Francis Bacon News 









The making of a blockbuster,

Francis Bacon: Five Decades








ABC   |   ARTS   |   SATURDAY, 13 DECEMBER, 2012

The late British painter Francis Bacon saw an extraordinary century, says Tony Bond, curatorial director at the Art Gallery of NSW. An exhibition of Bacon’s paintings, Francis Bacon: Five Decades is currently on show at the Art Gallery of NSW. It’s the first major exhibition of the late painter’s work to be mounted in Australia and is the final exhibition at AGNSW for long-serving curator Tony Bond. 

It took more than three years for Bond to bring together the 53 works from 37 lenders. “I was trying to make it a bit different from previous retrospectives,” says Bond. “Not doing it thematically, not doing it strictly chronologically, but dividing the exhibition into five decades and selecting works so that each decade looks quite different reflecting his life and time at that moment.” As the year draws to a close, Tony Bond talks to ABC Arts about Francis Bacon, the artist who in the words of fellow Briton Damien Hirst took painting to a new level. 

When did you first become interested in Francis Bacon and what is it about his art that piqued your interest? 

TONY BOND: I’ve been interested in Francis Bacon since the early ‘60s when I was an art student, partly because it was then that his paintings suddenly became very vibrant and very powerful. The intensity in the figures was quite extraordinary. But it was also because of the things he said about art, that idea of bringing reality back onto the nervous system. 

Put it this way, ninety eight percent of everything that goes on in the brain goes on prior to consciousness, that’s quite a well researched neurological fact now. The cells of the body are all primed and ready to act long before we know that we’re going to act to. I think that’s one of the great things about art. It can really sit on that edge between consciousness and the unknowing, or if you like our unconsciousness. Francis talked about that interminably but with great passion and gusto and I think we’ve all responded to that. 


Many consider Francis Bacon’s artworks shocking. His images are vivid and almost violent. Why do you think people have such a strong reaction to his paintings?

TONY BOND: Different people react very differently. Margaret Thatcher said of him ‘oh, that man who does those awful paintings’ but not everybody looks at them quite like that. I think he would say that if they’re violent it’s because they reflect reality. There’s nothing he could do in his paintings that would be anywhere near as violent as the real world

What he would also say, I think, is that the violence is actually the violence that he does with the paint. He drags the paint around which distorts his friends’ appearance [Bacon used his friends as subjects]. But he always said he had to distort the appearance to get back to the sensation of the thing more directly. If you look at the portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne the face has been pushed about like a cubist painting and yet it looks sensitive and stunningly like the photograph of her. He’s captured a likeness not as an appearance but as a sensation of the person. 

Some of his most successful paintings were portraits of friends, acquaintances and lovers. Why did he paint the people that were so close to him? 

TONY BOND: Well he was very keen to really capture something powerful about that person not just about their appearance but something that he would know, and you don’t get that off passers-by. 

He never painted from the model. He would have photographs lying around, sometimes he combined different images but he would actually think about his subject because he knew them intensely well and that’s where he was able to draw the sensation of the thing. He often said he couldn’t really work with somebody sitting there in front of him because he wouldn’t feel free to do the violence that he was going to do to them in front of them. Most of the people he painted I think accepted and understood this. I think maybe a couple of his lovers didn’t quite get it – George Dyer probably didn’t care. John Edwards, I think, said ‘you know I don’t know why he makes me look like a monkey’, but you know John did look a bit like a monkey, so Bacon captured that side of him very well. 

Francis Bacon amassed an enormous number of photographs, magazine cuttings and news clippings in his London studio. After this death in 1992, seven and a half thousand items were moved to Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane in a process comparable to an archaeological dig. You’ve include a number of these objects in the exhibition. How did you begin to find your way through such a large collection in order to pull out the pieces of ephemera that connected to the works being exhibited?

TONY BOND: The great thing is that when they actually moved the material they did little drawings of everything layer by layer, they took photographs for everything, they numbered and detailed everything and then made a complete index archive of it which they’ve got on computer. So I spent four days in Dublin scouring through all seven thousand five hundred catalogued objects. I kept making little notes about the things that would be great to get, but after four days I realised I needed four months to do it properly. That’s why I invited Margarita Cappock to work with us on the exhibition. She is in charge of the archive there and was able to find the things that relate to the show. 

It was interesting trawling through the material because I found things I would never have expected to see that I wasn’t actually looking for. I discovered only the other day forty cookery books. I think Bacon was quite a cook, that’s a whole new angle for me.

Have such discoveries changed your impression of Bacon? 

TONY BOND Oh, yes totally. I approached the archive with the idea of an artist who worked with a trace of the thing rather than just making pictures of a thing. I think there’s plenty of evidence for that in the studio archive, and in what he said and the odd thing that he wrote, little diagrams he made. I was kind of fascinated to see a big collection of Mick Jagger wearing very tight light lycra with a sort of bulging crotch. I thought ‘this is great’, but of course the paintings he tried to make of Mick Jagger were a disaster.

Francis Bacon inspires passionate reactions from viewers and curators and art lovers. I imagine those fortunate enough to own a Francis Bacon painting would not part with it easily. Was it difficult to convince the collectors to lend the Art Gallery these extraordinary paintings? 

‘You know chances are we can’t actually do this exhibition’. The 2008 [Tate Britain] show would have really exhausted the lenders. It was three venues over about twelve months so I went straight to the Tate to ask their advice about whether they thought lenders would come to the party again. The Tate gave me five works straight away which is pretty good and I thought ‘hey, we’re already a tenth of the way there’, because I originally thought maybe we’d be lucky to get 40 significant pictures. In the end I could have probably had over 60 but we settled on 53. There are a couple of works that I’d have killed for, almost did really, but either they were just too vulnerable to travel, as was the case with a work from a museum, or private collectors didn’t want the painting ‘going all the way to Australia’. I heard that a lot. All you do is put it on an aeroplane and it gets off the other end, and it’s doesn’t really matter whether it’s going from London to Düsseldorf or London to Sydney, it’s the same thing. But for some collectors is was that they couldn’t pop in and see the painting once a week or something.

But many of the museums came to the party. There were more highs than lows, thank God. But I don’t think anybody’s ever done a show without a couple of works they would have killed for not coming through. 

Why is Francis Bacon such an important figure in the history of the 20th century?

TONY BOND: Apart from the fact that I think that he painted the best paintings – certainly the best figurative paintings of the 20th century – he does, in a sense, obliquely document the whole history of his life. It’s all in there, the asthma as a child, growing up in Ireland being constantly terrified that Sinn Fein would break into their mansion, his father’s ideas of grandeur, and the constant moving from one place to another. He had a very disruptive childhood. The asthma is part of the story [in his paintings] because you see that open mouth; it’s as much a gasp for breath as a scream about things that he saw during the Irish Troubles. 

He moved to England with his father during the First World War, went to boarding school in England, which didn’t work for him terribly well, went back to Ireland, was thrown out of home because of the affairs he was having with the stable boys and his proclivity to put on his mother’s underwear, and was then sent off to Berlin where he saw the Weimar Republic at its full. He experienced a night life of hedonism and then came back to London and experienced the rise of fascism one removed. He lived through the Second World War, and absorbed a lot of material from magazines. Images of the Nuremberg Rally and of dictators talking into microphones appear in quite a few of the pictures. Then he went off to Africa, after his father died with his mother and sisters. His mother always sat facing the window. She would never sit with her back to the window, first in Ireland because of Sinn Fein and then because of the Mau Mau uprising – so he had a life that was filled with that kind of anxiety. It’s hardly surprising that he took on a lover in the ‘50s who liked to beat him around a bit. 

There’s continuity in all these things in his life and his paintings. So by doing the five decades I’m hoping that you will see the history of the 20th century.


          John Deakin’s photograph of George Dyer in the Reece Mews Studio, ca. 1964




Into the inferno of the art of Francis Bacon










FAR too much art has been hawked to jaded audiences, in recent decades of promoblather, as confronting or shocking; a kind of prurient curiosity is excited in viewers, inevitably disappointed by work that is repetitious, ideological and moralistic.

But there is something about the paintings of Francis Bacon that really is emotionally affecting after more than a half-century. You are aware of it not only while in their presence, but especially in the after-effect that persists as you leave the gallery. It’s like the sober, grey, bleak mood that follows a funeral, when for a time the colours of life are shadowed by a cold sense of mortality.

This not something you are likely to experience from encountering a single work in a modern art gallery, where the very diversity of styles militates against the kind of overall or collective impression one often has among works of earlier periods. This disparity is only aggravated by the curatorial instinct to collect one example of each style or movement, which tend to cancel each other out in general blandness.

The Francis Bacon exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, the last big project by Tony Bond and the first show of the artist’s work in this country, is an opportunity to immerse oneself in Bacon’s imaginative world; more than that, it compels the viewer to inhabit that vision; the artist’s focus is exclusively and even obsessively on what seems to him to matter. There is nothing else, no incidentals, no pleasure in nature or the human environment, nowhere the viewer might escape into his own reveries in the margins of the work.

And what is actually shocking about these pictures – much more so than any political or moralistic declamation – is their vision of irredeemable unhappiness. Happiness is not something frivolous; it is not about fun, much less about temporary states of excitement and distraction. In the end, happiness is life itself. The insight is a profoundly classical one, vibrantly tangible in early poets such as Pindar, theorised in Aristotle, but still present within the Christian heirs to the classical tradition; thus in Dante we find that acedia, the vice of sloth, consists of refusing to take joy in the world that God has made for us – and that it is a sin worse than lust, gluttony and avarice.

Bacon’s joyless vision can be understood partly as an expression of his historical circumstances, growing up between the wars, beginning to paint seriously in the years of the Depression and the rise of fascism leading up to World War II and achieving fame and success in the still grim post-war years, shadowed by Cold War anxieties, even as rationing and privation gave way to the permissiveness of the 1960s.

But this is only the background; at the heart of it, the unhappiness is intimate and personal, beginning with an atrocious childhood. Biography, which has a limited value in illuminating the work of more impersonal artists, is unavoidable in Bacon’s case.

He was distantly descended from his namesake, the great Elizabethan statesman, scientist and essayist, and his family had money and connections. Eddy Bacon, his father, was a retired officer and horse trainer. His mother seems to have been remote, and he was closest to his nanny, who continued to live with him in adult life and until her death in 1951.

Bacon’s effeminate behaviour as a child, including dressing in his mother’s clothes, enraged his domineering father, who tried to make a man of him by forcing him go out riding horses, although this only provoked desperate asthma attacks, and is supposed to have had him whipped by the grooms, with whom the boy was also having sexual relations. Despite, or because of, his overbearing and sadistic behaviour, Bacon later claimed to have been sexually attracted to his own father, and seemed to pursue a series of cruel father-substitute lovers for the rest of his life, of whom Peter Lacy was the most unhinged.

All of these stories, however elaborated in the artist’s free and even exhibitionist retelling in the course of subsequent decades, speak of a profoundly tortured relationship to sexuality.

There is no romantic vision of homosexual love here – nothing like the poignant romantic friendship, perhaps tipping into erotic transgression, of Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s contemporary novel Brideshead Revisited (1945) – only the painful realities of rough trade and buggery at the hands of brutes and illiterate young thugs.

Such an encounter is evoked here in Triptych (1970), where the left and right panels of the triptych depict, respectively, a man in a suit and a naked youth, the one mounting the other in the central image.

In the early work, the figure is much less explicit. Often it is shown as confined in a kind of cage, truncated and vague, even disembodied, as though less real than the structures and bounds that constrain it. Complementary to the theme of confinement are the desperation and hysteria evoked by Bacon’s best-known motif, the mouth open in a scream of pain, or possibly, as has been more recently suggested, gasping for air like the asthmatic in panic at his inward suffocation. The two interpretations are quite compatible, for both are responses to fear and enclosure.

Bacon was impressed by the cry of pain in Poussin’s early painting of The Massacre of the Innocents (1627-28) at Chantilly, and most famously transferred the motif of the scream to Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, a picture which the artist – although he spoke of having a crush on the painting – may have known only from reproductions. In transforming the image of an extremely powerful, self-possessed man into a screaming hysteric, it is hard not to think that Bacon is reflecting on the sense of vulnerability and oppression that could be experienced even by a dominant figure such as his father.

Without narrative context, and therefore without specific motivation, the theme of the open mouth becomes even more disturbing and acquires a more generic existential connotation. In two of the most unpleasantly memorable instances, Head I and Head II (1947-48), truncated heads, partly or wholly deprived of their cranium and thus of consciousness, are reduced to amorphous masses of flesh in which the orifice of the mouth opens to display aggressive, ape-like teeth. The open mouth, always expressing surprise, pain, grief or anger, is inherently incompatible with self-possession or the poise of identity.

But he goes much further than the gaping mouth in attacking the image of the face, the form to whose integrity, composure, beauty and their opposites – we are naturally more acutely sensitive than any other.

One of the most striking works in the exhibition is a triptych, Studies for Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, who was a frequent model. The pictures consciously recall Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), and they remind us, if we needed reminding, that it is with this modernist primitivism, evoking the primal and the animalistic dimensions of human experience, that Bacon has affinities, not with the intellectualising style of analytical cubism that followed.

The images of Moraes, however – described by one former acquaintance as "a drunken Soho groupie" – are far more consciously violent than the Demoiselles. Her features are not only brutally distorted, recalling perhaps the story that Bacon had all his front teeth knocked out by abusive lovers, but actually evoke those medieval memento mori or dance of death images in which the decaying flesh is painted, with gruesome care, as it falls away from the bones of the skull.

Even this is not as far as he goes. Moraes appears here also as the model of a couple of full-length nudes (1965 and 1969) in which her body is turned into shapeless masses of flesh and, more appallingly, her face is completely unrecognisable, hacked and smashed as though by a psychopathic killer driven by uncontainable rage.

To pass over the intensity of emotional charge in such works, and indeed their ugliness, or the degradation, guilt and loathing that they represent, is to miss their point altogether.

Yet this painful material is, as in all serious art, subordinated to the pictorial language that gives it form and makes it communicable. Bacon’s characteristic themes are expressed with great control and focus, with a mastery of composition and brushwork, an economy of motif and a willingness to eliminate all irrelevant motifs, that make his work singularly memorable.

But it is a delicate balancing act; a little too much aestheticising and the anguish can become repetitious, vacuous posturing. One senses this emptiness most conspicuously in the big triptych Studies of the Human Body (1970), in which motifs that are at once clumsy and facile are isolated in a large empty field of decorative monochrome; by then Bacon had achieved commercial and critical success, regularly cited as the greatest living painter in England even as his work grew more indulgent.

He seems to have been given a new lease of life by the death of his lover George Dyer when the two were in Paris for his retrospective in 1971. This youngish cockney thief, whom Bacon claimed he had met while he was attempting to burgle his flat, became the subject of a series of memorial pictures during the next few years.

In one of the most impressive, another triptych, we see Dyer three times, in each image contorted into the impossible twistings familiar in Bacon’s work and that ultimately derive from Michelangelo’s ignudi in the Sistine ceiling. The figures are truncated, limbs simply missing, while pools of flesh-coloured matter form at their feet as though they were melting away.

Among all these works, and as with many artists, there are moments when the authenticity of insight is convincing and others where routines and repetitious formulas are more apparent than anything else.

In the best pictures it is the handling of the paint itself, like the prose of an author, that convinces us of the quality of the artistic mind. A particularly fine example is the triple self-portrait (1979-80) in which Bacon has resisted the temptation of histrionics and allowed himself to examine his own features with greater equanimity than elsewhere and consequently with more real depth.

Bacon’s vision of the world is limited and flawed; his emotional range is stunted and it would be fallacious to argue that this simplistically and unrelievedly dark view of life is an adequate account of human experience. At the same time, one can recall what TS Eliot wrote of Baudelaire in what remains one of the greatest essays on the poet. The author of Les Fleurs du Mal, he said in effect, lacks the universality of Dante: he cannot understand the joy of Paradise; but he can reveal to us something of the Inferno of our own time.

Francis Bacon: Five Decades, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, to February 24.

Related information

In the 1985 documentary Francis Bacon, legendary British broadcaster Melvyn Bragg interrogates Bacon about his work and what motivates him to paint. Watch Francis Bacon on ABC1 Sunday, January 13 at 22.50pm after Sunday Arts Up Late’s presentation of All In The Best Possible Taste With Grayson Perry.







No bores allowed









You escaped the afternoon sunshine by a sudden turn into a dark passage and up narrow stairs; you went through a door and into a small crowded room with sickly green walls plastered in paintings and old photographs. The place was always smoky, the carpet always sticky and the clientele always sloshed. A low voice of high camp would greet you with, “Hello cunty!”

This was the famous Colony Room Club, in Soho’s Dean Street, once the capital of British bohemia, whose doors opened in 1948 and shut in 2008. It provided the longest-running, and some would say, the best party in British history — “a bizarre cocktail party, hosted by Jean Genet and Albert Stcptoe”, wrote the satirist Craig Brown. Gossip and insults were exchanged; lifelong friendships were made and broken.

Here a young man could be propositioned by the painter Francis Bacon, insulted by the proprietor Muriel Belcher (that rude greeting above was her catch phrase) or amused by the journalist Jeffrey Bernard. You could catch George Mclly belting out a filthy ditty or hear Joe Strummcr sing White Riot on an acoustic guitar. In the 1950s Dylan Thomas puked up on the floor — in the 1990s a naked Damien Hirst did party tricks with his penis. It was a seedy sanctuary for British outsiders and misfits — the perfect way to waste an afternoon or a life.

The clubs’s long and louche history has now been lovingly commemorated by Colony devotee Sophie Parkin. Her book is a vivid and well-researched account of its origins, personalities, managerial and social bores allowed changes, the feuds and the fights, the highs and the lows. Packed with rare pictures of the place in all its gaudy glory, her book is a love letter to a lost world of British bohemianism.

Why was the Colony so unique and so loved? As Parkin shows, there had been many famous boho clubs and seedy dives in Soho before it opened its doors. But its uniqueness was due to Belcher — its founder and reigning monarch until her death in 1979. She was a bisexual from Birmingham with a cruel tongue and a tender heart.

Britain in the 1950s was still — morally speaking — a pretty puritanical society. You couldn’t get a drink in the afternoon and gay sex was against the law. Belcher created a public space where people could stop pretending to be respectable and normal and just be themselves. She didn’t care if you were gay or a gangster, a dope fiend or a drunk — the only thing that she would not tolerate was a bore.

This gave the Colony a unique social mix. It did not cater to a specific group the way,the Gargoyle Club did for gays or the Cafe Royal did for the bright young things of the 1920s: the Colony made room for everyone. It attracted some of the cream of British artistic and cultural life: EM Forster, Noel Coward, Bacon, Lucian Freud, Damon Albarn, John Cooper Clarke all climbed its narrow stairs. Where else could you find the junkie novelist William Burroughs and the jovial Gyles Brandrcth under one roof? And unlike other Soho clubs of the 1980s and 1990s, nobody talked about their “projects” or their careers — you didn’t go to the Colony to network; you went to disconnect from work and just play.

By taking a chronological approach to the club’s story, Parkin’s book sometimes stumbles into repetition as yet another member from another decade relays their “The first time I went to the Colony, Bacon said to me...” story. She shows that in the 1960s the place was too square for the Beatles and Rolling Stones generation — the social changes that the club had pioneered had left it behind.

At times. Parkin sounds as if she is showing all the sights and stars of boho Britain’s past to a bus load of photo-snapping tourists. Come the 1970s (a fallow period for the club) and she’s struggling to find something interesting to say. But there is plenty of old juicy gossip and scandal and some extremely interesting nuggets for social historians, including Parkin’s claim that it was her mother, Molly Parkin, who was the first person to swear on British television (on Late Night Line-Up in 1964) and not Molly’s fellow Colony member and “spanking fanatic”, the critic Kenneth Tynan in 1965.

And her book is full of funny anecdotes. My favourite is when the cartoonist Michael Heath met Bacon. Bacon was effusive in his praise of Heath, telling him, “You arc the chronicler of our age. Yours is the art that counts... I salute you!” Heath, bursting with pride, moved down the bar — and then heard Bacon turn to a companion and ask, “Who was that cunt?”

To her credit, Parkin makes room for dissenting voices. The journalist Peregrine Worsthorne claimed that it was “an awful place.. . such a squalid room”. The poet Brian Patten once said going to the Colony was “like standing in a small urinal full of fractious old geezers bitching about each other”. Others complained of the malicious humour,I should like to add that I Drink up: above, the actor Tom Baker, standing, back, and Francis Bacon, centre, with Ian Board, in sunglasses, in 1983. Left, the artists Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst in the 1990s and nasty verbal assaults of Belcher and her sidekick and successor Ian Board. It took a brave man or woman to fight back. When Board called the pop singer Neneh Cherry “a fucking black bitch” she fired back with “And you’re a miserable drunken arseholc.”

I should like to add that I went to the Colony in the mid1960s and carried on going there sporadically until its final years; I was never once insulted, propositioned, puked on or punched — on the contrary, I was treated with the utmost courtesy by three generations of bitchy proprietors. What a swindle.

People arc always saying that bohemian Soho isn’t what it used to be. Gaston Bcrlcmont, who ran the French House on Dean Street from 1951 to 1989, complained that Soho wasn’t the same any more because the prostitutes no longer wore white gloves like the “tarts” of old. Bernard said Soho was killed when the advertisers with their mobile phones took over in the 1980s. But Boho Britain isn’t dead — its values of hedonism, tolerance and individual freedom have entered the mainstream; we’re all, whether we like it or not, members of the Colony now.


THE COLONY ROOM CLUB 1948-2008: A History of Bohemian Soho by SOPHIE PARKIN Palmtree £35 pp288 

Available at the Sunday Times Bookshop price of £35  



















Bacon the draughtsman: “Italian drawings” not by him at all





After a two-decade debate that inflamed the artistic scene, Martin Harrisson, chairman of the Francis Bacon catalogue raisonné committee, has refuted the authenticity of six drawings, out of 600 comprised in the collection of Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino, lover of the artist.

According to the expert, the works analysed are mere “pastiches”, and even “parodies” of Bacon’s work. However, Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino pretends to have been his lover from 1976 to 1992 (the year he died) and to have inherited the drawings. Besides, he provided evidence of the drawings’ authenticity with a typed note supposedly signed by Bacon on 2 April 1988: “I left all my drawings to Cristiano Ravarino. I am indebted to him and Italian Renaissance culture… With love.” Even after inquiry, Harrisson strived against the authenticity once again. He found evidence that Bacon was actually in London on 2 April 1988 and could not have written that note. He had it from a friend of Bacon’s who dined with him at the Red Pepper restaurant in Chelsea on that very day.

Bacon’s drawings arouse such interest for he was not known for them: he was no draughtsman, or at least did not complete his works. However, this appearance of 600 drawings owned by Ravarino has provoked doubts and confusion. Most historians and experts state that Bacon drew only occasionally (small sketches), but others – such as Ravarino – claim he also produced larger and more significant drawings. The debate is still inflamed, for the catalogue raisonné presents only few drawings. In 2011, the drawings presented in a Berlin gallery, had not been authenticated as Bacon’s.

Today, Ravarino – who persists in saying he collected the drawings over a fifteen years-long relationship – as well as a number of Italian and British art historians such as Edward Lucie-Smith maintain the drawings are authentic. The Art Newspaper mentions some of these drawings have been shown on occasion of major artistic events, such as the 2009 Venice Biennial. It appears the real answer has not been found yet.






Louche living and hardened livers among

the artists at the Colony Room



As a book about a 1950s artists’ den is published, Rachel Campbell-Johnston

explains why we’ll never see its like again






Whatever happened to all the hell-raisers? This week Sophie Parkin’s history of the Colony Room, the notorious drinking den that had its heyday in the Fifties, is published. Reading the book is a bit like stumbling across some strange adult version of Platform 9¾. One moment you are dodging your way down the pavements of post-war Soho, the next you are diving into a narrow Dean Street doorway, scrambling up a dark flight of stairs and pushing open the door at the top. Beyond lies a parallel universe. Entire lives were lost in this bibulous black hole.

