Francis Bacon News








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 off 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






The thunder and lightning in the first hour of the Press View of Francis Bacon’s Retrospective at the Tate Gallery was possibly nature’s acknowledgement of a painter who for forty years has been presenting natural man’s involuntary voluntary contortions and excesses in a series of masterpieces of unceremonious grandeur. The exhibition justifies the claim made by Alan Bowness in his foreword to the catalogue (Francis Bacon by Dawn Ades and Andrew Forge. 286pp. Thames and Hudson. £30 paperback, £12. 0 500 09167 6) not only that Bacon is the greatest painter alive, but that the paintings are “among the most memorable images ages in the entire history of art”. It is a huge exhibition and of the many pictures I have seen before, and was hoping to see again, only four of those that I particularly admire are not there: “Painting 46”; “Portrait of Lucian Freud” (1951); “Two Figures” (1953); “Study for Three Heads” (1962).

Bacon began to paint in early middle age and worked for several years without exhibiting His public career as a painter began with his famous panels “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” In conversation he refers to the figures as Eumenides, a euphemism ism for the Furies, and they are so screwed up with anger, so hysterically fierce, that they are clearly waiting to tear to pieces whoever is brought down from the cross. There is one humanoidal monster in each of them on the left the very long neck cranes forward and pushes the head down — the band that keeps a strip of cloth up to its breast is coming loose: in the centre, a body like the backside of a chicken stands on long thin legs, the face, edged by a white rag, is all mouth, “an oval O cropped out with teeth”, obviously hissing; on the right a naked figure coming in from the side has only one arm and bends low in order to lean it on a patch of grass (Grass is one of Bacon’s obsessions and patches of it appear throughout the exhibition.) The figure has an extremely long neck which terminates in a huge mouth stretched to its widest limits to emit what must be unearthly screams.

It took Bacon a long time to complete the panels but it was finally possible to date them 1944 and start his career with a triptych. As projections of his own intransigence they have never become closed to him and from time to time one sees a reference to one or other of the figures. He did not paint another triptych until eighteen years later but that was the start of the large-scale ones which have made an immensely important contribution to his work and have not yet come to an end. They all have the “terrible beauty” of which Bowness speaks. The first of them, painted in 1964 takes up the crucifixion theme again. This time the concern is with the victim and not with the troublemakers, but like the 1944 triptych the painting is a superb visual account of what André Breton meant when he said that beauty would have to be convulsive or cease to be. Overwhelmingly frenetic, it is equalled only by Picasso in “Guernica”.

Bacon doesn’t tell stories and there is not one here, but there is a lot going on In the left hand panel two sides of beef are leaning towards wards one another as if attendants talking in whispers. Behind them two men move towards the centre panel, but they don’t look as if they can hear the screams that must be coming from it. The right hand panel contains a figure that looks as if it is slowly being lowered headfirst from a cross that isn’t there Macabre though it is (the exposed ribs and backbone suggest that the creature has already paid a visit to the slaughterhouse, but must still be alive because screaming the image conveys a strong impression ion of a Crucifixion, and a long time ago Bacon said that it was based on a Crucifixion by Cimabue, which gave him the feeling that the Christ was “undulating down”. The reds whites and blue-blocks of the figure are lovely and it wears the interior paraphernalia of its belly like regalia. The figure in the centre panel is in a fearful state and blood comes out of him everywhere but he is not as tortured as the crucified one. One pillow is soaked in blood, the others are spattered, along with the mattress tress and window blinds. The flesh is a magenta and pink mush, the very substance of pain.

Three years later, in 1965, Bacon painted another Crucifixion triptych, using two of the figures again, in a different arrangement. The crucified is brought into the centre panel, he is still upside down but he is silent and his eyes are closed His arms are bandaged but two knobs of bone are exposed. The bloody one lies in the left hand panel, screaming at a girl who is tripping out of the scene, and in the right hand panel there is a standing figure with hair slicked back, wearing a swastika armband. These two crucifixions are major examples of the painter’s period of extreme situations, in which torment and dread are explicit.

Since then his figures do not scream or shout or bare their teeth, and although inexplicable things can happen, the activities are as a rule what one does every day. Man shaving, riding a bicycle, writing, reading, sitting on the lavatory, putting keys into locks, visible signs of hangovers and sleepless nights, turning on the light, staring at a sashcord, vomiting into a washbowl. They are transformed into startling happenings by paint that seems to seethe and sometimes emit flames as soon as Bacon stirs it.

A male couple embracing is a recurring activity in his painting, like putting keys into locks, and takes the central panel of a triptych again and again. But the two figures in “Two Figures on a Bed with Attendants”, 1968, forego go a shudder in the loins to turn on to their side with legs drawn up and lie close together. One is asleep, the other stares at nothing. An anarchic chic splash of white paint crosses the bed but stops before it reaches the side In the same year Bacon painted a curious double portrait of George Dyer. He is the subject of a painting on a large black canvas propped against a wall in the room in which he is also seated in a chair in a dark suit, with one leg crossing the other. A thick trickle of white paint runs down one leg of his trousers and on to the floor. He is a nervous or careless smoker; many cigarette ends are on the floor. The portrait on the canvas against the wall is a nude. The face emerges from a cluster of paintmarks with a look off grim stillness. At first it seems as though the figure is sitting Buddha-like on the floor; he is very low in the canvas, but actually he is sitting on a chair with one leg crossed over the other in much the same way as the figure in the room. The really odd thing is that the Dyer in the canvas is pierced in his limbs by long nails, which are carefully rendered in a trompe loeil technique with cast shadows.

There is a small group of paintings, usually triptychs, which are not about what we usually think of as extreme situations but the figures in them are in a bad way and their condition appears to have been brought about by excess of some kind. In the case of the triptych of May-June 1973 it was probably alcohol In one panel a male figure is bent double on the lavatory, in the centre panel he looks very ill and in the third he is vomiting into the washbasin and there is blood in the vomit. Two stubby white arrows are in the foreground, pointing pointedly at lavatory and washbasin. In spite of the subject it’s a handsome picture. A large self-portrait operates as its sequel It’s the same washbasin , empty and clean, and Bacon, sitting in a chair, leans an arm on the edge of the basin and puts his hand to his forehead.

Two of the later triptychs — 1967 1976 — remain in close touch with the period of extreme situations. The earliest is “Triptych Inspired by T S Eliot’s Poem Sweeney Agonistes”, and there is a quite evident connection between painting and poem The key lines in Sweeney are Sweeney’s reply to Doris after she cuts the cards and draws the coffin: “Any man has to needs to wants to / Once in a lifetime do a girl in.” In the left-hand panel of the triptych, two women are lying down; they are not embracing, they could be dead. A chest of drawers is reflected in a mirror. An item of clothing hangs out of a drawer, others are on the floor. In the opposite panel, a male couple continues to embrace in the manner of Eadweard Muybridge’s wrestlers. A man reflected in a mirror is telephoning. It’s clear that a murder has taken place in the central panel but there is no body. An overnight bag has been opened and possibly searched. A bloodstained stained pillow sits on some outer garments. A window behind is half drawn; outside, the night is black. The chorus has the last say in “Sweeney” and one of its lines — “you’ve got the hoo-ha’s coming to you” — must mean that the Furies will be gathering for vengeance.

