flutter. And of course hype, envy, king-making, politics and all the merry growths and undergrowths of ambitious life play part.

Is Francis Bacon the best painter alive today? There are those who believe so. His imminent retrospective at the Tate will give the gallery-going public the opportunity to test their notes against those great and powerful bookmakers of the Arts ring — buyers, dealers, critics, fixers and public benefactors.

The gallery-going public is worth a small digression. The queues for the Renoir exhibition have been alarmingly long, and the Chagall exhibition was wildly well-attended. There is now an eager and proven public for serious painting, especially when it is carefully gathered and organised — as is invariably the case with our major exhibiting centres. Nor is this merely a metropolitan phenomenon. Just as the RSC sells out on its annual visits to the North-East, so the Renior exhibition — were it transported to Newcastle — would outpull the Magpies. The fundamental reason for the juice in the recent Arts skirmish was not, I suggest, the relatively articulate nature of that particular middle-class lobby (as was claimed), but the widespread realisation that, for an increasing number of people in this country, art matters. Artists count, and they do have validity. It may be personal, but it is none the worse for that. What the count adds up to, and what it portends, is harder to say. Their following, though, is growing and it is emphatic.

There’s little doubt they will turn up in their thousands and in their tens of thousands to see the Francis Bacon exhibition. About twenty of his triptychs have been gathered in from around the world. After an initial anxiety that people would not part with the paintings, the response has proved generous and the Tate will be filled with the tormented forms, the splayed flesh and inalienable, gorged and fierce portraits of Bacon. It will be a force to be reckoned with.

Bacon has long been considered to be a painter peculiarly for our times. Every one is contemporary: no escape. But there are those who become the voice of the age and — for better or worse, as time tells — we acknowledge that they speak for us. Bacon speaks for violence, for form fighting against destruction, for self-destruction, for bared meat and distorted shapes, for horror, above all for impact. He is the great hit-man of modern art.

There is a sense in which many of those descriptions could be deflected as being little more than lightly disguised accusations. But the charge of horror, for instance, which can be brought when you look at a portrait with its face smashed by a fling of paint distorting the man beyond recognition, can be answered in several ways. Have you studied, for instance, as Bacon has, the still frame close-ups of a boxer’s face when a particularly heavy punch lands splat on the snout. It really does hurt, and bend and flatten, displace, distort.

Or, speaking more generally of horror in painting, what about Cranach? What about the Saint Sebastians and the crucifixions, the Baptist heads and billing sides — all the gore of Christian pictorial history? And speaking most generally of all, what about the horror out there, brought into the living-room on the nine o’clock, ten o’clock, one, two, three o’clock news? Bacon’s horror, in any one of those contexts, is the merest reminder. The reason for the flinching is the reason for his greatness: his paintings have impact.

Impact matters more than anything else to Bacon. Firstly, the impact on himself. If he can excite himself, then that will do. He has exciting standards. His idea of a thoughtful back-drape is the slung carcasses of meat in a giant butcher’s hall. His undisguised delight in the life which forces him to the very limits of stamina and endurance accompanies — if it does not directly influence — the ferocity of his work. Secondly, impact on the human body. While abstraction reigned and the fashionable painters bopped away to the lucrative aesthetic of New York Abstract Experiment chic, Bacon painted people. Smashed people, stretched and depressed people, people out of darkness and people screaming to be heard but always people. People who looked as if they had suffered badly in the accident of life.

Accident matters to his life, as to his work. He talks almost reverently of the role of chance, the way unconscious brush-strokes can turn an entire painting. Pressed on the idea of chance, he holds on to it ferociously - even though he is aware that experience, habit, and that high-speed intelligence and memory which are similar to instinct, make the notion of chance a remote possibility. He insists on it, though, and encourages it by hurling handfuls of paint at the canvas, scouring them with a scrubbing-brush; and yet he insists, too, on the powerful organisation within a work of art. His pieces always appear to be ordered.

Bacon has managed to conduct a lifestyle which keeps danger in play. The rewards for most successful artists today are security, fat comforts and flash trinkets. Bacon’s paintings now change hands for up to £1 million, but he lives in a mews flat which makes the word modest seem a boast. His studio is so small he cannot line up his own triptychs in the space. There is a galley of a kitchen and one other room. His books, too, hold on to that fin de siecle edge of danger and romanticism — Nietzsche balanced by Proust, and a heap of photographic books on wild animals, sportsmen, exotica, medical matters and Muybridge (who revolutionised the depiction of movement by showing it, frame by frame, for what it is). And there is his life outside the work, his gambling at the tables, his afternoons in the green gloom of the Colony Club, his risks.

The exhibition comes at a perfect time. Contemporary figurative painting has quite suddenly and remarkably discovered an audience and a critical following. Bacon’s faces and figures will stand in the gallery wonderfully secure in their own force. Only a very few paintings can enjoy this privilege.





A cause for celebration





A retrospective of Francis Bacon’s work opens at the Tate Gallery on May 22







Rumour has it that Mrs Thatcher expressed dismay when she was told that Francis Bacon is recognised as our greatest living painter: ‘Not that dreadful man who paints those horrible pictures!’ The reaction is not uncommon. Though it is a compliment to Bacon that he retains the power to shock, this rarely comes from people who have seen the original canvases which reveal his mastery of paint, and never from those who know the man himself. Far from the tortured figure of his reputation, Francis Bacon is usually in excellent humour. The quality his friends would agree on is that of laughter. He is the strongest-minded man I know, and devoid of doubt.

Anyone attempting to write about him will know the hazards involved. The late Frank Norman abandoned the attempt after trailing him for several days around the bars and restaurants of Soho: ‘I felt like a spy,’ he wrote to me later. ‘He spoke marvellously about Berlin in the 1920s but things soon deteriorated and I was reduced to keeping my ears open, nipping into the lavatory to scribble notes on bits of toilet paper! In the morning I’d find all these screwed up pieces in my pockets scrawled in a barely legible hand with such choice remarks as: ‘I have never had love in the whole of my life and what’s more I don’t want it. All I can do is cast my rod into the sewers of despair and see what I come up with.’

I can hear Bacon’s voice ringing with ridicule as he said it, for mockery is the pivot for much of his conversation. ‘Despair? I have grown accustomed to its face,’ he told me in a burst of laughter, ‘I don’t believe in tragedy.’

His wit is hard to convey in the cold print of morning because his intonation is inimitable. ‘I’m just a simple idiot’ sounds trite unless you heard him declare it over dinner at L’Escargot, pronounced with an exaggerated emphasis as ‘iddy-ott’. Then it was hilarious. When my lamb arrived in a succulent sauce he studied the plate with a bemused expression, ‘I hope I don’t have gravy on mine,’ he said, investing that word with the dolefulness of a Victorian workhouse.

Though he can be extraordinarily kind, the precision of his voice, varying from Mayfair-cockney to a carefully injured French, can lacerate. I achieved a final reconciliation with Graham Sutherland with whom he exhibited as far back as 1937, though they had fallen out since then. We met in the neutral territory of Jules Bar in Jermyn Street and after a moment’s hesitation they leapt on each other like dogs welcoming their owner home. It was heartening to witness and when Bacon suggested moving on to Wheeler’s fish restaurant in Old Compton Street, Graham and Kathy Sutherland, who had vowed to do nothing of the sort, agreed without a flicker of apprehension. As soon as we sat down I sensed that Bacon’s mood had changed and winced when Graham Sutherland leant forward sympathetically and confided, ‘I’ve been doing some portraits, I wonder if you’ve seen any of them?’

‘Yes, I have,’ said Francis emphatically, and the warning bells began to ring, though not for Sutherland who continued: ‘And what did you think of them?’

‘Very nice, if you happen to like the covers of Time magazine.’ They did not meet again, which was sad for they had been the closest of friends.

As I know from experience, it can be an awesome moment when he turns, though he argues — ‘If you can’t be nasty to your friends, who can you be nasty to?’

He does not like being reminded of remarks he has made in the past. When Barry Driscoll, the wildlife artist, asked him, ‘Tell us, Francis, if you weren’t an artist what would you have liked to have been?’, Bacon replied with deceptive artlessness — ‘a mother’; but when Driscoll was rash enough to quote this two years later, Bacon swung round imperiously: ‘I never said such a thing.’ Turning to Driscoll’s two sons who happened to be standing nearby, he demanded, ‘Do you like your father?’

‘Of course,’ they stammered.

‘Well I don’t. I think he’s an absolute bastard.’ Since then he greets Driscoll warmly, without the slightest indication that they have ever met before.

When I reminded him of his claim that 95 per cent of people are passive, waiting to be entertained and brought to life, he stared at me suspiciously: ‘Did I really say that? How foolish of me. I should have said 991/2 per cent.’

Bacon is that other half per cent. Lord Gowrie says he is one of the most intelligent men in the country and even Mrs Thatcher might succumb if she dared to meet him, though Bacon would probably decline the invitation.

One of his outstanding qualities is constancy. He has gone his way regardless of fashion or expedience. In the early 1950s he was so poor that he lived like a millionaire, lunching on oysters at Wheeler’s before moving on to the Colony Room in Dean Street where he ordered champagne on credit, pouring it with gusto as he echoed the Edwardian toast: ‘Champagne for your real friends; real pain for your sham friends!’ The Colony was an after- noon drinking club enlivened by the wit of the woman who owned it, Muriel Belcher, one of the few people Bacon has been fond of. When the club opened in 1948 she offered him £10 a week and free drinks to introduce new members who might be good ‘spenders’. Both she and Bernard Walsh, who owned Wheeler’s, had faith in his future and when he sold a painting he lopped something off their bills. Once he needed cash immediately and asked me if I knew of someone who might buy one of the large canvases based on the Velasquez portrait of Pope Innocent X. I persuaded a college friend to do so, almost wrecking his marriage for his wife grew to detest the figure which screamed in silence at the top of the stairs terrorising their tiny cottage. To my surprise when I handed over the 1150 in notes, Bacon gave me £15 as a dealer’s commission; he has always been a generous friend. Today that picture is worth far more than £150,000.

Little has changed since the time when he lived ‘between the gutter and the Ritz’. The mews house in South Kensington still looks as if it is waiting for the furniture to arrive, with blankets over the windows instead of curtains, and naked light bulbs glaring down on a debris of brushes and exhausted tubes of paint. Wheeler’s remains his favourite restaurant, and though Muriel is dead he frequently continues to the Colony where he has a sparring relationship with her successor, Ian Board. The champagne might be replaced by a better vintage and the caviar sent back because it tastes too salty, otherwise he is uncorrupted by success. While some artists would sell their reputation for a knighthood, he has rejected the honours which have been offered to him with the same contempt that he treated his accountants when they suggested he should move to Switzerland — ‘Can you imagine anything more boring? All those fucking views!’

Bacon distrusts the blandishments of television, which most people seem unable to resist, and agreed to be interviewed by me at Wheeler’s in 1958 simply because Bernard Walsh was prepared to wipe out his appalling bill by charging it to publicity. On that first appearance, I mentioned that some critics found his work unpleasant: ’Sometimes I have used subject matter which people think is sensational because one of the things I have wanted to do was record the human cry — the whole coagulation of pain and despair — and that in itself is something sensational.’ Since the curious Arena on BBC2 last year, Bacon has vowed that he will not appear on television again.

Consequently, because his face is unfamiliar, it is possible to drink with him in a pub where he is so unknown that he was offered a job decorating a house when someone heard he was a painter. With Chagall’s death, and Dali just alive but no longer painting, Bacon is the most important artist who is working today. There is no hint of this when you are in his company though there was a moving moment at a recent lunch in Wheeler’s when an American couple stopped at his table to tell him, Shyly, how honoured they were to be in his Presence. His reputation is higher in New York and Paris than it is here.

To say he looks young for his age is irrelevant to a man who has always been ageless. At 76 there is a harder edge to his lean distinction and after a night of drink and gambling he can look fiercely haggard, though later in the day he might be radiant. He still dresses with studied carelessness, entering a room with a curious tread as it he is venturing out on deck in a high sea, Clutching his throat as if to protect himself against the wind, with a smile breaking across his face. Young admirers of his work who might be daunted by his reputation are disarmed when they meet him: ‘He hits so deep, his triptych of Christ is really horrific,’ an art student told me, but she added: ’yet whenever I have met him he has the most darling sweet face and one wonders where the pessimism is.’

It comes as a jolt to hear him described as pessimistic, but critics go further than that: ‘His blood-chilling pictures of alcoholics and madmen, sadists and perverts, epitomise all the sickness of our period,’ wrote John Richardson, a view confirmed by an arty television programme which mixed the newsreel clichés of Hitler, Hiroshima and Buchenwald with illustrations of Bacon’s screaming figures and bleeding carcases of meat, concluding that the artist was tormented by the atrocities of the 20th century. If proof was needed of the arrogance in interpreting an artist’s motives this was it, for Bacon is fascinated by the image rather than the message. As he explained to Miriam Gross, his attraction to raw, red flesh is simpler: ‘You’ve only got to go into a butcher’s shop — it’s nothing to do with mortality, as people often think, it’s to do with the great beauty of the colour of the meat.’

This does not mean that Bacon is indifferent to the violence around us; when I asked him for his definition of ‘horror’ he gave it instantly: ‘People bashing someone’s brains in for no particular reason, just to pass the time — pour passer le temps.’

Now he is poised for the most crucial exhibition of his life, 25 years to the day after that first memorable retrospective also held at the Tate. It is a cause for celebration, but with the opportunity to see his recent work assembled with the old this will also be the ultimate test of his genius. Increasingly, he expresses his disillusionment with contemporary art, asking, ‘Does it do anything that a colour photograph can’t do better?’ Equally, he has little patience with abstract design.