In the Fifties the Colony — a single smoke-fugged room not a lot bigger than a billiard table and much the same colour — was the haunt of some of the most famous post-war painters in Britain: Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach; Michael Andrews and Lucian Freud. It was here, under the auspices of the Colony’s foul-mouthed proprietor Muriel Belcher, that they met their friends and their lovers, their hangers-on and their models. It was here that they bantered, abused each other and banged out their epigrams (“Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends”: Bacon).

Parkin (whose own mother Molly was an eccentric regular and whose father Michael put on the 1982 exhibition Artists of the Colony Room, which confirmed the position of the club in our culture) tells stories that veer from the still-just-about-sober through the scandalous to the downright ridiculous. Her history The Colony Room Club 1948-2008 embraces a cast of characters that ranges from a vomiting Dylan Thomas through an incontinent “Queen of Fitzrovia” Nina Hamnett (nobody cared much to sit on the damp perch that was Nina’s habitual stool) to Princess Margaret, who stopped by to slum it and down a couple of pink gins.

On the other side of that door, said the jazz musician and writer George Melly, “sat the enchanting antidote to the empty studio”. Here was a place where an artist or writer, disinclined to work longer or still extending his previous night’s bender, could find solace in the company of fellow misfits. “Each afternoon was like a bizarre cocktail party hosted by Jean Genet and Albert Steptoe; an extraordinary and inseparable mix of the exotic and down-at-heel,” says the humourist Craig Brown.

It wasn’t everyone’s idea of a good night out, though. “The romance of the place passed me by,” says Brian Patten, the Liverpool poet who dropped in occasionally during the Eighties. “It was a bit like standing in a small urinal full of fractious old geezers bitching about each other.”

In the latter years of its existence the Colony was re-invigorated by the Brit Pack, an anarchic gang of hard-headed hedonists with Damien Hirst as its leader. In the Colony they found a blessed refuge from corporate London, with its bland Blairite ethos, bellowing songs round the clapped-out piano and, when times got hard, taking their turns behind the bar. They stayed together “like some bad circus,” explains the artist Sarah Lucas, “and the more you got up to bad shit, the more people wanted you to behave like that”. It was in the tiny cramped space of the Colony that the Young British Artists found the freedom to be as bad as they liked.

So what happened to the hellraisers? Four years ago, having floundered along under the ever-unsteadier hand of its heroin-addicted barman Michael Wojas, the Colony finally faltered to a close. Its art works were sold, its last members were scattered. But then a squalid drinking den is no place to grow old. The fate of the enfant terrible is either to die prematurely or grow up and, at worst, turn boring. At best, he or she is repackaged as some cultural classic. Hirst, who famously customised the Colony’s bar till with his trademark spots, has long ago cashed in his chips and bought a huge place in the country. His youthful trick of demonstrating his extendable foreskin is recounted as if it was some legend from art history. Tracey Emin has planted herself firmly at the heart of the establishment. These rebels have been rebranded as leaders of culture.

It’s hardly surprising. Everyone moves on. But where are their successors? Should they not be taking their turn to paint London red? Perhaps the problem with the generation that grew up with the entrepreneurial example of the Brit Pack is that their ambitions are as much economic as cultural. Why put in the long, dreary hours as a banker when bohemia has turned out to be equally lucrative? Children who might once have aspired to be engine drivers now set their sights on the art world. Culture is seen as a valid career option.

Which is all very well. But it means there’s no time for slumping about at a bar, spitting expletives into a tumbler of gin. There are investors to be persuaded, a media image to manage. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the nicotine-stained mementoes that once crowded the walls of the Colony.





                                                     The Colony Room bar, festooned with art by the famous and the not-so-famous




Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art”





Piazza Strozzi   October 5, 2012–January 27, 2013




While any attempt at imitating Francis Bacon would irremediably descend into mannerism, this aptly titled exhibition, “Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art,” gestures at artistic lessons that can be gleaned from the twentieth-century master. Curators Franziska Nori and Barbara Dawson juxtapose the work of five contemporary artists with some of Bacon’s more private and unusual works, all rarely exhibited in Italy. The result effectively conveys the artist’s modus operandi: photos cut out and glued together; reproductions of works by Michelangelo or Velázquez, torn from books, onto which Bacon then intervened; snapshots of friends and lovers. It is his anguished weltanschauung, then, that is especially highlighted within the work of the participating artists.

See, for example, the practice of Nathalie Djurberg, who investigates the darker sides of the human mind through her now-famous puppets (which are on view here along with video installations), or the powerful painting of Adrian Ghenie, whose work analyzes this medium as a code, cleverly reinterpreting heterogeneous sources with which he finds his autonomous and contemporary way in painting. Likewise, the syncopated spaces of Chiharu Shiota are invaded by a site-specific installation made of black wool thread interwoven to build an intricate but oppressive web that intercrosses the Eastern calligraphic tradition with the performative lessons of Marina Abramović. 

Arcangelo Sassolino, in a different, disturbing manner, raises the question of the relationship between the work and the viewer, with his bachelor machine, in which a thick steel rope is connected to a hydraulic system that runs the length of the room. Annegret Soltaus’s photocollages, suspended between personal story and collective experience, play off these themes by describing constriction and violence, for instance in N.Y. FACES—surgical operations series, 2001–2002, where the artist collages together images of the September 11 terrorist attacks with pictures of a complex dental operation she had.

These artists open up multiple viewpoints within a pressing, polysemous journey through the apprehensions and lacerations of the human heart. It is a one-way voyage that flings us out from the highly symbolic precincts of art into the neuroses and daily contradictions of life.





                                              Franziska Nori and Barbara Dawson with Turning Figure, 1962, by Francis Bacon




Francis Bacon – Five Decades



                By collating five (and a bit) decades, more than 50 paintings and a history of the artist’s love affairs,

Art Gallery of New South Wales curator Tony Bond delivers languidly intoxicating survey of one of the greats.







A sense of new adventure can be hard to conjure when working with an artist so famed and so often reproduced as widely celebrated Irish-born British painter, Francis Bacon.

Though such an exhibition may not evoke that giddy feeling of nowness and the jolt of discovery, this collection of 50 years of painting (and one rogue extra artwork) comes with a heightened feeling of consolidation, resolve and conclusion. If you haven’t seen a Bacon retrospective in another city, then you haven’t seen such a thorough collection of Bacon’s work up close. If your familiarity with the work has been garnered through jpegs and printed catalogues, then there is a lot to re-learn about the grandeur, detail and materials (such as sand, dust and aerosol applied with such tools as textured fabric) of these painting up close.

Curator and the director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales Tony Bond has compartmentalised this exhibitions into five decades, making Bacon’s career easy to navigate, educational and thoroughly digestible.

Through wall texts, quotes and projections – not to mention books and monitors in the education room – the exhibition groups Bacon’s shifts in technique and fluctuation in palette, giving insights into the inextricable link between life and work, including a revealing focus on Bacon’s almost calendar-regulated lovers. But can a life self-described as chaos really be reduced to 10-year time slots?

Opening with the single exception to the time-specific curatorial regime, Crucifixion from 1933 depicts a splayed carcass hanging in one of Bacon’s recognisable wireframe prisms and is a touchstone to the haunting trajectory to follow. Next, projected up high, is a portion of Soviet Russian Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, depicting a scene of a screaming woman that had a particular impact on Bacon and became a recurring theme in his work.

During the 1950s, Bacon did not have a permanent studio and this echoes in the word. Perhaps to combat the depression and repression of this period in London – represented in this room by moody blues, greys and earth tones (Figure with Meat, 1954) – Bacon regularly visited Morocco, where homosexuality was more tolerated. Perhaps unsurprisingly, while becoming friendly with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, Bacon accomplished little else during these stays.

Concerned with creating new advances in painting, Bacon argued that one cannot use the old techniques to achieve this. Employing high risk, the artist used the back of the canvas, the un-primed surface, where the mark could not be removed and a confidence in the gamble delivers an absolute truth. A wall text reads: “My ideal would really be just to pick up a handful of paint and throw it at the canvas and hope that the portrait was there.”

The 60s saw a particularly fertile period and works often depicting broad colour fields with a central figure. In 1961, the artist took up residency at Reece Mews, the studio he would keep until his death. In ‘63 he met his lover and East End petty criminal George Dyer and painted the many portraits (often from three angles as if police mug shots) of the Soho scene with which he was so famously linked. Bacon’s work, often regarded as cruel and gruesome, here shows a tenderness and sensitivity.

The room depicting the 70s sees more images of eroticised athleticism and several self-portraits, marking a period of critical and commercial success for Bacon but also the suicide of his lover George Dyer on the evening of Bacon’s exhibition at Paris’s Grand Palais. He soon broke his own rules and we witness examples of narrative and depictions of the dead, such as the never before exhibited Seated Figure (1978), showing a profile of Dyer.

The 80s saw a stylistic change and a revisiting of the shadow, this time a fuller, fleshy and blob-like object in itself. Though a certain precision, sophistication and deft drama is evident during this period, the control leaves the works a little less enigmatic and engaging. Like a well-tuned motor vehicle, you receive all the confidence it will arrive at the destination yet no excitement and blood-racing danger of the possibility of failure.

It is hard to discern whether the artist’s life could be so rigidly structured by some kind of astrological 10-year calendar, or if it is Bond who has so convincingly sculpted Bacon’s career into this accessible exhibition. Regardless, its educational value is unarguable. It is the surfaces, textures and three-dimensional materiality of the works that makes forgetting the reproductions and witnessing the actual works so important.

Francis Bacon – Five Decades shows the Art Gallery of New South Wales until February 24, 2013.




                                                           Figure with meat 1974











Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales’ (AGNSW) summer blockbuster, “Francis Bacon: Five Decades,” opened November 17 amidst vociferous demonstrations outside the museum by AGNSW staff facing retrenchment. State Premier Barry O’Farrell, responsible for an AUD 1.2 million budget cut to the museum, was due to open the exhibition but pulled out at the last minute seemingly to avoid a monumental PR blunder. “We were just told he couldn’t make it. No reason was given,” a gallery insider told ArtAsiaPacific.

One of the first things incoming director Michael Brand had to do in his new job was to deal with the impact of this budget cut. The inevitable retrenchments came in earnest when 44 gallery staffers were informed that their jobs were being outsourced and they will no longer be needed starting February. It was a move that is thought to be saving the gallery $500,000 annually.

“Gutless” was a word bandied about by the nearly 200 protestors as the Minister for the Arts, George Souris, opened the show in O’Farrell’s absence.

The exhibition itself is a sensation. This is the first major exhibition of the late British painter Francis Bacon (1909–92) that has been mounted in Australia and the final exhibition to be curated by long-serving and soon to be retired AGNSW director Tony Bond. It took Bond four years to bring together 53 works from 37 lenders that cover five decades of Bacon’s ferocious output, plus a lot of ephemera from Bacon’s studio in the London borough of South Kensington, where for 30 years prior to his death the artist lived and worked in an environment that had the severity of a monastic cell.

Bacon’s actual studio, however, was long ago relocated from South Kensington to be recreated in Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, in the city of Bacon’s birth. Therefore the objects of his studio have come from Dublin and without a doubt have been divested over the years of that intangible and transient quality which made the studio what it was.

A room in the exhibition presents video and photographs showing the original studio before it was carefully and painstakingly taken apart and turned into what one should perhaps call an art theme park. Preserving such spaces after an artist’s death seems ever popular. One can’t but help think of Brancusi’s studio in Paris recreated inside the Pompidou Centre, or more recently in Australia, Margaret Olley’s studio, which is currently en route from her house in Paddington to the north of New South Wales.

In his life, Bacon was uninterested in fame, and were he alive now he would certainly object to the degree of immortality afforded by the re-creation of his studio. This writer was fortunate enough to meet with Bacon at his original studio many years ago, when Bacon spoke of his loathing for those artists, like Henry Moore, who in his view established foundations simply so that their name would live on in perpetuity after death.

One of the last times I saw Bacon was early one weekday afternoon in London. I was working for a newspaper and wanted to secure a profile on him to celebrate his 80th birthday, but he made it clear he wanted nothing to do with it. I bought the most expensive bottle of champagne I could find and hammered for several minutes on the door of 7 Reece Mews, Bacon’s home and studio in South Kensington. There was no reply. Repeated banging on the door brought about the eventual opening of an upper window, and there stood Bacon in a dressing gown, his hair uncharacteristically tousled and his speech lightly slurred. He had obviously just got out of bed and was in no mood to say more than was absolutely necessarily to get rid of me. I explained that this would be my last attempt at persuading him to cooperate over the profile and that I would leave the champagne on the doorstep regardless of his decision. He grumpily shut the window and I left him to it. Four days later I received a charming letter from him saying that he would be more than willing to have the profile written and that we could do an interview any time and thank you very much for the champagne. I have the letter to this day.

Bacon lived an austere life. In 7 Reece Mews, there was a bath in the kitchen, and the only heating in the tiny upstairs living quarters was from the roaring flames of a gas oven. The place was a dreary domestic environment but a powerhouse of creativity. Bacon often said that the studio was his personal creative chaos. The space in which he worked was constantly threatened by the accelerating accumulation of mess—old paint pots and brushes encrusted with thick dry oil paint—that gathered on the fringes of the room.

“Francis Bacon: Five Decades” is a lavish trawl through the artist’s life. The works, with their splashes of abstract color applied by brush or roller, or dabbed directly onto the canvas with pieces of old rag, capture the violent approach the man had to his art. The one drawback is that all the works are exhibited under glass. Although it is well known that Bacon preferred his work to be shown in this way, the wonderful textural quality of each painting is lost among reflections. Even having one’s nose virtually pressed against the glass is no substitute for being in the full presence of the work.

As alluring and captivating as the exhibition is, I am fortunate enough to be able to remember Bacon in the studio where I first encountered him, with its arc of color flooding across the ceiling above the easel, the studio door used as a test bed for color, the solitary electric globe hanging in the middle of the room and the way that he had allowed the passage of time to deliver a mountain of detritus to the Reece Mews space—a space possessed of an energy that no amount of re-creation can or will ever convey.




        Tony Bond speaks at the media preview of “Francis Bacon: Five Decades”.





Bacon’s Hidden History



X-rays of Francis Bacon’s paintings have revealed Nazi figures — and

further research establishes him as a “latter-day history painter”





You can’t be more horrific than life itself,” Francis Bacon would often say, though his art suggests he liked proving otherwise. Bacon grappled with the timeless horrors of the human condition—Margaret Thatcher famously referred to him as “that man who paints those dreadful paintings”—but his work bears the distinct scars of the 1930s and ’40s.

In his new book Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda (Tate Publishing, £19.99), Professor Martin Hammer, lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Art at the University of Kent, attempts to measure the influence of Nazi imagery on the artist’s formative work. Thematically, Nazism is usually taken as more of an undercurrent to than an underpinning of Bacon’s art. Hammer has clearly appreciated the difficulty in proving intention, especially with such an enigmatic personality. 

Because Bacon was not conscripted or recruited as a war artist, he observed the war from the bombed streets around his Chelsea home. This might account not only for his work’s more visceral tone but its similarities with readily available photographs. Man Standing (1942) is dark and eerily reminiscent of Hitler overlooking Prague, captured in a popular press photograph of 1938, and even the geometric composition of Dog (1952) reflects the sprawling Nuremberg rallies

After the revelations about the Holocaust at the Eichmann trial in 1961, the figures in Bacon’s paintings began to adopt unnatural forms. Fascism took on the image of an animalised carcass and the Crucifixion became an analogue for Nazism’s spectacle of cruelty. To Hammer, these pairings open another dimension to Bacon’s work and turn him into a “latter-day history painter”.

Although he was clearly affected by the war and had a reputation of working from photographic sources, Bacon never unambiguously acknowledged a direct line between his paintings and German propaganda. Hammer notes that Bacon preferred that his work “seep through” the viewer organically and without formal explanation, but he highlights paintings such as Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962), where Bacon had admitted to using images of Hitler and Eichmann only subsequently to disavow his words. Bacon also dismissed the inclusion of a red armband in Crucifixion (1965) as a solely aesthetic choice, but Hammer uncovered a clipping from the Sunday Times Magazine tucked away in his studio, showing the streets of Nazi Berlin draped in crimson flags.

Later in his career, Bacon attempted to destroy all the canvases he created before his seminal work, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (c. 1944). Even the triptych played a role in the cover-up, as X-ray imaging of the right panel (above) revealed a figure closely resembling the Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher hidden beneath thick layers of burnt orange paint. Hammer’s Bacon is a purposefully elusive man keen on hiding his tracks.




       Man Standing was based on a photograph of Adolf Hitler looking out from an upper window at Hradčany Castle, Prague, on 15th March 1939.




Sydney: Curator Margarita Cappock’s take on artist Francis Bacon





The Art Gallery of New South Wales is currently hosting the exhibition Francis Bacon: Five Decades. We ask Margarita Cappock, curator of the Bacon archive at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane for her take on the late, great master of postwar British painting.

Francis Bacon’s Reece Mews studio was donated then relocated from London to Dublin, what a logistical nightmare. It was a mammoth task. The team comprised archaeologists who made drawings of the studio, mapping out the spaces and locations of the objects, and conservators and curators who tagged and packed the items, including the dust from the studio. The walls, doors, floor and ceiling were also removed. 

Any surprise discoveries? 

Cut-out arrows with thick deposits of paint imply that Bacon used these to paint around or imprint their shape directly onto the canvas. Small arrows first appear in Bacon’s paintings in the late 1940s. Several pairs of thick corduroy trousers were also found cut up into pieces and covered in paint. The imprint of corduroy can be seen in works from the late 1950s onwards. He also used cashmere sweaters, ribbed socks, cotton flannels and towelling dressing gowns to create tactile effects. 

Bacon allowed only close friends to visit his studio. What would he have made of it being open to the public? Bacon’s heir, John Edwards, who presented the studio to Dublin, said, “A little corner of South Kensington moved to Ireland, his birthplace… I think it would have made him roar with laughter.” 

As a painter, why was he so fascinated by photos? 

He relied on them to help achieve a likeness of a sitter, but his manipulations of them were even more significant. His highly distinctive editing and engagement with the image is apparent in folds, creases and tears. Distorted images appealed to him.

Was he the first painter to truly understand the power of photography? 

The last thing he wanted was for his work to be photographic. While he did not rate it as an art form, photographs often triggered ideas. He was also aware that the artist could not compete with photography and needed to do something entirely different. 

Why did Bacon prefer to use close friends as subjects? 

He was reluctant to paint those with whom he was unfamiliar. A need to know the sitter or to have an involvement with them was essential for the work to be successful. Some of his finest works, such as his paintings of his lover, George Dyer, are testament to this.

Why did Bacon never fully acknowledge painter Roy de Maistre’s influence? 

He and de Maistre were very close for a time and worked alongside each other. As the younger artist, Bacon learnt a lot from de Maistre. By 1938, both had begun to collect newspaper photographs as the starting point for works. I think that a perceived dependence on another placed Bacon in an awkward position and, for this reason, he downplayed it. Bacon was as influenced by a cheap magazine as a Velázquez. Did he aim to overturn hierarchies? His approach to imagery was dynamic and non-hierarchical, yet certain subjects were more likely to stimulate: art, sport, crime, history, photography, cinema, wildlife, medicine and parapsychology. His art was partly motivated by the breaking or modifying of associations. Thus a motif could be made more truly his own or, as he preferred it, divested of narrative baggage.

What did the studio contain? 

Approximately 570 books and catalogues, 1500 photographs, 100 slashed canvases, 1300 leaves torn from books, 2000 artist’s materials and 70 drawings. Also, artist’s correspondence, magazines, newspapers and vinyl records.

Francis Bacon: Five Decades, Art Gallery of New South Wales, until February 24, 2013.





Not a Bacon, expert tells court:


The debate around Bacons drawings continues


The chairman of the artist’s catalogue raisonné committee dismisses

controversial drawings as “pastiches” in UK bankruptcy hearing





The Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné Committee has given its first public response on the authenticity of some of the hundreds of drawings that have surfaced in Italy. There has been a long-running controversy over the works, which began to appear on the market in the 1990s, but art historians have felt inhibited about commenting on them (The Art Newspaper, December 2011, p9).

The committee chairman Martin Harrison’s response came in the form of evidence presented in a UK bankruptcy hearing at Cambridge County Court. In a written statement, he dismissed the few works he had examined as “pastiches”. He also gave verbal evidence to the court on 29 May.

According to Harrison, the total number of drawings connected with Bologna-based Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino is now said to be “in excess of 600”. Ravarino says that he was Bacon’s lover from 1976 until the artist’s death in 1992 and that this is how he has the drawings.

Harrison stated that six drawings were submitted to the Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné Committee in October 2007. He said that they “bore no resemblance to the relatively few drawings securely attributed to Francis Bacon”. Harrison added that a committee member had told him that “the probable source of the drawings was likely to have been Cristiano Ravarino”.

The committee concluded unanimously that the six works were “not Francis Bacon drawings”. In his statement, Harrison explained: “Stylistically the drawings did not stand up to scrutiny. They appeared to quote from subjects associated with Bacon, but superficially and incoherently. They were pastiches, or even parodies, and profoundly disrespectful of Bacon’s authentic body of work.”

Harrison said that two further drawings were submitted by a Berlin gallery to the committee in October 2011. The director of Werkstattgalerie confirmed that the gallery had sought authentication, but had been told that the drawings were not by Bacon.

Harrison wrote in his statement that he has been “in contact with Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino and with other associates of his who are now connected with these drawings”.

Harrison stated that Ravarino had earlier given as evidence of how he acquired the drawings a note typed on Ravarino’s own typewriter and “allegedly signed” by Bacon on 2 April 1988. Harrison then quoted from this note said to be from Bacon: “I left all my drawings to Cristiano Ravarino. I am indebted to him and Italian renaissance culture… With love.”

After further investigations, Harrison said he found evidence that Bacon had been in London on 2 April 1988. He said that he had evidence from a friend of Bacon who would be willing to testify that he had dined in the Red Pepper restaurant in Chelsea on that date.

The witness statement by Harrison concluded: “Neither I nor the committee has yet been satisfied that any of the drawings emanating from Mr Ravarino were under the hand of Francis Bacon.”

In his verbal evidence, Harrison told the court that Bacon “certainly did not draw”, in the sense of making finished drawings. Harrison questioned the idea that Bacon “suddenly makes over 600 [drawings], in the 1980s, a total higher than the total number of paintings that are left by him”.

The Art Newspaper asked Ravarino and his Bologna lawyer, Umberto Guerini, to comment on Harrison’s statements. We received a response from Millbank Solicitors, the London firm that represents Ravarino. Millbank did not wish to comment, but our understanding is that there are fundamental differences of opinion between Ravarino and Harrison on the authenticity of the drawings and on many factual matters.

Ravarino told us earlier that Bacon fell in love with him in 1976. A relationship then developed and Ravarino said that the hundreds of drawings were given to him over a 15-year period. Ravarino has said that extensive technical evidence backs up his case for authenticity.

An earlier legal case over the drawings was initiated against Ravarino in Bologna, and in 2005, the Italian judge Norberto Lenzi absolved Ravarino of one charge and ruled against proceeding with two other charges. Ravarino and his lawyer, Umberto Guerini, have stated that the Bologna court determined that “no one can say that Francis Bacon’s drawings owned by Cristiano Ravarino are fakes”.

Drawings believed to have emanated from Ravarino were shown during the Venice Biennale in 2009. Shows have since been held in Zurich, Milan, Buenos Aires, Evora (Portugal), Cento (near Ferrara) and Prague.




Francis Bacon, metaphysician


A new book considers the theological dimensions of the artist’s painting






A cartoon illustrating a review of one of Francis Bacon’s early exhibitions showed people going in one door of a gallery and coming out another, being sick. Kenneth Clark, on the other hand, stood in front of Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, and observed, “What interesting times we live in”, before walking off. Bacon was a self-confessed atheist and cheerful nihilist. At the same time he was clearly fascinated by the theme of crucifixion and often used the triptych format familiar in medieval altarpieces. Is it possible to read him against the grain, through a theological lens? Rina Arya thinks so and, in this thoroughly researched, thoughtful and beautifully illustrated book, she argues that Bacon holds up the mirror to our age and, despite himself, raises all kinds of metaphysical questions. I agree, and in taking students to the Tate Triptych for more than 20 years, have consistently found that they want to read him in this way. If they are representative, then this book will help people read and understand Bacon in ways that his art seems naturally to prompt—though it will not lessen the shock.