The other triptych that I have in mind was painted in 1976. It does not have a name, but the image in the middle of the central panel is based on the Fury in the left hand panel of “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion”, but rather fearsomely transformed formed. The roundness of the shoulders remains mains but the long neck bending down is scraped almost to the bone and the head dips down between parted knees; this is where all resemblance ceases. A bird of prey pecks at the shoulders, and other, not quite identifiable creatures increase the atmosphere of disquiet. However, another reference to the Oresteia joins the image of the Fury. This is the bowl filled with wine in the foreground which is one of the libations for Agamemnon’s tomb ordered by his murderer Clytemnestra in the hope of warding off vengeance. A triptych painted in 1981 is entitled “Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus” but it would have been more suitable for the untitled 1976 triptych.

The many small portraits — standard size 14 x 12 inches — are often brought together to make triptychs They are devoted almost exclusively to the head with a glimpse of shirtcollar collar on a man or in the instance of a woman more of her throat. A triptych sometimes presents portraits of three people, but more often depicts one model from three viewpoints Bacon brings about an agitation in the flesh of the portrait by a roughening of the texture or a dislocation of the features or both, and sometimes times by using an oval of flat colour to wipe out a cheek or an eye or by increasing its size to dispose of half the face. The model plays no part in this game either cooperatively or defensively. The portrait is never done from life but from photographs preferably snapshots and taken by other people not the artist. Often enough photographs have to be reinterpreted to yield a recognizable likeness. Miraculously, often an uncannily revealing likeness does come out from a welter of beautiful, disfiguring, spasmodic paintmarks. This is particularly true of Bacon’s friend Isobel Rawsthorne Henrietta Moraes has been more vulnerable. There is a lovely study of her head painted in 1969, which nevertheless has the same pinched mouth as the seated nude in the large (also 1969) “Study of Nude with Figure in a Mirror”. The nude is on display and the man in the mirror is a voyeur I think this is the only study of such a subject that Bacon has painted.

It is hard to tell if the recent studies from the human body (1982 and 1983) are a development of Bacon’s style or a deviation from it. The painting of human flesh is much smoother and more naturalistic than before — pink moist and fresh. There are no heads, but every body has legs and one has arms They look radiant and a bit foolish against their orange backgrounds grounds. One of the bodies is female and doesn’t wear anything. All the male bodies wear cricket pads, and the one with arms adopts the stance of a wicket-keeper. Eccentricity seems to be creeping in.




                                                                       Untitled triptychs, 1976, by Francis Bacon.










Billed as the greatest living painter, Francis Bacon’s power to jangle the nerves with some of the most

disquieting images of 20th-century art remains undiminished after more than five decades of painting.






    His pictures of writhing, snapping beasts, neither human nor wholly animal, upset many people when first shown in London in 1945. They still disturb, as do scenes of slaughter, lone figures in desolate chambers and a set of portraits that have come to be known as "the screaming popes." All are back on view among more than 120 works by Bacon in a major retrospective that just opened at London’s Tate Gallery.

    Bacon, 75, shuns attempts to explain his work and believes many people dwell too much on what they see as horror in it. "Talking about painting is like reading a bad translation from a foreign language," the British artist says. "The images are there and they are the things that talk, not anything you can say about it." Bacon, still largely sandy-haired and cherubic, refers to himself as an 'image maker' who often 'pulverizes' images drawn from other sources. These include photographs and film, paintings by Velazquez, Ingres and Van Gogh as well as poems by Aeschylus and T.S. Eliot. "Every artist will beg, borrow or steal anything that they think will be of any use to them."

    Bacon, descended from the 16th-century philosopher whose name he bears, has also studied pictures from medical textbooks and of animals about to be killed. He bridles against interpreting his apparent obsession with cruelty as a response to war or genocide. Of an art critic who sees a likeness of Roosevelt at the 1945 Yalta conference in the figure in a 1946 picture containing bloody slabs of meat, he said, "That’s completely wrong."

    He says his paintings, often done as triptychs, do not consciously mirror the world but adds: "We live with this vast sea which we call the unconscious and which we don’t know. . . . Everything which is going on probably sinks into it. Every so often these images refloat."

    Many of his later works are portraits of himself and his friends, the faces violently distorted, frequently smeared. Like other modern artists, he says portraiture has been forever altered by the invention of the camera. ’’There is no point in making a portrait that doesn’t look like the person, but nevertheless one hopes to dislocate it from illustration."

    Chance, he says, has a big part in a painting’s outcome. Bacon has loved gambling since childhood in Dublin, where his father, a former British army officer, retired to train racehorses.

    He left home at the age of 16 and spent several years in Paris and Berlin. After working briefly as a furniture designer and interior decorator, he decided to become a painter without any formal art training.

    Now a passionate roulette player, Bacon says painting successfully is very much like winning at the gaming tables he frequents. "It’s the moment of feeling that chance is just smiling on you for one second."

    These days Bacon does not need monetary gain at the wheel. Museums and collectors avidly seek his paintings. One fetched half a million dollars at a New York auction last month. But he still occupies a sparsely furnished London mews house  "the same old dump that I’ve lived in for the last 24 years. I still paint a lot. I had thought of doing sculpture a few years ago and it suddenly came to me that I could do in painting what I would have done in sculpture."

    He admires Michelangelo’s "male voluptuousness," and nude men are among his latest works. Some resemble amputees in shin pads worn in cricket. Pastels complement oils he once used exclusively.

    Narrative art holds no interest for him, and he dissociates himself from expressionism or surrealism. Asked to elaborate on one of the cricket pads or pieces of flesh, he responds with a degree of annoyance: "I just like the image in itself."

    Bacon has no patience for critics who view it all as the product of personal torment. "I enjoy life but I have absolutely no belief in anything," he said. "I don’t say that anguish doesn’t play a part in my work. The very fact that you exist, that you see what’s going on around you, that must create anguish in anybody."






Time Vindicates Francis Bacons Searing Vision




“Bacon is still reinventing himself in situations of maximum risk.” (John Russell)










London: The retrospective exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon at the Tate Gallery in London is not an event about which I shall pretend to be objective. Among the many thousands of exhibitions that I have seen on business and for pleasure, none is more vivid to me than the first sight of Bacon’s "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion" at the Lefevre Gallery in London in April 1945. They are in every book on Bacon. They are the predestined point of departure for every retrospective exhibition of his work. They have been described a thousand times. But, when seen at first hand, they still startle.


It should be said in this context that in April 1945 the war in Europe was about to end. No one knew what peace would be like, but there was a general reluctance in England to believe that there was in human nature an element that was irreducibly evil. After nearly six years at war, people preferred to think that everything was going to be all right, and that we could go to an exhibition of new art in a spirit of thanksgiving for dangers honourably surmounted (with some help from others).


Bacon’s Three Studies put forward a less comfortable point of view. They suggested that people would always go on doing dreadful things to one another, and that other people would always come by to gloat. That was not the whole meaning of the Three Studies, but it was one of their meanings, and it made a lot visitors hightail it out of the gallery. On any reading, these were terrifying images. The three figures in question had anatomies that were part human, part animal and part conundrum. They could probe, bite and suck, but their functioning in other respects was mysterious. Ears and mouths they had, but two at least of them were sightless. One was unpleasantly bandaged. Common to all three figures was a mindless voracity, an automatic unregulated gluttony and a ravening undifferentiated capacity for hatred. Each was as if cornered, and only waiting for a chance to drag the observer down and savage him.