In one of his rare tributes to another artist, he wrote: ‘I think that painting today is pure intuition and luck and taking advantage of what happens when you splosh the bits down, and in this game of chance Mathew Smith seems to have the gods on his side.’ Bacon may have been thinking of himself as well, but this is slightly disingenuous for he knows better than anyone that the creative accident needs a calculated audacity too.

The new paintings will speak for themselves — ‘If you could say it, you wouldn’t paint it’ — but the last time we met he stated his aim: ‘It is necessary to re-invent the language.’

It is a measure of his originality that he has done exactly that, even if some people find it hard to understand.






Greatest living painter’







THIS week, the Tate Gallery pays the artist Francis Bacon a rare compliment: the second major retrospective exhibition to be held there in his lifetime will open 25 years to the day after the first. Alan Bowness, the Tate’s director, hails Bacon as the greatest living painter in a forward to the catalogue, which contains no notes on the 126 works on show. At a late stage in its preparation, at the artist’s request, the catalogue’s records of the vagaries of critical response to each painting were summarily scrapped.

Francis Bacon’s reputation and temperament can inspire fear in both strangers and friends. He is an unusually courteous and charming man to meet; there are many first-hand reports of his generosity and kindness. But in his artistic judgment he is as pitiless as the Aeschylean Furies he paints.

He does not like other people’s explanations and interpretations of his work — ‘One knows the rubbish critics write’, he says, and insists he does not know a single one he respects. He says he does not admire any other living artist, either, though he has been friends with a number of them (Graham Sutherland, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud).    

As a result, as he has complained, he has ‘nobody to talk to’: though he does not believe in talking about painting, anyway. ‘Painting is its own language, and when you try to talk about it, it’s like an inferior translation.’ When he chooses, he will nevertheless talk a good deal, and brilliantly, in all sorts of company. But there is a profound aloneness in Bacon’s life, as in his work.

He is self-taught, never having gone to art school (‘Thank God’); though he acknowledges the influence of Picasso, he distances himself from the artistic movements of this century with which he has been identified, like     Expressionism and Surrealism. His paintings are usually of figures alone, and he always paints alone in his studio, a chaos of source material, pigment and junk in a Kensington mews. Even when painting the portrait of a close friend, he prefers to work alone, using photographs as his model.

Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 and spent much of his early life in Ireland, though (to his regret) his parents were both English. His father, a descendent of the Elizabethan Francis Bacon, trained racehorses; his mother gave and went to a lot of parties.

He has spoken of ‘always living through forms of violence.’ He remembers a British cavalry regiment galloping up the drive of their house near the Curragh and carrying out manoeuvres just before the start of the First World War; later he lived in houses sandbagged against Sinn Fein attack. His father banished him from home, when he was about 16, for the crime of trying on his mother’s underwear. He went to Berlin in the late 1920s, then to Paris, where a Picasso exhibition made him decide to try to paint, ‘to se if I could do it.’ He ‘dabbled’ in the 1930s, designed furniture, did various jobs (he was once a manservant); ‘enjoyed myself’. He began painting in earnest during the Second World War, in which he was exempted from active service because of his asthma.

His work first came to wide public attention in April 1945 when his triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was shown at the Lefevre Gallery together with works by Henry Moore, Matthew Smith and Graham Sutherland. A war-weary London rejected them as ‘freaks, monsters’ (recalls Bacon’s friend and critic John Russell) ‘the product of an imagination so eccentric as not to count in any possible permanent way’.

Four decades later, Bacon’s paintings are probably treated with more seriousness and respect than those of any other living artist in the world. As he has notes with satisfaction, people may still not like his work, but they now buy it for ever-increasing six-figure sums, and hang it in their national galleries, if not (especially if they are British) in their homes. He acknowledges with smiling insouciance that he has always enjoyed greater appreciation in Europe, particularly France, and in America, than in his own country.

In the Tate last week, the technology of foreign film crews tangled round stacks of canvases  stoically guarded by wardens whose predicament they echoed: a man alone in empty space, immobilised and confined. But they were in uniform; Bacon’s paintings are essentially of human and animal flesh. The flesh maybe wounded, racked, mangled; liquefying or mingling; trickling blood, shedding offal; torn away to reveal the viscera and bone beneath. ‘I deform and dislocate people into appearance,’ says Bacon, with his smile: ‘or hope to.’

As Bacon’s subject-matter has remained remarkably constant in these decades, so have the words he uses to say what and how he is trying to paint. Wrapped in his raincoat in the sanctuary of Marlborough Fine Art, he politely retold his fascination with Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, with a hand-coloured French book about diseases of the mouth, with Eisenstein’s screaming nurse in ‘Battleship Potemkin’ and the colours of meat in a butcher’s shop.

He leaves to his critics and commentators the discussion of violence in his work. ‘I don’t think of it as horror. I think of it as life. I think they have never really thought of the anguish of the life which surrounds them from hour to hour.’ He points again to the great works of the past that have excited his own ‘nervous system’, like the crucified Christs of Grünewald and Cimabue. In all this he is eloquent and exact and impregnable in the assertion that he finds nothing horrific in his paintings himself.


Admits failure

He has often spoken of ‘the mystery of reality’ and ‘the game of chance’ that is his attempt to trap and concentrate that reality in an image. In describing that attempt he is at pains to demystify — disarmingly so. ‘I’ve always painted to excite myself. I don’t know what they’re about. There is no explanation.’

He begins painting early in the morning and continues for five or six hours, or all day it its going well. He makes no preliminary sketch or drawing, but draws directly on the canvas with paint. He uses any aid to hand ‘to transmit the realism of images, to remake images into realism,’ rages, scrubbing brushes, throwing paint from his hand. He constantly admits failure; destroys canvases as he goes along; will call even acclaimed successes — like his screaming Popes and Crucifixions — ‘a great mistake.’

He can also speak with frankness to demystify his public persona though in the process he has left several interviewers even more baffled and impressed 9as well as drinking them under the table).

At 75, Bacon likes to say he is an old man (which is alright, because painting is ‘an old man’s occupation’): but he has an agile and commanding physical presence. ‘When Francis arrives, it’s as if the place has been in darkness, and everyone suddenly becomes alive and alert and full of vitality,’ says a friend. ‘I’ve seen him do that without even opening his mouth.’

In his conversation he may flirt with and flaunt the anguish and despair that most people find in his paintings. But he is also an exceptionally amusing man: a gambler (mainly roulette), a drinker, and (at least formerly) an unabashed homosexual adventurer. On a good day in the Colony Club in Dean Street, he will go round filling the glasses of everyone cramped into the room, a bottle of champagne in either hand. His cronies once egged him on to do something about an unpopular painting of the club proprietor hanging near the bar; Bacon popped and spurted a bottle of champagne at it with such force that the watercolours dissolved and al the lights went out.

At the heart of Francis Bacon’s double image the solitary prisoner of the paintings, the convivial carouser around town — there is a core of privacy whose approach is too perilous for most people to contemplate. And there has undoubtedly been pain in his life. In what John Russell calls one of the most terrible blows life has to offer, Bacon’s friend George Dyer committed suicide in Paris in 1971, on the eve of the opening of Bacon’s major retrospective at the Grand Palais, and only months after Bacon had been acquitted of a drugs charge brought after Dyer had reported him to the police.

But Francis Bacon is now a the height of his fame, and — as he himself feels — his power. The happiness of his friendship with John Edwards, the model for much if his recent work, illuminated a recent ‘Arena’ profile of him (though Bacon did not like the film). He says that he feels he has enjoyed his life and his luck ‘to be able to live by something that obsesses me to try to do.’

Unlike his old friend Lucian Freud, he has refused and will refuse any honour he is offered by his country. ‘I want to die as I was born — with nothing. I just want my work to be better. I hope I shall go on painting — in between drinking and gambling — until I drop dead: and I hope I shall drop dead working.’










Francis Bacon, 76 this year, is considered by the world to be Britain’s foremost painter, a view not always

shared in his homeland. A major retrospective at the Tate Gallery, opening this week, gives us a chance to

reassess his achievements.


Here Lord Gowrie, the Arts Minister and an admirer for many years, writes an appreciation of Bacon’s work





Francis Bacon is the greatest painter in the world and the best this country has produced since Turner. This large claim is a view shared by a remarkable number of people, rather few of them British. To us natives, it is a shock to recognise how eminent Bacon and Henry Moore have made us in the visual arts. Our cultural establishment is musical and literary in outlook; we take our theatrical tradition, and Shakespeare, for granted; since the Beatles we can command a world stage in popular music. Seeing and touching, by contrast, belong to the slightly seditious universe of sensation and both our puritan and idealistic philosophical strands combine to make us suspect appearances. Happily, these two heroes, septua — and octogenarian now, have encouraged a new generation of artists to build on their achievements and make international names.  

Of the two, Bacon is the most surprising. Henry Moores work is permeated with the English love of nature. He makes simple and powerful signals  about the correspondence between landscape and the female figure. He reinforces life’s primal effects: a kind of bronze Wordsworth. Francis Bacon is not romantic in this way although he likes the aristocratic intuitiveness of later romantics like Baudelaire. He has the nihilism and gaiety of certain of certain 18th-century minds. Nature, when it crops up at all in his work, is both threatening and monstrous: purposeless matter unrelieved by the flicker of civilisation’s match. Landscape near Malabata (1963) is a picture of a tree. It is a fine demonstration of the way colour is movement in painting, and how a tree’s sinews can appear like muscular movement. But try to people this landscape and you are in the world of Godot or King Lear. A more recent work, Sand Dune (1981), is a picture of sand encroaching  on a building by the sea. The sand is all movement, dynamic; the building is being eaten and that will be the end of it because nature is in the business of demolition. To fly in the face of nature you need luck and the peculiar courage to stare her down. To adapt a line of Thom Gunn, a few friends and a few historical names have had the courage. A few artistsCimabue, Velasquez, Degas, Picassohave occasionally looked without blinking. Otherwise, existence is just, drink, sex and status. Bacon is an artist of the endgame. His work is a lifespan distant from Moore’s family groups and mothers-with-child.

The classical artist is preoccupied with realism. Bacon is absolutely for realism, only he would argue that now photography has made reportage redundant you need psychological realism as well, the shadow as well as its fact. He is adamant that he is not an Expressionist painter. He believes in truthfulness rather than effects. The affecting, even upsetting, quality of his work comes partly from what Michel Leiris has called his exhilarated despair ... the painful but lyrical disturbance felt by all those who, living in these times of horror spangled with enchantment, can contemplate them with lucidity. It also comes, more prosaically, from what he would see as his failure to win the fight between the raw material of oil paint and the mind’s eye. When Bacon does win his paintings are both awesome and tender, moving in the highest and most humane way. Yet even the violent distortions of his figures are implicit in their own flesh as well as in oil paint and the painter’s need to trap the visual aspects of personality by memorising it. He does not paint from life.

To an existential artist like Bacon, chance is very important, both as a rubric for the universe (his hobby is roulette) and for what it throws up on the canvas. In Lying Figure (1966) a female nude lies on a bed, her head south to the viewer, limbs akimbo, bed and body seemingly about to slide down a great escarpment of carpet. Facial features are blurred in Bacon’s way as if they and the pigment from which they are formed had been pummelled into the final image. (This is often literally the case, since he paints with rags and his hands as well as with brush.) But across the whole width of the face is a superimposed white drip or tache of paint extraneous to the image yet formally devastating in the way it cancels an already pretty terminal environment. Stripped of its associations, the picture has the vibranceeven the prettinessof colour which early in his career Bacon found in a medical text book about diseases of the mouth. Bacons surgeons aesthetics and sang-froid take some getting used to. They are worth it because they are bound up with his special lucidity of purpose. Look how close oil paint comes to the stuff of life, he seems to be arguing. You are used to it with clouds and hills in landscape painting. Why not get used to it with the body? And if the painter is lucky, impulses of memory and desire may allow him to manipulate the stuff so as to trap elusive and temporal personalities, and our feelings about them. Perhaps for such reasons, Bacon’s subjects are a few friends and himself, painted over and over, sometimes after they have died, from snapshots and memory. Bacon himself looks very like a Francis Bacon. In this respect he is close to his contemporary, the painter and sculptor Giacometti.

Bacons belief in unaccommodated man, his identification with London low life and sleaze, his gambling, his generosity with money and caustic tongue, his frightening ability to drink a great deal and remain at the height of his intellectual and artistic powers at 75all play their part in his anti-heroic legend. By contrast, the career is altogether steadfast. He was a late starter. He was born and spent much of his childhood in Ireland, where his father trained racehorses: there is a lot of Ireland in Bacon and it is reasonable to think of him as Irish in the way that Camus was Algerian. He was haphazardly educated and travelled about Europe in the late 1920s. Berlin and Paris took a hold on his imagination and Paris remains the city where his work commands most scrutiny.

He made his historical debut in 1930 as an interior decorator and furniture designer; he worked in what we would call the Art Deco style, based on the Constructivism of the previous decade. He studied the art of Picasso, at that time involved in attenuated semi-geometrical figure paintings which were beginning to look haunted and surreal. Inspired, he taught himself to paint. His early work, nearly all of which he subsequently destroyed, attempted to give abstracted hominoid shapes a similarly heightened airsometimes by little references to the Western religious tradition. His work was not successful and he was turned down for the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936. He himself dates his career from the 1944 triptych Figures at the Base of a Cross in the Tate Gallery.

At first glance this work still owes much to Picasso. It is a study, like the paintings and sketches of the Guernica period, of how to assault the nervous system of an onlooker with formal equivalents for pain, mental stress, distortions not of art merely but of daily living and his own hold on it. Closer acquaintance suggests that here is someone who has looked very hard and imaginatively at the whole baroque tradition of wrenching the human figure until it is, literally, dragged towards that self-extension known as the sublime. But although the triptych is a very strong, even terrifying, picture one is at least as much aware of the scepticism and control underlying the element of shock. It is as if the artist were playing chicken with theatrical excess and learning to paint on the dangerous Baroque margin between going very far and going too far.