The book begins by putting Bacon in context. Several fine biographies do that, of course, but it is essential to Arya’s argument. She highlights the themes of conflict and marginalisation, but what also emerges in her account is Bacon’s intelligence—the fact that, contrary to the image he liked to cultivate, he thought deeply about art, and was seeking an identity of image and form in a much more coherent way than the action painting of the same time. She continues this exploration by relating Bacon’s work to the “death of God” discussion of the 1960s, and to certain kinds of existentialism. The box or frame structure that Bacon often uses speaks of the individual isolated and enclosed, the victim of angst, as in the Man in Blue series of 1954. She quotes Donald Kuspit, who felt that Bacon’s figures were “sick with death… diseased with the leprosy of loneliness”. That description seems to me to apply to much pre-Raphaelite art, but not to Bacon, whose art is the most visceral in the Western canon, raw and bleeding, but not sick with death. As he himself put it, it gives voice to the “primal human cry”.

A series of chapters then consider Bacon’s use of the crucifixion motif, his popes, his triptychs and his accounts of the human body. In all these, pain is at the forefront. In the Crucifixions we have, as Arya rightly says, a post-Holocaust statement of humanity, in which we are complicit in the act itself (as we were, of course, for Bosch and Rembrandt). The violence of his depictions, Arya argues, takes us back to the original violence of the crucifixion and therefore renews the power of the symbol, which is sanitised by its use in jewellery, in church furniture and in much Christian art as well. Ironically, she says, Bacon sacralises the theological significance of the Cross.

Bacon’s commentary on Velázquez’s  portrait of Innocent X is to make it an image of the 20th-century Scream, in Arya’s view rehumanising the papal figure, showing him as anxious, inarticulate, fearful and intemperate. All symbols are polyvalent, and I read both Velázquez’s and Bacon’s images as primarily about power, both equally, though in different ways, about the way power corrupts and dehumanises.

The brutality of fact, of which Bacon spoke to David Sylvester, is most evident in his account of the human body. Of course, Bacon’s bodies are anything but factual, neither are they, as Deleuze described them, “bodies without organs”. They seem to convey that horror of the viscous of which Sartre spoke in L’Ĕtre et Nėant. Often barely recognisable, often more about guts than about bodies, they seem to paint disgust, although we know from his interviews that Bacon did in fact admire at least the male human body. What is missing in all Bacon’s art is any sense of redemption, any notion of kindness or gentleness.

Arya concludes by arguing that Bacon crucifies religion only to redeem it, but I feel rather that what we have in his paintings is, as Karl Barth once said of Ecclesiastes, “the sharpest expression of what it means to live without God”. She even goes so far as to claim that Bacon could be considered a Catholic artist because of the emphasis he puts on the sensuous body. But for that to be the case, there would need to be a glimmer of redemption, and that seems to me to be completely absent.

This is a deeply worthwhile and interesting study of one of the 20th century’s most important painters. Neither atheists nor believers are likely to agree with all of Arya’s claims, but she nevertheless raises questions that arise from the art itself, and which take us right to the heart of the way in which art speaks for and to the present, says what words are incapable of saying, and interrogates and critiques our comfortable certainties and platitudes—even if John Berger is ultimately right that at heart Bacon was a conformist. If he was a conformist he was a conformist in terrible pain, and it is that which continues to speak to us in his art.

Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World, Rina Arya, Lund Humphries, 176pp, £40 (hb)






Francis Bacon: five decades




This major exhibition marks the 20th anniversary of the British painter’s death, and

features more than 50 works, gathered from 37 institutions and private lenders






The screaming figures, hellish papal thrones, crucifixions, and distorted lovers of British artist Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992) are confronting, inspiring a deep sense of disquiet. Certainly, Bacon’s work is emotionally challenging. This is no accident. Bacon wants to have a direct impact on your nervous system.

Francis Bacon: five decades is the first major exhibition of its kind in Australia, and marks the 20th anniversary of Bacon’s death. It features more than 50 works, gathered from 37 institutions and private lenders, and is supported by numerous photographs, ephemera, and video productions. Considering the high value of his work and the breadth of the exhibition, the effort on the part of Art Gallery of New South Wales in mounting this exhibition is tremendous.

As per the title, the exhibition is organised in a sequence of five decades, progressing from room to room, decade to decade, from the destruction and devastation of the war years in the 1940s through to the more affluent 1980s.

In Head II, a thick impasto is built slowly, over time, creating a relief-like surface within the painting. A sense of movement and direction is pierced into the paint, complete with protruding teeth, and an ear emerging from within the mass: a kind of a birthing process rendered in muted colours.

On another wall, faces move away from gaping mouths and turn into shadowy figures, their changeable forms set within frames and caged boundaries. Some figures are in twos, possibly in a loving embrace, possibly fighting – perhaps evidence of the inspiration Bacon took from the works of Eadweard Muybridge, an English photographer interested in studies of motion; Bacon was said to have observed ‘a slippage of violence and eroticism in Muybridge’s wrestling figures’

Bacon often employed photographs of his models as an aide in the painting process. He liked being left alone, without the subject’s presence. As part of the exhibition, a number of Bacon’s photographs are on display, folded and creased, in multiple exposures. Elsewhere, the exhibition includes Bacon’s books on Velasquez, Michelangelo, Raphael and Courbet.

Velasquez was known for modifying paint by adding other substances to it, such as glass, creating very specific effects. Progressively through the years, Bacon adds different materials to his paint, such as sand and chalk, to modify the medium’s consistency. He varies the amount of pigment to oil to create a variety of textures: the density and shine of black oily tar, the graininess of asphalt, marrying these with a sensitive and knowing application across the weave of raw canvas

Over the decades, Bacon’s paintings become progressively more colourful, focusing the subject in the middle of the canvas, with broad sweeping areas of clean beautiful colour. Tenderness and affection becomes more evident, particularly so in Three Studies for Self Portrait.

The paintings in the exhibition are under glass and allow for close inspection and observation. Your reviewer may not be a Bacon devotee entirely; however I have found a new and deep appreciation for his understanding, exploration and application of paint. I have found myself excited and exhilarated by the possibilities and playfulness of it, intrigued by his many and varied means of applying paint to the canvas.

My affection for Bacon is brought on by his Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh IV, in which he depicts Van Gogh as a Van Gogh reaper, utilising an entirely different palette, and an entirely different means of applying paint. In effect, he is reflecting his subject in depiction, as well as the materiality of his paint

One can never become entirely familiar with an artist’s work by examining reproductions of their work; the trouble with photographs is that they are not paintings. To truly appreciate a painting, one must see it in the flesh.


Francis Bacon: five decades   Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney   17 November 2012 – 24 February 2013








Art show reveal Francis Bacon’s genius





AS the cranky old lion of British modern painting, Francis Bacon was fiercely protective of his lair the crazily chaotic London studio, where admission was barred to all but a handful of trusted friend.

But a privileged insight into the London studio awaits visitors to the blockbuster exhibition Francis Bacon: Five Decades, which opens today at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Apart from five gallery rooms full of Bacon’s paintings, many of them large-scale, the exhibition offers the chance to see a selection of the 7500 items of ephemera that Bacon left in his studio when he died in 1992.

Scholars placed so much importance on the ankle-deep studio detritus that they employed a team of archaeologists to grid up the studio like a dig site and remove the items one by one.

Everything they removed was individually photographed, described, numbered and catalogued.

The items were packed into boxes for placement in an exact recreation of the studio at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, in the city where Bacon was born.

The woman who opened the boxes was Dr Margarita Cappock, head of collections at the Dublin gallery.

"Opening the boxes was amazing because you would get this really distinct smell from the studio of pigment and dust," Dr Cappock said yesterday.

Even the floorboards and walls were removed and shipped to Dublin.

"Bacon used the walls as an extended palette," Dr Cappock said.

The Bacon exhibition was five years in the making by Tony Bond, director, curatorial at the AGNSW, whose retirement early next year was a surprise announcement at yesterday’s exhibition unveiling. "Where can you go after Bacon?" Bond said.

He is planning to write a book on the international contemporary collection, which he built up over almost 30 years at the gallery.

The gallery has to save $1.9 million over three years and eight applications for voluntary redundancies had been accepted, a spokeswoman said.



         Dr Margarita Cappock, who is curator of Bacon’s recreated studio in Dublin


Francis Bacon



A room with no view






Danny Boyle declined to mine it in his opening ceremony at the London Olympics – and you can’t really blame him – but we who know and love British culture should never forget the subterranean seam that runs from Philip Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’ to Francis Bacon’s heroically ignoble figures sitting under bare light bulbs – desperate, thwarted and outrageously misused.

Mr Bleaney’s room – “bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook / Behind the door” – is one of the most naked, desolate places in English literature, right up there with the storm-assaulted heath in King Lear. It is where Larkin imagines how the late Mr Bleaney


 lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better


This very English room is, of course, the same room in which Eleanor Rigby sat by the window, “wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door”. It is the room in which Harold Pinter set The Caretaker. And it is the room, you feel sure, that Pink Floyd had in mind as a setting when they sang of “hanging on in quiet desperation” as “the English way”.

Bacon’s achievement was to make of English desperation a universal phenomenon (though born in Ireland, Bacon certainly qualifies as English by inclination). This was no mean feat, since there is so much about English desperation that is very specifically English. Think of it and you instantly see the fading wallpaper, the claustrophobic cosiness that long ago turned to clutter and shabbiness, the used teabags waiting to be used again. It’s very different from, say, the American loneliness of Edward Hopper, whose every agoraphobic picture contains an implication – if not an actual rendering – of vast skies and limitless westward expansion.

Bacon (who died in 1992, aged 82) made the leap into universality by transforming English desperation into a form of modernist theatre. His images read like stage sets, arenas, amphitheatres of human anguish. They naturally put people in mind of Sartre and Beckett. But Bacon’s theatrical approach was not entirely adopted from literature. Before him, there was already a strong connection between theatre and painting in English art.

From the 18th century on, it was common practice for British artists to depict scenes from contemporary plays. And in the early 20th century, Walter Sickert, the grandfather of Britain’s postwar figurative artists (Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, and Bacon) added a dash of sensation to this theatrical tradition when he painted his Camden Town nudes. These paintings, which employed a pseudo-Impressionist idiom to depict subject matter straight out of a sensational realist novel or play, took their frisson from an infamous murder. (They also influenced, via Bacon, a series of paintings about the London sex murderer John Christie by Brett Whiteley, who was a friend of Bacon’s.)

But Sickert’s rooms were still narrowly English. They were the same kinds of rooms Larkin described in ‘Mr Bleaney’. Bacon’s rooms look different: they look modern.

In many ways, Bacon was the first major British artist to be modern by birth. The modernism of his predecessors, artists like Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, was only skin deep. They were intellectual converts to modernism, who remained bound by the sentimental conventions of English humanism.

Radical by temperament, Bacon spent crucial time during his formative years in Berlin and Paris. He didn’t feel the need to be modernism’s village explainer back home. And from the outset, the French ‘got’ him, just as they ‘got’ Constable before he was properly appreciated in England. They recognised the currents Bacon drew on – the psychic violence that had fascinated Picasso and the Surrealists in the 1920s and ’30s; and then, of course, the postwar existentialism of Camus, Sartre and, in art, Giacometti.

As a modernist, Bacon knew the value of emphatic contrast. No close-toned browns or pastel hues for him. No post-Impressionist, anglicised approximations. In his great period, which was relatively brief (roughly 1962–76), the most forceful, telling contrast in his paintings is between the bleeding, boneless figures, with their pummelled faces and dislocated limbs, and the bright, clean geometric backgrounds.

The colours in these backgrounds are a key to his entire achievement. They are sumptuous, rich, expansive and – in an utterly modern, post-industrial way – arbitrary. They somehow suggest purchased luxuries, plastic commodities, or the rows of unreal undergarments in Larkin’s ‘The Large Cool Store’: “lemon, sapphire, moss-green, rose” – a theatrical and purely artificial vision, “natureless in ecstasies”.

Bacon began, don’t forget, as a modernist designer of furniture, rugs and other household accoutrements. (Patrick White owned furniture he designed.) He had an insider’s take, then, on the modernist design dream, and he incorporated this dream into the backgrounds of his paintings. But he pointed it up as a travesty. The dream of a boxy, clean-lined architecture that could be light, open and integrated with nature, that could bring human beings into harmony with modern life, was a joke, a lie. Instead, inside those trim, economical spaces with their saturated colours – “natureless in ecstasies” – he demonstrated that man remains incongruous, a misfit, rent by impossible contradictions, insoluble problems.

Not the least of which, of course, is death. Death, loping along in our wake. Death, looming up ahead. Death, the counter-utopia, the mocker of modernist dreaming.

A lifelong fan of TS Eliot, Bacon loved ‘Sweeney Agonistes’ and its famous lines:

Birth, and copulation, and death.
That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth, and copulation, and death.

It chimed with his own insistence on “the brutality of fact”. Bacon’s rhetoric – and he was a wonderful apologist for his own work – insisted that his painting should avoid at all costs the tedium of “illustration”. He claimed to detest the idea of storytelling. (“I don’t want to tell a story,” he told Melvyn Bragg. “I’ve no story to tell.”) Instead, he wanted his paintings to hit “the nervous system” as directly as possible, without having to turn into a “long diatribe” in the brain.

“Modern man,” he said, after Paul Valéry, “wants sensation without the boredom of its conveyance.” (The claim was not just insightful, but prescient. How better to describe ourselves at present, in this era of touch screens and endlessly mediated experience?)

The emphasis on “sensation” might hark back to Cezanne and his “petites sensations”; but it also points forward to the Sensation generation of Young British Artists, such as Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing and Tracey Emin – all three masters of contemporary theatre, specialists in sensation.

Hirst’s dead animals in transparent vitrines are openly in Bacon’s debt. Wearing’s masks and handheld signs (the businessman holding up the “I’m desperate” sign – Larkin again) and Emin’s mussed-up bed, which functions as a stand-in for trauma and psychic disorder, surely are too.

With Bacon’s successful work, you feel a rush, as you do in front of good theatre: the lumbering mechanics are forgotten, the focus is all on the action. This is the Bacon it feels good to remember – at his best, easily one of the 20thcentury’s most exciting painters.

And yet, without filtering his achievement pretty strenuously, you tend to be assailed by doubts. In spite of his rhetoric, the paintings are littered with props – with teasing arrows, ashtrays, light switches, sinks, beds, syringes, swastikas – all of them coyly involved in games of storytelling. And his drawing, outside the gyroscopic excitements of his subjects’ faces and flesh, frequently feels flatly descriptive – exactly like illustration.

“You see,” Bacon once said, “all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself … and what is fascinating now is that it’s going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to be any good at all.”

By the last decade of his life, and perhaps earlier, he had plainly lost the ability to deepen the game. Art had become for him a game in the worst sense – an activity missing the one quality it needs: conviction. In his 1985 South Bank Show interviews with Bragg, he looks thoroughly exhausted.

He is absolutely charming, of course, and frequently funny – you laugh aloud at his unapologetic description of Jackson Pollock’s work as “bits of old lace” and Mark Rothko’s as “the most dreary paintings that have ever been made”. But the whole thing is a pose, a performance, and there is something clown-like about it, as if Bacon had been cast as both jester and philosopher and found himself, for the umpteenth time, alone on the stage, forgetting his lines.

He was drunk in the final part of the Bragg interviews. As I watched them again on YouTube, it occurred to me that Bacon was not just a great painter of sex and of death and of existential solitude and all those other large themes. He was the 20th century’s great painter of the state of drunkenness. The sensation of drunkenness. The slur and blur, the head-spins, the retching, the wretchedness. And the aftermath, too, with its unexpected delicacy and heightened receptiveness, the “slight remove from fact, which returns me onto the fact more violently” (something he actually said about photography).

All this relates, of course, to the existentialist idea of ‘nausea’. But in the hands of philosophers (particularly French philosophers) these things too quickly become abstract. At its best Bacon’s painting is not just visceral – it’s specific, it’s empirical.

‘Francis Bacon: Five Decades’ opens at the Art Gallery of NSW on 17 November.







Artists look past the man to see many sides of Bacon




Leading lights tell Steve Dow how they see the great painter’s work




Does Francis Bacon’s life story matter? Prominent Sydney artists say his ideas still wield a strong influence but the viewer’s physical "sensation" when seeing his art is more important than the Irish-born painter’s biography.

Twenty years after Bacon’s death, as a retrospective of more than 50 of his paintings opens at the Art Gallery of NSW on Saturday, readings of his output vary widely

Bacon "made paintings less about the unconscious and more about the psychology of humanity", says painter Ben Quilty, a lone voice with this view as he toured the exhibition on Thursday. ''Painting must have been a very cathartic thing and he faced a lot of loss in his life … lovers and friends who died young in tragic circumstances. In some ways, being meditative by making work about that experience is very helpful.''

Quilty, 39, who won last year’s Archibald Prize and went to Afghanistan as an official war artist, gives an essentially psychological and biographical reading of Bacon’s subjects such as the crucifixion of Jesus, death by electric chair, serial killings and screaming human forms.

''The subject matter doesn’t get much darker. Comparing him as a painter to a philosopher, in some way trying to understand behaviour, was a part of his practice,'' Quilty says. ''By making a form of the psychology that goes into making someone do something so horrendous to another person, even if you’re trying to subconsciously understand that part of humanity, you’re trying to understand yourself.''

Social conservatives often volubly refuse to understand the artist who unsettles the psyche through innovation. Margaret Thatcher called Bacon ''that man who paints those dreadful pictures''. More recently, former prime minister Kevin Rudd labelled as ''absolutely revolting'' Bill Henson’s photographs of naked pre-pubescents. ''I noticed a little link there,'' Quilty says.

But Bacon distanced himself from any psychological reading of his work, insists Julie Rrap, an artist who works with installations, photography and sculpture. ''He thought it was too obvious a reading to write his work off as some sort of cathartic expression of action,'' says Rrap, 62. ''He talked about this whole idea of trying to represent sensation. In saying he wants to paint the scream, not the horror of it, he’s trying to get some sort of feeling across without being specific about it.

''He was trying to say, 'This is not about me or my state of being; this is about me using the medium I have to allow other people to have a sensation and response'.''

Painter and installation artist Anthony Lister, well known for his street art, found Bacon through the late Sydney artist Brett Whiteley, whose canvases painted as early as the 1960s in London owed a great deal to Bacon’s figurative style.

''It’s hard not to be influenced by an awesome alcoholic who keeps his studio in such clean order,'' quips Lister, 33. ''I consider Bacon an adventure painter. He had a keen eye and an adventurous spirit. Some of his paintings were completely gruesome; some of them were completely awful; it has a [Francisco de] Goya streak to it. But it’s also the opposite to Goya, where there were narratives.

''Bacon really just spewed out what was inside him. He took a piece of a puzzle and carried it on. I like that he wasn’t into narratives; it gives his work this ambiguous, find-it-yourself equation.''

Exhibition-goers should eschew ''the usual reading of overt violence and morbidity'', says sculptor, installation and performance artist Ken Unsworth. Bacon was all about ''that essential mystery within the folds of life itself - that has echoes in what I intuitively lean towards or try to engage with in my own work''.

Focusing on Bacon’s life in his paintings ''short-circuits the imaginative ways you can interpret the work''. The public should abandon psychological readings.

''His psychology I see more as a psychosis,'' says Unsworth, 81, who will compare Bacon to contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Lucian Freud in the first of several artist talks planned for Art After Hours during the exhibition.

''Picasso was more intellectual and more interested in formal constructs and developing new languages and new forms, while Freud was more interested in the truths and history of the human body and approached that in a very forensic but nevertheless aesthetically beautiful way.

''Bacon was more of the inner-self and the inner-life … [He was] solely interested in the figure and being able to create the sort of dilemmas of the human condition in a very voluble, personal way.''

Francis Bacon: Five Decades is at the Art Gallery of NSW from Saturday to February 24.

Steve Dow is an arts writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.





                                                    Cathartic ... Ben Quilty with Crucifixion 1933 at the Art Gallery of NSW.






Bacon’s scream of existential angst

sells for a chilling £19m






The Francis Bacon masterpiece that appeared before a crowded auction house in New York was advertised as the “anguished epitome of humanity’s excruciating scream”.

An anonymous bidder has just paid nearly $30 million (E19 million) for the artist’s- 1954 portrait of a shrieking pope, proving once again that existential terror is an extremely popular subject in the present art market.

While Impressionist works have drawn less frenzied bidding, Edvard Munch’s pastel work The Scream, which broke records when it sold for $120 million at Sotheby’s six months ago, is now drawing crowds at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Bacon’s work was billed almost as a successor to that image from the previous century, compared in the catalogue, to Pablo Picasso’s nightmarish Guernica. One of a series of “screaming pope” paintings modelled after Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope innocent X, it went on sale alongside postwar abstract works by Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in an auction that raised a total of $375 million, a record for Sotheby’s.

A large Rothko abstract, No.i (Royal Red and Blue), which stands over 9ft high, commanded the highest price of all, selling for $75.1 million. The previous owners, John Marion and his wife, Anne, an oil heiress, had apparently expected the work to sell for about $50 million, but a bidding war erupted between Eve hopeful buyers.    

In the event, a Sotheby’s specialist who generally deals with North American customers took the winning bid over the telephone. The price remained shy of a record for a Rothko — $86.8 million — which was set at Christie’s four months ago.

Jackson Pollock’s Number 4,1951, a canvas bearing shades of grey overlaid with dripped blues and trails of yellow, sold for $40.4 million, nearly double the previous record for the artist. The same telephone bidder also paid $19.6 million for de Kooning’s Abstraction, according to The Wall Street Journal. Three works by Andy Warhol brought in more than $40 million.

Presiding over these sales was Tobias Meyer, a flamboyant auctioneer who has compared managing a heated bidding war to surfing a wave or driving a Formula One race car. “This has been an extraordinary year for contemporary art at Sotheby’s,” he said. “Tonight’s record results bring our 2012 total to well over $1 billion.”

Bacon’s image of a shrieking pope last appeared on the art market in 1975 at Sotheby’s in London, where it sold for $71,500. In an interview two years earlier, the artist had described the famous work by Velazquez and how he had become “haunted and obsessed by the image ... it’s perfection.”

Velazquez was credited with taking a courtly portrait and imbuing his grand subject with human frailty. Bacon returned to the image again and again, recasting it as a portrait of horror after the carnage of the Second World War.

Pursued by several hopeful buyers at the auction on Tuesday night, it sold to a Spanish-speaking telephone bidder for $29.7 million.




       Bacon was “haunted and obsessed” and returned to the image again and again






Francis Bacon’s screaming Pope helps Sotheby’s set £236m record







A Francis Bacon masterpiece has sold for £18.7 million in New York — capping a record auction for contemporary art.

The late British artist’s Untitled (Pope) 1954, depicting a shrieking pontiff, soared above its high estimate of $25 million (£15.7 million).

It went for almost $30 million to an anonymous buyer following a fierce bidding war at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art auction at its Manhattan headquarters last night.

The sale fetched a total of £236.3 million — smashing the record for the highest total spent at a Sotheby’s auction.

The record for a Bacon work remains the £43 million reputedly paid by Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich for his Triptych (1976).

Alex Rotter, head of Sotheby’s New York contemporary art department, said: “The Bacon painting was pursued by multiple bidders, who saw the quality and the rarity of the picture.

“When an iconic work comes up at an auction, people come out of the woodwork and pursue it.” Another Bacon picture, a portrait of painter and designer Isabel Rawsthorne from 1967, sold for £5.8 million.

Top lot of the evening belonged to Mark Rothko, whose 1954 painting No.1 (Royal Red and Blue) went under the hammer for £47.3 million. It was being sold from the collection of financier Sidney Kohl and his wife Dorothy.

Among the new artist records to be set were for abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, whose 1951 drip painting Number 4 fetched £25.5 million, and Franz Kline, whose 1956 painting Shenandoah went for £5.8 million. Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s principal auctioneer and worldwide head of contemporary art, said: “The art market is alive, happy and well.