As a view of humankind, this was thought to be as pessimistic as it was untimely. Was not violence about to be outlawed from the world? If people had been on the wrong side, was it not usually because they had had no choice? All that was needed to bring them back into the fold was a little reeducation in civics. As for those who had fought on the right side, no future could be too bright for them. (Anyone who saw Kate Nelligan in David Hare’s play, "Plenty," will have seen this latter point of view set out with an almost unbearable poignancy.)


Bacon in all this was the troublemaker, the specter at the vestigial feast, the doomsayer whom people wished away. But he didn’t go away, and the paintings had a weight and an authority that had nothing to do with the newsreels of the day, terrifying as those were beginning to be. Bacon in 1945 was not a beginner, but a man pushing 36 who had been about the world in an irregular, noctambular, totally unprejudiced way. As a boy in Ireland, where his grandmother was married at one time to the chief of police for County Kildare, he had known violence on the road, violence in the house, and violence in the ditch. He had lived in Weimar Berlin at the time when it was the only truly free city in Europe (and quite possibly the most dangerous). Nothing human was alien to him, and it came out in his paintings.


But in the late 1940’s and early 50’s he was thought of as someone who habitually supped full on horrors and came back for seconds. Only slowly did it get through that he had done no more than reassert the terrible rightness of the summation that Shakespeare gives to Thersites in "Troilus and Cressida". ’’Lechery, lechery; still wars and lechery: nothing else holds fashion,’’ is what Thersites says, and if we look round the world we shall see that this estimate has not gone out of style.


As had happened with the "Three Studies"  which were painted in 1944, by the way, and were in no way a commentary on the news that came in thick and fast as the Allied armies pressed ever deeper into Germany -there were paintings that with hindsight seemed to have a premonitory air. (The most famous of these was the image that prefigured the look of Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem.)


Yet eventually it emerged that Bacon’s concern was as much with love and affection, and with the annals of an idiosyncratic domesticity, as it was with public events. As a portraitist, whether in the grand style or in the intimacy of close-up, he was in the tradition formulated by Vincent van Gogh when he said that he wanted his paintings to be ’’inaccurate and anomalous in such a way that they become lies, if you like, but lies that are more truthful than literal truth.’’ Here again, time has vindicated Bacon. His portraits — a record, in most cases, of loves and friendships long preserved, though sometimes subject to intermittences — have turned out to be, as van Gogh wished, ’’more truthful than literal truth.’’ On the basis of long acquaintance with some of his more regular sitters, I can attest that, like Bacon’s portraits of himself, they grow more accurate year by year.  

Partly for this reason, Bacon’s earlier retrospective in London (in 1962, at the Tate Gallery) left a memory of long walls hung with tall paintings of single figures that created an Old Masterly effect, as if they were van Dycks of the Genoese period that had undergone (but not been diminished by) an unaccountable mutation. This element in his work has come out more and more strongly in recent times, though once or twice an unwonted sweetness has crept in. (In the triple portrait of Mick Jagger in the present show the veteran troubadour gets, for instance, a soft and easy run.) As against that, the portrait heads of his close friend, the French anthropologist, autobiographer and authority on African art, Michel Leiris, have a power, a discernment and a concision that make most of the other portraits of our day look ridiculous.

Yet the locus of Bacon’s deepest and most reverberant activity may lie in images in which people carry on as if they do in life when they think that nobody is looking at them. With a formal portrait, no matter how searching, the presence of the artist is a given — built in, that is to say, and inescapable. No matter how total the candour — and Bacon in painting his friends (as in talking about them) is candour personified — we look at the sitter’s eyeballs and see, or think that we see, the image of the painter reflected. Bacon may well be most himself when the subject is left free to move around, dressed or undressed, in a purposeful but abstracted way.

At such times he can make the most strenuous activity — murder, not least — seem a matter of every day. He can also give an unnerving intensity to actions like shaving, switching off the light, riding a bicycle and (in one case) turning a key with one’s toes. Mating the mythical with the quotidian, singling out this detail or that from a commonplace interior, reinventing the human body as if no one had ever painted it before, he makes us aware of the volatility and the irrationality of many a notion that we are raised to think of as normal.

Reading the Tate Gallery catalogue, it may strike us that whereas in England and in France Bacon’s work has prompted some of the best art writing of the last 30 and more years, it has never had a comparable impact among Americans. This for instance is what Andrew Forge, the English painter now teaching at Yale, has to say about the treatment of the human body in Bacon’s George Dyer Crouching (1966). ’’The figure, scrunched up at the end of a diving board, is formless at first sight. Then one hits upon an eye, flat on the side of the head, precisely defined, unwinking, dryly glittering.’’

Once that eye is seen, ’’the weight and thickness of the thighs, the downward stretch of the arm, the massive crest of muscle upon the shoulders, the massive concentration of the lowered head, all seem to leap out of the paint, triggered by the hard saurian eye which, as with some fantastic knobbly lizards, seems to be embedded like a living jewel in material that follows another order of form.’’ Anyone who can provoke writing of that quality has to have been doing something right.

The exhibition can be seen in London through Aug. 18, and will travel later to Stuttgart and Berlin. Apart from assembling many a classic piece from the whole length of Bacon’s career, it shows that at a time of life when many a senior painter settles for lucrative and easygoing replication, Bacon is still reinventing himself in situations of maximum risk. Who else now working would paint a sand dune in such a way as to give it so powerful an erotic suggestion? Or find a way to convince the authorities at the Pompidou Center that they simply could not go on without a figure painting that takes as its point of origin the game (never yet seen in France) of cricket?  





           A Bacon self-portrait (1973) in the show at London’s Tate Gallery.


                          He was the doomsayer whom people wished away.













Bringing home Bacon







THE PRESENT Francis Bacon exhibition at the Tate Gallery provides an experience like passing a bloody road accident. There is shocking evidence of our mortality. There is much vitality and contortion as the rescue services go to work. Adrenalin flows freely with other bodily substances. If Bacon is widely held to be the greatest living painter in the world, as Melvyn Bragg asserts, it is a narrow world.

There can be no doubt that Baron, his work and his life, makes excellence television. This was demonstrated last November with Michael Blackwood’s formal film for BBC2’s Arena and was shown again last night with the more relaxed portrait by David Hinton for London Weekend’s The South Bank Show (ITV).

The BBC interviewer was David Sylvester. an art critic who finds it useful to be close to the modern artist whose work he admires. This made for a concentrated and fairly static examination, the more cerebral and precise of the two. preserving a measure of reserve with the reverence. No silly greatest living painter labels were hung round the Bacon neck.

The painter, as he said, has a way of life which at some points would not suit LWT’s Mr Bragg. But the pair appeared to get on well, especially after a lavishly lubricated lunch at Mario’s in Brompton Road. At this point guards were down: Melvyn was hanging desperately on to Francis’s Christian name and the GLP (Greatest Living Painter) was flinging thoughts around rather as he likes to fling paint at the canvas.

The Hinton film was indeed a skilfully made exercise in impressionism. Particularly so with the opening sober conversation at the Tate storeroom where Bacon gave an illustrated talk on his art and influences, and where the lighting so played about, and distorted, his extraordinary features that it created a new series of self-portraits.