Bacon then dropped the linear, attenuated style of the triptych in favour of something much more solid. He was teaching himself oil paint’s correspondence with the destiny of the observed world; the Courbet road to nature. Figure Study I (1945-6) shows a coat and a hat in a landscape. This painting seems to have inaugurated the interest in clothes (no 20th-century painter has rendered them so attentively) which reflected Bacon’s preoccupation with Velasquez’s Innocent X and led to his own robed and enthroned popes. The effect of Figure Study is surreal, but not only on account of the garments and their location. A strong formal understanding of the kind of space clothes are designed to occupy draws shocking, and effective, attention to the absence of any owner. What modern man wants,’ Bacon has said, quoting Valery, is the grin without the cat’: the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. Throughout his career, Bacon has attempted to combine psychological immediacy his chamber of horrors side with whatever formal mechanics are most likely to allow the viewer to retain the painted image until it moves into memory and becomes a way of looking at the world. In the years following the war this search led Bacon to solidity at all costs. The Magdalene (or Figure Study II, 1946) in the Bagley Art Gallery has the poise of a Giotto figure, and so much presence that the umbrella half-concealing her becomes a convincing detail and not the gratuitous surreal emblem for which it is sometimes mistaken.

In the following decade, Bacons iconography juxtaposed the violent signs of our century with the gravities, hollow maybe, but socially and spiritually well anchored, of earlier epochs. His habit of working from photographs and news-clippings is in this decade everywhere apparent. It affected younger English painters like Richard Hamilton and the new figuration of Pop Art. Himmler and Goebbels, silent or in oratorical flood; Nadars captivating photographs of Baudelaires sidelong look; people rushing for shelter during street fighting in Petrograd in 1917; Marius Maxwells photograph of animals in equatorial Africa; the Screaming Nurse from Eisensteins film Potemkin; a postcard of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice; a few friends or relationsall appear and reappear as visual metaphors in compositions of increasing formality and scale. Their function is to awaken the sense of the suggestive which gives painting a resonance beyond its object-life, and liberation from the confines of art. Bacon would bring technical devices out into the open and reinstate them as images. The famous boxes which circumscribe his male nudes, popes, businessmen and monkeys start life as ways of containing space and end it as prisons out of Kafka. His brush-strokes are rapid (he does no preliminary drawing) and blur into one another. So originates the suggestion of flesh poised, like that of M Valdemar in Poes horrifying tale, on the edge of instant putrefaction.

The work of recent years has in the main turned from public and private scenes. Bacon’s originality is on as firm ground here, and slightly less susceptible to the aesthetics of shock. Memory traces of friends, nudes and the urban interiors which provide a natural setting for all but our most superficial human encounters, are re-created, hit and miss, in the very large body of work which has made his international name. Bacon is unique in this century in his ability to render the indoor, overfed, alcohol-and-tobacco-lined flesh of the average urban male. His painting is how most of us look. Bacon paints beds, platforms, chairs and sofas with the attention of Courbet gave to rocks. The effect is a suffocating enclosure: the landscape of hell done as hell’s hotel bedroom; the non-world of Sartres Huis Clos and BeckettEndgame. The implied theatricality seems to be deliberate. Compositional layout is very much like a conventional stage set; at any moment another figure, bearing hypodermic or ashtray, may enter left or right. Sofas and tables have, like flesh, puffed out and turned flabby, their Art Deco youthfulness long gone. These interiors reveal a truism of art impossible to over-emphasise. The function of any medium is to offer interchange, metamorphosis, the telescopic sliding-together of our perceptions until they are gathered back to their solitary neutral source.

Like Eliots early poetry (a direct influence) Bacons paintings are documentaries of nervous stress. They maybe stage contemporarily but they are always performedand this is perhaps the most English thing about themwith awareness of historical precedent and the shapes of tradition.

An exhibition of Francis Bacon’s work is at the Tate Gallery, London, from May 22 to August 18. Francis Bacon by Dawn Ades and Andrew Forgs is published by Thames and Hudson on May 20, £30, and is the hardback version of the catalogue.





Francis Bacon


An art of anguish?







“Art is a method of opening up areas of feeling-.... I want to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. And the moment the story enters. the boredom comes upon you.” So says Francis Bacon, a descendant from his famous Elizabethan namesake and arguably Britain’s (some say the world’s) greatest living painter. The viewer has a brief glimmering of understanding. as he turns the words over. then the pictures are out of focus again and the elusiveness of this man’s art returns. For all that this sophisticated and intelligent man has talked at length about his complex preoccupation with making images and his repugnance of story-telling, it is still not easy to be comfortable with his work.

That said, the exhibition of 126 of Bacon’s works at London’s Tate Gallery (until August 18th) has a powerful impact. It spans 40 years of painting and a remarkable consistency of effort after his early work, the “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion”, with its nightmarish, sightless bird-animals.

The large triptych arrangement, with each canvas just as big as his studio door will take, suits Bacon. He plays one canvas off against the other, like film shots, but they do not read sequentially. Suffering, sexuality and death obsess him. Bacon paints his friends, usually from photographs, in situations he conjures up, perhaps undressing them, perhaps putting them on a bed or chair. He plays down the sense of violence and horror that his raw, mangled flesh arouses. Nor, he maintains, is he trying to denigrate humanity; the frames, which sometimes enclose his figures are there to concentrate attention on them, not suggest confinement. He paints whatever arouses excitement in him, inspired perhaps by a film, perhaps by reading Shakespeare, Eliot or Proust.

Whatever may be thought of Bacon’s subject-matter, he is a wonderful manipulator of paint. By chance, he discovered that the unprimed back of a canvas-was a better surface for the pastel he finds essential for some of his coloration, particularly his oranges. He uses oils for his central images, acrylic or household paints for the background. He may daub paint quickly on with a rag or seize a scrubbing brush to spread it thinly; he often mixes in dust or sand. The ultimate effects are rich.

Though a notoriously heavy drinker at times, Bacon is almost invariably sober when he paints. Surprisingly, perhaps, for nowadays, he seems sensitive and very English about his homosexuality. He refers to “coupling” figures when dearly buggery is going on.

At his request, the Tate catalogue excludes the customary notes on each picture—which is a pity. When the gallery’s Richard Francis—who came to “like” (as opposed to admire) Bacon’s paintings only in the course of-organising the exhibition—showed Bacon his first set of commentaries, the artist apparently took exception to the recall of some appraisals of his first major showing in 1962. (A version of these commentaries is available in a separate pamphlet.) Bacon’s work today seems less startling than it did the, when abstract art was riding high. Look at it long enough and the “terrible beauty” that Alan Bowncss, the Tate’s director, sees in it may become apparent.




  Not a comfortable artist.







                                  John Russell Taylor

                                      assess the new

                                 Francis Bacon show

                                          at the Tate




  A master of deep disquiet







None should guess more accurately than Francis Bacon, inveterate gambler that in private life he is, the risks attached to a major retrospective. Though sometimes  very occasionally  retrospectives enhance an artist’s reputation, much more frequently they reduce it by a species of overkill, showing us the weak points we might barely guess at seeing works one by one or in small and carefully selected groups. The recent London shows devoted to Renoir and Chagall enjoyed record attendances, but then so do some bullfights, and the motivation of those attending may well be somewhat similar: the desire-to observe a battle against overwhelming odds; the unadmitted hope of being in at the kill.

All the same, Bacon has taken the challenge, accepting that the chances are against him: the big show (120 paintings) at the Tate Gallery until August 18 is even the second he has had there.

For Bacon, who does not produce drawings or graphics, works almost always on a large scale and is not in any case enormously prolific, it amounts to putting the major part of his surviving work since 1944 on show: despite his own statements that he regrets two important groups, the screaming popes and the Van Gogh cycle, and rumours that he hoped they, might not be included, they are still there. With the same mixture of openness and impregnable mystery of motivation which governs his publication of his private life, he has elected to go for broke, permit himself artistically to be totally known (or at least totally observed), and take the consequences.

The gamble pays magnificently. Though we may be left asking ourselves, with one of Pinters heroes, What have I seen, the scum or the essence?, the show leaves little room for doubt that we are in the presence of a very great painter indeed. The analogy with Pinter, once invoked, will not go away. Their imaginative worlds are similarly haunted, their artistic means as meticulous, the ultimate sources of their inspiration as obscure  even, one suspects to themselves — and the climate of violence which pervades their Existential unease in BaconTwo Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1968) work, is created or re-created with the same total urbanity of expression, not a word or a brush-stroke too many, nothing anywhere which is slapdash or arbitrary. Bacon has spoken of the violence in his work as suggestions within the image itself which can only be conveyed through paint, and disassociated himself from the expressionists who use paint itself in a violent way: what one feels looking at this extraordinary succession of painted images is not a simple physical revulsion, but a nagging existential unease impossible either to explain or to shrug off.

If we say that the show is profoundly disturbing we must give equal weight to the adverb and the adjective. The terrors of Bacons vision are buried deep within the image, and out of them a terrible beauty is born. Bacon has sometimes been suspected of being merely provocative and perverse when he rhapsodizes about the beautiful colours of meat in a butcher’s shop, but here one can see and feel precisely what he means: like all great artists he re-educates us as we go along, drawing us inexorably into his world, to see things through his eyes.

One might expect such a parade of horrors and deformations to anaesthetize our responses  especially since Bacons repertoire of motifs is relatively small and his style shows little evolution during the last 30 years, since the Van Gogh series in the mid-Fifties. But, as with all truly obsessive artists, a species of telepathy plays a very important role in the way we react: the quality of his emotion face-to-face with his canvas somehow dictates the quality of ours. And there are surprisingly few works here where the emotion seems to become merely a conditioned reflex: a few painted in the middle Seventies, perhaps, but if so there is a remarkable recovery in his work of the Eighties, dominated by a series of landscapes without or minimizing the human figure: the first Sand Dune (1981), for instance, with its subterraneous suggestions of flesh as well as impersonal place, is one of the most astonishing and disturbing images even he has ever produced.

And, if there is an element of anaesthesia, it is of a very different and beneficent sort. It gradually lulls us into acceptance of the pain and the horror of the images, but only to sharpen and liberate our aesthetic perceptions. Bacon is one of the centurys great colourists, and there is nothing this most painterlv of painters does not know about how to apply pigment to canvas for maxi- mum effect. He is right: raw meat is beautiful. Our acceptance of this modifies and enlarges our sensibilities in a way that no other painter has been able to do since the first Cubist revolution. Go by any means to see the show: you may hate every moment. but I can guarantee that you will never be quite the same again.













SOMETHING to do with the Bacon exhibition at the Tate? A fuddy-duddy aesthete with a grudge against modern art spent last night going up and down the art dealers epicentre, Cork Street, daubing large smears of grey paint across the window of each gallery he passed  but only the ones specialising in 20th century art. Their owners have spent the morning window-cleaning while Victorian colleagues smiled complacently on.





                                                                             Francis Bacon — smears?









A painter to join the gods






RANCIS Bacon is 75. The Tate Gallery is giving him a major retrospective exhibition, its director has described him as the greatest living painter”.

The BBC has made him the subject of an Arena programme and newspaper sand magazines the world over are printing a welter of words about him.

I wish that it was not my duty to add to them, for I am almost dumb with wonder and the words seem only to get in the way.

Given the freedom to write a one word review I would say go, and leave it at that, for these are paintings that speak more eloquently by far than any critic.

Bacon is not a man who has ever retreated into the safety of a fixed style or fashionable ism and he cannot be grouped with any of his contemporaries. Self-taught, he fumbled and groped his way backwards from surrealism (the ism current in his early thirties) towards Velasquez and Van Gogh, with a sideways look at the emerging strength of Graham Sutherland, learning always from paintings rather than painters.

His handling of paint grew richer and more assured as the images became more complex.

He always drew and defined so that the twisting and turning of the loaded brush describes the texture, form and volume, as well as the colour, light and shadow.

Bacon puts down much of this painterly skill to happy accident  instinct perhaps but accident never, for the paint comes clean from the palette, on a brush of the right width, perfectly loaded for the length of the stroke, the stroke perfectly weighted and there is correction. That kind of handling is not achieved by chance.

The strokes are often long and curving, elegantly reflecting the forms that they depict.

He is indeed a painter’s painter and no man who has ever held a brush in his hand can fail to respond with the thrill of awe and envy to the bravura piling up of paint at one extreme and the miniaturist delicacy of detail at the others.

His subjects are not pretty and the great gallery scale of his work, often in inseparable groups of three, makes no concessions to the private patron.

He is the Titian of today, turning to Popes, Presidents and the tormented nude to express the human predicaments of a society riven by religious and temporal power, unreasoning authority, corruption and prejudice.

For the great amatory episodes of classical mythology with a moral sting he substitutes pairs of figures in attitudes of mindless erotic violence; many derive from photographs of boxers, wrestlers and footballers brought close to pornography and then elevated into a savage allegory that makes the bowels shudder.

He seems to sense no beauty, grace or heroism in man, seeing him only as a creature with animal references in the way he walks and squats, butchering him to loins and tripes and bloody rib-cages in the private abattoir of his imagination.

Where Titian put saints through the torments of martyrdom with the sure knowledge of redemption, Bacon kills off his friends with the hypodermic syringe and vomit in the lavatory, graceless and obscene.

Even his portraits are tormented, lonely figures trapped in a patch of light or a barred framework, fidgeting and threatened, more interrogated prisoners than friends observed with compassion and affection.

Bacon is the master of the moving multiple image, acknowledging the analytical methods of Cubism and Picasso’s distortions, as well as photography, but reaching far beyond their limits.