“Tonight was as good as it gets for Sotheby’s. We couldn’t be more thrilled. The sale was an ode to quality.”

Other British artists whose works sold last night included Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor and Glenn Brown.

Seven pictures by Andy Warhol were sold — with the most lucrative being his 1964 silkscreen print Suicide, which fetched £10.2 million.




                   Quality and rarity: Francis Bacon’s Untitled (Pope) 1954








  Contemporary Art Evening Auction



  New York | 13 November 2012 | N08900 | Lot 26







  Francis Bacon









Estimate: 18,000,000 - 25,000,000 USD   LOT SOLD: 29,762,500 USD

oil on canvas
59 7/8 x 37 in. 152 x 94 cm.
Executed circa 1954.

This work will be included in the forthcoming Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné, being prepared by The Estate of Francis Bacon and edited by Martin Harrison.



Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris
Galleria Galatea, Turin
Galerie Krugier, Geneva
Private Collection, Geneva
Sotheby Parke Bernet & Co., London, December 4,1975, Lot 238
Acquired by the present owner from the above



Geneva, Musée Rath, Musées d’Art et d’Histoire de Geneva , L’Art XXe Siècle dans les Collections Genevoises, June - September 1973, cat. no. 176, p. 164, illustrated



Monelle Hayot, "Marché de l’art: Artistes contemporains britanniques," L’Oeil, nos. 270-271, Paris, January - February 1978, p. 83, illustrated


Catalogue Note

“Terror and atrocious suffering make the mouth an organ of searing screams.”
Georges Bataille, ‘Dictionnaire – Bouche’, Documents, No. 5, 1930, pp. 298-99

“Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact, what we know of our existence….tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time.”
Francis Bacon interviewed by Hugh Davies, June 26, 1973, in Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York, 1986, p. 110

“Consciousness of mortality sharpens one’s sense of existing.”
Francis Bacon interviewed by Hugh M. Davies in 1973, in Martin Harrison, ed., Francis Bacon: New Studies, Göttingen, 2009, p. 96

It is perhaps the most singularly devastating personification in figural art of the post-war period. It is a vision so universal and immediate that it threatens to traverse the threshold between viewer and object, simultaneously leaping into our domain and sucking us into its own. It is an unrepeatable image, borne specifically of its time and of the unique experiences of its creator, yet stands as an allegory for perpetuity. Emerging from the desolate shadows of the Second World War and its abject annihilation of over fifty million souls, a Pope looms forth from the depths of Francis Bacon’s formidable genius and draws near, into our focus. The Vicar of Christ, Successor of Saint Peter and God’s temporal representative on earth; this Supreme Pontiff has transmogrified into a chimera of awesome terror. It has become the anguished epitome of humanity’s excruciating scream: deafening to our collective interior, yet silent in the existential void. Encaged within insufferable isolation, this Pope – totem of enlightened perception, of authoritative faith, of order against chaos – is violently racked by the brutal fact of the human condition. It is the proposition of a world turned upside down, of established systems shattered, and, as such, is the perfect response to Theodor Adorno’s legendary 1951 axiom “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” Having remained in the same private collection for over thirty years and hidden from public view, this painting embodies, of course, Bacon’s most celebrated and recognizable iconography. Even more than this, as a Pope it crystallizes a thunderous climax in the long arc of that elusive and indefinable engine of innovation known as artistic genius. Within the Twentieth Century, perhaps only Picasso’s Guernica, with its monumental, monochrome nightmare apparition of a Nativity scene being torn apart by massacre, parallels the impossible figurative potency of Bacon’s Screaming Popes.

The phenomenal specter of papal imagery and its inspiration had seeped into Bacon’s work since the end of the 1940s, but the present painting is more precisely allied to his most revered cycle of Popes; the eight Study for Portraits that were executed in the summer of 1953 for his first exhibition outside England, at Durlacher Brothers Gallery in New York in October to November of that year. Constituents of this corpus today reside in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Minneapolis Institute and the Lehman Loeb Art Center. However, it is to the seminal masterpiece Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X of 1953, housed in the Des Moines Art Center, that the present work bears especially close parity. In terms of the composition of space, the bodily expression and the figure’s portrait, the two paintings harbor close formal correspondence. Indeed, the visceral physiognomic intensity of the contorted features and flashing teeth of the gaping mouth in the present canvas, so deftly fashioned by the artist’s daubs of writhing paint, achieves a heightened psychological import – shooting the desperate papal cry straight into the realm of the viewer – that surpasses any of the eight Studies and is matched only by the Des Moines work. Bacon’s painting here is unleashed and urgent, unencumbered by any stodgy deliberation or revision, and his unbridled protagonist delivers a primal clarion call that summons Georges Bataille’s potent proclamation: “Terror and atrocious suffering make the mouth an organ of searing screams.” (Georges Bataille, ‘Dictionnaire – Bouche’, Documents, No. 5, 1930, pp. 298-99)

Bacon’s typically eloquent declaration that he wanted to “unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently” aptly explains how the genesis of this most ambitious body of work was seeded by an inspirational touchstone of resounding familiarity. The archetype Bacon appropriated as starting point for his Pope series was Diego Velázquez’s extraordinary Portrait of Pope Innocent X of 1650, held in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome; a painting for which Bacon was “haunted and obsessed by the image…its perfection.” (Francis Bacon interviewed by Hugh Davies, June 26, 1973, in Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York, 1986, p. 23) Having travelled to Rome from the Spanish court of Philip IV in 1649, Velázquez was afforded the great honor of depicting the Pope, Giambattista Pamphilj, known as Innocent X, whom he had met as papal nuncio in Madrid in 1626-30. The painting was executed in a Jubilee year when 700,000 pilgrims descended on Rome, and Velázquez dutifully portrayed the Bishop of Rome as the most powerful man in the world, encased by the trappings of his office. Yet the spectacular achievement of this portrait is that within the gold, silk and lace vestiges of papal supremacy resides a mortal human being beset by flaw and fallibility. While Pope Innocent X resides literally ex cathedra in the papal throne, official document clutched in hand and glinting ring proffered for all to pay homage; the man Pamphilj wears a pained and suspicious countenance that betrays the unscrupulous and duplicitous pitfalls of his tenure as Pontiff. The brilliance of Velázquez’s embedded juxtaposition, pitting the Papacy’s supposed omnipotence against Man’s inevitable frailty, while also delivering a likeness that was so highly received that he was awarded a golden medallion for his services, ignited an ambition within Bacon to equal this achievement, albeit in a godless world that had been literally torn to shreds by chaos and destruction. Moreover, beyond the substrate of canvas and layers of oil paint, Bacon perceived the voice of the artist speaking across the centuries: “If you look at a Velázquez, what do you think about? ... I don’t think about his sitters, I think about him… I think about Velázquez, I think people believe that they’re painting other people, but they paint out their own instincts.” (Francis Bacon interviewed by Hugh Davies, August 13, 1973, in Exh. Cat., Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Francis Bacon: The Papal Portraits of 1953, 1999, p. 34)

It has previously been noted that Bacon had not at this stage in his career seen the Velázquez painting in Rome first-hand, and for this initial series of papal portraits he worked from a black and white illustration of the work. This in turn has been suggested as the cause for the purple color of the garments in these paintings differing from the original cardinal red. However, while Bacon’s extensive enlistment of and reference to photographic sources is beyond question, it also seems more than likely that he was familiar with another version of Velázquez’s painting; one that has resided in Apsley House, the seat of the Duke of Wellington in London, since the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. This smaller painting by Veláquez, either a study made before or copy made after the larger work, was gifted to the Duke of Wellington by the King of Spain in 1816, together with over 150 other pictures from the Spanish Royal Collection, in recognition of his defeat of Napoleonic forces and liberation of Spain in the Peninsular War. The British commander had recovered these works from the fleeing carriage of Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, after the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. Under the Duke of Wellington’s great-grandson, Apsley House and its art collection was opened to the public in 1952, the centenary of the first Duke’s death and, conveniently, shortly before Francis Bacon initiated a grand cycle of papal portraits including the present painting. That Apsley House sits at Hyde Park Corner, about fifteen minutes’ walk from the Royal College of Art where Bacon was using a studio between 1951 and 1953, readily invites the hypothesis that he was able to study this highly accomplished version at close quarters.

However, the Velázquez painting is merely a template that becomes a delivery system for Bacon’s radical and unrelenting reinvention. Indeed, the present work is Bacon’s concrete realization that “Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact, what we know of our existence….tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time.” (Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Op. Cit., p. 110)  Thus Bacon replaces the subjective idiosyncrasies of the grand state portrait with an intimate visage of pain and suffering that stands as proxy for the torment of the human race. His source for this all-encompassing cipher was provided by a film still of a screaming female character in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 movie The Battleship Potemkin. Bacon had first seen the movie in 1935 and viewed it frequently thereafter, and this specific still was reproduced in Roger Manvell’s 1944 paperback Film, though Bacon also kept other reproductions of the startling image. The frame shows a pince-nez wearing elderly woman, commonly referred to as a nurse, shot through the eye and caught at the instant of death. It belongs to the movie’s massacre sequence on the Odessa Steps which, though it veers wildly from historical accuracy, remains one of the most iconic pieces of propagandist film ever made. Within its remorseless tragedy it is this character, part blinded and dying while also witnessing a baby in a pram being brutalized by the sword of a tsarist soldier, that embodies the conception of absolute horror and the abandonment of all hope. By supplanting Velázquez’s portrait of Innocent X with this twentieth-century essence of ultimate despair and its tortured last gasping breath, Bacon unites two extremes of enduringly vehement imagery.

It is also important to note the personal biographical import of this vision to its author. Since a small child, Bacon had suffered chronic asthma, greatly aggravated by the dogs and horses that had attended his upbringing. According to Caroline Blackwood, “When he was a little boy his parents had put him astride a pony and they had forced him to go fox-hunting. He loathed the brutality of the “Sport of Kings” and developed a violent allergy to horses. He turned blue once he found himself on the hunting field and he started to choke with chronic asthma…The subject made him freeze. He became agitated whenever I broached it. He started to tug at the collar of his shirt as if he were trying to loosen some kind of noose which he found asphyxiating; for a moment he resembled the agonized figures in his paintings whose faces turn a truly dangerous shade of indigo purple as they go into the last stages of strangulation.” (Caroline Blackwood, ‘Francis Bacon Obituary’, The New York Review of Books, 24 September 1992)  Bacon’s papal figure is caught in a symphony of movement; its representation comprised all of shadows and flashing motion and evolving in constant flux. This also recalls the photography of Edweard Muybridge, which used multiple cameras and an elaborate trigger device to capture successive stages of motion. Bacon possessed many illustrations of Muybridge’s images and this Pope’s right hand, veering towards us out of the darkness, recalls something of Muybridge’s photograph series ’Striking a Blow with the Right Hand’, a fragment of which was found in the artist’s studio after his death. While the right hand of Velázquez’s Innocent X hangs limply from the support of his gilded throne, Bacon’s papal fury lashes out at the viewer with a clenched fist, once again destabilizing the barrier between viewer and subject.

The drama of all this corporeal expression is greatly intensified by the artist’s complex framing of the composition and the many facets that define an uneasy sense of flux and unknowable dimensions within the canvas. Bacon’s overlapping linear schema here act as cage-like space frames that enclose this Pope inside its solitary nightmare. Indeed, the present work proves to act as prototype for Bacon’s consequent declaration: “I like the anonymous compartment, like a room concentrated in a small space. I would like to paint landscapes in a box…If you could enclose their infinity in a box they would have a greater concentration.” (the artist interviewed by Hugh M. Davies in 1973, in Martin Harrison, ed., Francis Bacon: New Studies, Göttingen, 2009, p. 111) This compositional organization echoes Picasso’s strategy of reducing three-dimensions to a scored network of diagrammatic black lines, such as in the groundbreaking Painter and Model of 1928. It is also strongly redolent of the frantic inscribed urgency of Giacometti’s autograph portraiture style and architectonic construction, so harshly graphic in his visceral drawings, and evident in Portrait of Peter Watson of 1953, which, as noted by Martin Harrison, was a work that Bacon probably knew given his close relationship to the sitter. It is also reminiscent of Bacon’s work as a furniture designer in the late 1920s, where he defined the parameters of actual space with folding screens and curved metal tubes inspired by the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and Ozenfant, and which are well-evidenced in a 1930 article in The Studio magazine and the documentary paintings of his fellow painter and friend Roy de Maistre. The space frames of the papal portraits mark the mature inception of these translucent compartments of literal, psychological and somatic space that would subsequently trap anonymous businessmen within midnight blue voids and imprison countless actors in triptychs throughout Bacon’s oeuvres of the subsequent three decades.

Aside from the formal compartmentalization of space, Francis Bacon was also transfixed by the potentiality of material strata and layers of perception, as he described to David Sylvester: "We nearly always live through screens – a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens." (Francis Bacon cited in David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1993, p. 26) The vertical and diagonal, tonally-polarized hatching that spans the present work is another iconographic device that is both rooted in illustrious precedent and foreshadows Bacon’s later output. In a way similar to the Des Moines Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, the upright bands that strike through this protagonist and unite it with the background are at once evocative of Titian’s Portrait of Cardinal Filippo Archinto of circa 1551-62, in which a diaphanous veil bisects the sitter’s right eye and dramatically blurs his left hand behind the drapery. This shuttering effect takes Bacon’s character in and out of coherence, like the staccato pulsations of a half-glimpsed memory disappearing and returning to our focus. Aspects of the forms merge and blur, instilling a sense of dynamism and movement, and we are afforded alternative descriptions of the pictorial content, such as the suggestion that this pope has his tongue fully extended out of his mouth. Bacon’s screens and veils complicate our perception of his vision, and as such deliver a fitting coda to one of his favourite passages from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which he told Hugh Davies had been a continual source of inspiration to him: “I have heard the key/ Turn in the door once and turn once only/ We think of the key, each in his prison/ thinking of the key, each confirms a prison” (read by the artist in interview by Hugh M. Davies in 1973, in Martin Harrison, Op. Cit., p. 102)

Perhaps more than any other theme associated with his canon, the threat of mortality inhabits every pore of Bacon’s art. Danger, violence and death constantly linger in the recesses of his canvases, acting like a continual incantation of his deft maxim: “Consciousness of mortality sharpens one’s sense of existing.” (Ibid., p. 96). Of course, many of his greatest later works became directly associated with the sudden and brutal deaths of his respective lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer, but in fact the risk of impending fatality imbued his existence from its most formative stage. Raised by English parents living in Ireland’s County Kildare during the violent era surrounding the Easter Uprising, Bacon’s upbringing was intensely fraught and immersed in the threat of harm: “My father warned us that at any time, not that we would be shot, but at night someone might break in or whatever. My grandmother married three times, at that time her husband was the Head of Police in Kildare and in their house all the windows were sandbagged. I lived with my grandmother a lot. I grew up in an atmosphere of threat for a long time… And then I was in Berlin at the beginning of the Nazi thing, my whole life had been lived through a time of stress.” (Ibid., pp. 104-5) Aged no more than sixteen, in 1926 he was abruptly driven from his home, away from hearth and kin by his father, and embarked for London. At the beginning of 1927 he was in Berlin and by the Spring he had arrived in Paris, staying that summer with a family in Chantilly before moving in the Fall to the Hôtel Delambre in Montparnasse, where he endured an impoverished subsistence lifestyle for almost a year. Alongside the actual events of his life, he of course became a voracious devourer of the canon of western Art History, and he purposely sought out those most powerful narrators of the tragedy of the human drama, from Michelangelo to Velázquez to Poussin to Picasso, to provide an analytical framework for his own experience. The dramatic shadow of this illustrious precedent is readily evident in the present work, and perhaps none more so than a work that Bacon would have encountered in the Tate, Henry Fuseli’s Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers, which in execution, subject and spirit stands as an eerily prescient predecessor for Untitled (Pope).

Bacon’s coming of age was thus forged in a crucible of uncertainty and risk, and this heritage violently coursed through his subsequent life and art. Fifteen years after Paris, in 1944, he delivered the searing cry of his masterpiece Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion; shrieking into existence to announce that figurative art could never be the same again. A decade after that, the Popes declared that everything we thought we knew – the history that was meant to bind us, the psychological and emotional journeys we supposedly shared, the promise of futures entwined together – were all merely veils to mask the thunderous yet silent solitary scream that lies within us all. It remains one of the most pertinent, universal and affecting visions in the History of Art, and the full force of its power is trapped forever on the surface of this sensational painting.





The artist in his studio, 1950 © Derek Bayes                     Diego Velázquez Pope Innocent X, circa 1651 Apsley House, The Wellington Museum







Dark night of the soul



Two decades after his death, Francis Bacon continues to enthral.

Now this confronting artist’s work is to be exhibited here, writes Janet Hawley.









                                                         Tortured artist … Francis Bacon, aged 62 in 1971.   Henri Cartier-Bresson





Why do uber-rich Russian tycoons, American hedge-fund managers, Qatar royalty and British football club owners eagerly pay up to $86 million to hang the terrible beauty of a Francis Bacon painting on their wall? Do they identify with Bacon’s lonely, angst-ridden screaming popes and the vulnerability of his solitary, contorted figures?

Why has Damien Hirst, Britain’s richest living artist, spent fortunes reaped from his own diamond-encrusted skulls and sharks in formaldehyde to buy five Bacons for his private collection?

Why does the dowager Lady Jane Willoughby, a train-bearer at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, cherish her magnificent Bacons – especially a work showing two entangled, naked, male figures, known colloquially as “The Buggers”?


Australians will finally get the chance to experience the alluring Baconian power for themselves when a major exhibition of this confronting, conflicted British artist’s work comes, at last, to Australia. It will span the five main decades of Bacon’s painting life, from the 1940s until his death in 1992 at the age of 82.

It has taken the exhibition’s curator, Tony Bond, five years to organise, liaising with the Bacon estate and persuading wealthy international private owners, such as Hirst, and major museums to lend 53 treasured Bacons, including five large triptychs.

Bacon is renowned for painting the most raw, disturbing and gruesome aspects of the human experience – be it sadomasochism or the tragic spectacle of his drunken lover dying on a Paris toilet seat – “in the most sublimely beautiful manner”, explains Bond.

Hirst lavishes praise on his uncompromising hero: “He’s up there with Goya, Soutine and Van Gogh: dirty painters who wrestle with the dark stuff. Bacon has the guts to fuck in hell. They give you the shivers, his best paintings.” His best images, adds Hirst, remind him of “spaces I imagined in nightmares”.

While many regard Bacon as the greatest figurative painter of the second half of the 20th century, those who aren’t seduced by the artist’s fluent, painterly hand and lush colourist skills label him “a monster of depravity” and “the black night of the 20th-century soul”. Margaret Thatcher, while in office, famously called Bacon: “That dreadful man who paints those horrible pictures.”

Looking at Bacon’s distorted human figures, grappling couples, screaming popes, hysterical businessmen in suits and grotesque mythical beasts, you might imagine him to be a morose, pessimistic character. But those who knew him describe him as a fascinating firecracker of creativity and a mass of contradictions.

Like Picasso (his first mentor), Bacon’s work is a visual diary of his life. Whereas Picasso, rampantly heterosexual, painted series of his six female lovers, Bacon, rampantly homosexual, painted series of his six male lovers. (Bacon, like Picasso, was also dangerous to love: two of his broken-hearted lovers would perish by their own hand, as did two of Picasso’s.)

British art historian Martin Harrison has spent the past 13 years working on publications for the Bacon estate, enjoying privileged access to Bacon’s intimates, most of whom have now passed away. Harrison is still poring over diaries, private letters and photographs, and has almost completed a catalogue raisonné of all Bacon’s surviving 600 paintings. “Bacon destroyed probably another 6000, being a ruthless editor of his own work,” he explains. “The standard Bacon set himself was the National Gallery or the dustbin, so failures were slashed to pieces.”

It’s not possible to understand Bacon, the person and the art, unless you also understand that he was homosexual, says Harrison. “It informs a lot of his imagery and psychology, and also makes interesting his works which have nothing to do with gay men,” he says. “Bacon did magnificent paintings of his women friends – he liked women who were strong-minded, daring and independent.”





    From mess to masterpiece … Bacon in his “chaotic” London studio in 1967  



The artist’s childhood is illuminating. “Bacon knew he was homosexual from an early age and made no attempt to hide it,” Harrison continues, “though he always regarded it as an affliction, something he had to bear. He was quite posh in his manner, despite his notorious love of a louche lifestyle. Even when drunk, he maintained the demeanour of an Edwardian gentleman, and was at ease mingling with both high life and low.”

Bacon was born in Dublin to privileged English parents. His father, retired army captain Eddy Bacon, trained racehorses; his socialite mother, Christina, hailed from a wealthy family of Sheffield cutlery manufacturers.

Young Francis, an asthmatic, was allergic to horses and his father responded to this perceived weakness by having him regularly whipped by stable hands to toughen him up. Francis’ retaliation was an unexpected one: to initiate his first sexual encounters with said stable hands.

When he was 16, Francis was discovered by his father dressing in his mother’s underwear and was banished from home. Handsome and alone, he drifted around London, working in gentlemen’s clubs and having affairs with “men in suits”. He liked wearing make-up and developed a penchant for wearing women’s stockings or fishnet tights under his trousers.

In 1927, when he was 18, Bacon, at his father’s insistence, left for Berlin with a family friend, whose job it was to “cure” him of his homosexuality. Instead, the older man seduced him and the pair revelled freely in the decadent atmosphere that prevailed in Berlin at this time. Soon after, Bacon moved to Paris, where he saw a Picasso exhibition, which changed his life. He decided to become a painter. It would take him until 1944 to perfect his distinctive style, and he would destroy nearly all his early work in the process.

At 20, Bacon began the first of several protracted affairs. “His first two relationships were with older men, father figures, mentors and generous patrons,” says Harrison.

Untrained in art, Bacon began work as a furniture designer in London where, in 1930, he met Australian artist Roy de Maistre, who guided Bacon in painting technique and art history. A deeply religious man, de Maistre was painting crucifixions. Bacon, who was defiantly atheist, painted a ghostly crucifix, Crucifixion, 1933. In a coup initiation, it appeared in Herbert Read’s book, Art Now, opposite a painting by Picasso. (This seminal work, now part of Hirst’s Murderme private collection, is in the AGNSW exhibition.)

A few years on, nascent author Patrick White arrived in London, and became de Maistre’s lover. White commissioned a writing desk from Bacon, later describing him in Flaws In The Glass as having a “beautiful pansy-shaped face, sometimes with too much lipstick on it”.

Bacon took up with Oxford graduate Eric Hall, a wealthy businessman who left his wife and children to become Bacon’s benefactor. The pair travelled together, enjoying gambling holidays in Monte Carlo, with Bacon painting sporadically.

In 1944, when he was 32, amid the senseless destruction of World War II, Bacon painted a highly original work that shocked the art world – Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944. The startling orange triptych depicted three vile, snarling, freakish figures inspired by the Furies, Greek mythical agents of vengeance and justice. Bacon explained the work had no religious significance, but symbolised mankind’s bestial capacity for cruelty and evil. Bacon’s work was now drawing attention, but his challenging images were proving hard to sell.

During the 1950s, Bacon embarked on a series of affairs with younger lovers. Says Harrison: “Francis was sadomasochistic; he often took a fancy to rough trade, and got a sexual thrill submitting to beatings and pain. He began an obsessive love affair with ex-RAF fighter pilot Peter Lacy, who also enjoyed sadomasochism. But their alcohol-fuelled arguments became so violent that the two almost killed each other. Lacy eventually moved to Tangier, becoming a piano player in a bar.” Bacon regularly visited his despondent lover there but, by 1962, Lacy had drunk himself to death.

The next year, the most celebrated and productive era of Bacon’s career began. In 1963, aged 54, he moved into a modest two-storey London mews house, 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington. This would be his main residence and studio for the remainder of his life.

Here he lived in “gilded squalor”, as one of his posthumous biographers, Dan Farson, puts it in The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon. He took a new lover, George Dyer, a handsome, strongly built petty thief 25 years his junior, who he’d paint more frequently, more ominously, than anyone else.