It was a pity perhaps that in following this youthful 75-year-old about his Soho drinking and gambling places Hinton was not able to film Bacon losing his LWT fee at roulette. But the contradiction of the hedonist and the very serious and exacting artist was well made, and I guess that the treatment helped him to reveal just a little more than he intended.

The only new drama of the weekend Sanne (C4), a puzzled. good-looking 17-year-old child of a broken home lately arrived in Amsterdam with her mother, to complete her schooling. We are promised a pleasingly shot story of a girl finding herself against a background of anti-nuclear protest.

As yet is no more than a promise. For some reason this Dutch screen play, by Willem Cantevn, Carel Donck and Hugo Heinen, has been cut into nine 30-minute weekly parts. This meant that part one could only establish-h the main characters and their circumstances. Presumably the drama will start next Saturday.

I doubt if it will ever catch up with Ennio de Concini’s Octopus—Power of the Mafia (C4), so telling both in its psychological explorations and in the onion-skin construction of its plot, each peeling producing a new outlook on the crime nunder investigation. For me this Italian production is the most intelligent bought-in series since The Boat and the most realistic crime series on any channel since The Price.

Sean Day-Lewis





Reality reassured






Melvyn Bragg last night was where BBC2’s Arena was last November: grappling with the vision of Francis Bacon. Mr Bacon, now 75 and, said LWTs South Bank Show, widely held to be the worlds greatest living for painter, has the signal honour of a second major retrospective at the Tate.


Arena found him elusive. He was talking to his friend, the art critic David Sylvester. They had obviously chewed everything over before and, consequently, their conversation came out coded. Mr Braggs programme was more entertaining though not more enlightening. Possibly the paintings say everything.


Mr Bacon thanked God for never having been to an art school and obligingly, and not always approvingly, commented on some of his paintings, agreed that what he was about was deforming and re-forming reality, dismissed Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and anyone who did not like his work.

He thought modern man wanted sensation. He sought a concentration of images, a deeply ordered chaos. He liked to work in the latter and the evidence of his Chelsea studio confirmed this. His paintings might be seen as horrific, he admitted, but he could not compete, in that respect, with what went on every day.

He believed in nothing. “We are born, we die, thats it. I just drift. My life is just a drifting life of going from bar to bar and drinking.” Mr Bragg drifted with him to a restaurant, a bar and a gambling club where Mr Bacon plays roulette because “it is the silliest game there is”.

As the wine flowed both were able to appreciate profundities denied us, perhaps for want of appropriate lubrication. We learnt however, that Mr Bacon hated his face and had no time for fantasy.

 “To me you are real. There you are, Melvyn Bragg, you are absolutely real, he said at one point lo his interviewer who, in the circumstances, might have been glad of the reassurance.

Dennis Hackett





The brutal beauty of Bacon’s art




                               PAUL DONOVANS REVIEW







I HAVE never been a great fan of Melvyn Bragg who seems to wear a perpetually self-satisfied smirk. But credit where it is due: he had a fine programme on the painter Francis Bacon, infinitely more revealing than the recent BBC Arena documentary.


Last night’s edition of The South Bank Show (ITV) was something of a scoop. Bacon, arguably the world’s most successful living painter, rarely gives interviews and has not often been seen getting red-faced on Italian wine and talking about his love of roulette and male flesh.


Bacon the man was balanced by Bacon the artist. Much of his work was on the screen, dozens of oil paintings which depict maimed and mutilated human forms as tortured lumps of meat. He discussed them at length, prodded by astute questioning. What emerged was the clearest explanation yet as to what his repellent pictures are all about.


There is no sunshine on Bacon’s canvases, no compassion, no warmth, no optimism, no eternity, no joy. The only beauty is that of the butcher’s carcase. ’We are born and we die and there’s nothing else,’ he told Bragg. ’We’re just part of animal life.’


One way in particular in which television can show the influences on a painter was well used by director-producer David Hinton. He juxtaposed a rapid succession of real life images and photographs  lions feasting after a kill, for example with those Bacon paintings which have clearly been inspired by them. The effect was illuminating — but everywhere there was the reek of blood.


After the programme I felt rather queasy, as if I had been forced to eat a meal consisting of only sweet-breads and black pudding. But that was simply proof of what a vivid and effective programme it was.







                                                                                             Francis Bacon ... pictures of tortured humans






A natural talent for symbolism



Francis Bacon


Marlborough Fine Art





In certain respects it is remarkable that Surrealism did not make more of a dent on the British art scene in the Thirties: in others it is surprising that it got as far as it did. This apparent contradiction has a lot to do with the, general discrepancy between what British artists want to do and what British collectors, private and institutional, want to buy. The phenomenal sales at this year’s Royal Academy Summer show, even before n was properly opened, demonstrate an ingrained conservatism in the art buying public. And yet the natural form of artistic discourse for the British painter or sculptor, at least since the onset of the Romantic movement, seems to have been, from Turner to Bacon and beyond, some form of Symbolism: pictures need not actually tell a story, but they are very likely to convey a teasing sense that something lies beyond the scene, whether it be a pantheistic interpretation of landscape or some kind of psychological or emotional puzzle which the interested spectator feels invited to unravel.

For such painterly inclinations Surrealism, would seem to be a ready-made vehicle. But unfortunately it was generally regarded in Britain as some new-fangled foreign subversion, and, though the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition, which had on its committee such notables as Henry Moran, Herbert Read, Paul Nash, Humphrey Jennings and McKnight Kauffer, achieved quite a swards de scandale, the British artists who contributed to it and others who followed in their wake continued to he viewed with suspicion. Many of them turn up for re-examination in A Salute to British Surrealism 1930-1950, which began its career at the Minories in Colchester, is now in London at Blond Fine Art until: June 22 then moves to Hull. It is, even at a glance, a very lively show, foil of eccentricity and invention and covering with the general label of Surrealism an amazing variety of talents and approaches.

And most of it seems very British indeed. A certain amount, naturally, dispenses the small change of international Surrealism, evoking wan moonlit landscapes of dream or peopled with die amoeboid creatures that seem to surge out of anyone’s unconscious at the slightest provocation. But even John Armstrong manages to import to his astral geometry a faint but definite hint of die South Downs, and the distracted young women who drift through Conroy Maddox’s skeletal upper floorslook more like refugees from Lewis Carroll than objects of polymorphously perverse passion.

There are minor but telling works by Moore. Nash and that other stalwart of the British chapter, Roland Penrose. And there are some very telling works by almost entirely unfamiliar names, such as Reuben Mednikoff, who has a highly original way with robot-like creatures halfway between L6ger and & G. Hulme Beaman, or Edith Rimmington, whose Oneiroscopist. a man/ bird in a diving suit, is certainly an image to conjure with in the small hours. Some of the best work, in fact, is by women artists, some of them still going strong (and Surrealist), like Eileen Agar and lthefl Coiquboira, whose worryingly anthropomorphic Pine Family stays firmly lodged in the memory.

On the whole, though, it remains true that the British Surrealists did best when they moved away from this alarmingly avant-garde sounding categorization. Ceri Richards, for instance, who is represented here and turns up in fullerforce at the unfailingly interesting Gillian Jason Gallery in Camden Town (until July 26) in a one-man show subtitled The Lyrical Vision, where his transformative images of plants that might be birds that might be people that might be landscapes (and areprobablyall at the same time) flutter and flower on all sides with something so unconfined that it must be joy.