Into simple bold statements of pose or action he introduces subsidiary indications of movement that provide a limited narrative. He develops variations on the trick of the mirrored portrait within the portrait, even suggesting the passage of time with the stubs of a dozen cigarettes.

And in his small portrait heads, painted with the same scale and breadth of brush-work as in the larger pictures, he has consistently laid image over image, seeming at first to destroy the form and blur the features, yet in his super-imposition he provides a sequence of recollections of the sitter, each of mood and attitude simultaneously recognisable.

As with Titian at a great age there is no falling away of power in his most recent work  old Titian had a trembling hand but Bacon’s is as steady as a young man’s, and the images are newly vile.

 I am not convinced that cricket pads and a naked crutch make a telling universal truth but the dissolving body on the doorsteps has his old nightmare strengths and his Oedipus with a bloody bullet-wounded foot angrily confronting the smooth-faced Sphinx, with a bat-winged liver fluttering in the night, is a disturbing and violent enigma.

In the presence of these ferocious images, brilliantly, claustrophobically displayed, you must sense an astonishing mastery.

Bacon is that rare thing, a painter to join the pantheon of Michelangelo and Raphael and Titian, a towering giant of his century, a living painter whose work would add lustre to the National Gallery  and that is the honour with which he should be recognised.

Francis BACON, The Tate Gallery, until August 13.  Monday-Saturday  10.0-5.50.  Sunday 2.0-5.50. Admission £2.





Freud or foe?






 Some of Francis Bacon’s finest work is of fellow painter Lucian Freud — notably the triptych portrait, part of which can be seen in the current retrospective at the Tate Gallery.

 One of his most important paintings, however, and one which Bacon desperately wished to include in the exhibition, will not be seen.

 It is his  “Two Figures”, painted in 4953 and owned by Lucian Freud. According to Robert Hughes, the art critic, Freud refuses to release it.





Just a minor master







FRANCIS BACON has been hailed as the greatest living artist. It is I think an ill-judged claim, yet it is revealing of our times.

One thing is beyond question. Bacon is among the most original, indeed passionately idiosyncratic artists at work today. At the same time he does also touch all too familiar agonies of the moment; to walk through the Tate Gallery’s Bacon Exhibition, which continues until Aug. 18, is to experience chilling moments.

Several commentators have noted that with one or two conspicuous exceptions English private collectors do not buy Bacon’s work. This has been put forward as if it were some sort of condemnation. The opposite is the truth. Just as there are very human and morally, intellectually and emotionally acceptable reasons for not wanting to have a Bacon on one’s walls, so the long, stern judgement of history will see Bacon not as the major figure in European art he seems in the eyes of many to have become, but as a minor master.

The ravaged prostitute cannot resist pausing before the mirror. So we hold up Bacon. In both cases the result is much the same. We move a step further into the shadows.

There have been little masters like him throughout the history of European art and among mediaeval sculptors, they were particularly numerous among Mediaeval sculptures. Such men when can no longer participate in the terrors of their age become curiosities; art historians apply style criticism and even place these anonymous stone carvings in groups, recognizing different hands. Equally constructive, others with a more metaphysical bent, speculate what such works can tell us about contemporary fears and emotions. Stones have always been eloquent. Does Bacon go beyond this?

The Tate provides us with the means of arriving at a considered judgement. The paintings induce the kind of stunned silence that follows a first acquaintance with a ward full of the victims of a foul disease.

Only a country with an Arts minister without a ministry or any real power or even influence, and which is intensely inhibited about contemporary art and is rightly still unsure concerning the potential of modern art as an investment would land itself in our present pathetic situation over Bacon. Now that he has been acclaimed in Paris and elsewhere aboard many of those directly involved with the arts, who ought to know better, and others who are in the Press are quick to turn to the arts it has “news value,” and only then, are tumbling over themselves to discover a great artist. We should be deeply cynical about the mechanics of how reputations are made.

To the absurdity of the foreword by Alan Bowness, the Tate’s Director, introducing the massive catalogue of he exhibition, I suffered another affront at the private view. Bowness, not content with declaring that Bacon is “surely the greatest living painter,” goes on to assert that his paintings have “a terrible beauty that has placed them among the most memorable images in the entire history of art.”

Bacon is an untrained artist of extraordinary originality who conjures compulsive images. The ravaged face of the drinker, gambler and worse that stares at us from the frontispiece of the catalogue is that of a man who has produced images frighteningly relevant for our age. Bodies disintegrate, a Pope screams, a hypodermic needle sticks out of an arm.

For two reasons the claim that Bacon is a great artist must be firmly dismissed. His range as a painter is severely limited; we are bored by the way, without modelling, or any convincing illusion of space, figures are outlined and they are all the same, for they are disintegrating, foul. We cannot in art ignore those qualities, such as tactile values, that Berenson defined. What is more, while striking, Bacon’s use of colour is monotonous.

Yet it is the content of his painting, the unrelieved agony, the all pervading sense of corruption, that is the hallmark of their limitations. The sick figure leaning upon a basin cannot even vomit. Bacon’s painting is effective illustration. It is not great art. Neither man’s spiritual intuitions, nor his sense of wonder, plat any part in Bacon’s painting. Future generations considering British art in the 20th century will turn not to Bacon but to Graham Sutherland and Ivon Hitchens.






                                                                    A self-portrait by Francis Bacon





       ART            MICHAEL SHEPHERD 




Eye of feeling







CRITICS may criticise; appraisers appraise; and analysts analyse; but when it comes down to it, the value of art for each of us is in what it actually does for us.

I find it fascinating, emerging from a great retrospective exhibition on to familiar Millbank or Piccadilly or the South Bank, to see, in what lies in front of me, whether the artist has imposed his own vision on me  or better, activated it to see the previously unseeable. So I came out, visually stunned, from the retrospective of 126 works by Francis Bacon at the Tate Gallery (until August 18) wondering what would come of it.

The answer wasn’t long in coming. Ten minutes later, in a sandwich bar, I suddenly watched transfixed, as the chap at the next table, with nothing to do except wait for his order, went through a series of facial expressions, like a speeded-up silent film, every one of which vividly recalled Bacon’s painting: half-formed thoughts, emotions, desires, fears, hopes, instincts, moods: the idling mind scanning fluidly at random, its deepest inner life. Most striking, visually, were the moments when the eyes were following one inner image, but the thoughts, visibly, were sliding and running in another direction.

Bacon asserts that he has no “message for humanity,” nor has he any intention to shock with the distorted and horrific for its own sake, but rather to “unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.”  In the horrific 20th century  perhaps no more or less horrific than any other, but one where our vision and responses have been uniquely numbed with photographs and film of unceasing horror, and the flesh still warm  an artist has just the tradition, his acquired technical skills, and his powers of observation, to help him find a way to unlock our feelings and sharpen our response to life.

Can artists still provide that catharsis  the purging though pity and terror  which is the classical definition of tragedy, to restore  afresh our humanity to us? This Tate retrospective provides a chance to test whether the generally acknowledged world’s greatest living painter, now in his sprightly 76th year, does this for us, individually.

Anyway, this exhibition  selected by Bacon himself in association with the Tate Gallery  should provide a corrective to those who suppose Bacon to be just a horror merchant, concerned only with humanity’s dark side and its animal degradation.

It was certainly difficult in earlier days, confronted at the Hanover Gallery with a whole room of screaming popes which represented that year’s obsessive image for Bacon, or four walls of blandly evil bureaucrats and business men, to assimilate his art with much sense of balance. And the panting in the Tate’s permanent collection which virtually began Bacon’s public career, the “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” of 1944 (painted the year before Dachau, Belsen and Auschwitz were opened up; exhibited the year after) is the more disturbing for being a more explicit, painterly, three-dimensionally formed treatment of images long familiar from Picasso in his more linear but less explicit treatment — in the mind, not made flesh.

Bacon made his name internationally in the Venice Biennale of 1954, and was given his first Tate retrospective in 1962. But for me, the first full revelation of the tenderness and beauty in Bacon came with the great retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971.

There, huge resonant canvases fit for a palace were set off by the many of the triptych portraits of Bacon’s intimate friends. It could be seen — as it can abundantly at the Tate show — that Bacon’s art is built on the close observation of the inner life of humanity, in his friends; as well as the 20th century’s unique frozen Niagara of photographed and filmed material.

Then Bacon’s fascination with the “extreme situation” (in violence or isolation), his technical brilliance with paint, which fills in the gaps, so to speak, in Picasso’s graphic cubism, and above all, his dependence on chance whilst actually wielding the paintbrush, produces these masterly fluidly epigrammatic images; any one of which in this show would surely earn him a place in any public gallery of the 20th century even if he painted nothing else.




                                                                                 Francis Bacon at the Tate





    Saving Bacon



                WILLIAM FEAVER

                looks back at Bacon,

              celebrated at The Tate






THE USE of Bacon behind the credit titles of ‘Last Tango in Paris’ was a gross misappropriation. Understandable though, in that they must have reckoned the paintings would lend depth to Marlon Brando’s sulks and strengthen the production’s claim to be classy.

The popular image of Bacon’s art is one of unremitting horrors: twentieth-century man, Pope and ordinary guy alike, soundlessly screaming. In reality Bacon’s aim has always been to take himself by surprise, to ‘unlock the valves of feeling,’ as he put it, rather than to maintain a successful line in deliberate nastiness. He has constantly asserted the dignity of man, against the odds, in a futile world.

Bacon’s last retrospective, in Paris, was, as I remember, remarkable for the way the shocks wore off and the imagery went from strength to strength. Now, 14 years later, in Francis Bacon at the Tate, the same applies. The displaced persons or apparitions of 1944 and 1945 introduce, once again, the notion of Bacon the purveyor of raging distress. Mulish ‘Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ gape and bray. A hatted, tweed-overcoated being bends and vomits hydrangeas. These early paintings look cramped and underdeveloped, as though bred in captivity. That is their great quality.

His lack of formal training was a handicap Bacon turned to advantage. Uninhibited by drawing skills or rules of composition, he painted simply for effect. The worrisome code of the Euston Road School, for instance, meant nothing to him. Picasso was more his style, and the spiky vehemence of Picassoesque Sutherland. He became a master of frontal assault and tactical blurring.

The hands are always fudged in a Bacon, either pocketed or left conspicuously vague. Footwear is blunted. Features are pulled together as though stocking-masked. Hence the air of victimisation and menace.

The predicament of Bacon’s Popes, the figures based on Velasquez’s ‘Pope Innocent X,’ is that of all after-images dependent on the power of an archetype. The precise details of the Velasquez, the crimson satin and frothy lace, the gilding on the throne, the ring glinting on the Papal finger are blotted out. Innocent loses his shrewdness. Pope becomes Nanny (Bacon adopted the nursemaid shot in the face on the Odessa steps in ‘Battleship Potemkin’) and the paint curdles on the former robes of office.

These screaming Pope paintings are a peculiar combination of sparsity and Fifties glamour. They are redolent of blackout material or, equally, the black velvet wall-coverings in Cecil Beaton’s drawing room in Pelham Place. Bacon struck a nerve but, even in the best of them, (’Pope II’ 1951), the idea and the execution don’t quite add up.

Using Muybridege’s photographs of ‘The Human Figure in Motion,’ 1887, and K. C. Clark’s ‘Positioning in Radiography,’ 1939, Bacon coined some of his most successful — that’s to say convincing — Baconisms. Men from ’the beast with two backs’ as wrestling develops into rutting. ’Two Figures in the Grass’ merge in whispers of paint, secluded from the rest of the zoo. Caged, framed, stuck on exercise bars or boardroom perches, humans and chimps have identical snarls and make the same gestures of abandonment and despair.

Where Willem De Kooning’s ‘Women’ paintings from the Fifties are spread, unabashedly, all-over, Bacon’s men, conceived simultaneously, are isolated, highlights only, tethered to puddle shadows. De Kooning gushes; Bacon means to transcend the drips, the wrinkling skins, the muddiness or gaudiness mere applied paint. That is why the claims of the Bacon lobby have more to the than those advanced for De Kooning as, for the sake of argument, the world’s ‘greatest living painter.’ Bacon’s ambition stares, Rembrandt-like, from every self-portrait.

Ambition, of course, is not enough. That vital Baconism, strategic inarticulacy, may be dramatically effective, but it’s also a persistent cover-up. Smudging the paint at key points, wiping out rummaging fingers or the bridge of the nose, seemingly in the heat of the moment, is a means of fending off banality.

‘Study for Portrait III (after the Life Mask of William Blake),’ 1955, looks sponged down, possibly to lessen any resemblance Graham Sutherland’s studies for the portrait of Churchill, done the previous year. Sutherland beached himself high and dry on factuality. Bacon has kept possibilities open. Bafflement or bewilderment freezes every encounter; passion dissolves. Faces are mopped, scrambled, tenderised.

In the triptyches, Bacon’s most behavioural paintings, the action is broken down into isolated spasms. Though cycloramic backdrops may connect each set of canvases, the figures meet their fate, or just sit and wait, in separate cells. A Nazi armband wearer struggles with himself. Someone grovels on a bed. Death lurks behind the bannisters and gazes up from the shaving mirror.

Bacon gives his fingers things to hold: razor, telephone, camera, key. Like a property master, or a crime reporter aware of the value of ordinary details, he introduces particular chairs — swivel or reclining — mattress ticking, sliding doors. An unzipped overnight bag gapes as the compartment is splattered with gore on the Blue Train heading South. Fragmented Letraset peppers newspapers with gibberish.

Sprinklings of Letraset persist in the large number of paintings (more than a third of the exhibition) done since the Grand Palais retrospective in 1971. Bacon’s mannerisms, his signs of impatience, are more off-hand than ever. However, the splats of white ejaculated so to speak across across bull-rings and rooms to suggests spontaneity have almost ceased.