 “Bacon was attracted to underworld characters,” explains Harrison, “who, like the dark side of himself, enjoyed hanging out in sleazy clubs, drinking, gambling and being promiscuous. Bacon loved taking risks, in art and life. Dyer was poorly educated, clueless about art, but worshipped Francis and did his bidding like a pet puppy – to his ultimate peril.”

Bacon kept a disciplined routine. Most days, he worked alone, in silence, in his studio from 6am till 2pm, trusting that creative spontaneity would spring from his unconscious to enable a kind of alchemy on canvas. Work over, he’d don a bespoke Savile Row suit to wear to lunch in an expensive restaurant, where he’d typically order oysters and champagne. Then, several afternoons a week, he’d adjourn to the Soho drinking club, the Colony Room, a haunt of artists, writers, bohemians and fringe-dwellers. Here, he’d hold court, surrounded by a growing crowd of sycophants and genuine admirers, displaying his wit and conversational skills and also, at times, his vicious temper and belittling tongue. 

Bacon had the classic genius-artist, sacred-monster personality. Ferociously talented, he allowed nothing or no one to get in the way of his work and was often furtive, selfish, demanding and extremely cruel. He could also be utterly charming and seductive in his generosity. “Bacon would hand out pocketfuls of money to spongers bludging off him, and perversely enjoy this,” says Harrison. “His kindness was as legendary as his scorn and treachery.”

Bacon’s lovers were never permitted to move in and live with him full-time: he purchased Dyer and subsequent lovers apartments nearby and they came to him when summonsed. Bacon never wanted a domestic arrangement. “He hated what he called ‘the billing and cooing’ side of relationships,” says Harrison, “and only liked the sex. Essentially, he was a loner.”






      A sweet-natured, good-hearted young man, who worshipped Bacon … John Edwards in 1983




The inside of Bacon’s studio resembled a rubbish-filled squat: “Bacon maintained he needed to work amidst chaos,” says Harrison. The floor was smothered in avalanches of books, pages ripped from magazines and newspapers, photographs in their hundreds. “Many photographs were folded like origami models, giving Bacon ideas on distorting portraits,” adds Harrison. He would appropriate reproductions of old masters, in particular Velázquez’s 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X, the inspiration for his “screaming popes” series. Paint tubes, brushes, rags, champagne bottles and boxes were banked up, the walls covered in slapped-on paint where the artist experimented with colour mixes. 

As Bacon’s success and celebrity grew, he tired of Dyer and tried to buy him off. But Dyer, now drinking heavily to fill his days, was totally dependent on his revered artist.

In October 1971, Bacon was honoured with a major exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. Dyer accompanied Bacon’s party to Paris but, unable to cope with the melee of dignitaries and admirers that permanently surrounded Bacon there, went on an alcohol–and pill–fuelled bender. “Dyer took a Venezuelan gigolo back to the hotel room he shared with Bacon, but Bacon complained the man’s feet stank, and moved to a different bedroom,” relates Harrison. “Next morning, Dyer was found dead on the toilet.

“Bacon sailed through the opening the next night as if nothing had happened, but Dyer’s death affected him deeply for years to come. He realised that showering Dyer with money to stop his petty thieving had removed his identity and raison d’être.”

Bacon painted three posthumous triptychs of the stark death scene, one of which shows Dyer slumped on the toilet, vomiting into the basin, which Harrison describes as “haunting dark elegies; exorcisms and expiations of guilt. The fluid that flows in the 1972 Dyer triptych seems to represent the life leaking out of him.”

Although Bacon’s carousing at the Colony Club was legendary, the artist had another group of friends who satisfied his hunger for intellectual discourse and appreciation of art. He was especially close to British critic David Sylvester and French critic Michel Leiris.

“Yet even with them, Bacon would avoid discussing any meanings to his work,” says Harrison. “He maintained his only intention was to create a visual shock to the viewer’s nervous system. He didn’t want narrative story to get in the way of the paint. People find this hard to accept, as Bacon’s work seems to invite interpretation.”

Nor would Bacon answer questions on the meaning of life. He believed in living for the moment: “I’m profoundly optimistic – about nothing,” he told British interviewer Melvyn Bragg in 1986. “I just like to drift … from bar to bar, and see what comes up.”

For more than three decades, Bacon had an intense friendship with fellow artist Lucian Freud – until it soured. The senior British art critic, William Feaver, now completing a biography of Freud’s life, says the friendship began in London during World War II, when Freud was 21 and Bacon was 34.

“Bacon’s work was more startling, unrestricted, wildly amazing than that of any other contemporary painter, and Lucian was a huge admirer,” explains Feaver. “Lucian also admired Bacon’s attitude of not giving a damn about high society or respectability, and his courage in taking risks with the law; homosexuality was illegal until 1967.

“Both men were extremely intelligent, well-read, appreciated serious conversation, but also liked being funny and provocative. Both enjoyed consorting with dukes and duchesses on one hand, then carousing with roadworkers until dawn.

“Lucian [the grandson of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud] understood Bacon’s complicated psycho-sexual, masochistic side. To the younger Lucian, he was a dramatic, recklessly romantic person to tag along with. But as time went on, things changed a great deal.”

By the 1970s, Freud was an acclaimed painter. Unlike Bacon, he worked all day and late into the night, his method slow. It would take him two to three years to complete a portrait, always wanting his sitter to be present.

“There was a complete separation of sympathies between the two artists,” says Feaver. “Bacon started to say waspish things about Lucian, and Lucian could no longer praise Bacon’s new work.”

Freud was renowned for his love affairs with beautiful English socialites, yet at the foot of his bed, he always kept a wall-high Francis Bacon painting of two entangled naked men, Two Figures, 1953, known among friends as “The Buggers”. “Lucien said the painting inspired him so much, he wouldn’t let it out of his sight,” says Feaver, “and he wouldn’t lend it for exhibitions.”

Heiress Lady Jane Willoughby became friends with Freud in her 20s. There was talk that she would become his third wife, which didn’t eventuate, but the pair remained dear lifelong friends. Slowly, over the years, she pieced together a major art collection that included works by both artists. Freud died last year, and Two Figures, 1953 now hangs in her bedroom.

Five years after Dyer’s death, Bacon began a new relationship with a 40-years-younger, good-looking, illiterate bar worker from London’s East End, John Edwards. Once again, Bacon showered money on his new lover and bought him an apartment nearby, plus a country cottage. Edwards was devoted to his benefactor, but he differed from Dyer in one key respect.

“Edwards was a sweet-natured, good-hearted young man, who worshipped Bacon,” explains Harrison, “but he wouldn’t stand any nonsense. When Bacon started throwing tantrums or unleashing his acid tongue, Edwards would just say, ‘I’m off now, Francis’ and leave.” 

Like Dyer, he had no understanding of art, nor of Bacon’s many portraits of him. Brian Clarke, director of the Bacon estate, says, “The only question John consistently asked Bacon was: ‘Why the fuck do you always paint me looking like a monkey?’”

Bacon was now older and calmer and his relationship with Edwards became more fatherly. Besides, Edwards was embroiled in his own long-term relationship with a younger man, Philip Mordue. The arrangement obviously suited them both: Bacon made Edwards his sole heir.

By 1975, 66-year-old Bacon had begun spending more and more time in Paris, where he had a big following. He bought a studio apartment in the Marais district, where he met his neighbours, Australian art historians Eddy Batache and Reinhard Hassert. “We had some new Brett Whiteley drawings which Bacon wanted to see,” explains Batache. “Whiteley had visited him in London and he liked Brett’s work.”







       A master’s makeover … Bacon’s Paris neighbours, art historians Reinhard Hassert and Eddy Batache, with the double portrait Bacon painted of them in 1979





In pride of place on their wall is the double portrait Bacon painted of the couple in 1979. “We’d known Francis for four years, then one day he suddenly announced: ‘Now I’m ready to paint your portraits,’” remembers Batache. “I had a beard at the time and Francis said: ‘Eddy, you must shave your beard because it’s a mask; I cannot get through to your face’. Reluctantly, I shaved it off. Then Francis said: ‘Oh no, you looked much better with a beard; grow it again.’ So I did, and he painted our portraits in his Paris studio. It took him three weeks, and we weren’t allowed in to see till it was finished. Sometimes Francis would say, ‘Oh, today I’ve destroyed you, Reinhard.’ After he gave it to us, he wanted it back, to distort my right eye more – but I said no!”

Unlike his chaotic Reece Mews London studio, Bacon’s small Paris atelier was immaculate. “Francis slept and painted in the same room, so he had to keep it spotless because of his asthma,” explains Hassert. “Sometimes he’d invite us in for breakfast, and cook scrambled eggs.”

In all their discussions about art, Bacon was often highly critical of his own and other artists’ work, but rarely supplied clues as to the meanings of his paintings. “Francis would say, ‘A painting needs to unlock the valves of sensation inside us’ – both the artist and the viewer,” says Batache. “He’d say, ‘The purpose of painting is not to illustrate or decorate, but to thicken – i.e. enrich – the quality of life.’ Not to lead you on a spiritual meditation – he was furiously against that idea. Often he’d get a grin on his face and quote Macbeth: ‘Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ ”

In the last four years of his life, Bacon became infatuated with a handsome young Spanish man, José Capello. “Francis still had tremendous appetite for life, but he was slowing down,” says Hassert. “He’d undergone several operations and often struggled with asthma. He said to me: ‘Sometimes one feels that one has been around for long enough’.” Bacon maintained everything ends when we die, that there is no afterlife. “For quite a time, he contemplated the idea of being buried instead of cremated, saying he liked the image of a skull being left behind,” says Hassert.

In December 1991, Bacon visited Paris for a Giacometti exhibition. “He was bloated with cortisone for his asthma and unwell, but we enjoyed a few days together, and it was the last time we saw him,” explains Hassert. “In April, Francis rang me from his hospital bed in Madrid. He’d gone to Spain to visit Capello, against doctor’s orders, and been taken to hospital with pneumonia. He was worried about cancelling his planned visit to Paris to see us, and I said he mustn’t worry; we’re always here for him. Three days later, I heard on TV he’d died from a heart attack.”    

Bacon hadn’t wanted any memorials, famously instructing the barman at the Colony Room: “When I’m dead, put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter.” But Edwards, his major heir, was keen to honour Bacon’s legacy, and donated the contents of the Reece Mews studio to Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin. Some 7000 items were excavated and reassembled with archaeological precision, along with the paint-splattered walls and floor.

The Bacon estate was established using some 20 paintings that had been stored in the Reece Mews garage and the framers before Edwards died of lung cancer, aged 53, in 2003.

“Francis never cared about money,” remembers Batache. “He’d say the prices of his works could all collapse the moment he died, and it could all be worth nothing. He just painted for himself, and if others liked his work, that’s luck.”

Bacon’s prices hit US$1 million before his death and, in the decade following, soared to US$10 million. They peaked at US$86 million in 2008 for Triptych 1976, which was bought by Russian tycoon and Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich.

Other buyers reportedly include Sheikha Al Mayassa, daughter of the Emir of Qatar, who paid US$53 million for Study From Innocent X (1962); British currency trader and Tottenham Hotspurs owner Joseph Lewis, and US hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen, who paid an undisclosed sum for a “screaming pope” series portrait.

The Bacon estate’s main dealer, Gerard Faggionato, says he regularly receives requests from vastly wealthy buyers – these days in Russia, Korea, South America, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the US and Europe – wanting a specific Francis Bacon work.

“The trouble is these days, most of the 600 Bacon paintings are owned by major collectors and museums, who refuse to part with them. If they’d release them, many would sell today for US$120 million.” 

Bacon’s ghost must be shrieking louder than one of his screaming popes at his posthumous fate. How strange that his eerily dignified triptych of his handsome, petty-thief lover, George Dyer, dead on a Paris toilet seat, could now fetch more than $100 million and be hung in the world’s finest art collections. That’s wall power.

As the late Robert Hughes wrote in 2008: “This painter of buggery, sadism, dread and death-vomit has emerged as the toughest, the most implacable, lyrical artist in late 20th-century England, perhaps in all the world.”  


Francis Bacon: Five Decades will open at the Art Gallery of NSW on November 17, and run until February 24, 2013.








Tate Gallery Of Lost Art Displays Destroyed Francis Bacon Work In Digital Archive





Ever wonder about what happened to forgotten works of art? Well, now you have your answer.

The Tate’s Gallery of Lost Art is a virtual museum housing the ghosts of artworks past. The eerie website allows users to become amateur detectives, piecing together clues regarding art’s most confounding relics and mysteries. The gallery will unveil a new lost artwork every week, together with interviews, archival photos and essays pertaining to these elusive works. As Guardian critic Jonathan Jones put it: "Lost art can never disappoint. It is beyond criticism." A bold claim, but so far this holds up in the online gallery.

Some of the lost artworks are already legendary, like the Willem de Kooning drawing that budding artist Robert Rauschenberg rubbed out and erased. Others were lost in less spectacular, more tragic tales, such as Tracey Emin’s embroidered tent "Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95," which was destroyed in a 2004 warehouse fire. On the website, Jennifer Mundy, curator of The Gallery of Lost Art, says: “Art history tends to be the history of what has survived. But loss has shaped our sense of art’s history in ways that we are often not aware of.”

Today the Huffington Post is unveiling a work both painted and destroyed by none other than Francis Bacon, entitled Gorilla with Microphones. See a study of the painting and its appearance after Bacon ripped two giant chunks out of the center below.




  Gorilla with Microphones as discovered in Bacon’s studio. Collection: Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane




In 1962, Francis Bacon said "I think I tend to destroy the better paintings… I try and take them further, and they lose all their qualities." Such was the case with Man with Microphones, which later became Gorilla with Microphones. The work depicts a generic male figure with a distorted body and open mouth, leaning in the direction of a figure reminiscent of a microphone or machine gun. The dark colours, horrifying distended torso and ambiguous forms made the work especially haunting, even for an artist known for shock value.

According to Jennifer Mundy, the Head of Collection Research at Tate, Bacon was returning to a familiar theme of the public orator caught mid-speech. The work remained unsold after a 1946 exhibition and was returned to the artist’s studio. When it was shown again six years later it had been dramatically altered the subject’s plaid suit was stripped down to a truncated nude body. The title had also been changed to Gorilla with Microphones, Bacon’s underhanded insult to the unnamed hot-headed politician.

Unfortunately the changes Bacon made were not enough to satisfy the artist known for frequently destroying his works, sometimes before the paint had even dried. After Bacon’s death in 1992, Gorilla with Microphones was found in the studio with two large sections of the piece cut away, and the removed portions were lying there like a crime scene. Twenty years later, you can attempt to solve the mystery.

See other works from the Lost Art archives in the slideshow below and head to the virtual gallery itself to delve into their stories in full. The complete essay regarding Francis Bacon’s lost work will go online November 19.



  Employees inspect the Hugh Lane Bacon studio materials c.1998. 




Love Is the Devil: the view from the art world



             The Guardian’s art critic Adrian Searle gave his opinion of the film shortly after its release: he was

impressed by the accuracy of Jacobi’s performance, if not by the insertion of YBAs into the pub scenes …





The painter Francis Bacon, who turned down both the Order of Merit and the Companion of Honour, is crouched over the bed in nothing but his underpants. He waits. His lover, a Kray gang hanger-on called George Dyer, stands over him, a cigarette in his mouth, a belt twisted in his fist.

This is a scene from John Maybury’s Love Is the Devil, subtitled "Study for a portrait of Francis Bacon" starring Derek Jacobi as the painter, and Daniel Craig  as Dyer, Bacon’s lover, tormentor, victim and model. In the film, Dyer, a hapless East End burglar, introduces himself by crashing through the skylight of Bacon’s tiny South Kensington studio, while attempting a burglary. Bacon responds by taking his burglar straight to bed. From here, we follow this odd couple on their drunken peregrinations through 1960s Soho, New York and Paris, to the bitter end – the result of too many nights, following Dyer down into the desolation of booze, pills and despair that finally killed him.

This is both much more, and much less, than a biopic. The film charts a relatively short period of Bacon’s life, from his meeting with Dyer in 1963, to Dyer’s suicide in Paris, on the eve of the opening of Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, in 1971, attended by Georges Pompidou, the president of France himself.

In the six years since his death in Madrid, at the age of 83, Francis Bacon has been the subject of three biographies, at least four major posthumous retrospectives and a host of smaller exhibitions. His paintings sell for millions. Bacon, according to family myth a descendant of the Elizabethan statesman and philosopher of the same name, is seen by many as the greatest British painter of the last half of the century, and is certainly the best regarded internationally. Exhibitions of his work have drawn queues and crowds from Moscow to Manhattan. Almost everyone has an angle on Bacon, and he is seen as a father figure for a current generation of British artists who admire the danger, the verve, the louche integrity of the man as much as the art.

Bacon the painter might be regarded as the last great European artist-as-existential hero. His paintings proclaim as much. His life and personality have come to overshadow all discussions of his work. Or rather, the work has come to be seen as a cartoon-strip of the alarming life and times of Francis Bacon, man of extreme appetites, genius painter, drunk, gambler, sado-masochistic homosexual, emotional monster and millionaire who worked in a tiny, squalid Kensington studio which was as much one of the artist’s self-dramatising, theatrical invention as the work itself.

In his film, director John Maybury – a pop-promo producer, artist and one-time collaborator with the late Derek Jarman – depicts Bacon, framed and trapped like the figures in his paintings, by multiple reflections, intrigues, gossip and rumour. Where Bacon hung out with some of the most talented and influential figures of our times (from Michel Leiris to Alberto Giacometti from Lucian Freud to William Burroughs), he also bevvied his life away with some of the most lost, self-destructive and nihilistic people on the planet, most of them frighteningly pissed almost all of the time, in the rush to squander their talents. In fact, the squandering was their major talent Maybury, on the other hand, inhabits the cooler London art world of the 1990s, a self-serving, narcissistic demi-monde of an altogether different sort. Or, on second thoughts, not such a different sort. In Love Is the Devil, these worlds collide.

Love Is the Devil is a devilish brew of naturalism, Baconesque film effects, history and gossip. It is a warped anthropological detour into the fag end of 1950s Soho bohemia, dragged too far into the 1960s but it is also a tragic love story, with astonishing performances and character cameos. It was always bound to be trouble, and was inevitably going to get into trouble, even before filming began.

Everyone likes a bit of rough – the frisson of danger and perversion. It is a cliché of how artists are supposed to behave. Bacon fitted the bill perfectly. He was by all accounts a deeply complex man. He was also, not to be forgotten, highly intelligent, profoundly manipulative, contrary, slippery and a superb performer. He invented not just a style (Bacon was self-taught), but a personality, as both an artist and a man. He also looked good, a kind of bruiser intellectual who brushed his teeth with Vim, dyed his hair with boot polish and went about wearing women’s undies.

And yet, there are those who would protect Bacon’s reputation, and try to hold much of the darker side of his personality at bay, as though it would diminish the quality and integrity of his work. This is understandable, but it is also a futile pursuit. The critic David Sylvester, who has curated more Bacon exhibitions around the world than anyone else (the last was at the Hayward a few months ago) and whose interviews with Francis Bacon are regarded as the last word on the artist’s thoughts, refused to have anything to do with the film, nor to allow any of Bacon’s words, recorded in the interviews, to be used.

Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council when the film was in production, insisted on script changes before the film could get its £250,000 Lottery funding. A particular sticking point was the part of Muriel Belcher (played to the hilt by a heavily pregnant Tilda Swinton), queen of the Colony Room club, where Bacon drank, who always referred to the artist either as "Daughter" or "Cunty".

According to Sight and Sound, the Arts Council were chary about funding the film because it was thought that it came too soon on the heels of Bacon’s death. Who, one wonders, were they trying to protect? Love Is the Devil is deeply annoying in all sorts of ways, yet Derek Jacobi’s performance as Bacon is nothing short of astonishing. He has the walk. He has the voice (or rather, the voices. Bacon’s verbal mannerisms swerved from the upper-crust to the vitriolic mock-cockney queen, switching from humour to verbal violence in seconds). Malcolm McDowell was Maybury’s first choice to play the part, but luckily for us he turned it down.

Even caught in the act of painting, swerving a brushload of black around a dustbin lid used as a template, Jacobi is believable. One of the problems with movies about artists is that the stars don’t know how painters go about their business. Jacobi’s brow-furrowing interrogations of the canvas strike a false note, but Maybury at least has him working on the right kind of canvas, in an exact replica of Bacon’s studio.

There was plenty of material for Jacobi to work on. As an artist, Bacon was more voluble, more filmed, more recorded than most. Maybury didn’t need Sylvester’s interviews to get his Bacon quotes. As it was, Bacon said much the same things to everybody, in the end. He was interviewed sober and in his cups. He knew that a good bon mot is wasted if you only use it once. "Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends," he says in the film, just as he said in life.


Love Is the Devil 



read the original review



On its release in 1998, the Guardian hailed John Maybury’s

biopic of Francis Bacon as a brilliantly sustained imagining’.






I came out of John Maybury’s Love Is the Devil, which is rather coyly subtitled Study for a portrait of Francis Bacon, feeling I’d never seen a film that makes such direct and illuminating connection with the eye of an artist. On the other hand, I didn’t know Francis Bacon, so I can’t tell whether the story Maybury tells us is true, in the literal sense. That bothers me. But if you want a brilliantly sustained imagining of how, according to some of the best available evidence, Bacon saw his world, and how he rendered that vision on to canvas, then Love Is the Devil is a very remarkable film indeed.

Their first encounter is handled with deft humour. When Dyer falls through the skylight, an amused and aroused Bacon invites him to bed. Maybury, best known for his design work on the films of Derek Jarman and his video clips for the likes of Neneh Cherry, Morrissey and Sinead O’Connor, gets the narrative off to a good start, and handles the tricky combination of story and reflection in other words, the life itself and the life transmuted into art with lucidity and a sure sense of cadence.

Adrian Scarborough as the creepy Farson and Karl Johnson as the pathetic Deakin make a fine pair of stooges, and a witches’ chorus is provided by Tilda Swinton as the foulmouthed Muriel Belcher, Anne Lambton as the perceptive Isabel Rawsthorne and Annabel Brooks as the cheerily libidinous Henrietta Moraes. Unwise cameos by the painter Gary Hume and the fashion journalist Hamish Bowles – as a Moraes conquest and a limp-wristed David Hockney, respectively – momentarily contradict but cannot do real damage to the prevailing seriousness of an exceptional film.

• This review was originally published in The Guardian on 18 Sep 1998



Sydney served multi-million dollar Bacon rarity






It’s a rare painting of a long lamented lost love, and its temporary home in Sydney is striking.


Among the first of more than 50 Francis Bacon canvases to be unpacked over the next 10 days for an exclusive Sydney retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW to mark the 20th anniversary of the Irish figurative painter’s death, Seated figure from 1978 is particularly special.


Valued between $35 million and $40 million, and never seen in an exhibition before, the two-metre tall painting shows Bacon motifs such as an umbrella and cricket pads on the upper human figure.

But it’s the foreground figure that will draw in Bacon buffs: in profile it is clearly George Dyer, Bacon’s younger lover who committed suicide with a barbiturate overdose in 1971, just as Bacon’s major exhibition opened at the Grand Palais in Paris.

The fact that Bacon kept painting his dead lover’s profile again and again shows he never got over the loss.


Having spent almost four years making his case to more than 30 international and Australian institutions to loan the Bacon paintings at a cost of more than $2 million for flights, handling and insurance, curatorial director Anthony Bond was pleased to gain eight rare works from private collections.

Seated figure is one such work, with striking purple and orange tones, and yesterday found a suitable home for the life of the Bacon retrospective, which opens to the public on November 17 and runs until February 24.

"I was talked into having orange walls by the designer, which I’ve never done before," says Bond. "I always thought white was just fine. But this particular painting on that orange wall looks amazing; it actually works."


There’s also a painting in the show of Bacon’s later, younger lover, John Edwards, sitting in front of a void. "But the body belongs to George," notes Bond. "So he’d taken John’s head and just pasted it onto the body of George, which I find quite sad, really.


"I don’t suppose John minded much. I mean, John didn’t really understand Bacon’s paintings at all. Probably less so than George Dyer did.


"John once said he’d asked Bacon, ’Why do you paint me like I look like a monkey?’ Quite a lot of the portraits in Bacon’s works have a mask-like quality; even the self-portraits."