Frauds Bacon too, child of Thirties Surrealism as in many senses he was, while always carefully avoiding the label is adding currently to the staggering achievement of his retrospective at the Tate with a show at Marlborough Fine Art (until July 31) which includes striking early works like Landscape, South of France (1952), one of his very few “pure” landscapes which is yet foil of indefinable menace, as well as the most recent, the extraordinary “poster” (actually a major painting) for a Van Gogh show which may or may not happen in Arles in 1988, and Painting March 1985, another of the new series of landscape/interiors which have turned away from direct confrontation with the human figure. Symbolist painting of the most intense kind, where your may not feel at all sure you know what you are looking at, but have no doubt that whatever order of reality it belongs to is just as intensely real as any you know through the direct evidence of your own two eyes.


Alfred Whiteley shares, the same kind of other-worldly atmosphere, though technically his approach could hardly be  more different. In Bacon everything is on the verge of dissolution, turning into something else almost before, it can be caught aud fixed- on the canvas. Whiteley’s curious visions, on the contrary, are held in a timeless moment of monumental immobility, like the figures on a Grecian urn; even the painting which, in subject-matter, comes closest to Bacon country, Dad and the Black Pudding Man, an evocation of the slaughter-house in which his lather worked, manages to endistance us with its cool formalism so that for a moment we do not realize what the painting is about, and even when we do the impression obstinately, remains of men manhandling merry-go-round horses rather than living flesh and blood.

The paintings referring to the First World War, Wounded Flyer and The Fallen Flyer, have a similarly strange air of showing grown-ups playing children’s games rather than being directly engaged in matters of life and death. The Neue Sachlichkeit clarity of outline in Whiteley’s work helps to create a dreamlike quality which allies him, unconsciously I suspect, with the Surrealists. But, whether because of his long isolation from the practising art world (at 57 this is his first oneman show) or because of a natural, untarnished singularity of vision, Whiteley remains almost defiantly his own man, perfectly possible to find mystifying but quite impossible to ignore. The paintings, most of his product during the last 10 years, are at the Odette Gilbert Gallery until July 5.

Nor must we forget sculpture. Michael Sandle, germanic as in many ways he is, what with his obsessive interest in Gotterdammerung and Armageddon, also belongs very noticeably to the good old British Symbolist tradition. His latest show, at Fischer Fine Art until June 21, contains sculptures of a vaguely memorial type which it is very interesting to compare, in their gloomy fatalism, with the kindred, but more definably heroic works of Charles Sergeant Jagger now at the Imperial War Museum. Jagger celebrated, with becoming sobriety, the consummation of a great cause; Sandle seems cast down because there are no great, brave causes left. But the images of his despondency are amazing: especially the brandnew standing figure which tellingly manages to evoke in one piece every war from Troy to Vietnam. His drawings make the connection with the Symbolist movement even more explicit; there is even one which refers dearly to Bocklin’s Isle of the Dead. An uncomfortable talent certainly; but a major talent nevertheless.

John Russell Taylor






Bringing home the Bacon








IS Melvyn Bragg real? The answer might seem obvious to you; but there are evidently parts of the country where the matter is still being debated. On The London South Ban Show (LWT) the presenter asked Francis Bacon (over a lunch where the food never seemed to arrive) whether he was interested in fantasy. ‘T’m interested in reality,’ replied the painter with a vinous thump on the table. ‘Reality is what exists. Are you real? To me you’re real. There you are. There you are, Melvyn Bragg, you are absolutely real to me, there you are, flesh and blood, performing.’


Well, there you are, there you are, now we know. This drolly instructive moment came in the course o an excellent profile. If you thought you’d had enough Bacon hommages for the next decade, and perhaps even enough of those dead-meat pictures (‘The major influence on Bacon has been his own surname,’ muttered a slumped but aphoristical co-watcher at my elbow), you would have been wrong. The painter’s impish presence lit up the hour; director David Hinton made thoughtful connection between the images which excite Bacon and the finished paintings; while Bragg, absolutely real, flesh and blood, performing, prompted carefully.


Interviewing painters is tricky (as Bragg’s no-show with Howard Hodgkin demonstrated); and some think it’s a futile project anyway, however pleasant. Can words explain paint? Not very well. In addition, the painter is always tempted to tease the interviewer a bit, to decline explanation, to be opaque, to be oracular: ‘I am an old man, but I am profoundly optimistic about nothing.’ The painter’s favourite shot is often the dead bat: Do you remember what you felt when doing this painting?’  ‘No  — I don’t feel anything when I do paintings nothing to feel.’


The interviewee can get over-confident, of course. When asked why he painted mouths so much, Bacon went off into a glittering flight about how the mouth was like a Turner, full of colour, light, action, texture and whatever.  ‘But Francis,’  interposed Bragg, ‘most of your mouths are black.’ Bacon’s reply — ‘I’ve never been able to make the really successful mouth’ — was more than a bit limp in the circumstances.


The film took Bacon round London, starting with a slide show in the Tate storeroom (where he stomped on Pollock and Rothko) and moving on to his studio, which is so chaotic a to make a skip look orderly. Then to a liquid lunch  where Bacon admitted the non-secret that ‘I like men’ (in a recent profile, when asked whom he would most like to sleep with, he replied ‘Colonel Gaddafi’); and finally to the Colony Club, a murky Soho drinking establishment. Bacon characteristically described the place as being full of warmth, wit and charm, but the camera told another, more familiar story: it was a junior hell of bawling mouths, brutal camaraderie and drunken distortion. If you dismiss Bacon’s surname as a major influence on his art, then try the Colony Club instead. That screaming Pope of his might just as well be some camp alcoholic in drag calling for a double brandy at four in the afternoon. 



                                                                         Bacon ‘impish presence’






Streaky Bacon







THERE’S been a lot written about Francis Bacon’s magnificent exhibition and about him, too. I was lucky enough to be on the guest-list for a party at the Tate the night before the private view and there he stood, the begatter of all those monstrous and beautiful children screaming and deliquescing behind their glass; a benign presence on this celebratory evening, our most convincing, if least reassuring, genius.

The art world was out in force but equally there were many faces not necessarily associated with a Kunst thrash, but perfectly explicable in the circumstances; the habituées of The Colony Room alias Muriel’s, a small but celebrated drinking club in Dean Street, Soho. Ian, the one-time barman and present proprietor of The Colony was there, of course; so often host to Francis, on this occasion he was his guest. Muriel herself died a few years ago. She was one of the painter’s closest friends.

I didn’t actually meet Francis at the Colony Room. He used to come into the London Gallery when I was an assistant there, in the late Forties and my boss, the Belgian poet, collagist and art dealer, E. L. T. Mesens, was trying unsuccessfully to persuade the British public that it might be worth investing about a hundred pounds in a Magritte, or about fifty in a Paul Klee. As E.L.T. spent more and more of his time in the nearest pub, and the staff of four was eventually reduced to myself, I was usually left alone behind the desk, rising only to welcome the very occasional visitor, and dreaming of the evening and my growing involvement in the jazz world.

An assistant in an art gallery is an ungrateful occupation; it’s amazing how rude and dismissive people can be, and in general the only job to which I would find it preferable now is that of the man who follows the greyhounds round the track at White City with a small brush and pan. Nevertheless, there were exceptions amongst the visitors, and one of them was Bacon, just beginning to paint seriously but still completely unknown, and he was absolutely charming to the scruffy youngster desperate for the sound of a human voice. He would ask my opinion of the pictures and respond seriously to what I had to say. I remembered his name because of it being the same as the Elizabethan writer’s; a remote ancestor as it transpired.