Occasionally figures fail to materialise. Tiresome radiographers’ arrows jab away at areas of potential interest, but nothing substantial emerges. Bacon tends to declare such paintings landscapes. Outdoors is never more than a patch of grass, a compound, a desert or — once — a small wasteland with the pale underbelly of Mother Earth suspended like a ceiling overhead.

Several times the paint is worked up into niggly gushes described as ‘Water from a Running Tap’ or ‘Jet of Water.’ Aerosolled smoother and fitted with framing devices, other, more bosomy abstractions are labelled sand dunes. From these plumped expanses curious hermaphroditic beings take shape. Headless but equipped with wicketkeeper’s pads and gloves they occupy modelling stands on orange and vermilion grounds.

The ‘Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ were similarly placed 40 years ago at the start of Bacon’s artistic career proper. Then they were harsh and anguished. Now they are exemplary bodies.

The persisting images — Bacon zooming in on himself, swatting easy likeness, cupping the wounds, instinctively flinching — are the whole argument of this retrospective. The rest of Bacon’s work may be no less extraordinary but it involves dilution. The figures are the performance; their surroundings are incidental. Bacon’s greatness is little to do with making your flesh creep in a climate of violence. It comes of transforming portraiture, the fundamental art.









    Bacon signing catalogue at his Tate retrospective last week.






Bacon: genius who walks alone







THE largest exhibition yet held of the art of Francis Bacon, almost universally considered the greatest of living English painters, has just opened at the Tate Gallery. He and Henry Moore are the international stars of British art; Bacon, for example, has been the subject of special exhibitions at the Grand Palais, Paris, the Metropolitan, New York, the National Gallery, Berlin, and had a major retrospective of 20 years of his art at the Tate in 1962. Moore is the most widely distributed sculptor in the world.

Both, while rooted in tradition, are towering individuals, who have founded no group, and have no following  there is no School of Moore, no School of Bacon. They have legions of admirers, but no following. The same is true of Turner, an eccentric genius and Turner’s and Turner’s critical and curatorial popularity in the last two decades has risen as his paintings have reached enormous sums in the market place. 

A major Moore  an elmwood reclining figure, part woman part landscape  and a major Bacon, Study for a portrait of van Gogh, are part of the introductory room to the current Hayward Annual. This year the Annual is a one-man choice of 22 artists, picked out by the dealer Nigel Greenwood as a deeply personal portrayal of contemporary British art.

The result is very English: here are individuals, not groups, and they are  except for that other strain of unforced whimsicality and ceremonial narrative that is also very English  focussed on colour, light and landscape.

The English it is always said, are clubbable  but they are, I think, rarely groupable. Neither Bacon nor Moore are members of the Royal Academy, nor are any of the exhibiting artists in the Hayward. Bacon is himself a famous drinking companion. But the art is strikingly individual; more, there is specifically a Northern quality.

For as Bacon’s overwhelmingly generous exhibition makes clear, he is a master of colour and light and atmosphere and ambiguity. Bacon’s subjects are always people, floating in coloured space, although often loosely anchored to chair, mattress and lavatory.

Bacon’s first absolutely major work, shocking and extreme, the Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944, shows snarling open-mouthed, full-toothed humanoid creatures, set in vast spaces of livid, acid orange. That the emotions are powerful there is no doubt. But just as with Moore’s reclining figure, we are uncertain as to whether we are looking at breast and leg, or valley and hill, so with Bacon we don’t know whether we are witnessing growls of rage, howls of pain, or silent screams of laughter.

Bacon’s paintings are usually  and unusually for many paintings nowadays  glazed. The glazing puts all the raw, undigested emotion at a little distance, echoing the distance Bacon must put himself at, and giving the spectator, too, just a little breathing space.

Bacon’s technique is very unusual among modern painter: he mixes oil paint and pastel, the pigment is often thin and powdery, making the sudden swooping eruptions of brushwork like clotted cream, or a rivulet of colour streaking across the canvas like an aeroplane’s vapour trail, all the more succulent.

Bacon’s creatures have surfaced in a curious way from the imagination, the act of painting them somehow — the viewer feels — acted out intuitively. Above all, Bacon know when to stop: visual interest is sustained throughout the large scale Bacon habitually uses, the figures are kept in an equilibrium between clarity and dissolution.

Although the subject matter is so ostensibly different, what comes to the mind’s eye are Turner’s late watercolours, sublime and minimal, suggesting, with just a few streaks of colour, landscapes of grandeur that somehow sum up human aspiration. Bacon is the underside of that grandeur — his is the art of inescapable dissolution, of mortal remains, his terrain the landscape of the human body. The only real landscape Bacon has ever used comes from a painting by Van Gogh.

In Bacon, there is a tension that is nerve-wracking for the spectator between the awesome beauty of the handling of his physical material  the work is beautifully painted, as though with tinted steam  and the distressing nature of the subject matter, a butcher’s shop of humankind. There is always a sense of movement because of the vertiginous angles at which bodies are arranged and heads held. Sometimes, indeed, Bacon has painted arrows on his images, directional signs as though these were maps of a territory of the emotions: this was for angst, over there for anxiety.

An introductory section in the corridor of the Tate leading to the Bacon exhibition is full of paintings couched in that lyrical romantic surrealism sometimes touched with acid that was characteristically English in the 1930s and 1940s. From Stanley Spencer to Edward Burra, this suggests a group ethos from which Bacon’s art grew. But however rooted, it is still Turner and at times Moore who seem the appropriate context.

With Turner there is the same overwhelming fascination with colour, the irresistible urge to experiment with materials, the absorption with textures and surfaces. All three are preoccupied by the contrast between definition and resolution. As Turner used Swiss mountain passes and lakes, the raging sea, so Bacon uses the life-marked faces of his friends.

At the Hayward Annual, landscape is inescapable. The vast, grainy black and white paintings by Anthony Zych, made of varnish and gravels, are a look into endless horizon. The tiny photographs of Thomas Joshua Cooper, contrasts of dark and light, show nature disporting in varied fancy dress, wearing carpets of leaves, jewellery of twig and rock. Fred Williams’ scenes of Australian mining land, Bridget Riley’s light-filled paintings of glittering stripes, all tell us of landscape.

That is the British love affair: clouds of colour, evanescent changes in atmosphere. It is moving to see in this company how very individual Francis Bacon is, a genius unlike any other; and yet, how very English.




                                        Francis Bacon Self Portrait





The haunting vision of Francis Bacon







To the wider British public Francis Bacon is an artist more controversial in his reputation than popular, but those with a closer interest in his work and knowledge of his achievement over some fifty years are not surprised that at the age of 76 hw should be allowed the rare honour of a second retrospective exhibition at the Tate (until August 18; then on to Stuttgart and Berlin).

Since that first show in 1962, which even then confirmed his stature as one of the most significant of modern painters, he has continued if anything more prolific, his work larger in scale and extended further by the almost habitual use of the diptych or triptych arrangement; and now a definitive mass of it has been assembled for the first time.

It makes for an extraordinary, astonishing and at time exhilarating experience, and our thanks must go not just to the Tate but to the sponsors, Global Asset Management, for bringing it about, and to Thames and Hudson, too, for their collaboration with the fine catalogue.

We have it on the personal authority of our Minister for the Arts, no less, delivered in the public prints and on television in recent weeks, that in Francis Bacon we have the greatest painter alive today. A large claim indeed, but it is one widely shared, most especially abroad, and there is nothing at all incongruous in the Tate’s Director, in his short catalogue introduction, citing Rembrandt and Van Gogh among Bacon’s true peers. But Mr Bernard Levin, who was the Minister’s interlocutor on one television occasion, could only respond to this considered and serious judgement with dismissive scorn. The exchange was most revealing, for here we saw clearly yet again the great divide in our native cultural life between those who have eyes to see and those who have not.

The problem with which Francis Bacon faces us in his art is the problem of imagery so strong in its superficial presence and immediate impact that even those who are now familiar with it, and have come to accept it, have needed time and application to see beyond it and so move deeper into the work. Those blessed with less visual, more literary habits of interpretation and more literal a cast of mind can think of nothing, as they can see nothing, more than the apparent violence done to the human figure, the gratuitous, arbitrary distortion, an easy, pitiless contempt for the human condition. What seems to be the message is to them everything.

If there were nothing more to it than that, how could we not agree with them in rejecting what merely disgusts us, and distrusting what we cannot see. But of course there is more to it, much more: a mere talent for grotesque invention never made a painter great, and as with all forms of art, it is what the artist does with his image and his imaginative material in format terms, how he makes it, puts it together and disposes it, that is the real test.

The question is never one of content nor of form alone, but always of form in relation to content, of what the work is quite as much as of what it might also be in its imaginative reference and suggestion. From this tense and critical relation the work derives all emotional force and imaginative profundity.

Bacon has often said that his work is about nothing other than itself. There is no specific message, programme or polemic to it, and to look for one is to miss the point. His effort is directed only to realising each image physically on the canvas, to give it a life of its own, a kind of independence to shift for itself, and in the process to exorcise one of those images which seem to have haunted his vision for so long, to lay the ghost at last, if only for a moment. The scream, the disembodied mouth, the teeth like interlocking bits upon a drill, all recur time and again, and the popes and animals, too, subsumed these 20 years past on the obsessive, insistent reinvention, restatement of the figure, isolated and central within its circular arena, that might be transparent cell, or cage, or tomb.

Thus the irony that inevitably we do begin to read the work, to draw from it our own lesson of alienation, perhaps, and despair  the kind of cosmic desperation that we share with Vladimir and Estragon, or indeed Lear in the wilderness, but which painters seem never consciously to engage. It is when we look at the self-portraits of Rembrandt and of Van Gogh too, and his last landscapes, that we sense a closer visual parallel, an unflinching but utterly absorbed and unself-conscious consideration of humanity, of reality and what it is to be alive.

Bacon is more indirect, or so it might seem at first; but the more we look at the work throughout (especially that of the later period) the less significant the distortion and grotesquerie becomes. It begins to seem no more than a mask held up to deflect attention, a defence or smokescreen; and we begin to realise how calm and self-contained these paintings are, how beautiful and unforced and natural. There is no horror or disgust in the later rooms at all, but rather an easiness in the statement, and familiarity in the imagery, and a sense overall of quizzical and relaxed detachment.

In short, it seems suddenly to be so much more straightforward than we would ever have thought it, portraits to be read not as moralities but just as portraits, touching and exact. And so it is with even the earliest work, that was once so shocking and now fills the first four rooms at the Tate to give us the essence of that exhibition of 1962. I can remember that my own clear feelings of shocked excitement, but also my recognition of a consummate handling of paint, and passages here and there were extremely beautiful. The excitement remains, but not the shock, and the painterly authority and the physical richness and beauty of the surface of these canvases are inescapable.

Bacon had returned to painting in 1944, having destroyed or disavowed his earlier work, and then been inactive for a year or two. He showed himself immediately to be a master, which is where we come in, with the surreal expressionism of his figures at the foot of the cross (which triptych is now in the Tate’s own collection) and the other similar studies of sinister, crouching, snarling figures. The imagery then becomes more fluid, the touch lighter, the mood more openly experimental and deceptively casual. It is at this moment, with the portrait studies, the Blake death masks and the baboons and wrestlers of the middle 50’s, that we can see just what Bacon has meant all along by his open admiration not for Rembrandt, nor for Van Gogh, but for Degas.

How interesting, and what a true measure of the artist whose work provokes it, that we can see emerge from this great exhibition with the thought f Degas, at once the most ambiguous and the most accessible of painters of his time, certainly the greatest draughtsman and perhaps the greatest artist. We think of the speed and the touch, of the experiment and the adventure; and who can now say, with his monotypes now on show at the Hayward, that Degas was not the first of the expressionists. The mark lies on the surface and we stand back with the artist, curious to see what it will do.




                                                                       Francis Bacon at his Tate Gallery exhibition                                                 Alastair Muir    





Pick of the summer crop



Royal Academy





A SIMPLE FACT needs to be recorded concerning the Royal Academys 1985 Summer Exhibition. It offers more worthwhile paintings, drawing and prints than can be seen in all the other temporary exhibitions in London put together.

Nothing is easier than to overlook a consideration of this sort for this year as usual the number of works displayed (at 1,712 marginally fewer than last years 1,769) is dauntingly large. To lapse into lazy looking is all too tempting but it is to be avoided, for there are good things in every gallery.

Particularly revealing is the fact that this year 5,763 artists and others submitted 15,006 works as against last years 12,139 submissions by 5,049 would-be entrants. Artists at any rate believe the RAs Summer Exhibition has a useful role to play.

It is something that from Saturday when the public are admitted until Aug. 25 when the exhibition closes everyone can judge for himself.

Already a welter of publicity has surrounded one picture, Ruskin Spears painting of a bucktoothed, bemused looking Mrs Thatcher entitled Welcome to Kuala Lumpur. This is good providing its leads to recognition of the fact that the same artistFrancis Bacon is one of the finest of 20th-century portraits.

That it is on public view at this time when the Bacon exhibition is drawing crowds to the Tate is evidence of the fact that the RA is relevant to the moment.

The point is that there is room at the RA for both kinds of Spear: the Bacon portrait would grace any exhibition and ever since Hogarth there has been a place for sharp satire in British art. Indeed it is true to say that almost every kind of serious painting to be found in Britain today is represented in this years academy.

Grumbling about the RA has become something very like a national past-time but, given in reality we suffer from everybody knowing what he likes and almost everything is represented, it is beginning to look like an unusually lazy reaction.

One thing fascinates me, and it is, I think, highly revealing. A friend tells me that the Russian Ambassador remarked to him that the RA this year seems to be following in the footsteps of Socialist Realism. I wonder if he realised just what a profound piece of art criticism that was.