The retrospective, Francis Bacon Five Decades, brings together works from the 1940s through to the 1980s. It comprises almost 10 per cent of Bacon’s known output.

It was a labour of love for Bond, although he admits there were a few dark times when he worried it wouldn’t come together. "Early on, I thought maybe this is just not going to be possible at all," he says.


Bond admits there was a couple of desired paintings he failed to get, but refuses to "name and shame" the one or two museums that were less than collegiate.


"Of the ones we got, those from the Tate Britain were dead easy. I asked for five, and they gave them to me. I think they have a soft spot for Australia. [Director Nicholas Serota] did once say to me, ’Well, we always try to help the colonies’," Bond says, laughing.


Bond considers Bacon the top 20th-century figurative painter. "Nobody paints anything like Bacon," he says. "He walked a tight line between figuration and abstraction. The paint is phenomenal and you don’t get it until you stand a couple of feet away. You realise how risky it is."


Francis Bacon Five Decades, Art Gallery of NSW, November 17 - February 24.




         Handle with care ... Francis Bacon’s Seated figure is unpacked at the Art Gallery of NSW





Bringing in the Bacon






"He liked the throw of the dice. It was absolutely central to his way of thinking. His painting was always to do with chance; rescuing the image from the brink of disaster, sometimes making the final throw of paint to see what happen." So says Tony Bond, curatorial director of the Art Gallery of NSW and an authority on Francis Bacon, whom Bond believes is, quite simply, "the best painter of the 20th century. I don’t think anyone comes near him."

Bond has spent the past three years sourcing more than 53 of the artist’s works from 37 collections around the world and bringing them to Sydney for Francis Bacon: Five Decades, which opens at the gallery on November 17. This is not the same show that began at the Tate in London and toured to the Prado and the Met, although it is similar in scale. Bond first conceived it in the 1980s, but funding was a problem. Yet that turned out to be a good thing. "Bacon was very controlling when he was alive," Bond says.

"I’m much happier doing it now because there is the opportunity to reinterpret him. I’ve done that in a couple of ways: one, [by showing his oeuvre and its themes] through the decades, which really works; and the other is something that Bacon talked about a lot – his fascination with Marcel Duchamp."

Bond also reckons that for someone who "talked a lot about chance, whose work is about the compulsive moment", Bacon "knew exactly what he was doing. His distortions are quite calculated. You can believe both things simultaneously. A good drunk, like a cat, knows exactly how to fall."










Bacon down under




Francis Bacon’s Australian connections are explored





According to Anthony Bond, the curatorial director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the curator of the show “Francis Bacon: Five Decades”, the Anglo-Irish artist had “very strong Australian ties”. So it may come as a surprise that this exhibition, organised to mark the 20th anniversary of Bacon’s death, is the artist’s first solo show in Australia. The exhibition features more than 50 paintings, as well as films, photographs and archival material from the artist’s studio.

Although Bacon never visited Australia, his hated father was born in Adelaide. Bacon was encouraged to paint by the New South Wales-born artist Roy de Maistre, and he later influenced the 20th-century Australian artists Sidney Nolan and Brett Whiteley. The show includes Whiteley’s Francis Bacon, around 1984-89, and photographs of Bacon sitting for the portrait.

The works, which Bond describes as “wild, vivid, sensual”, will be arranged by decade, starting with “nearly all of Bacon’s most important works” from the 1940s. Head II, 1949, on loan from the Ulster Museum in Belfast, is “the only painting on which Bacon worked for months rather than days”, Bond says. “He built up a thick skin of paint like a rhinoceros hide.”

Five monumental paintings include the Tate’s Triptych—August 1972, 1972, which Bacon painted in tribute to his lover George Dyer, a year after the younger man’s death. The 1970s, and Dyer, are also represented by Three Studies of the Male Back, 1970.

More than 70 items from the artist’s studio “show how he altered photographs as part of the transformation to the painted image”, Bond says. A crumpled illustration of Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, around 1650, will be on show alongside the work it inspired: Pope I—Study after Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, 1951, on loan from the Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums.

Lenders include the National Gallery of Australia, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Francis Bacon Estate. Video interviews with Bacon will be shown daily in the gallery’s auditorium, and the exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue. The show’s principal sponsor is Ernst & Young.

Francis Bacon: Five Decades, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 17 November-24 February 2013








  Contemporary Art Evening Auction



  New York | 13 November 2012 | N08900 | Lot 27















Estimate: 9,000,000 12,000,000 USD   LOT SOLD: 9,322,500 USD



Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., London
Redfern Gallery, London
Sotheby Parke Bernet & Co., London, March 23, 1983, Lot 73
Waddington Galleries Ltd., London
Acquired by the present owner from the above


London, Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, March - April 1967, cat. no. 19, p. 81, illustrated


France Borel, introduction by Milan Kundera, Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, London and New York, 1996, p. 62, illustrated in colour



Catalogue Note

George Embiricos (1920-2011) was a Greek shipping magnate. Following legal studies in Athens and Cambridge he entered the family business and built it into a leading concern during the Post-War period. Embiricos moved to New York after the War and began collecting art. Passionate and erudite, he retired early to devote his life to art and learning.

Over several decades George Embiricos assembled a legendary collection of paintings, works on paper and sculpture. His profound connoisseurship was eclectic, spanning centuries and cultures. Masterpieces by El Greco, Goya, Cézanne, Kandinsky, Picasso, Van Gogh and Bacon, among others, were brought together in his beautiful home in Lausanne. Sotheby’s is honoured to present here Francis Bacon’s remarkable Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne of 1967 from the Estate of George Embiricos. Important pictures from Paul Cézanne to Max Ernst and by Francisco de Goya will be offered in Sotheby’s auctions of Impressionist and Modern Art on November 5 and Old Master Paintings in January 2013, respectively.

"Her face would assume a look of extreme indignation, followed by one of raucous good humour, and then a glance of seduction, all dropped like masks and as readily replaced".
Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p. 205

A masterful essay on the analysis of facial landscape, Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne is a deeply personal portrayal of one of Francis Bacon’s closest female friends. Bacon only painted a handful of female confidants, insisting that he must know his sitters intimately. Isabel Rawsthorne provided unique focus for the artist: she was his preferred female muse and inspired a greater number of small portrait canvases than any of his other friends. Bacon and Rawsthorne had first met in the late 1940s at the home of Erica Brausen, who represented both artists at her Hanover Gallery in London, yet this spectacular portrayal was painted two decades later and today marks the nearly forty years of their close friendship as well as Bacon’s breathtaking ability to navigate the very threshold of abstraction and figuration in rendering the human form.

In the 1960s Bacon had commissioned John Deakin to photograph Rawsthorne so that he could paint from secondary images. As he told David Sylvester, "I’ve had photographs taken from portraits because I very much prefer working from the photographs than from them. It’s true to say I couldn’t attempt to do a portrait from photographs of somebody I don’t know. But, if I both know them and have photographs of them, I find it easier to work than actually having their presence in the room." (David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1990, p. 40) Rawsthorne died at the beginning of 1992: the following May, Bacon divulged that they had had an affair and famously told Paris Match "You know I also made love to Isabel Rawsthorne, a very beautiful woman who was Derain’s model and Georges Bataille’s girlfriend." Bacon’s relationship with Rawsthorne was thus singularly unlike that of any of his other female acquaintances.

Michael Peppiatt has described Rawsthorne’s prodigious facility for physiognomic change: "Her face would assume a look of extreme indignation, followed by one of raucous good humour, and then a glance of seduction, all dropped like masks and as readily replaced." (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London, 1996, p. 205). Bacon was inevitably seduced by this expressive variety and this painting epitomizes a rare mode of description that can only stem from a lifetime’s worth of close observation. In 1984 Bacon told David Sylvester "I am certainly not trying to make a portrait of somebody’s soul or psyche or whatever you like to call it. You can only make a portrait of their appearance, but I think that their appearance is deeply linked with their behavior." (Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester, 1984, Op Cit, p. 234)  Rawsthorne described Bacon’s paintings of her as "fabulously accurate" and this deeply personal work is the consummate conflation of her worldly exterior appearance and phenomenal interior character (Michael Peppiatt, Op Cit, p. 208)

The painting schematizes physiognomy in diagrammatic swathes, whose edges carve through the layers of accumulated paint material among patterns of pigment applied with cashmere sweaters and smeared on the surface. The head looms like a sculpture in paint, reminiscent of Rawsthorne’s other lover Alberto Giacometti’s busts of her, and is virtually superimposed onto the stark flatness of the pale backdrop, whose tonal polarity emphasizes the prominent silhouette of amalgamated profiles. Throughout the work there is this tension between graphic dexterity and the raw power of colour, as is so typical of Bacon’s most enthralling masterworks. Within the scribed lines of the head Rawsthorne’s idiosyncratic features high forehead, long cheek-bones and arched eyebrows are confidently incised in flecked streaks and variegated smears of densely worked paint. Variance of expression is revealed through the veiled layers of shuttered hatching, so that "sensation doesn’t come straight out at you; it slides slowly and gently through the gaps" (Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester, Op. Cit., p. 243).

Born in London’s East End in 1912, Isabel Nicholas studied at Liverpool Art School before briefly attending the Royal Academy in London. As a young girl she lived with and modelled for the sculptor Jacob Epstein, whose Isabel of 1933 communes a hypnotic sexual allure. In 1934 she moved to Paris and started modeling for André Derain and Alberto Giacometti. She lived with the latter and his sculptures of her bear witness to a statuesque composure and almost celestial assuredness. She also befriended the poet Michel Leiris, who was the son-in-law of Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, Picasso’s famous patron. Her first marriage was to Sefton Delmer, a war correspondent for the Daily Express and together they reported on the Spanish Civil War.

Having divorced Delmer after the Second World War, she married the composer and conductor Constant Lambert. She had her first major solo exhibition in 1949 at the Hanover Gallery, where Bacon also exhibited, after which she designed stage sets, including at the Royal Opera House in 1953. Lambert had died in 1951 and in 1954 she married his friend, the composer Alan Rawsthorne. During the ’50s and ’60s she mixed in Soho circles along with Bacon at Muriel Belcher’s "Colony Room" drinking club and "The George" pub. By the end of the 1970s her eyesight had deteriorated to such a degree that she stopped painting. In this context, Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne is not only the valediction to a truly epic life that spanned the devastating excesses of the Twentieth Century, but also punctuates the closing chapter of her own creativity as an artist.






In Bacon’s existential zone




FRANCIS Bacon seduces the viewer like a bottle of whisky and a grope under the table.


One way or another, he’ll drag you into his thrillingly dangerous world – 

or you’ll straighten your skirt and run from the room.






His most famous image is that one of the screaming pope, based on Velazquez’s portrait of Innocent X and as primal in its howl of existential terror as one of Edvard Munch’s pictures. Bacon depicts the pontiff trapped by his throne and with what look like flames from the underworld shooting skyward.

Many more of Bacon’s pictures are portraits of his friends, especially his doomed lover George Dyer, and self-portraits. Bacon’s figures are unlike anyone else’s. Their flesh seems entirely malleable, even squishy, as his subjects twist in chairs, on beds and in weird geometric contraptions. The faces are scrapes of colour: like an after-image or memory of someone who has already left the room.

Often, his male figures are shown wrestling in a pictorial theatre with sets of lurid colour. He painted female figures, too, but Bacon’s is a man’s world.

His pictures have a masculine glamour that recalls Michelangelo or, more recently, Robert Mapplethorpe.

Bacon’s story is a gift for biographers, dramatists and hagiographers. Born in Dublin in 1909, he was thrashed by his puritanical father, who discovered him wearing his mother’s underwear.The beating gave him an appetite for sado-masochistic sex, he said.

Untrained as an artist, he began his career as an interior decorator – he designed a desk for Patrick White – before turning to painting at the encouragement of Roy de Maistre, the Australian artist who was briefly, at different times, Bacon’s and White’s lover.

Bacon’s orgies of gambling and drink were legendary, as was his bitchy tongue.

His tormented lover Dyer committed suicide on the eve of a major retrospective in Paris, where a poll in an art magazine would declare Bacon the greatest artist alive.

Fascination with Bacon seems only to have increased after his death in 1992. His London studio was spirited away to Dublin and painstakingly reconstructed, with 7500 objects encased in glass. In 2008 he became the most expensive post-war artist at auction when Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich paid $US86.3 million for a 1976 triptych.

In his centenary year of 2009, Bacon was the subject of a comprehensive retrospective that toured from London to Madrid and New York.

And claims continue to be made for his supremacy in 20th-century art. Just this month, Tony Bond, head curator of international art at the Art Gallery of NSW, declared him a better painter than Picasso.

"What you experience with Bacon is sheer paint," says Bond. "You look at Picasso carefully and basically you find he does drawings and fills them in."

Bond has organised the first Australian survey of Bacon that will open at the AGNSW in Sydney next month. (He had first attempted a Bacon show in the late 1970s, but the artist disabused him of that idea when, at dinner in London, he dismissed him as a "fucking curator".)

Francis Bacon: Five Decades contains 54 works from international collections including the Tate in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Bacon estate and several private, anonymous lenders.

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition will chart Bacon’s progress from his creepy crucifixion pictures of the 1930s and 40s to his formulaic figure paintings of the 80s. As surveys go, it is shorter than the 2009 retrospective, and just as well. In quantity, Bacon’s appeal starts to wear thin and the hyperbole surrounding his abilities becomes ever more like hot air.

Bacon declared that he had no interest in illustration or narrative.

Everything in his pictures happens in an existential zone where story, sentiment and nostalgia are left at the door. He painted the human form not as a figure but, as French theoretician Gilles Deleuze put it with a capital F, a Figure. In this formulation, the Figure is a conductor of sensation directly into the viewer’s nervous system.

But Bacon’s denial of narrative contradicts the evidence of the pictures, which are all about narrative. In his grief for Dyer, Bacon painted his portrait repeatedly, often in the scene of his suicide. Elsewhere he alludes to classical mythology or art history. In so many paintings, figures are accompanied – like saints in devotional images – by attendants, attributes and other story signposts.

Another false myth that Bacon perpetuated was that he never made drawings, that his pictures were spontaneous gestures with paint: applied by brush, scrubbed on with a scrap of fabric or spurted on to the canvas.

That is a clever ruse because Bacon was no draughtsman. In fact, it appears he did make preparatory sketches for some of his paintings.

Margarita Cappock from Dublin’s the Hugh Lane gallery was responsible for reconstructing Bacon’s studio there. Among the masses of papers, paints, photographs and books, she says, were about 70 drawings that Bacon had made. Also found were stencils for the arrows that he included in some of his late works.

"He obviously pinned them on to a canvas and painted around them," Cappock says. "It’s not something you expect."

Bond, in his AGNSW exhibition, has attempted to get beyond the Bacon myth and to get a look at the artist and his contradictions.

On a recent Friday afternoon, he took me down into the AGNSW storeroom to inspect the gallery’s own Bacon, Study for Self-portrait, 1976. Although a single panel rather than a triptych, the self-portrait could stand in for any number of Bacon’s paintings.

The familiar tropes are there: the seated Figure on a chair, twisting itself into anxiety, the coloured ground and black void, an impossible geometric solid, something icky leaking on the floor.

He habitually painted on the wrong side of the canvas, preferring the rough texture of the back to the smooth, primed surface. The paint could not be manipulated and worked over until he was satisfied with the result: he had to get it right the first time.

Bond points out the different methods Bacon used.

The blue upholstery of the seat is done with spray paint. The arc through the middle of the face is the same arc as a crease in a photo of actress Emmanuelle Riva in Hiroshima Mon Amour. The light blue shading on the face may have been wiped on with a scrap of corduroy.

There’s that void, a white circle, the figure isolated in space.

"What’s extraordinary is the very typical pose of Francis: the legs crossed, the arms folded in towards the legs, the whole thing has this corkscrew feeling to it," Bond says. "The face itself, you barely recognise it as a self-portrait. The most typically Francis thing is that lick of hair at the forehead."

We are looking at this painting in an unusually frank state. It is having some conservation work done before the exhibition and is without the glass-fronted frame that Bacon always insisted on. He consigned his paintings to the fine art museum or the rubbish, nowhere between.

Around the back we can see where Bacon named, signed and dated the picture in black marker. At the front, the tactile quality of the picture is inescapable: the raw brushstrokes, the paint being wiped on with a rag. The immediacy of the mark-making on the canvas makes the artist seem incredibly present.

This, perhaps, is the way to look at Bacon: not behind the safety glass but with the mask off, face to face.

Francis Bacon: Five Decades is at the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, November 17-February 24.




           Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for a Self-Portrait (1979-80).  Metropolitan Museum of Art 





Brian Sewell: I regret being a critic



He had an affair with a married male media star and shielded a spy,


but all Brian Sewell regrets is being a critic





He may be best known as Britain’s most waspish critic, but Brian Sewell’s views on contemporary art are pretty much the least outrageous thing about him. He has been the loyal friend of one of Britain’s most notorious traitors; the errand boy for one famous artist and the confidant and pornographic model for another; and a sexual athlete whose endless stamina and rapacious approach to other people’s husbands is exhausting just to read about.

To Francis Bacon he was an “errand boy” driver. “So ungrateful. I never got a Bacon out of it.” Their weekly habit was to take breakfast at Harrods’ juice bar, where Bacon would invent strange potions. “He would swallow it, then he’d lean back on the stool and very deliberately pick up his right buttock and emit the most appalling of farts.” He chuckles at the idea that this might inspire PhD students: “The influence of the fart on his brushwork.”

Sewell hung out in bars with Lucian Freud, watching him pick up girls, but while he believes that the artist had periods of “bravura painting”, he says that later on “the obsessions creep in. David Dawson’s scrotum. To be so obsessed with the redness of the scrotum — why? It’s so anti-classical. With Freud: enormous testicles, big floppy penis all over the place . . .”

He looks stricken. As for women, “Freud looks at women’s cunts as if he is looking for something. It is a concentrated curiosity which is very disturbing. It isn’t beautiful. Absolutely zoomed in. Pubic hair all over the place, rather untidy labia. Why? Throughout a very long life Freud had such a shrewd eye, but then this obsession.”

Many in the contemporary art world loathe Sewell. He has been punched in the eye by an artist, pummelled by a leather-clad lesbian and the subject of a letter to the Evening Standard from art-world figures calling for his sacking.

“It feels very uncomfortable and I don’t much care for it,” he says. “It is a way of evading any kind of debate.”

He regrets that “I have never been consulted on anything by a minister of the arts or any civil servant in the DCMS [Department for Culture, Media and Sport]. Never.” Still, he is part of a vigorous conversation about art that encourages huge numbers of people to attend exhibitions. “I think they go, but I am not sure that they think,” he sniffs.

He regards his decades of reviewing exhibitions as “a waste. What is the point of writing for newspapers? I would much rather have poured my life into the minutiae of the history of art and left a few odd notes here and there in scholarly magazines.”






Marlborough Fine Art tries to throw off burden of the Rothko scandal





Mayfair’s Marlborough gallery effectively invented the modern art market in the 1960s,

but the notorious Rothko case badly dented its image.

Now a new space to showcase today’s art world stars is giving it fresh direction






On Thursday night, Marlborough Fine Art, which has occupied the ground floor of a fine 18th- century terrace at 6 Albemarle Street, Mayfair, for the last 40 years, opened an upstairs gallery and celebrated the fact with a party attended by the London art world’s most glamorous figures. This was more than a routine office expansion. It was, in the eyes of the Marlborough’s managing director, Gilbert Lloyd, a long-awaited rebirth. Lloyd, a twinkling, bearded man of consummate charm, now 72, is an elusive, semi-mythical figure in his world. A long-time resident of Nassau in the Bahamas, with an accent that still betrays a little of his Austrian ancestry, he started work in the family firm, established by his father, Frank, 50 years ago. In the decades that followed, and before dealers such as Charles Saatchi or Larry Gagosian had their say, for better or worse Marlborough virtually invented the modern art market.

In the 1960s, the gallery was the dealer for Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, Graham Sutherland and Barbra Hepworth, as well as establishing the international reputations of Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and others. In America, where Marlborough opened the doors of a New York gallery in 1963, it was the prime mover of abstract expressionism, taking on the estate of  Jackson Pollock and working exclusively with Robert Motherwell, David Smith and, most infamously, Mark Rothko, an association that was to end in the "art trial of the century". Despite that scandal, Marlborough maintained its place at the top table of the art world. The London gallery continued to represent Auerbach and Paula Rego, among many others.

Gilbert Lloyd is reaching an age when some men could be thinking perhaps of winding down, but instead he has been planning for the shock of the new. With this in mind, he has turned to Andrew Renton, until recently professor of curating at Goldsmiths College, London, to move in upstairs and open Marlborough Contemporary.

At first sight, theirs is an unusual marriage. The academic Renton, 48, has no experience of selling paintings, whereas Lloyd has been happily swimming in the sharkish waters of art dealing for most of his life. Speaking to both of the new partners in advance of their adventure, however, it is hard to say who is the more enthralled. Renton says: "When we first began discussing plans, Gilbert asked, hopefully, ’I expect you will be having a lot of discotheques upstairs?’ He pretends to be the old guard, but he is really excited about it all."

When Renton was approached for the job, at a time when he was "thinking of having leather patches sewn on his elbows" and settling into his tenure at Goldsmiths, alma mater to Damien Hirst and the Sensation group of young British artists, he thought they had the wrong man. He had spent his working life writing and teaching and curating mostly conceptual exhibitions, not whispering up seven-figure prices for painterly modern masters. Eventually, though, he went along to meet Lloyd, if only out of curiosity for "the legend" and "because as a lonely and difficult teenager I used to come to Marlborough to look at art, particularly Francis Bacon".

He was immediately seduced. "It was like meeting a new old friend," he says. "After about three months it became clear that the most interesting thing to do would be for me to create something brand new alongside the original thing. Marlborough London remains a fantastic business. But I suppose there was a feeling from Gilbert that the likes of Frank Auerbach and Paula Rego were not being replaced." 

Lloyd, for his part, suggests that he had been "looking for years and years for the right man to take things forward. It so happened that I found Andrew at the very same time that it became possible to renovate this 18th-century building because all the sub-leases came up in the same month. All the tenants cleared out and we were able to gut the place."

Renton fills in for Lloyd the gaps in his knowledge of contemporary art that had inevitably grown, despite a peripatetic life that sees him and his wife travel the world’s art fairs for much of the year. "I am not ashamed to say I don’t know parts of this new world at all," Lloyd says. "At Frieze [art fair] in London for example, which I always find very invigorating, it is always very difficult for me to pick out from this enormous amount of art what we can sell with a good conscience. Andrew has that eye."

Lloyd, with his precisely clipped beard and immaculate tailoring, believes Renton, who has a shock of black hair and an air of practised dishevelment, can work in the Marlborough tradition. "We have always been after quality and beauty and desirability," Lloyd says. "There is a lot of trophy-hunting which goes on in the art world. At the moment for example, you have to own a Warhol Marilyn. We are not in the business of supplying trophies."

That, of course, is what all art dealers say. When I meet Lloyd at Brown’s hotel over the road from his gallery, he is just back from Art Basel, where the Marlborough stand had a 1954 Rothko from a Swiss collection, a block of orange above a band of pale pink that Lloyd had priced at $78m (£48.7m). Though he had been talking to some interested parties, particularly from South America, the Rothko remained for sale. "It will find a good home this month or next though. It is a very great picture."

To understand what Renton calls the "legend" of Lloyd, it seems important to know a little of where he came from. He is, in some ways, the creation of his father, Frank, who established Marlborough when he was demobbed from the British army in 1946 along with his friend, and fellow Austrian emigre, Harry Fischer. The Marlborough name was chosen because it sounded like an establishment fixture, just as Frank Lloyd had changed his name from Franz Kurt Levai, prompted by the bank at which he opened his London account.

Before the war, Levai’s parents had an antiques shop in the centre of Vienna. In 1938, they lost everything in the Anschluss and his parents eventually perished in Auschwitz. Levai, a Jew, escaped to France with his non-Jewish girlfriend. Gilbert was born in May 1940, the same day his father sailed from St Jean de Luz harbour for Britain. Mother and baby were repatriated by the Gestapo to Austria.