A year or two later, by which time I was a singer, I was first introduced to the Colony Room and happily, for it was never a foregone conclusion, Muriel Belcher took a shine to me. Francis was, by this time, famous in the comparatively small circle interested in modern art but his prices were still modest and his financial position, given a taste for oysters and champagne, shaky. Muriel, according to a recent piece of Daniel Farson, actually staked Miss Bacon (it was her whim to feminise all her male customers) to attract punters who were prepared to open the handbag. Of course later, when Miss Bacon had become world famous, it was she whose handbag was ever-open. Champagne, courtesy of F.B., flowed chez Muriel’s.

,He also painted her, and there, at the Tate, she is to be seen in triplicate. One of the most extraordinary qualities of Bacon is how like his distorted, smeared and restructured portraits are. Of another contemporary he once remarked (he is not always sweetness and light), His pictures are realistic without being real — you know what I mean? His are the reverse. Anyway, there was Muriel on the walls and present in spirit, too. I kept half-expecting to see her — handsome profile, glittering eye and black dress — paying court to her subjects in the shadow of Rodins’s Lovers, rewarding those in favour with witty, beautifully-timed obscenities. She was, in effect, the much missed spectre at the feast.

At one point I found myself in conversation with Alan Bowness, the Tate’s curator. How long have you known Francis? he asked me, paranoia suggesting that he half-wondered if I’d gate-crashed. I assumed a certain nonchalance. I can’t remember, I said — followed by a long pause if it was ’47 or ’48. 











NOW HERE’S A CURIOUS THING. IN the two long essays in the catalogue for the current retrospective exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon at the Tate Gallery, the word homosexual is not used once. Nor have we seen it appear, even in the form of an aside, in any of the many pieces recently written about the painter’s work. Why is this, when a most significant part of his subject matter is devoted to male homosexual activity? And not the delicate and gentle aspects of gay life, but the violent, rough-trade end where muscular, thick-necked plebs grapple on oval beds like so much raw offal piled up on dinner plates. As there is nothing wrong about such subject matter (which, incidentally, seeps into a great deal of his work), why this reticence, especially when Bacon’s own distinctive techniques of distortion are so perfectly attuned to it?

His style also marries well with other areas that interest him, notably violent abuse and injury to the human body — this propensity particularly demonstrated in his Crucifixion triptychs where the central figures are disembowelled and hung up head down. Bacon is also interested in meat carcases and clinical photographs of disease, and these, too, find their way into his pictures. All in all then, a pretty obnoxious stew? Not so. This is a very large exhibition and towards the end the queasy visitor might feel he has been assaulted more than enough, but it reveals Francis Bacon as a major 20th-century artist and a very fine painter.

We stress painter because he uses old-fashioned oil paint on stretched canvas, albeit the reverse of the canvas and the oils are augmented with acrylic, emulsion, and liquid pastel. He uses old-fashioned brushes, too, but also rags, finger rubbings, and textures printed from bits of corduroy. His colour harmonies are absolutely beautiful, carefully selected from a range of greys, beiges, biscuit, and lilac, supercharged with red-lead, orange, black, sharp viridians and acid yellows. As for the compositions, they are consistently immaculate; not in anyway according to the book but poised in perfect asymmetrical equilibrium. He invariably uses photographs as reference-from magazines and medical books but particularly from the famous Muybridge series of nude figures in action. The early grimacing Velázquez Popes are here, and those portraits that seem to be viewed through bull’s eye glass.

Every Bacon painting is highly charged and disturbing; they are concerned only with his own private sensations and feelings — they are not statements for our time — and therefore they inevitably reveal some of the darker recesses of his psyche. Bacon himself rightly steers away from any analysis of his work, but will discuss the act of painting: Painting today is pure intuition and luck and taking advantage of what happens when you splash the stuff down.

Until Aug 18, Mon to Sat: 10.0-5.50, Sun: 2.0-5.50 Admission: £2 (concessionary: £1). Excellent catalogue/ book: £12






                                     Seated Figure by Francis Bacon (b.1909)






     Bernard Levin: the way we live now




A genius? I say rotten









Ever since the Fall, there has been in the world a vast quantity of cruelty, hate, pain and fear: it is likely that that state of affairs will continue to the end of time itself. On a less abstract level, the world at any moment contains ample reserves of excrement, vomit and spilt blood. Meanwhile, deformity and madness seem to be forever ineradicable.

No one, I think, will dispute those claims: most of us, however, would say that they were not worth making. They were not worth making because they are so obviously true, just as one goes about insisting that the sun is hot and the moon is cold, though no one would challenge such assertions.

But now let us make it, ostensibly at any rate, more difficult. Suppose there was a man of enormous gifts, penetrating vision and ruthless single-mindedness of purpose who had conceived his role as saying, day in and day out and with overwhelming force and conviction, that the night is usually dark, and certainly darker than the day, that to be tortured is almost always a very unpleasant experience, and that sometimes a small child plucking a flower is bitten by a poisonous snake and subsequently dies in agony. Now let us tale a vote: are these things more worth saying (taking into account that they are said very forcefully and with a wealth of expression) than my own list? Those who say yes should hasten to the Tate Gallery for the Francis Bacon exhibition; those who say no should not trouble themselves to do so.

The puffing and booming of Francis Bacon seems to me one of the silliest aberrations even of our exceptionally silly time. Here, summing up the silliness, is the director of the Tate, Mr Alan Bowness, in his foreword to the catalogue (a particularly sumptuous catalogue, incidentally, with every picture reproduced in colour).

“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. The paintings have the inescapable mark of the present: I am tempted to add the word alas, but for Bacon the virtues of truth and honesty transcend the tasteful. They give to his paintings a terrible beauty that has placed them among the most memorable images in the entire history of art. And these paintings have a timeless quality that allows them to hang naturally in our museums beside those of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.”

“The greatest living painter; no artist in our century ...” Let us leave the living painter theme: the world is not exactly awash with genius in painting at the moment, and anyway we do not want to get into an argument about the precise meaning of “greatness”. But “no artist in our century has presented the human predicament with such insight and feeling”? Here is a short list of artists in our century (taking that to mean artists who did at least a significant proportion of their work after 1900) whose insight and feeling in understanding and presenting the human predicament are manifestly greater than Bacon’s — manifestly at any rate, to any one less silly than the director of the Tate and les parti-pris than the seedy throng of Bacon groupies:

Bonnard, Braque, Chagall, Chirico, Derain, Ernst, Gris, Grosz, Kandinsky, Kokoschka, Magritte, Matisse, Matta, Miro, Moore, Munch, Picasso, Rivera, Rouault, Soutine, Sutherland, Utrillo, Vlaminck and Vuillard.

Note that I have been strict with the definition. The slightest stretching of “human predicament” would have enabled me to add Arp, Dufy, Klee, Leger and Mondrian, and a slight more generous treatment of dates would have brought in Degas, Monet and Renoir (who, after all, lived to 1917, 1926 and 1919 respectively). Nor have I seized on Mr Bowness’s distinction between “painter” (Bacon the greatest living) and “artist” (Bacon unrivalled at presenting the human predicament); if I had added the sculptors the list would have swollen substantially.