If there is a hallmark of Socialist Realism, it is optimism, and this is a remarkably bright, even gay Academy. If anybody imagines that this is to be equated with superficiality he is wrong; just as we have much to learn about Social Realism, so it is false, because so many are uncritically acclaiming Bacons unrelieved pessimism to assume that an Academy in which the note is positive is superficial.

The RA may still have room for trivia but no one should overlook the many serious things on view.  Terrence Mullaly




    Ruskin Spears portrait of fellow artist Francis Bacon in the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. 





  Talking to




         Alistair Hicks








Very few people like poetry or painting; they really want a story. I don’t like stories; I’m not a narrative painter. Painting is a language on its own; it is very difficult to translate into words.’ However, Francis Bacon’s career has never followed any laws and not only does he speak with the authority of the greatest living painter, but he raids our literary heritage with calculated abandon. ‘I want to convey reality without illustrating,’ he says and plunders the imagery of Aeschylus, Eliot and Yates. People accuse his of being aggressive, but the carnage is only taking place in closed minds. ‘Look at the newspapers. television and films — who could compete with that?’ He can. His violence never lacks purpose and is aimed at those mental gates. ‘Great poetry makes a direct assault on the nervous system.’ Unlike his 16th-century ancestor, he uses paint instead of words and consequently has only received grudging respect in this country instead of joyous praise.


A second retrospective at the Tate is a unique compliment, but he has earned it. ‘When I started painting I did a course in speed-writing — I didn’t finish it — I never thought that I would earn enough money from my pictures to make a living.’ Fortunately, his work was soon recognised abroad. Even though Paris is a far less important centre in the world’s art market than London or New York, it is only there he feels he receives a true painter’s welcome. This summer will sow why. The Tate retrospective will have a great impact, especially amongst those too young to have seen his last show, but it should be more of a celebration. If were were visually interested, we would already know the paintings and this exhibition would just be a confirmation of our pleasure in his work. The whole of London should be popping corks in true Bacon style, just as the Sienese held a feast day on completion of a Duccio altarpiece.


Bacon’s vision has changed the way we perceived beauty. Michel Leiris once wrote under Baudelaire’s influence, ‘We can call ‘beautiful’ only that which suggests the existence of an ideal order — supraterrestrial, harmonious and logical  �and yet bears within itself, like the brand of original sin, the drop of poison, the rogue element of incoherence, the grain of sand that will foul up the entire system.’ Bacon ringed this and the preceding passage in Leiris’s book. His pictures have broken down the classical ideal of beauty. ‘I’m a realist though not many people would agree with me. I try to trap realism.’ To achieve this, he has discarded many of the preconceptions normally attached to high art. Film, photography and the abundance of commercial imagery with which we litter our lives have forced artists to re-assess their position. ’This limitation forces you to invent even more.’ Invention is one of the common denominations of great art. ‘Rembrandt painted his portrait throughout his life and made himself different every time, re-made his appearance each time.’


Ii is often noted that Francis Bacon stands on his own. There are remarkably few conventional influences and very few obvious followers. T. S. Eliot would have explained this very simply. In periods of great artistic achievement, there is an undercurrent of ideas, an artistic framework provided by a host of other artists. Bacon, however, had to build up his own visual grammar. He envies tradition. ‘From 3000 to 2000 BC the magnificent art being produced in Egypt was being made by craftsmen. There is a lot of craft n painting. Those Egyptians were attempting to defeat death.’ ‘Are modern artists attempting to defeat death?’ I queried. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘The difference is they believed in the afterworld. I don’t.’


A sense of isolation rarely leaves Bacon’s work. His aversion to story-telling forbids communication between figures in his paintings, except in rare circumstances. Obviously in the copulating ‘Two Figures’ of 1953, invidiously not lent to this exhibition, there s intercourse between the bodies, but the onlooker is left to make up his own mind whether this is the supreme moment of communication or not.


Francis Bacon is not a preacher. ‘I wouldn’t have anything to say.’ However, though his pictures he lends us his rogue eye. He escaped conventional training. He has little to say in art schools’ favour except that they give students time to get on with their own work. His lack of formal schooling does not mean he is opposed to education. The retrospective includes such works as Triptych Inspired by T. S. Eliot’s ‘Sweeney Agonistes’, (1967) and ’Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus’ (1981). Not too much attention should be paid to the titles, but the message is there — he is exploiting the same emotions and ideas in their rawest state. He also steals images from other painters. ‘One would be a fool if one didn’t.’ In September he has been asked been asked by the National Gallery to select this year’s ‘Artist’s Eye’. He tips us that one of the Rembrandt portraits of Maria Trip and Seurat’s ‘Bagnade’ will be there, though he admits  that the latter’s drawings ’with the tough and granulated texture of the paper are more exciting’. Scouring Bacon’s work for influences can too often distract attention away from the works themselves. His visual vocabulary is composed of the paintings he has seen and the life around him. ‘In the sea inside one, everything is filtered in the unconscious and images surface — I’m very delighted when they do.’


There are few people as honest as Francis Bacon. He has remained loyal to his medium, oil paint, when all and sundry were advocating plastic paints and even the death of canvas painting. Yet when I asked him, ‘What advantages does paint have over words?’ he replied, ‘None.’ I should take his advise and stop preaching to literary bigots (my fault, not theirs), but I’m young and misguided enough to believe that if anyone goes down to the Tate and opens their eyes and mind, they will see masterpieces. He gives us concentrated drops of truth; he is not a boorish ultimate truth seeker. If you are the sort of person who expects your lover to be perfect, if you believe that the universe is unflawed, if you wait for words to fall on yet more words to create all your images, then I can understand you not liking Francis Bacon’s paintings. Say in your musty bindings and ponder whether you are insulting Shakespeare’s progeny. Otherwise go along to the Tate and force them to give Bacon the party he deserves.









     Francis Bacon


   (Tate Gallery till 18 August)










At last the opportunity has come to assess a lifetime’s work by one thought by many to be the world’s foremost living painter. However, amid the Niagaras of praise tumbling from other pens, I find myself an isolated advocate of caution.

To explain my reservations I should quote first the well-known tale of the disillusioned art lecturer who said, ‘By now, all art students know that Rembrandt was a very great artist. The problem is that none of them know why.’

So, too, with Bacon.

Within the pages of this paper, two weeks ago, Daniel Farson wrote ‘With Chagall’s death, and Dali just alive but no longer painting, Bacon is the most important artist who is working today.’ I doubt whether Bacon would necessarily be flattered by the company chosen for him, but in the Sunday Times Magazine Lord Gowrie makes a rather more attractive comparison: ‘Francis Bacon is the greatest painter in the world and the best this country has produced since Turner.’ Alan Bowness, director of the Tate, makes an equally ambitious and rather more controversial claim: ‘His own work sets the standard for our time, for he is surely the greatest living painter; no artist in our century has presented the human predicament with such insight and feeling.’ With the wind of such words gusting in our ears, it is hard to keep hold of our critical hats.

Unlike many writers, including my co- correspondent on this journal, I have not spoken to the artist for many years. The last time we exchanged words, as I recall, was in a British Rail dining car, wherein the ferocious appearance and expressions of the artist’s travelling companion rendered the railway fare even more indigestible than usual to the more typical run of passenger. Before this our paths had crossed briefly in Cornwall where the artist was once kind enough to share a bottle of the excellent whisky sent him by his gallery for Christmas. An afternoon of interesting and perceptive conversation — on the artist’s part, at least — about Bonnard, among others, was abbreviated by the return of an earlier companion of the artist, to whom art discussion was clearly anathema. I claim no insight whatsoever from these brief talks, other than to suggest that much of the artist’s work is far more personal than earlier schools of criticism have claimed. Unlike Dr Bowness, I do not feel that the artist presents the human, so much as his own, predicament in his work. His view of the world and its flesh, however powerful, is deeply idiosyncratic. As I wrote many years ago, attempts by others to discover universal truth in the artist’s highly personal vision, probably irritate him even more than they do me.

In the past decade, there has been a major shift in the critical tack. Wisely many critics have dropped the ‘universal predicament’ story. Manifestly the artist’s intensely urban and claustrophobic vision is not, for example, about a young farmer’s struggle to make a living for his family in the Scottish or Cymric hills. Of course, the farmer — and his family — will no doubt die and decay in God’s good time, but not necessarily from wounds which are self-inflicted.

More recently we have been generally enjoined to concentrate on the painterly, rather than the vision-bearing aspect of the artist’s abilities. Here I am in much stronger agreement. The artist’s formal audacity and versatility have built up steadily from years of dedicated work. Bacon’s discoveries are made in the physical battleground of the studio, rather than in the arid contemplation of art magazines or work by contemporaries. Equally I share the depth of the artist’s respect for past art and lack of interest in purely abstract forms. Bacon is a powerful, original and unfashionable form-maker, whose use of colour can be darkly sensual. For most visitors to the Tate, however, colour will probably seem a secondary issue compared with the often grotesque ambiguities of the fleshly forms. Accident and physiological re-arrangement combine with stock Baconian devices circular areas of magnification and pointing arrows, for instance — to form unnerving distortions. Simply with paint, Bacon makes creatures with a worrying credibility, whose souls may be laid bare before us like secrets divulged under torture. Indeed torture — literally twisting — whether of paint or bodies is a pervading presence. Perhaps the psyches that we glimpse in his portraiture are those which only pain or fear would ordinarily uncover. But are these revelations ultimately ‘truer’ than those encouraged by love or compassion?

Earlier, I wrote of Bacon as an ‘unfashionable’ artist, whose great strength lies in discovering his own formal means of personal expression. Yet, in another sense, the artist has always been unwittingly fashionable, the violence and nihilism in his work providing a frisson for those whose first reaction to risk in life would be to run for their insurance brokers. At a lower level, admittedly, films of violence and horror are notably popular with la jeunesse doree. The automatic equation of despair with artistic force is a fallacy so obvious that it needs pointing out only to art bureaucrats. This is not the fault of this or any other artist, of course, but is a tendency that should be noted.

In her explanatory essay in the exhibition catalogue, Dawn Ades writes, ‘Bacon’s figures . . . are painted not as self-controlled, social creatures, but as beings driven by those urges or instincts Bacon describes as the irresistible counter-point to the despair of contemplating death.’ And later, ‘The meaninglessness that Bacon takes for granted is that of life lived without belief in an after-life, or any moral absolutes.’

The superbly mounted and organised Tate Gallery retrospective, containing many works never previously seen there, show Francis Bacon to be an immensely powerful and inventive artist. Within the gallery walls, time is indeed suspended in an atmosphere at once hypnotic and claustrophobic. On leaving the exhibition I called in briefly to look at the Turners. Outside, cloud to the South of London was breaking up. Mercifully, the sun, when it finally appeared, did not dangle naked from the sky by a length of flex.





 Irish-born British figurative painter Francis Bacon signing an exhibition catalogue during his show at Tate Gallery, London, May 21, 1985






This genius in the shadows




                      By Daniel Farson







 FRANCIS BACON — still hard at work at 76 — is the most important living artist in the world today.


And next week the full measure of his genius will be evident when the paintings of a lifetime go on show a The Tate.


To many people, Bacon’s work is dismissed as the fantasies of a sick man. He paints the darker, shadowy side of the 20th century ... lonely figures crying out in pain, twisted bleeding torsos, naked figures writing on a striped mattress, a hypodermic syringe hanging from an arm.




When Mrs Thatcher was told that Bacon was our greatest living painter, she is said to have exclaimed: ’Not that dreadful man who paints those horrible pictures!’


But those who go to The Tate over the next three months will be surprised by the gentle texture of the paint, reminiscent of Rembrandt.


Bacon is the most formidable man I know — and one of the funniest. He could charm Mrs Thatcher or the Queen, even though he has rejected a knighthood.


We met in the early fifties in a Soho drinking club run by one of the few women he has been fond of  — Muriel Belcher, a lady of outrageous wit who offered him £10 a week to bring in ’good spenders’. He was so broke he lived like a millionaire, devouring oysters on credit at Wheelers fish restaurant before champagne at Muriel’s.


When Bacon sold a picture, he lopped something off their bills. He once needed cash and I persuaded a friend to buy one of his paintings for £150 — for which I was delighted to receive £15 commission. That picture is now worth more than £150,000.


Bacon had been painting since 1933, but destroyed most of his work. Nothing mattered to him until 1944 when his Three Studies for the Base of a Crucifixion was instantly recognised as one of the most powerful paintings of the century.


The turning point came in May, 1962, with his first exhibition at The Tate.


But he is unspoilt by success. His mews house in South Kensington in London has naked light  bulbs and blankets over the windows.


This genius doesn’t want recognition. He despises TV and agreed to appear with me in 1958 only because Wheelers agreed to wipe out his huge bill if we filmed there.


When I asked him then about his reputation for painting ’blood-chilling pictures which epitomise the sickness of our period,’ he replied: ’Sometimes, I have used subject matter which people think is sensational, because one of the things I wanted to do was record the human cry  the whole coagulation of pain and despair.’


There will be an element of danger at the exhibition, which includes his most recent work. Some of this seems almost hospitalised, but The Human Body — painted three years ago  is as hauntingly beautiful as anything he has done.


All the influences of his life will be assembled — the Popes, based on a portrait by Velasquez; the studies of Van Gogh setting out with his easel; the wrestling figures after the early photographs by Muybridge; the nurse in the film-still from The Battleship Potemkin.




He prefers to paint people he is fond of, and his portraits include Muriel Belcher and his favourite model, George Dyer, of whom there were 20 portraits in a Paris exhibition in 1972.


On that exhibition’s opening night, Bacon was told that Dyer, a lovable but hopeless alcoholic, had been found dead in his hotel.


Bacon himself has told me: ’I don’t believe in tragedy.’ But I suspect that this incident explains his utter disdain for the trappings of success.