My objection to Bacon is the same as my objection to those clever young play wrights who finally who finally drove me to give up the job of a dramatic critic; what is the point of being good at saying things if you have nothing to say — or at least, nothing other than that the world is rotten, human beings are rotten, love is rotten, society is rotten, life itself is rotten? In the first place, the claim is obviously untrue; in the second, it runs counter to some 30 centuries of human experience distilled in art — 30 centuries, moreover, in which the world was by no means free, anymore than it is today, of envy, hatred, malice and all unchartibleness, nor of battle, murder and sudden death, nor of war, famine and pestilence.

Wandering through the huge Tate exhibition, I looked for evidence that Bacon had ever read a Winter’s Tale, listened to the G minor Symphony of Mozart, seen À Nous la Liberté. There is no such sign. But there is much else.

There is a baboon, also a chimpanzee; both are screaming, as are a very large proportion of the human beings, man and animal — not to be distinguished anyway — trapped alike in endless torment. (There is a dog which is not screaming, it is, however, tugging at its lead because it wishes to inspect a drain it is passing.) There are those endless deformations of faces and bodies which are the artist’s most intense obsessions, and which suggest a degree of misanthropy verging on madness. There are the Velázquez variations, those Bacon Popes burning in their own hell (I wonder what Velázquez would think of Bacon — for that matter, I wonder what Bacon thinks of Velázquez, if indeed he ever thinks about Velázquez at all), and there is another parody of a well-known work, which seems to me very significant.

It is based on the Ingres painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx in the Louvre. Bacon has imitated the pose of Oedipus, with one leg raised on a rock; but Bacon’s Oedipus is a simian figure, and the raised foot is covered in a filthy and bloodstained bandage. There is an indefinable figure in the background, part bat, part jellyfish, part bird; it, too, is bloodstained. An essay in the catalogue says that Bacon sees the creature as one of the Eumenides; if so, he must have forgotten how the Orestia ends — in Bacon’s mythology there is neither Apollo to plead for the sinner nor Athena to win over the Furies.

Bodies couple, in hate not love; other bodies writhe on beds, one of them swelling with the effects of the hypodermic embedded in its arm; naked men squat at stool; carcasses of beef hint at human carcasses; “Reclining Woman” reclines, significantly, more hanging than lying; “Woman Emptying a Bowel of Water” is accompanied by “Paralytic Child on All Fours”. Disgust is kept at bay by the feeling that there is nothing sufficiently real in all this waste and folly to make disgust an appropriate reaction.

Bacon is not a charlatan; he feels everything he expresses. Nor has he invented or imagined the darkness in man’s soul; Auschwitz and Kolyma are not fairy-tales, nor is the Crucifixion. But Bacon’s version of the latter illustrates perfectly the fatuousness of Mr Bowness’s claim that Bacon would “hang naturally in our museums beside those of Rembrandt and Van Gogh”.

What is the second most noticeable, striking and important fact about the Crucifixion? That it is a story of shame, degradation, failure and death. What is the most noticeable, striking and important fact about it? That it is a story of shame put to shame, degradation raised incorruptible, failure turned to overwhelming triumph and death transmuted into eternal life. What is wrong with Francis Bacon? He has not noticed that, half-way through, the Crucifixion turns into its opposite. Tintoretto noticed; so did Rembrandt; even Dali noticed.

It is much too late to turn the tide. The received wisdom among the bien-pensants is that Francis Bacon is a great artist, and his work a series of imperishable masterpieces; my claim that the received wisdom and his work alike are very great nonsense will convince nobody except small boys who notice that the Emperor has no clothes. True, those who live for another 50 years will be able to acquire Bacon’s paintings for about £2 a hundred-weight, but the puffers and boomers will be safely dead by then. All the same, we have a duty to the present, and one part of that duty is to distinguish constantly between the true and the false. And in art, perhaps more than in any other category, those distinctions are necessary and important; which is why I have chosen to draw a few today.









At the Tate, a second celebration of Francis Bacon





ll of a sudden, in a rush, the English know what they have got. “Surely thhe greatest living painter,’’ wrote Alan Bowness, director of London’s Tate Gallery. “The greatest painter in the world,’’ claimed Lord Gowrie, England’s Minister for the Arts, “and the best this country has produced since Turner.’’ The artist is Francis Bacon, 75, whose second retrospective exhibition at the Tate (the first was 23 years ago) opened last month. 

Some art is wallpaper. Bacon’s is flypaper, and innumerable claims stick to it: over the past 40 years it has attracted extremes of praise and calumniation. There are still plenty of people who see his work as icily mannered, sensationalist guignol. He is the sort of artist whose work generates admiration rather than fondness. The usual evolution of major artists in old age, whereby they become cozily grand paternal figures, patting their juniors on the back and reminiscing in autumnal mellowness about their dead coevals, has not happened to Bacon, who is apt to dismiss nearly everything painted in the 20th century with bleak contempt. He has gone on record as admiring Giacometti and Picasso; for a few others, a few words of respect; beyond that, the sense of isolation is ferocious. The motto of an aristocratic French family declared: “Roi ne puis, prince ne daigne, Rohan je suis’’ (King I cannot be; prince I do not deign to be; I am a Rohan). Shift the context and you have the epitome of Bacon’s own view of his place in 20th century art. 

The lexicon of Baconian imagery is famous. Its most familiar component is the screaming Pope, smearily rising from blackness like carnivorous ectoplasm, his throne indicated by a pair of gold finials, the whole enclosed in a sketchy cage — homage to an original that Bacon firmly denies having ever seen, the Velasquez portrait of Innocent X in the Doria collection in Rome. There are the Crucifixion motifs, reflections of Grunewald and the Cimabue Crucifixion in Santa Croce that was partly destroyed by the 1966 Florence flood, whose sinuous and near boneless body Bacon once startlingly compared to “a worm crawling down the Cross.’’ There are the humping, grappling figures on pallets or operating tables; the twisted, internalized portraits; the stabbings, the penetrations; the Aeschylean furies pinned against the $ windowpane; and the transformations of flesh into meat, nose into snout, jaw into mandible and mouth into a kind of all-purpose orifice with deadly molars, all of which aspire, in the common view, to the condition of documents. Here, one has been told over and over again, is the outer limit of expressionism: these are the signs of the pessimistic alienation to which a history of extreme mass suffering has reduced the human image. The collective psyche has imploded, leaving only the blurred individual meat, hideously generalized. The paintings “reflect’’ horror. Their power is in their mirroring. They are narratives, though not always openly legible ones. 

Bacon utterly rejects this view. He sees himself not as an expressionist but as a realist who nevertheless stakes the outcome of his art on an opposition between intelligence (ordering, remembering, exemplifying) and sensation. His paintings do not strive to tell stories, but to clamp themselves on the viewers’ nervous system and offer, as he puts it, “the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance.’’ He once remarked: “An illustrational form tells you through the intelligence immediately what the form is about, whereas a nonillustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into the fact.’’ The nub of the difference between Bacon’s figures and those of expressionism is that his do not solicit pity. They are not pathetic and do not try to call you into their own space. Everything unwinds in silence, on the other side of the glass wall. (Maybe this is why Bacon insists on putting even his biggest canvases behind glass: it makes the separation literal, though sometimes too literal. The glass becomes an element, even a kind of collage.) 

As Art Historian Dawn Ades acutely notes in her catalogue essay to the Tate show, there is a lot in common between Bacon’s vision of human affairs and the neurasthenic, broken allusiveness of early Eliot
a cinematic, quick-cutting mixture of  “nostalgia for classical mythology, the abruptness of modern manners, the threat of the unseen and the eruption of casual violence.’’ Some lines from Eliot’s “Sweeney Among the Nightingales’’ are quite Baconian: 

The host with someone indistinct 
Converses at the door apart, 
The nightingales are singing near 
The Convent of the Sacred Heart, 
And sang within the bloody wood 
When Agamemnon cried aloud 
And let their liquid siftings fall 
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud. 

someone indistinct is, of course, a key figure in Bacon. The real peculiarity of his figurative style is that it manages to be both precise and ungraspable, for its distortions of face and limb bear little relationship to anything that painters have done to the human body since Cezanne. Forms are governed by slippage: they smear sideways, rotating, not like the succession of displayed facts and transparent planes in cubism, but as though they had endured some terminal rearrangement by massage. Their shape retains an obstinate integrity, the precise result of a sudden movement. And by the early to mid-60s, the time of the great triptychs, when Bacon decisively abandoned the spectral, scumbled evocations of the face used in his Popes and caged businessmen, his figures had begun to embody an immense plastic power. Sometimes these creatures, knotted in contrapposto, seem desperately mannered; but there are other moments when the smearing and knotting of flesh, not so much depicted as reconstituted in the fatty whorls and runs of paint, take on a tragic density closer to Michelangelo than to modernism. Among those artists who, in the past century, have tried to represent the inwardness of the body, Bacon holds a high place, along with Schiele, Kokoschka and Giacometti. 
 He breaks the chain of pessimistic expectation by taking his prototypes beyond themselves into grandeur. In earlier art there was a repertoire of classical emblems of energy and pathos, starting with the Laocoon, that painters could draw on for this operation. Bacon
s starting point is less authoritative: photographs of anonymous, hermetic white bodies in Eadweard Muybridges The Human Figure in Motion, a snap of a Baboon or a footballer in blurred motion, a wicketkeeper whipping the ball across the stumps, the bloodied face of the nursemaid of the Odessa Steps in Eisensteins Battleship Potemkin, her spectacles awry. These and other images begin as clues, holes in the social fabric, and are then worked up, gradually, into emblems. The elliptical lenses of the nursemaids spectacles, for example, turn into bigger ellipses, without a face behind them; like punctuation marks commanding one to focus and look, they stud the painting of the 70s. Muybridges wrestlers become Bacon’s signs for sexual battle. But they shed their documentary purpose, and in doing so open the way to another discourse of figures. When impelled by strong emotion  as in the Triptych MayJune, 1973, which commemorates the suicide of his friend George Dyer in a Paris hotel two years before  the shocking’’ images in Bacon are raised to the order of grand lamentation: they take one back to the classical past, but to its sacrifices, not its marbles. 
 None of this would be possible without Bacon
s mastery of the physical side of painting. Much has been made of his reliance on chance, but it seems to have affected his life (he is an inveterate gambler, an addict of the green baize) more than his art. One could say the ejaculatory blurt of white paint in a painting like Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, 1968, is chancy, but that kind of chance is easily manipulated with practice, and it rhymes suspiciously well with other curves in the painting (like the back of the chair in the picture within a picture to the left). The truth is that the Bacon one sees this time at the Tate has much more in common with old masters than with contemporary painting the Venetian red interstitial drawing, in Tintoretto. This kind of paint surface is part of the work of delivering sensations, not propositions, and it is neither idly sumptuous nor ironically sexy. 
 But the one thing it cannot reliably do is fix the extreme disjuncture between Bacon
s figures and their backgrounds. The contrast of the two  the intense plasticity of the figures, the flat staginess of the rooms and spaces in which they convulse themselves  is what gives rise to the charge of illustration. It will not entirely go away, because Bacon only rarely manages to set up the whole field of the canvas as a coherent structure, every part exerting its necessary pressure on the next. One looks at the figures, not the ground. Hence the theatricality of his failures. But, like his successes, these too are the work of an utterly compelling artist who will die without heirs. No one could imitate Bacon without looking stupid. But to ignore him is equally absurd, for no other living painter has set forth with such pitiless clarity the tensions and paradoxes that surround all efforts to see, let alone to paint, the human figure in an age of photography. The paint acquires a wonderful plenitude in becoming flesh. One thinks of the coruscated light.





Bernard Levin’s portrait of the artist






From Dr Alan Halliday


I suppose it was inevitable that Francis Bacons retrospective exhibition at the Tate should come under attack from those who expect to enjoy their painting in comfort, including Bernard Levin (June 28).

Mr Levin ignores Bacons qualities of composition, colour, texture and draughtsmanship and concentrates entirely on the subject matter, or content, of his paintings. This is a very old-fashioned way of looking at. pictures and it overlooks an important part of Bacons achievement.

In Bacons paintings the horror of the subject matter is always balanced by the beauty of the handling. When this is also true of GoyaHorrors of War, which depicts castration and dismemberment, of Géricault still-life paintings of mutilated limbs from executed prisoners, as well as the many fifteenth-century Flemish paintings of the Crucifixion which include the breaking of legs. I wonder why Mr Levin should be so squeamish about Bacon. His paintings reveal both the beauty and horror of the twentieth century.

Yours faithfully,

11 Caxton Terrace,



From Mr Robert Buhler, RA


Mr Levin, no doubt, is a deeply committed humanist and his articles are invariably well reasoned and argued with great skill and conviction. But todays emotional piece on Bacon invites calmer comment.

According to Coleridge. Painting is the intermediate somewhat between a thought and a thing. If the idea is paramount the painting can become illustration, whereas purely abstract painting can become an object with no particular message. Admittedly. Francis Bacons aim is to touch; the raw of the central nervous system. Be that as it may, he seems to have succeeded with Mr Levin.

If  as has been my experience  one gets a strong impact of a painted image: original, authoritative and free of borrowed language, one is confronted by an impressive presence. I do not pretend to know what his painting is about, but I am always amazed how good it looks on the wall. Perhaps Mr Levins reading of the sinister and the evil is the result of having a sensitive literary and literal approach to painting.

Both Mr Bowness and Mr Levin make extreme claims. Francis Bacon may or may not be the greatest living painter alternatively, it is unlikely that his work will be sold for £2 a hundredweight in 50 years from now. In the meantime Francis Bacons work has created great interest and controversy all over the world, not least among painters.

Staunch upholders of deeply held moral values, such as John: Ruskin and others. do not necessarily always get it right; but w ho can blame them in face of the magic and mystery of painting?

Yours faithfully,

33 Alderney Street, SW1.



From Miss A. M. O’Neill


I was so pleased to read Bernard Levin’s forthright article on Francis Bacon and his art.

I respond with warmth to Mr Levin’s call for the unabashed truth in art. He decries the dictates of critical whimsy and seeks something finer to be representative of the contemporary human condition.

Truth is not interpretative or chamelon. It simply is: and Mr Levins affirmation of this is strong and honest. Mr Bacons defamation of humanity is only a half-truth and Mr Levin is eloquent in his attempt to complete the picture.

Yours faithfully,