Bacon is more important than any British painter today because he is an original.


He is one of those rare artists who convey excitement, and there will be plenty of that at The Tate.




                                                                                                        UNSPOILT: Francis Bacon in his simple kitchen                                                 Picture: JOHN MINIHAN






Carcasses and crucifixes



A preview of Francis Bacon’s retrospective at the Tate Gallery this week



Jane Withers and Anthony Fawcett accompanied the artist around the gallery

and report on his reactions to work he has not seen for some years






There was a heavy pause on the line. “You know how difficult it is to say anything about painting — you feel the images themselves. Well somehow that’s all there is to say.” Nevertheless Francis Bacon agreed to meet us on site that afternoon, at the installation of his retrospective at the Tate Gallery, which opens on Wednesday.

It is 23 years since Bacon had a substantial show in this country — the last was also at the Tate. The idea this time is to build an exhibition around the triptychs — a format where three panels hang together as one picture — that Bacon has used since the beginning for many significant works.

Of the 120 or more works gathered for the show, most are from the last 20 years. It is an ultimate test — the recent paintings will be put up against the best of the early work. The arrangement of the exhibition, rising to a crescendo in the last of the 13 rooms, leaves no doubt as to the confidence of the curator.

The exhibition opens with a sharp kick in the face — confronting the entrance will hang ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’, 1944. The figures are the Eumenides — nightmare ghouls, more beast than human, twisting and craning their stumped, tubular necks, confronting their voracious jaws into savage grimaces. Painted when Bacon was 35, this is the earliest work he acknowledges. Others from this period have been all but exorcised from memory.

Accustomed to paint with the first light in his South Kensington studio — a few rooms where he lives and works secreted up a dusty staircase in one of those industrial mews enclaves that divide the smart stucco squares — Bacon’s highly disciplined lifestyle has changed little of the years.  He still frequents the Soho bars where he has drank champagne for over 40 years — only the vintage, and credit, have got better.

When he first joined the Marlborough Gallery in 1958 they were alarmed at his profligate gambling. Now it scarcely matters. At Sotheby’s in New York this month, a landscape (‘Landscape near Malabata, Tangier’ 1963, hung in the exhibition) sold to a private collector for $475,000, breaking Bacon’s previous auction record.

Bacon, punctual to the dot, strolls into the gallery as if it were a restaurant, ignoring his pictures propped uncomfortably against the walls. He is dressed with a dapper, studied carelessness — a double-breasted grey suite, button-down collar, a raincoat folded over one arm. His ageless bearing is dwarfed by that remarkable head; it resembles nothing so much as an owl’s — feathers puffed out chuffily, eyes hooded and with an uncanny ability to pursue and trap with their roving gaze.

“Well, these are really the first paintings. I had done very few things before. Very bad I think. I destroyed all I could get hold of,” he pronounced with a finality that forbade further probing.

Gesturing to the blank wall where the first triptych will hang, he said: “I showed this first at the LeFevre gallery in ’46. Then everybody absolutely loathed those, really hated them. I think they hate them now. I did think I was going to do a whole crucifixion — these were going to be the images around the base, but I never did the rest of it.”

This was not the first time he had merged the crucifixion with the Greek tragedies. “They are much more interesting than the crucifixion. I haven’t got religious beliefs, never at any time. But I used the crucifixion as am armature on which to hang all kinds of emotions. I haven’t used it for years and years. I don’t use it at all now, I couldn’t.”

We are steered briskly through a dimly lit room haunted by the popes drenched in black and purple, screaming and staring from the floor. “With Rembrandt, Velázquez is one of the very very greatest painters and I was always very attracted by the paintings he did of the Pope. In a way I rather regret the things I did of it because it’s such a remarkable thing, really one should have just left it alone.”

Emerging from the papal drama is like coming up for air — only to be slapped down by the blooded charnel house of ‘Three Studies for a Crucifixion 1962’ — a triptych finished just in time for the last Tate show and containing many elements taken up in the triptychs of the later 1960s. Undaunted Bacon smiles: “I love the right hand one most”, pointing to the hanging carcass, its humanoid head twisting up to bite its own body. It is one of the few images  for which Bacon has given a direct historical reference — to Cimabue’s Crucifixion.

He explained the connection in his work between carcass and crucifixion. “If you go into one of those big butcher’s shops, especially Harrods — it is not to do with mortality like lots of people think, but it’s to do with the colour of the meat. The colour of meat is so powerful, so beautiful really.” An image springs irrepressibly to mind of Bacon lurking in the Food Halls, staring out from avenues of meat hooks, and with it a photograph taken by his great friend John Deakin, of Bacon, his head flanked by sides of meat like one of his own popes. “Yes, that was rather amusing. It was published in Vogue, you know.”

Does he think of his paintings as violent? In a pause a cascade of noise  —  the squeak of trolleys on parquet, the dull thud of pictures landing on foam pads — assume a surreal backdrop. “No, it’s not that so much. People ask me why my pictures have this feeling of rawness and mortality. If you think of a nude, if you think of anything going on around you, think how raw it all is. How can you make anything more raw than that?”

As if on cue we turn to face the hunched figure of Van Gogh, black and shadowy, as if he had been evaporated by the searing sun ravaging the landscape with energised sweeps of red and yellow.

“I think he’s such an astonishing painter. These came about when I was having a show at the Hanover Gallery — it was one of those times when I had a completely blank period, I couldn’t think what to do. I decided on a series of these ones of ‘Van Gogh on the Road to Tarascon’. The original painting had disappeared, it was bombed in the last war. I always particularly liked that Van Gogh. So I did these paintings about it, very quickly in about three weeks. I often regret them really.”

Bacon once lived in Monte Carlo, where the night-life and gambling made it difficult for him to work. “But it was one of those fortunate things. I paint on the reverse side of the canvas. It started in Monte Carlo when I had run out of canvas and I hadn’t got the money to buy more, I’d lost it all at the casino. So I changed a canvas to the opposite side to work on the back and I found it worked much, much better on the unprimed side of the canvas, the pastel holds very well to that rough texture.”  

In the presence of his early work Bacon shifts edgily as if trapped in a foreign country. Quickening the pace he leads us on to the mid 1960s — where he has left behind the props of the past, the popes and Van Goghs, confident enough in his own mastery to tackle the human condition in more everyday guises. It is the world starting from about this time that Bacon himself proffers. “I know a lot of people don’t think it but I just feel things get a bit better with age. Perhaps not but I feel they’re better the latter ones.”

The tour becomes a sort of hide and seek  as Bacon stalks ahead. “This one warns you never go into a sleeping car.” He smiles drily at the carnage in the central panel. “Those two have been in Chicago but one of the people in the committee didn’t like the idea of the penis showing. That was that.”

We halt before ‘Triptych May-June 1973’. Three views — like stills from a movie look though an open door into a suffocating dark room. On the left the figure is rumpled on the lavatory, on the right the graceless nude heaves over the basin, in the centre his face is a lurid, fleshy red in the harsh glare of the bare bulb, the soot black spills out of the room into the corridor in a bat-shaped shadow, horned and satanic.

The tenderness evident in this painting of George Dyer is banished from the factual tone of his voice. “This picture — it is of somebody — a great friend of mine. When I had a show in Paris in ’71 he committed suicide. He was found on the lavatory like that and he was sick into the basin. And I suppose in so far as my pictures are ever any kind of illustration this comes close as any to a kind of narrative.”

Bacon has been said to work without ever thinking of an audience. “I really work to try and excite myself. I never expected my work to sell at all. I do sell bits but not with any ease. I always thought I’d have to take some other kind of job but I think I’m very lucky that I can live by something that obsesses me to try and do. That is lucky, isn’t it?”

Arranged along one wall are four figureless landscapes — a rare subject for Bacon. In one, water splashes out across a surreal, industrial-looking landscape. “When I did this I just mixed the colours in a pale of water and threw it on like that. I had meant it to be a wave breaking but it didn’t turn into that. I had to turn it into a jet of water..” Some of the marks “just came” — but others were done with “some pushing and scraping.”

Next to it is ‘Sand Dune’. A hot, dusty cloud obscures a similar landscape. “This was sprayed on and a lot of it was painted with dust from the floor — that lasts forever. After all where I live it’s absolutely surrounded with dust. Wherever I live becomes appalling disorder at once. For some reason I find I can work much easier with chaos around me.”

In recent years Bacon has done a remarkable number of self-portraits. As he confronts a triptych of heads, little over life size and arranged in a row like mug-shots, the likeness is startling; loaded swoops of white carve the line of the nose, merging contour with face. Examining our reactions, Bacon remarks, “Shaving in the mirror everyday, looking at oneself, doing one’s hair or anything —  you have a very good idea. I only do self-portraits when I have no one else to do. I hate doing self-portraits. Probably they don’t look anything like me but there it is.”

He diverts our attention to his friends, the small cast of characters whose faces he knows almost as well as his own. He has painted them repeatedly since he first started naming portraits as such in the early 1950s. He glances down at Isabel Rawsthorne: “In a deformed way it’s quite like her. She was a great friend of Giacometti’s. A lot of the very early things Giacometti did are about her. Somebody with fantastic vitality.”

What had the effect of the camera been on portraiture? “The only real thing now is to make not just an illustration of the person, but an image of them.” The powerful profile of Muriel Belcher, the Queen of the Colony Room who ruled Soho with her serrated wit, twists in the paint. Mention of her names prompts Bacon: “These ghastly English laws, you can’t have a drink, can’t do anything. Do you think they’ll ever change them? I don’t think so — the church will stop them, you can be certain. I can take you up to that awful Colony Room, if you like?”

We hailed a cab to Dean Street and Bacon led the way up the dark green stairs. In the smoky mirrored room hung with mementoes of the artists who frequent it, the buzz was all about his opening. The whole club, it seemed, had been invited to dine at the Tate.

 Francis Bacon at the Tate Gallery, May 22-Aug 18.




    In his own image: Francis Bacon and one of the portraits at the Tate Gallery






Behind the brutality of Bacon




Waldemar Januszczak takes a fresh look at the powerful and savage paintings


that have won Bacon the rare honour of a second Tate retrospective






IS FRANCIS Bacon the greatest living painter? I ask the question because that is what the director of the Tate Gallery thinks. Bacon’s art we are told in the catalogue "sets the standards for our times. "His paintings have a timeless quality that allows them to hang naturally in our museums "besides those of Rembrandt and Van Gogh."

Consider what is being claimed here. Bacon is being compared with two of the greatest painters ever to have lived. He is being described as the most important British artist since Turner. He is being given that most rare of accolades, a second retrospective at the Tate Gallery. He is being cited as the most significant artist of his day. Even allowing for jingoistic licence this is clearly not just another Tate exhibition. And I advise all keen witnesses of the times we live in to see it.


They will, I think, be disappointed, though not perhaps immediately. Although the exhibition is concerned mainly with the paintings produced since Bacon’s last Tate retrospective in 1962, it opens with a selection of his earlier pictures, the sloth-like saints made to stand at the base of a Crucifixion, and the celebrated Popes whose blood-curdling scream rips through the silent world of clerical portraiture like a howitzer shell.


Bacon’s interest in Velazquez’s portrait of Innocent X has been, he admits, "obsessive". In the Velazquez original the Pope wears a knowing expression that has been the subject of much discussion. Is that a stern and authoritarian face or a kind and open one? Is he looking out at you or in, at himself? This ambiguity underpins the painting’s greatness and sets up a fascinating dialogue between Innocent X as a man, and The Pope as an ikon.

All such complexities disappear in Bacon’s feverish reworkings of the portrait. Bacon’s Popes just open their crude mouths and scream, long and loud. A thousand different expressions of sophisticated humanity are obliterated by that single animal yell. A mind which seconds before, in the Velazquez original, had seemed capable of skipping in a hundred directions focuses focuses entirely on the experience of pain. Bacon’s vision of humanity cuts through the niceties of civilisation like Van Gogh’s Reaper slicing his way though a field of corn.


Right at he start of the show a group of zoo animals, a baboon, a chimpanzee, bare their fangs and scream across at the Velazquez-inspired Popes who just scream right back at them. The comparison between these two sets of caged creatures is all too obvious. Bacon’s are devotes much of its energy to underlining the blood-ties between mankind and the animals.


His "Christ" is a bullet-ridden corpse lying dead on a grubby hospital bed. The shuddering centrepiece of Three Studies of Figures on Beds (1972) is a scene of violent buggery. The left hand panel of Triptych May-June 1973, shows a figure sitting slumped on a toilet. In the right hand panel the same figure is vomiting into a sink.


The received view about Bacon’s art and moments such as these, is that it shows the human condition as it is, not as it wishes to present itself to others, that it penetrates to the human unconsciousness, the violent darkness that is inside each of us. "It is not that man in his scream sinks to the level of the animal," writes the unfortunately named Dawn Ades in the catalogue, "but that this animal element is necessary and a part of him, and without it he is restricted or constipated." Thus Bacon’s art is deemed to be performing some kind of spiritual enema.


Certainly we have no difficulty imagining Bacon’s figures starting wars and fighting them, crossing the thin dividing line that separates sex from violence, love from hate. But we cannot imagine them painting the Mona Lisa or building the Parthenon or composing Swan Lake. By focusing on the physical, overly masculine face of the human condition Bacon’s art presents a distinctly unbalanced view off it. This is its major shortcoming.


However carefully you allow for higher ambitions, however much you admire the energy he has brought to British art, the thrilling uniqueness of his vision, it remains impossible to ignore the impression that his art embraces a certain kind of blood-lust, and that it is incapable of recognising the loftier aspects of humanity.


This is surely the most significant difference between him and Rembrandt (can you imagine Bacon painting a tender portrait of his mother?) and Van Gogh (can you imagine Bacon praising the honesty and kindness of his local postman?).


Which is not to say that he is incapable of real achievement. Far from it. But in this huge, 13-gallery-long show it pays to be selective and, unlike the organisers, reserve our admiration for those moments when Bacon’s art succeeds in its often stated ambition of circumnavigating the intelligence and appealing directly to the senses.


Bacon is usually at his best when he is responding to the work of other artists. The Velazquez Popes are one example. The picture of Van Gogh returning home from the fields another. Not only is he painting sunshine here, but also, somehow, the artist’s intoxication with it. The energy of the sun becomes one with the energy of the artist.


But the painter of the notorious sequence of Crucifixion triptychs that dominate the middle of the show is a significantly lesser artist, a melodramatic pseudo-visionary prone, unfortunately, to sensationalism. This is the artist who pins a swastika to the arm of the lumpish figure guarding the right hand panel of the 1965 Crucifixion. This is the artist who sees Christ as a broken body slithering down the cross ("like a worm") with two broken arms bandaged to the wood.


Bacon and his defenders spend a good deal of their time in print warning against the dangers of taking his paintings too literally. Yet such is the brutal directness of such images that it is, I suggest, well nigh impossible not to take them literally. Unless that is the audience enters into some sort of pact of intellectual dishonesty with the painter and pretends not to recognise what it sees.


It is just as preposterous to claim as some observers claim (with their eyes closed you feel, and their fingers crossed) that their is nothing "horrific" about these images, that they are images of beauty, and that Bacon’s primary considerations are formal.


Where this exhibition does provide a real and entirely convincing corrective to the view of Bacon as a macabrist, testing the boundaries of propriety, is in six or seven of the triptychs near the end of the show which take us quietly and honestly into his domestic existence, and introduce us to his close circle of friends.


The painter’s ability to take a likeness apart and reassemble it in a new order is a consistently impressive feature of the show. The triple portrait of himself, George Dyer, Bacon’s lover who committed suicide the day before the opening of Bacon’s Paris retrospective, and Lucian Freud, is a work of profound tenderness, as are most of his portraits of Dyer.


As a social observer, Bacon, like Lucian Freud, has done much to turn the grim facts of everyday life into a convincing and heroic subject for high art. As a painter of loneliness - not the screaming, existential, theatrical variety, but the quite, numbing, ordinary kind, that saps your faith in life and impresses you with the emptiness of the room you are sitting in — he is, I think, incomparable.


Francis Bacon at the Tate Gallery until August 18




                              Francis Bacon : more than macabre. Picture by Neil Libbert









Trapping the Essence of Reality






IT IS A FAIRLY COMMON opinion in the European art world, and one also held by some Americans, that Francis Bacon is the greatest living painter. At the same time, many are prepared to acknowledge the brilliance of his handling of paint complain that his image of the human race is lurid, morbid, wilfully mauled.

Bacon has a way of continuing to seem surprised by that sort of criticism, to wonder what the fuss is all about. He responds in this way when reminded of the widespread feeling that his art reflects a disgust with mankind, not least with himself: "Well, I may very often be discontented and loathe myself, but I’m not trying to bring that out in any way whatever. Nor do I have a disgust with life. Life is all we have. Here we are for a moment; we are born, we make what we can of our existence, and then we die. What else is there?

"I’m only trying to make images for myself that are as intensely real as I can make them. When I’m looking at you. I see you there, but I can’t just explain what you are. Here is a human being, here is a man of flesh and blood. The problem is to find a technique by which you can give, overall, the pulsations of a person, to get the total effect you get from somebody  their emanations, their energy. There’s the appearance of someone, and there’s the energy within the appearance. If you are in the street and see somebody in the distance, you just know by the way they move who they are. I don’t know whether you could do a portrait of somebody by just trapping a gesture of theirs, but if, when recording a face, you could at the same time trap the energy that emanates from a person, it would be marvellous. That is what I would like to do. But it is almost impossible to do, and very difficult to talk about. Also, if you are able to really bring over the intensity of someone’s appearance, you are very often drifting on the edge of caricature. And I think this is one of the reasons most people go to academic painters when they want to have their portraits made, because they prefer a sort of colour photograph of themselves instead of wanting to have themselves really trapped and caught."

Actually, if somebody wanting to commission a portrait were to try and have himself "really trapped and caught" by Bacon, he would almost certainly be turned down. Most of Bacon’s paintings have been portraits of people he knows very well and has "seen a great deal." Also, he says, "It’s always nicer to do portraits of people you really like." So he tends to paint the same few people over and over again  including himself, though he says he hates his own face  adding a new subject from time to time, working from memory and photographs, only very rarely with a sitter. He does not like having anyone around while he is working. "I feel much freer if I am on my own. Then I can allow the paint to dictate to me, so that the things I am putting down on canvas gradually build up and come along. That’s really why I like being alone. I work in a kind of haze of sensations and feelings and ideas that come to me and that I try to crystallize."

Since 1961 Bacon has mainly worked in a small studio in a mews flat in London, reached by a staircase, the steepness of which threatens a broken arm or leg or neck. It had two other rooms, one of them combining bedroom and sitting room, the other combining kitchen and bathroom. The neighbourhood is South Kensington where he has had several other studios, all of them larger and grander than this one. Among them was the studio he had in the late forties and early fifties, when he was reaching his stride as an artist — he was a late developer. "It was an enormous billiard room like the Edwardians used to have in the back at the back of their houses, but it was a wonderful studio," he recalls. Among the several studios he had during the following years was one nearby that he borrowed from a friend. "It was a beautiful studio with a beautiful skylight. But it had trees above it, and they waved in the wind so that the light moved and you thought you were underwater. So it was like attempting to paint a picture underwater."

He had similar troubles more recently when he tried to paint in a house he bought that was adjacent to real water. It was a marvelous old house in the East End, overlooking the river. "As the Thames is tidal, when the tide was in and the sun was out there was a continual glitter inside the place that made it extremely difficult to work in."

But the mews studio, stark as it is and small as it is, has suited him for more than twenty years now. "For some reason, the moment I saw this place I knew that I could work here. It was rather like the place I have in Paris, which is only one big room, but I knew from the moment I went into it that it was a place I could work in. But the fact is, I haven’t worked in it as much as I expected to. I found that because I know London better than Paris, I’m able to work more easily here."

In the 1950s Bacon lived in Tangier for a time. "I painted a certain amount there, but not at all successfully, he says. "I think perhaps the light was too strong. I have tried to work in a lot of places. At one time I lived in Monte Carlo and I tried to work there, but again, I am not used to light as strong as that, and in a sense it interfered with me."

Despite the effect light has on his ability to work, it was not the light that first attracted to him to his present studio. In fact, once he had it, he altered the light by having the ceiling taken off and a small skylight put in.

"Even now this light is not especially good, because it’s east and west. But the room had an atmosphere that made me know I could work here. I just hope I shall be able to keep the place; it’s all supposed to be coming down to be developed. But I hope it will last me out. I feel at home here in this chaos because chaos suggests images to me. And in any case, I love living in chaos. I like things to be clean  I don’t want the plates and things to be filthy dirty  but I do like a chaotic atmosphere. I once bought a beautiful studio round the corner from here, and I did it up so well I couldn’t work in it. I made it too grand. It had the most perfect light, but I still couldn’t do a thing in it. I was absolutely castrated. That was because I hadn’t got the chaos."

— David Sylvester








Richard Cork on Francis Bacon



Fleshy school







Stretching his leg towards the door, a naked figure struggles to place a key in the lock with his toes. The rest of his body is coiled and straining as he pushes this distended limb up to the hole. Every muscle is tense with the effort, and a strange red spotlight around the foot dramatises the urgency of the attempt. But the absurdity involved in such a tortuous manoeuvre implies that it is a risky enterprise. The whole notion of unlocking a door with your toes is like a gambler’s last throw. It smacks of desperation, as if every other possibility has been tested and found wanting. 

The rest of Francis Bacon’s paintings, now assembled for an overwhelming Tate retrospective (until 18 August), explain why this agitated figure is so anxious to get the door open. For everybody in Bacon’s relentless world is enclosed by a claustrophobic structure from which there seems to be no escape. The surroundings his people endure may not be as overtly prison-like as the cages hemming in the baboon and chimpanzee, who, in two glowering canvases of the 1950s, roar with helpless rage at the confinement they suffer. But there is still something lacerating about the rooms inhabited by Bacon’s human protagonists. In his early canvases the interiors are murky, illuminated only by a blurred face or a pale body passing indistinctly through curtains. Sometimes a sinister safety-pin shines with unexpected precision in the gloom. On the whole, though, Bacon does not specify the cause of the disquiet he creates with such macabre conviction. Shuttered like bedrooms where the inmates are too distressed to expose themselves to the light beyond, these penumbral spaces are permeated with unseen menace.

The men whose blanched and smeared features can be discerned here are dressed as correctly as business executives. But their formality can easily be undermined. In one tripartite work, which resembles three stills from a strip of film, the grinning face on the left is transformed into a yelling grotesque and then disintegrates completely, as if incapable of withstanding his hellish environment any longer. Even the Pope, who should be better able than most to defend himself against the terrors of the void, suffers from their onslaught. Short of all the spiritual sustenance and power his position should provide, he clings to his throne and screams like a condemned murderer shuddering from lethal voltage in the electric chair.     

Occasionally, Bacon’s paintings do appear to break out of these unnerving regions and enter more spacious locations, supposedly in the open air. But they turn out to be just as disconcerting as the oppressive rooms. One figure seems so intimidated by the parched grassland stretching around him that he squats in the middle of it, unable to move. In another canvas a dog freezes on a pavement, staring down at the gutter and refusing to follow the legs of his owner walking past. Perhaps the animal realises that there is no point in exploring a street bounded by the same blackness which restricts the people in Bacon’s interiors. The copulating lovers in a canvas called Two Figures in the Grass seem unaware that the edges of their field are hung with curtains. If they pause and look around them, however, the intolerable sense of restriction will once more press in on them. Bacon’s so-called landscapes all turn out in the end to be variations on the theme established by the prison-like indoor settings, and even when he takes his cue from Van Gogh’s The Painter on the Road to Tarascon the confinement does not really ease. For the artist’s bowed silhouette looks burdened by the knowledge that he is restricted to the narrow route ahead.

Soon afterwards, most of these deceptive references to an ‘outside’ world drop away. By 1960 the clinical room has become the prime stage-set for Bacon’s theatrical tableaux, and he makes it more oppressive still by ousting the former darkness. The bare light-bulb dangling from the ceiling in so many of these interiors possesses a merciless glare. It makes their surfaces blaze with strident oranges, crimsons and cyclamen pinks which ensure that everything is exposed with terrible clarity. In the formidable Crucifixion triptych of 1962, surely the most harrowing set of images Bacon has ever produced, two figures stand transfixed. One of them extends his arms towards the wall, as if anxious to leave. But his legs seem glued together in a single bulbous mass, and his companion’s head appears to have been wrenched away from the shadowy profile suspended in space behind him. Both men are unable to prevent themselves looking back towards the source of their unease: the crucified feet thrusting down to the base of the cross, skin stripped away so that exposed bones, and organs glisten bloodily in the light.

 Far from discovering in the Crucifixion a symbol of salvation, Bacon sees it as the ultimate degradation. The corpse sliding head-first down the right panel of this triptych is little more than a carcass, its white spine and rib-cage picked out with surgical precision from the surrounding skeins of red meat. Bacon is more obsessed by mortality than any other modern artist, and a haunted apprehension of the human body’s frailty underlies all his work. So does an acute awareness of isolation. In most of his paintings single figures are presented, confronting their loneliness. On the rare occasions when another person appears, Untitled triptych: ‘no escape’ there is little contact between occupant and newcomer. The one observes the other from the sidelines, like a voyeur concerned above all to keep his identity hidden. And the presence of cameras, perched on tripods resembling the legs of some monstrous predator, only adds to the suspicion that surveillance is the first priority.

Nor do the naked couples who sometimes appear in the centre of Bacon’s triptych offer much consolation. One painting shows them lying side by side in identical poses, without acknowledging each other’s existence. And when they are seen making love, their urge to overcome loneliness gives them a furious quality. The figures close on one another with extraordinary forcefulness, as if attempting to ameliorate their solitude by merging flesh with flesh in a single pulsating organism. The sense of union is only momentary, too. Most of the time Bacon reasserts stern solitude, and when he assembles three figures in a triptych they are separated by the gaps between each canvas. Ensnared in an alien environment, where they are obliged to endure isolation without any respite, these beleaguered people could be excused for giving way to despair.

But the paradox is that Bacon’s vision never seems limp and defeatist. A marvellously defiant belief in the essential exuberance of human life characterises all his work. The flatness and severity of his floors, walls and ceilings, which show how intelligently he has learned from abstract painting at its most refined, provide an ideal foil for the twisting, wriggling energy of the robust bodies they contain. Bacon’s superbly resourceful manipulation of his materials gives these figures an astonishing eloquence, as he pummels, caresses, obliterates and coaxes the paint into forms which transcend arbitrary distortion.

This wonderful finesse, coupled with an instinctive monumentality which gives his work its grandeur, counteract the depressing aspects of Bacon’s world. Indeed, his exhilaration seems all the more persuasive precisely because it is pitched against such absolute pessimism about the bleakness, confinement and vulnerability of the human condition. Bacon’s assertion of an ecstatic vitality could not be more hard-won. No one can doubt the extremity of the violence and suffering from which his bruised figures emerge with undaunted élan. That is why the leg striving to put a key in the lock is such a magnificent image, insisting against all the odds that the door might one day be opened and offer a way out of the cruel and desolate cell.






                                                                                                             Untitled triptych “no escape







Projections of intransigence



Robert Melville



Francis Bacon

Tate Gallery, until August 18