Lloyd never knew his father until he was five, when Frank arrived in a British uniform in the little village outside Salzburg where he and his mother had been hiding all that time. "It had been quite tough," Lloyd recalls, with understatement. "In the village money had no value. My mother’s father taught all his children a trade and she was a seamstress. That saved our lives really. She could make some dresses for a farmer’s wife and in return we could get a quarter of a pig and a kilo of butter for the winter. That was how we lived."

That early deal-making ran deep with Lloyd. They moved to London with his father. A baby sister was born and Lloyd eventually attended the Courtauld Institute of Art before joining what had become the family firm. By that time, Marlborough was already established as one of the biggest players in an expanding international art market. Lloyd and Fischer, and their British partner David Somerset, later the Duke of Beaufort, had seen that after the war there were many possible openings: for the sale of old masters from the British aristocracy fallen on hard times, for the marketing of European artists almost unknown in Britain and America such as Schiele and Klimt and, most crucially, in the establishment of a new generation of postwar masters, of whom there was a potentially unlimited supply.

"In the 60s," Lloyd recalls, "there was a lot of art to be had on the secondary market and living artists were not well looked after at all. There were very few collectors, very few competitors and hardly any money. Marlborough were good at what they did. David Somerset handled the PR and sales [the duke remains Marlborough chairman], Harry Fischer was the intellectual salesman and my father was the businessman who loved art and who concentrated on providing the capital."

The catalogues boxed in the basement of the current gallery are a testament to that endeavour. "When we opened premises at 39 Old Bond Street," Lloyd recalls, "we had an exhibition of 18 Van Gogh self-portraits. It would be impossible to do that now. The engineer Van Gogh, Vincent’s nephew, who was heir to the Van Gogh estate, came to the opening. I remember him well, a charming old Dutchman."

For a short while, it seemed Marlborough had almost everything to itself. "For one thing, the auction houses were rather fuddy-duddy and not at all active," Lloyd says. "Though that all changed one night in the mid 60s, when for the first time we were invited by Peter Wilson to an evening auction at Sotheby’s. Black tie. And all us dealers thought, ’What is going on here? Auctions happen at 11 in the morning and no one goes.’ That was the beginning of the auction houses’ rocket-like ascent and in a more modest way Marlborough took off alongside them."

It was not all high octane. Lloyd well remembers the years when "we used to celebrate for a week when we sold a Bacon; we would celebrate for two weeks when we sold an Auerbach. These British painters were totally out of fashion," he says, even, if you went to a client’s home in Dallas, Texas, say, something of an embarrassment. "I remember one man in particular, Jim Clark, had a wonderful collection of Mondrians," Lloyd says. "At some point in our meeting, Mrs Clark would say, ’Show us some of your newer gallery art’ and I would bring out a large Bacon of two men in the nude cavorting in a field. This would tend to cause a deathly hush."

Francis Bacon signed a 10-year contract with Marlborough in 1958 that began with Frank Lloyd’s undertaking to settle a £5,000 gambling debt the artist had incurred and which guaranteed money against future paintings. In the terms of the contract, a painting measuring 20in by 24in was valued at £165; one of 65in by 78in £420. Bacon was contracted to supply the gallery with £3,600 worth of paintings each year. Bacon called his Marlborough employers "the old uncles" and was known to joke of Frank Lloyd: "I’d rather be in the hands of a competent crook than in the hands of an incompetent honest man." The gallery’s administrator, Valerie Beston, became his celebrated helpmeet and protection from the world, and even after he withdrew from that original contract and his paintings were selling for hundreds of thousands of pounds, Bacon retained a loyal affiliation to the gallery.

"Bacon’s exhibition in the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971 was one of the most stunning moments of my life," Lloyd says. "You knew that the explosion was going to happen for Francis and that was the moment. But I am also rather pleased for example to have been with Francis in Berlin for his retrospective in 1984 and walked along the Berlin Wall with him and, although I warned him against it, taken him to East Berlin. He wanted a slap-up meal there, though we didn’t find one of course. He went to see the Pergamon Altar. We spent a lot of time together. I always thought being a dealer is a bit like being the oil in the gear case of the artist’s life."

This efficient anonymity was undone for Marlborough in 1972 with the Rothko trial, which still attaches itself to the gallery’s name 40 years on. When I bring it up with Lloyd he winces slightly and a little wearily.

"It is inevitable that people will talk about it," he says. "As far as I am concerned it was a very bad chapter for Marlborough, but it was dealt with by the judicial system and everything was cleared up; we came out of it with a black eye and we have long considered it history."

It is, however, history with a capital H. At the time, the trial was routinely called the Watergate of the art world, casting light on the murkier practices of millionaire dealers and their clients. When Mark Rothko died in 1970, he left behind 800 paintings in the hands of his appointed trustees, a triumvirate of men who were very close to Marlborough and Frank Lloyd. A hundred of those paintings were quickly sold to the gallery for $1.8m, a fraction of their market value. In 1972, Rothko’s 20-year-old daughter, Kate, on behalf of herself and her eight-year-old brother, Christopher, sued the trustees and the gallery over the terms of that deal and the alleged exploitation of her father’s work. The court case lasted eight months and became a cause celebre in liberal New York, as it exposed the ways in which Marlborough (in common with other dealers) manipulated the market and its artists to hugely rewarding advantage, using a base in Liechtenstein legally but shadily to avoid taxes on the art it bought and sold.

Frank Lloyd became a media pariah for his performance in the witness box, telling one reporter: "I collect money, not art." The critic Robert Hughes, commenting on the trial, suggested Lloyd senior was viewed by the New York public as a combination of "Fu Manchu and Goldfinger", the foreign plutocrat resident in Nassau defrauding the orphans of tortured artists. Marlborough and the trustees lost the case and Marlborough was ordered to pay more than $9m in damages and fines. Later, it was discovered Lloyd had sold some of Rothko’s paintings in contravention of a temporary ruling and had tampered with the gallery’s books to cover up the deals. Another consignment of Rothko paintings was reportedly bound for Liechtenstein before prosecutors, who had been tipped off, intercepted them.

Frank Lloyd originally moved to Nassau in part to escape American justice, although he returned to face a criminal trial in 1982, a conviction resulting in a fine and a requirement to teach in New York public art schools. He was also forced to leave the company, its reputation severely compromised, to be managed by Gilbert, his sister, Barbara, and their cousin, Pierre Levai, who remains president of Marlborough New York.

Gilbert Lloyd is necessarily practised in playing down the impact of the trial on Marlborough’s reputation. "There were some consequences. Some of the more politically correct American artists rather sadly said, "We have to leave.’" This is a reference to the loss of the Jackson Pollock estate and the abrupt departure of Robert Motherwell, who said of Frank Lloyd: "If you are in his power, he is ruthless" and: "He knows everyone has his price; Lloyd’s potency is money."

"But generally speaking," Lloyd maintains, "there were not so many defections."

When I ask the about the frustrations in what seems a generally golden life, Lloyd talks about the fact that "I was never able to do exactly what I wanted when my father was in charge. He was a great man, but he ruled the place with a fist of iron. When he left the scene, half my life was gone and I really had to try very hard to change the direction of the gallery."

One of the difficulties of that change was that after the Rothko case a slew of other litigation followed, attempting to use the Rothko ruling as a precedent. Marlborough was faced with defending its actions against the estates of  Naum Gabo, Kurt Schwitters  and most famously that of Francis Bacon, which looked back at that original 10-year contract and sought retrospective compensation. None of these suits was successful; the Bacon case, pursued by John Edwards, the former publican who was Bacon’s heir, was dropped before it came to court.

Not surprisingly, Lloyd is somewhat rueful about this part of his father’s legacy. "He was an enormous influence on me. But he has been dead a long time now. I really like to think I turned over a new page. He started it all, but I feel we are very much a different generation."

One of the motivations for opening the new gallery, you imagine, is to emphasise that fact and to secure the wider legacy of the family firm. Lloyd is proud to report that the "builder has constructed Marlborough Contemporary to last for a couple of centuries". Having lived through precarious times, he is interested in permanence.

Andrew Renton, for his part, thinks it is "amazing that the Rothko case is still on the radar. Gilbert feels strongly they paid their dues. But people bring it up, artists are conscious of it. It is partly I think because we can’t get our heads around the concept of someone like Rothko being represented in that way. If one painting is worth $78m, what would 100 paintings be worth?"

When he announced his new role, one artist friend gave Renton a gift of the book that details the events of the trial along with the instructions not to open it inside the gallery. When he read it, he says, it seemed to reflect a different era entirely. "Some of the things that Marlborough was accused of – manipulating the PR of museum exhibitions or supporting their artist for the Venice biennale – you think: ’Isn’t that exactly what our job is?’"

Those long-blurred boundaries between the commercial and public, educational art worlds are personified in Renton’s appointment. It is one thing to back your judgment academically, I suggest, but quite another pressure to put your money, or the gallery’s money, where your mouth is.

Renton laughs. "Absolutely. This is a business. But having worked a large part of my life in the public sector I know how enabling collecting art is. The fact that people buy art makes art possible. You can wait for public funding for ever."

He has enjoyed sitting in inner-sanctum meetings with Lloyd and his fellow directors, who have all been with Marlborough since at least the 1960s, and in the case of David Somerset from the beginning. "What I get is that arc of history. They have seen four or five recessions come and go."

Although he has consulted on establishing several important collections, the closest Renton has previously come to running a commercial gallery was in a space in 1996 that someone had given him rent-free. "It was basically a corridor that had its own front door," he says. "One day, we had a crisis because one of the artists we showed sold a book. I called him up and said, ’I have 25 quid but I don’t know what to do with the money.’ He said: ’Do you want to go for a curry?’"

That artist, Ian Whittlesea, is among those that Renton has contracted to Marlborough Contemporary. He also plans exhibitions with the Belgian painter Koen van den Broek and the video artist Adam Chodzko. The gallery with an installation by the Mozambique-born artist Ângela Ferreira, who looks at the influence of modernism in Africa, in a documentary spirit, "and is about as far from a traditional Marlborough artist as you could get," Renton says.

Ferreira’s show is upstairs from a display of new work by Frank Auerbach. Lloyd enjoys the contrast. "We have been a gallery dealing with easel paintings and bronzes in limited editions. I never dealt in works with motors and flashing lights and televisions because I was always worried about how you maintain them. I mean, if you have something featuring a television made in 1960, what do you do when it goes wrong? Nowadays, though, with digital media, they are to a certain extent indestructible."

Having seen at first hand the difficulties created by a domineering managing director in his father, Lloyd is determined not to cramp Renton’s style. "I am not going to interfere one iota. That said, I am on the phone to him every day discussing plans."

The only point on which the two men seem slightly to diverge is the length of time it will take to make the new gallery a success. Renton talks in terms of five- and 10-year plans. I get the idea that Lloyd is a little less patient than that. "I am 72," he says. "I am looking forward to some buzz." By which I guess he means sales.

Does he still love the art of the deal? "It is an enormous thrill," he says. "It is not about the price, it is the making of a good sale. I don’t like much these individuals who walk around in faded blue jeans and white shirts open to the navel saying they are ’gallerists’ and not in it to make money." Money has always to be at the heart of it? "It has to be," he says, determinedly, before adding: "But only to make all the other good things happen."






                 Denis Wirth-Miller, Frank Lloyd, Gilbert Lloyd and Francis Bacon leaving The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1975.







Monstrous war: Francis Bacon’s

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion




In Bacon’s delightfully disturbing triptych, a Europe of death camps has

become a breeding ground for nauseating monster






 No artist anywhere during the second world war revealed its destruction of lives and meanings as ruthlessly as Francis Bacon does here.

A Europe of death camps has become a breeding ground for nauseating monsters in this brutal requiem for art and god.

Bacon’s three creatures, grey-fleshed, unpleasantly phallic, are set in an airless theatre of reddish light. This is a seriously disturbing, horribly great work of art
Illustration: Currently on display at the National Galleries of Scotland.










Francis Bacon at the Palazzo Strozzi








The Palazzo’s recently restored cellars, traditionally known as ‘La Strozzina’, are Palazzo Strozzi’s main platform for contemporary culture, hosting a broad range of events, activities and exhibitions representing the entire spectrum of contemporary creative activity.

Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art, co-curated by Franziska Nori (Director of the CCCS) and Barbara Dawson (Director of the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, Dublin), hosts work by contemporary artists who breathe life into states of mind and into the kinds of questions we ask ourselves in our relationship with our own interior being, our own body and the outside world, especially today as we face the crisis in values that is gripping contemporary society.

The exhibition gets off to a masterly start with a core of paintings by the great Francis Bacon, whose work dialogues with that of five contemporary artists of international renown – Nathalie Djurberg, Adrian Ghenie, Arcangelo Sassolino, Chiharu Shiota and Annegret Soltau – all of whom share Bacon’s reflection on man’s existential condition and on the depiction of the human figure.

Alongside major works from international collections, the exhibition presents, for the first time in Italy, four unfinished works by Bacon which he kept in his workshop for many years and which have been on display in the DCG The Hugh Lane since 2005.  They include what is thought to be the artist’s last work, discovered on an easel in his Reece Mews workshop in London while he was on his deathbed in Madrid in 1992.  These canvases bear witness to one of the typical work processes espoused by the artist, involving setting aside but holding on to a partly finished painting in order to then return to it and complete it later on.

Bacon used time as a tool for working on images and on the decaying process of his support materials, causing traces of the passage of time to build up in layers.  These traces went on to become ‘scars’, which play a crucial role in helping us to understand the creative process on which his work is based.  The individual human figures, incapable of finding complete definition in the space offered by the painting, become effective visual syntheses that condense and reflect the traces of memory of the artist’s troubled life.

Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art    5 October 2012 to 27 January 2013




                                                                            Francis Bacon, Turning Figure, 1962





Out & About: Francis Bacon





Nicola Harvey ABC Arts Friday 28 September, 2012


What role does art play in your day to day life? In an ongoing series ABC Arts’ bloggers discuss the events, shows and artists who have inspired and excited them. This week, Nicola Harvey learns about Francis Bacon at the AGNSW Study for self-portrait: Francis Bacon’s Britain 

Francis Bacon was born in 1909 and died in 1992. In the words of Anthony Bond, the curatorial director at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the British artist “saw an extraordinary century”. His art – paintings, drawings, and early on furniture design – tracks this century and the great events that unfolded throughout. In November, AGNSW will present Francis Bacon Five Decades an exhibition featuring over 50 of Bacon’s works sourced from collections around the world. 

It’s the first major exhibition of Bacon’s work in Australia and marks 20 years since his death. For many, Bond included, his legacy still looms large. Damien Hirst has said Bacon took painting to a new level, “there’s no-one really like him.” 

This month and next, the gallery is hosting a series of lectures exploring Bacon’s work. In the first, on September 16, Anthony Bond regaled us with tales of Bacon’s youth. I learned things few art history books have imparted. Did you know, for example, Bacon was a chronic asthmatic? It was a condition his domineering father found intolerable. He considered his son a wimp for not ‘mucking in with the horses’ (Bacon’s father was a military man turned racehorse trainer). But while Bacon may have found working in the stables difficult, playing in the stables (with the young grooms) was a regular source of amusement. 

In 1927, according to Bond, Bacon’s father, Captain Anthony Edward Mortimer Bacon, Eddie as he was known to friends, discovered the young man wearing his mother’s underwear. It was the final straw and Bacon was banished from the farm and sent to Berlin, straight into the heart of the extravagant, dazzling nightlife of the Weimar Republic. There his artistic career commenced and over the following decades he slowly established himself as one of the great figurative painters of the 20th century. 

In coming months, Meredith Burgmann, Tom Wright, Justice Michael Kirby and Craig Judd, among others, will talk about Bacon’s life and career, and the culture movements that rocked Britain during his lifetime. 


Related information

The eight-part lecture series is hosted at the AGNSW from September 16 - November 18. Coming up this Sunday at 10.30am, Dr Christopher Hartney examines shock tactics in the Bacon’s work and British cinema. 

Top image: Francis Bacon in his Reece Mews studio. May 1970 (Photographer: Michael Pergolani, Dublin Gallery The Hugh Lane, Art Gallery New South Wales)

WATCH:  Behind the scenes at the Art Gallery of New South Wales as they prepare for Francis Bacon: Five Decades 








Contemporary Art Evening Sale


London | 12 October 2012 | L12024



Untitled (Head of a Woman) - Lisa Sainsbury 


Lot 31   FRANCIS BACON 1909 - 1992



oil on canvas
50.4 by 61.9cm.
19 7/8 by 24 3/8 in.
Executed circa 1955-57.


Estimate: 600,000 - 800,000 GBP   Lot Sold: 337,250 GBP

Please note that this work will be included in the forthcoming Francis Bacon: The Catalogue Raisonné, edited by Martin Harrison.



Collection of the artist
Paul Danquah (acquired directly from the artist circa 1958) 
Private Collection, United Kingdom (acquired in 2000)
Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York
Pacific Heights Gallery, San Francisco
Private Collection
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner



New York, Gagosian Gallery, Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers: Portraits by Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon, 2008, p. 171, illustrated in colour


Catalogue Note

“They were all done not as a commission but as an act of friendship.”

Lisa Sainsbury cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Norwich, University of East Anglia, Trapping Appearance- Portraits by Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti from the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, 1996, p. 30.

One of four surviving works from an original series of eight studies depicting Lisa Sainsbury, the present work offers a rare account of a subject privileged enough to sit for the artist. Untitled (Head of a Woman – Lisa Sainsbury)1955-57, captures wonderfully the formative features of Francis Bacon’s analysis of the human head and demonstrates an early exploration of the single head portrait that was to become, as John Russell notes, "the scene of some of Bacon’s most ferocious investigations" (John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 99).

Executed in the embryonic stages of his life-long investigation to visually explain the variations of the human condition through pictorial representation, Head Untitled (Head of a Woman – Lisa Sainsbury) superbly encapsulates the essence of the sitter. Here, Bacon displays an array of textures and techniques that, much like Giacometti’s sculptures of women, coalesce the head of someone he knew “with that of an Egyptian sculpture in all its formal rigour and monumental grandeur” (David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p.203). Lisa’s delicate features are built up with layers of paint; smeared strokes of pink and mauve contrast against a rich black ground that magnifies the presence of the figure. The treatment of the mouth an area of intense scrutiny for Bacon  radiates serenity, her plump rose lips exuding none of the violence of the gaping mouths that are present in his earlier Head series, and suggests a warm assessment of the sitter by the artist. 

Among the first collectors of Bacon’s work, Lisa Sainsbury and her husband Robert were first introduced to Bacon at a party by Erica Brausen of the Hanover Gallery. The Sainsburys, who had already amassed an eclectic collection, including works of Pre-Colombian, African, Japanese and Oceanic art, immediately became admirers, and began to purchase a number of paintings. They accumulated a collection, later donated to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, of thirteen works, including: Sketch for Portrait of Lisa 1955, Portrait of Lisa 1956 and Portrait of Lisa 1957 that provides an outstanding example of Bacon’s corpus of work from the 1950’s.

Lisa Sainsbury had a deep respect for Bacon’s artistic practice and the collaboration with Bacon began after she commissioned him to paint her husband Robert. By this time, Bacon had moved from his studio in Cromwell Place and, after several years of wandering from lodging to lodging, had moved to a flat on Prince of Wales Drive that belonged Paul Danquah and Peter Pollock. It was here, during the period of 1955-1957, that Lisa sat for Bacon every week, ceasing only when he was abroad in Tangier. During this pivotal time Bacon worked intensely, making a concerted effort to work directly from life. Indeed such was Bacon’s affection for Lisa that, as Daniel Farson recalls, "For once, Francis encouraged them to sit for him: Lisa for several pictures" (Daniel Farson, The Guilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 90)  This practice marked a stark, albeit brief, departure from the artist’s preferred method of working solely from commissioned photographs of friends and lovers that acted as a visual aide in which he could project their presence onto the canvas, and elevates the present work’s unique significance within Bacon’s entire oeuvre.  Bacon developed a total of eight studies but owing to his dissatisfaction with his work only four studies, including the present, survive.  As Lisa Sainsbury recalls in an interview with David Sylvester, “I would sit and then I might come back two or three times and suddenly there was a message saying it was gone…He worked at them again and destroyed them but the final one was done very quickly indeed.” (David Sylvester in: Exhibition Catalogue, Norwich, University of East Anglia, Trapping Appearance Portraits by Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti from the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, 1996, p. 30).

Bacon, as Christoph Heinrich notes, “…sets out to convey the specific energy of very different individuals through painting" (Exhibition Catalogue, Milan, Palazzo Reale, Bacon, 2008, p. 55). Where many of Bacon’s portraits are fraught with intense struggles of emotion, Untitled (Head of a Woman – Lisa Sainsbury) demonstrates a calmness that serves both as a testament to the valued connection that resonated between the pair, and seamlessly displays Bacon’s ability to capture the spirit of a sitter who, in the case of Lisa Sainsbury, was to remain a constant source of support throughout his career.





Sotheby’s to sell Francis Bacon Screaming Pope


SPEAR’S, Thursday 27 September 2012


On 13 November 2012 Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York will offer one of the most important versions of Francis Bacon’s iconic Pope Paintings ever to have appeared at auction. The vision of screaming Popes emerged from the desolate shadows of the Second World War as humanity tried to make sense of the horrors that had been committed during those years.

This version was painted circa 1954 and is closely related to the artist’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, the seminal masterpiece that is now housed in the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa. Untitled (Pope) has been in the same private collection since a 1975 auction at Sotheby’s London and is estimated to fetch $18/25 million (£11/15 million)*. The work goes on public exhibition for the first time in nearly 40 years at Sotheby’s Los Angeles on 27 September before being shown in London from 7 October and Doha later this autumn.

Francis Bacon’s Pope portraits are some of the most radical and provocative paintings to have appeared in the years immediately following World War II. The viewer is presented with the Supreme Pontiff, the totem of enlightened perception and order against chaos, violently wracked by the brutal terror of the post-war reality.

The Papal imagery and its inspiration first started to appear in Bacon’s work in the late 1940s, however this version is more closely allied to a cycle of eight Study for Portraits from 1953 that were created for an exhibition at Durlacher Brothers in New York – Bacon’s first show outside England. These paintings can be found in museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C., the Minneapolis Institute, the Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College as well as several distinguished private collections, but this painting most closely relates to the pivotal version in Des Moines.

This series is based upon the 1649 state portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velázquez, court painter to King Phillip IV of Spain. Velázquez dutifully portrays Innocent as the most powerful man in the world surrounded by the luxurious trappings of his office, yet also as a fallible mortal who must face the burdens and pitfalls of his position.

In Untitled (Pope) Bacon removes the idiosyncrasies of the grand state portrait. They are replaced by a more intimate depiction of pain and suffering inspired by the screaming nurse figure in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 movie The Battleship Potemkin and the clenched fist from Edweard Muybridge’s photograph Striking a Blow with the Right Hand.

It has previously been thought that Bacon had not seen the Velázquez original when he painted this circa 1954 work. However, new research has suggested that he could have been familiar with another version of the Innocent X painting. A smaller rendering belonged to the Duke of Wellington and was housed at Apsley House in London, just a short walk from Bacon’s studio at the Royal College of Art. Apsley House was opened to the public in 1952 meaning Bacon could well have studied this version at first-hand prior to starting his cycle of papal portraits.

Francis Bacon’s depictions of Popes are among his most important paintings encompassing many of the themes and iconography that fueled his artistic output over the following decades. Untitled (Pope) is emblematic of these, and of an artist who had such a dramatic effect on post-war art.






Francis Bacon ‘screaming pope’ painting to be sold at auction



Picture from one of artist’s most provocative series of works has hung in same private collection for 40 years





One of Francis Bacon’s "screaming pope" paintings which has hung in the same private collection for nearly 40 years is to be auctioned with an estimate of 200 times what it was bought for. The work, Untitled (Pope), was painted around 1954 and is from one of Bacon’s best known and most provocative series of works.

It will be sold at Sotheby’s, New York, on 13 November. The seller is in for a big windfall. It was bought in 1975 at Sotheby’s in London for £71,500 and is expected to fetch $18m-25m (£15m).

Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s senior international specialist in contemporary art, said: "Bacon is the artist everybody is seeking at the moment, he is in many ways top of the pile. To find something of this date, of this subject, of this importance is really a very notable moment."

He said he had been working and advising on the picture for six years. "It has been a slight personal odyssey and it is incredibly exciting to be able to share this with a wider audience because it is not a painting that’s widely known. It has been tucked away in an extremely discreet private place and it is so fantastic to be able to announce it to the world. "It has been in a wonderful home and it’s now time to find a new home. We are very excited because it comes at a time when some incredibly rare and fresh to market material is coming to market."

Bacon’s pope series was inspired by Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X and Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. It became a way for the artist to express post-war horror and what mankind was capable of.

The pope being sold is closely related to a famous Bacon hanging in the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa – Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X. It goes on display in Los Angeles on Thursday and will travel to London this autumn.



                                      A detail from Francis Bacon’s Untitled (Pope), to be sold at Sotheby’s in New York





Francis Bacon Screaming Pope’ to fetch £15 million



The Screaming Pope’ painting, which one of Francis Bacon’s provocative Pope series of works and has been in a private

collection for 40 years, is to be sold at Sotheby’s, New York





After nearly 40 years in one private collection, one of Francis Bacon’s "Screaming Pope" paintings is to be auctioned. The work, Untitled (Pope), work, painted around 1954, was bought for £71,500 in 1975 at Sotheby’s in London, and is estimated to be fetch 200 times what it was bought for. If the estimates are correct, the sale at Sotheby’s, New York, on 13 November, could net the current owner a windfall of $18-25m (£15m).

Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s senior international specialist in contemporary art, said: "Bacon is the artist everybody is seeking at the moment, he is in many ways top of the pile. To find something of this date, of this subject, of this importance is really a very notable moment."

"It has been a slight personal odyssey and it is incredibly exciting to be able to share this with a wider audience because it is not a painting that’s widely known. It has been tucked away in an extremely discreet private place and it is so fantastic to be able to announce it to the world.

If the estimates are correct, the sale at Sotheby’s, New York, on 13 November, could net the current owner a windfall of $18-25m (£15m).

Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s senior international specialist in contemporary art, said: "Bacon is the artist everybody is seeking at the moment, he is in many ways top of the pile. To find something of this date, of this subject, of this importance is really a very notable moment."

"It has been a slight personal odyssey and it is incredibly exciting to be able to share this with a wider audience because it is not a painting that’s widely known. It has been tucked away in an extremely discreet private place and it is so fantastic to be able to announce it to the world.

"It has been in a wonderful home and it’s now time to find a new home. We are very excited because it comes at a time when some incredibly rare and fresh to market material is coming to market."

Bacon’s Pope series was inspired by Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X and Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.

The Pope being sold is closely related to a famous Bacon hanging in the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa – Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X



                                                   Francis Bacon’s ’Screaming Pope’ portrait is due to be sold at auction




Francis Bacon rugs remain an enigma after second withdrawl



A pair of rugs signed Francis Bacon, and thought to relate to the artist’s early career as

an interior decorator, have been withdrawn from sale for the second time in three years.





Newcastle auctioneers Anderson & Garland, who had estimated the rugs at £180,000-220,000, were not at liberty to discuss their decision not to offer them in their September 11 sale but their withdrawal adds another chapter to a fascinating story.

The recent history of the two Modernist rugs, measuring 5ft 5in x 3ft (1.65m x 91cm) and 7ft 4in x 3ft (2.24m x 91cm) and each signed in the weave Francis Bacon, begins in 2008 when both were consigned to the bi-monthly carpet sale at Netherhampton Saleroom, near Salisbury. The consignor, a Portobello Road rug dealer, is reported to have famously asked specialist Ian Bennett: "Who is Francis Bacon darling?"

Subsequent correspondence with the Francis Bacon Foundation raised the possibility that they might be among Bacon’s earliest works perhaps made c.1929 when the 19-year-old artist, fresh from travelling in Europe, set himself up in a studio at 17 Queensberry Mews West, South Kensington, as an interior decorator and furniture designer.

While Bacon later sought to destroy evidence of this career in soft furnishings (he himself described his efforts as poor imitations of the generic Cubist style), records of two exhibitions, an article in The Studio magazine titled ’1930 Look in British Decoration’ and a handful of the objects themselves have survived.

Speculation prior to their sale in March 2009 revolved around just how much the new discoveries might bring (the estimate was £50,000-80,000), but two days before the sale the vendor chose to withdraw them. Anderson & Garland described their source as ’a German collection since 2009’.

Since then further research has been undertaken into Bacon’s rugs - and these two carpets in particular.

In Hali magazine (number 162) Berkshire-based dealer Clive Rogers and Jean Manuel de Noronha compared the half-dozen undisputed Bacon rugs, known to have been made at the Royal Wilton Carpet factory, with the Netherhampton pair.

They concluded the yarns, knotting technique, pile and handle were significantly different (comparable to the work of the Killybegs factory in Co. Donegal) and demonstrated that the design for these two rugs that so prominently displayed the Francis Bacon signature was, in fact, made c.1927 by the well-known French Art Deco textile artist Ivan da Silva Bruhns (1880-1980).

"Quite what Bacon has to do with these rugs, if anything, remains a mystery, as does the date of manufacture," said Clive Rogers on hearing that the rugs had been withdrawn from sale for a second time.

"I must concede that they might be the copies of a 19-year-old impressed by the lights of 1920s Paris and Berlin with family connections in Eire. That, or the regurgitation of the shelved project at Donegal once Bacon’s fame was rising."

In short, they remain an enigma.




Neil Libbert: the faces that came to define an era – in pictures










The French House in Soho was the location for this impromptu shot of Francis Bacon.


Libbert had called in for a lunchtime pint and found the pub empty apart from the painter, who drank there regularly.


There was no film in Libbert’s camera so he loaded it surreptitiously and then secretly took two shots.


Bacon was so deep in thought he did not notice him.


Libbert never intended the picture to be published but it eventually appeared in the Observer some years later alongside the artist’s obituary.


The National Portrait Gallery’s solo exhibition of photographs by Neil Libbert celebrates his 55 years as an award-winning photojournalist for the Observer, the Guardian and many other publications.


So often in the right place at the right time, Libbert has captured many of today’s biggest names at the start – and also at the height – of their careers. Here we tell some of the stories behind these compelling portraits.


The exhibition, Neil Libbert: Photojournalist, runs from 17 September 2012 to 21 April 2013.







                                                     FRANCIS BACON 14 December 1984








Francis Bacon was a shock merchant, not a Nazi



Reports that the artist was influenced by Third Reich imagery have missed the point:

Bacon loved nothing more than to challenge and disgust the world with his work





Francis Bacon’s painting Triptych May–June 1973 portrays the last days of his lover George Dyer. A man squats in a black doorway, his shadow emerging like a bat. Deep purples promise: there will be blood. Bacon painted this corruscating vision of despair after Dyer killed himself.  You cannot call it an act of mourning for Dyer. It is too brutal. Perhaps it is a history painting, giving one man’s suicide the status of a world-shattering event.

Bacon made use of Dyer’s death in his art because this stupendous painter’s only ethos was his belief in painting itself. Everything was worth stuffing into the violent sausage mill of his art if it made for a potent image – even a lover’s suicide. So how is it surprising that Bacon also used Nazi imagery in his deliberately shocking pictures?

A silly-season art story has it that Bacon made massive use of Third Reich imagery and that champions of his work deliberately ignored this. The story, inspired by a new book,  is misleading in two ways. First, Bacon never concealed his interest in such imagery, and nor did critical admirers in his lifetime. Second, the "discovery" changes nothing about how Bacon’s art ought to be interpreted. A man who painted his closest friends with vicious intimacy was never a sentimental liberal type full of good will. The malignity in Bacon is self-evident. What makes him a great artist is the visceral force of his sense of human life as a godless disaster area. The Nazis fit rather well into that vision.

Bacon’s Nazi references are no mystery, and no surprise. It is false to pretend his admirers glossed over them. In this radio programme, his most famous champion, David Sylvester, discusses how Bacon used the swastika as an artistic image. And here is Sylvester again, on swastikas and cricket pads in Bacon’s art.  

The sensational speculations now being relished about Bacon hinge on the idea that, in seeing his second world war tropes as formal painterly effects, his fans have ignored the underlying issue – that Bacon was promoting Nazism, or sympathetic to it. This is a childish, glib, and leaden way of hitting a poetic artist on the head with the rolled-up newspaper of literalism. Bacon created a monstrous, surreal imaginative world of enclosed rooms and private hells. Nazi armbands fitted naturally into his vision too.

The impact of Bacon’s art after the second world war had a lot to do with the fact that he was the first artist who captured what the war revealed about the terrible truths of human capabilities. The opening of concentration camps such as Belsen in 1945 and the images of industrial mass slaughter that were Hitler’s ultimate legacy left most artists incapable of matching horror with horror. Picasso’s painting The Charnel House barely hints at the real nightmare of the Holocaust. Yet when Bacon’s wartime masterpiece Three Figures for the Base of a Crucifixion was first exhibited, it caused a familiar shudder: here was an art that rose, or rather sank, to the challenge of representing the worst crimes imaginable.

In his later paintings, Bacon shows people enacting brutalities on one another in a terror that never ends. It was not the Nazis who obsessed him. It was their crimes.




                      Deliberately shocking ... Francis Bacon







Interviewing Francis Bacon






The first time that I saw British painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) talking about his art, was when I was a student at the academy of arts in Arnhem (The Netherlands) in the 1990s. The documentary the teacher showed us was probably The Brutality of Fact by Michael Blackwood (1984). As an aspiring artist, I was deeply impressed by the ease and persuasiveness with which Bacon spoke about his unsettling paintings. Years later, when I had started to work on a PhD project about controlling the representation of modern artists at VU University in Amsterdam, I selected Bacon as a case study, in particular because he was interviewed repeatedly.


Bacon, who was notorious for his often as ‘violent’ characterised paintings of screaming popes and distorted bodies, as well as for his extravagant life style, was also known for the eloquence with which he talked about his art. He was easy to talk to, and was interviewed countless times by numerous critics. However, when studying Bacon’s paintings one soon comes across the published interviews with art historian, critic and curator David Sylvester (1924- 2001). In fact, it was Sylvester who interviewed Bacon in the documentary that I had seen in the 1990s.


When he first interviewed Bacon in 1962, Sylvester was interviewing several contemporary artists, such as Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell. But as he kept interviewing Bacon – he interviewed him as many as 18 times between 1962 and 1986 – the interviews received a status apart within his career as a critic, and Sylvester became interconnected with the painter. He was not able to really take his distance until after Bacon had died in 1992, or so he wrote in the book Looking Back at Francis Bacon (2000).1


In this paper I will argue that the interviews with Francis Bacon are carefully constructed and not very reliable as a form of oral history. However, they are very interesting material from the point of view of the representation of the artist and his strong influence on the interpretation of his work. In order to illustrate this, I will discuss several themes that reoccur within the interviews, such as the mythological beginning of his career as a painter with the triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), his working methods and the role of his studio. Furthermore, I will discuss the interviews as a marketing tool, and Sylvester’s own reflection on the interviews, which he discussed with art historian Andrew Brighton at the London Tate in 2000. In the last few decades, artists’ interviews have become an important source and tool in art historical discourse and research, but their usefulness and reliability can differ significantly, as can be demonstrated with the Bacon interviews.



The interviews


Sylvester’s first interview with Bacon was recorded in October 1962 and broadcasted on BBC radio on March 23, 1963.2 Although they had known each other since the 1950s, and Sylvester already had written about his work, the idea for the interview was not Sylvester’s.3 Instead, BBC radio had asked him to interview him following Bacon’s successful one-man show at the Tate Gallery in 1962. In the previous years, Sylvester had kept his distance towards Bacon because he found Bacon’s critical response to Jackson Pollock’s paintings childish and he did not like the paintings that Bacon himself was producing around 1957-1958.4


The first interview was structured around the term accident – one of Bacon’s favourite terms. With accident Bacon meant that he might have had a general idea about what he was going to paint, but that through the process of painting he came to different insights and solutions.5 In the interview Bacon and Sylvester discuss several themes that would reoccur in all Bacon interviews: next to the elements of accident and chance Bacon refers to his image depository – when Sylvester asks him about the influence of a Cimabue crucifixion (1272-4) – and says that: “Yes, they breed images for me. And of course one’s always hoping of renewing them.”6 But they also discuss his tendency to destroy his paintings, even the better ones, his lack of using preliminary sketches or drawings, and his wish to avoid story telling, or a narrative interpretation of his paintings. Lastly, they discuss Velázquez and the influence of photography on his work. Although the interviews were held over the course of more than twenty years, their tone and contents are very consistent and one hardly notices the passage of time.


The published interviews are often related to radio broadcasts or documentaries. For instance, the second interview is a compilation of material derived from three days of shooting for the BBC documentary Francis Bacon: Fragments of a Portrait by Michael Gill in 1966. The fifth interview was partially based on recordings for Weekend Television in 1975 and the eighth interview is correlated to the documentary The Brutality of Fact by Michael Blackwood that was mentioned earlier.



The first work


It is no coincidence that the first interview, both in the edited edition as in the radio broadcast, starts with a discussion of Three Studies of Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), the triptych that Bacon regarded as his first autonomous work of art.7 Bacon always claimed that his career as a painter began with this triptych. The only earlier work that he acknowledged was Crucifixion (1933). Bacon, who had initially worked as an interior designer and designer of modernist furniture and carpets, started painting seriously around 1933, although some paintings from the 1920s have survived.8 These early works were heavily influenced by artists like Pablo Picasso, Graham Sutherland and Roy de Maistre, something Bacon did not like to acknowledge, except for the influence of Picasso.9 To interviewers he always downplayed this period as a time in which he was drifting and drinking; but not working seriously as an artist.


In the third interview Sylvester asks Bacon why he was such a late starter. He suggests that Bacon did exceptional work, both as a designer, and as a painter in the early 1930s, but that he did not do a lot of painting in the following years. Bacon answers: “No. I didn’t. I enjoyed myself.”10 Bacon also states that he did not consider painting as a serious profession until much later. But if this were right, why then would he consider participating in the group shows at the Mayor Gallery in 1933 and Agnew’s Gallery in 1937, both in London? He even organised a solo exhibition of his own work in the so-called Transition Gallery in 1934. As one of Bacon’s biographers, Michael Peppiatt, argued, Bacon was so disappointed about the harsh critiques that he received of his works at these exhibitions, that he destroyed all the unsold works.11


Subsequently, Bacon always claimed that he did not paint between 1937-1944, but it is more likely that he did paint, but was not satisfied with the results and destroyed the paintings, as was his habit; being a severe critic of his own work.12 Only when he was confident enough about his new work, supported by artist Graham Sutherland and his new lover Eric Hall, did he exhibit again; in a group show at the Lefevre Gallery in London in 1944, where his work was noticed by several art dealers and collectors such as Erica Brausen of Redfern Gallery (she later owned the influential Hanover Gallery) and Colin Anderson.13 From then on, Bacon kept pointing to Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion as the starting point of his career as an autonomous artist, and increasingly managed to influence both publications and exhibition displays into showing no works previous to the triptych.14 By focussing on the triptych as the start of his career, he presented himself as a radical post-war painter, and not as an artist who had been struggling to find his own style.15 By starting the edited interviews with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, Sylvester supported Bacon’s claim




Studio practice


Although Bacon loved to show his studio to interviewers and photographers – for instance, he seems to really enjoy Melvin Bragg’s shocked reaction to the absolute chaos in his studio when he shows it to him in the episode of The South Bank Show in 1985 – he was never very open about his studio practice. The information he gave, was the information he wanted to give, and no more. For example, Bacon openly talked about the influence of the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge and a book by K.C. Clark about Positioning in Radiography (1939); he discussed them with Sylvester in the second interview (1966), but he did not explain how exactly he used them. In the same interview they discuss the influence of Velázquez, whom he greatly admired, but supposedly only in reproduction, and the film The Battleship Potemkin (1925) by Sergei Eisenstein.


In the documentary by Michael Gill, whereupon this interview is based, we see Bacon and Sylvester on their knees in the studio, picking up reproductions, books, photographs (Bacon had his friend John Deakin make photographs of some of his friends in the 1960s), all crumpled and covered with paint. Bacon says:


“Well, my photographs are very damaged by people walking over them and crumpling them and everything else, and this does add other implications to an image of Rembrandt’s for instance, which are not Rembrandt’s.”16


He implies that others damage the materials and that he passively lets it happen; that it is not an active working method. However, since the relocation of the studio, a lot of research has been done into the way in which he used these sources, and in particular Bacon scholar Martin Harrison has made some remarkable discoveries.17 Harrison pointed out that Bacon folded his source material, using paper clips to hold a certain fold, thus creating distorted images of the human body.


Although Bacon kept emphasising the element of accident and chance in the interviews with Sylvester, scholars such as Harrison have demonstrated that this is only partially true. The stains and smudges on the photographs and reproductions are accidentally, but the way he used them was not. Also, the tidying of the studio – by sometimes throwing away materials and destroyed paintings – and the organisation of the materials throughout the studio turned out to be more systematic than Bacon led on to believe.18


Bacon always was very persistent in denying the making of preliminary sketches. Although he said to Sylvester in the first interview that: “I often think I should, but I don’t. It’s not very helpful in my kind of painting. As the actual texture, colour, the whole way the paint moves, are so accidental, any sketches that I did before could only give a kind a skeleton, possibly, on the way the thing might happen.”19


He kept stating that he did not draw, although he said in the last interview (1984-1986): “Well, I sketch out very roughly on the canvas with a brush, just a vague outline of something, and then I go to work, generally using very large brushes, and I start painting immediately and then gradually it builds up.”20 The last unfinished painting that was found on the easel in his studio confirms this remark. Posthumously however, several collections of drawings surfaced, of which some have been studied by experts who have confirmed their authenticity.21


The studio itself is not discussed in the interviews until the last edited interview of 1984-1986. This interview is for a large part based on the recordings for the documentary by Michael Blackwood of 1984. It contains the most biographical information about his youth and artistic development, although Bacon again stresses: “And it was then, about 1943-44, that I really started to paint.”22 The period 1929-1943 is skipped altogether. It is the first time that his studios are being discussed, the different locations, the circumstances that Bacon needs to be able to work and the reason why they tend to become so very messy within days. Bacon says that he needs the (created) chaos because it breeds images for him. In the documentary his friend John Edwards jokes that Bacon loves a chaotic atmosphere as long as the dishes are clean, but this is left out in the published interview. Sylvester suggests:


“It’s probably easier to work in a space that’s chaotic. If painting or writing is an attempt to bring order to the chaos of life, and the room you’re working in is disordered, I think it may act unconsciously as a spur to create order. Whereas, if you try to do it in a very tidy room, there seems to be much less point in getting started.”23


Bacon ‘absolutely agrees’ with him, and goes on to describe how he bought a studio around the corner in Roland Gardens. He decorated the place beautifully, but made it ‘to grand’ to work in. He could not work without the chaos.24 Another apartment that Bacon bought with a studio overlooking the Thames was not used and later sold, because the reflection of the light on the water bothered Bacon, who had covered several windows in his studio at Reece Mews and liked working with the only light coming from a skylight. This interview is rather telling for the importance artists give to the atmosphere of the places where they are working, and how afraid or even superstitious they are of leaving a successful formula.




Using interviews as a marketing tool


Bacon’s first dealer was Erica Brausen of the Hanover Gallery in London. In 1958 he unexpectedly changed to the Marlborough Fine Art Gallery, a more commercial gallery that already represented artists such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Graham Sutherland. Marlborough Fine Art had a reputation for presenting their artists’ works in a museum-like display, and publishing accompanying catalogues modelled after the catalogues of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.25 They also lobbied intensively to realise solo exhibitions of their artists in renowned museums.


From 1960 onwards, Marlborough Fine Art started to promote Bacon more openly and commercially than Brausen had done. Catalogues contained more biographical information than before and, next to reproductions of his work and lists of museums that had works by Bacon in their collections; photographs of the painter himself were used. The first catalogue for Marlborough Fine Art, Francis Bacon: Paintings 1959-1960, contains a photograph that Cecil Beaton took of Bacon in his Battersea studio. The series Beaton took also contains photographs in which the messiness of the studio is visible. The one that was included in the catalogue shows Bacon who confidently looks into the camera and is positioned between several of his paintings that are for sale in the exhibition. In the following years Bacon the man and his studio became more present in catalogues that were meant to promote his work. In fact, combining private photos such as pictures of Bacon drinking and laughing on the Orient Express, made by John Deakin, combined with valuable paintings – intimacy and exclusiveness – seems to be an inventive marketing strategy.26


The Marlborough catalogues, nearly always, included texts by eminent writers such as Robert Melville, John Russell or Michel Leiris. Unsurprisingly, the gallery was quick to recognize the value of the interviews with Sylvester. Extracts of the first interview for BBC radio were included in their exhibition catalogue Francis Bacon: Recent Work (1963) and the second Bacon interview by Sylvester was published for the first time in the exhibition catalogue Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings (1967).27 This catalogue also includes film stills from Gill’s documentary in which Sylvester interviews Bacon. The inclusion of Bacon interviews in catalogues of Marlborough Fine Art or Galerie Maeght Lelong (Paris) continued up until the ninth interview, which was published in Francis Bacon: Paintings of the Eighties (1987) as ‘An unpublished interview by David Sylvester’.




Editing the interviews


David Sylvester interviewed Francis Bacon as many as 18 times between 1962 and 1984-1986. The first four interviews were first published in 1975 as Interviews with Francis Bacon, followed by expanded editions in 1980 and 1987. These expanded editions of the interviews contained first seven and than nine interviews in total, so the material of the 18 interviews has eventually been condensed into nine texts. It is common knowledge that Sylvester edited the interviews, and he mentions it himself in the introduction the first edition of Interviews with Francis Bacon (1975).28


In the preface of the first edition, Sylvester admits that the texts have been heavily edited, although he uses “Bacon’s turn of phrase”.29 Only a fifth of the material in the transcripts has been used in the edited collections. With the exception of the first interview, most of the other interviews are compilations of two or more interview sessions. “In order to prevent the montage from looking like a montage, many of the questions have been recast or simply fabricated”, Sylvester wrote.30 Sylvester used four types of ‘spoken material’ as sources for the written interviews: interviews for the radio of other forms of distributions recorded on tape, filmed interviews, private tapes made by Sylvester himself and notes he took while talking to Bacon, which Sylvester refers to as ‘unrecorded conversation’.31 He included the so called leftover material in Looking Back at Francis Bacon (2000).32


Less known is the fact that Bacon himself was involved in the editing process.33 In a book review of the first edition of the interviews in 1975, Stephen Spender assumed that: “he has given an exact transition of Bacon’s words, with only ‘minimal modifications to clarify syntax’.”34 In 2000 however, Sylvester himself wrote that Bacon sometimes would call him at about eight in the morning to discuss a certain phrase or thought with him. “Such turns of phrase didn’t always come on the spur of the moment.”35 Even more tellingly, at the time of its relocation from London to Dublin, manuscripts of the eighth interview (1982-1984) where found in Bacon’s studio, edited by Bacon himself.36 In addition, the Francis Bacon studio database also contains a questionnaire that Sylvester sent to Bacon and on which Bacon filled in some of the answers.37


One of the questions is about his decision to stop being a designer to become a painter. Bacon wrote on the questionnaire that he was never any good as a designer and became more interested in painting. Then Sylvester included the question:


Sylvester: “Why do you feel it useless to use drawings or oil-sketches?”


Bacon [hand-written]: “Directness of statement” [and crossed out] “fact emphasising not xxxxx”


Typed: “The brutality of fact”.38


The manuscripts are rough transcripts of the interviews, and they show how Bacon and Sylvester carefully were searching for the right phrases. Although it is understandable that Sylvester edited these passages in order to condense them into coherent paragraphs, the literal transcriptions show how the conversation actually takes place.


Sylvester: “But you say there is a subjective and an objective realism.”


Bacon: “No, I don’t say ….”


Sylvester: “Sorry.”


Bacon: “…. I don’t think there are two different realisms.”


Sylvester: “Ah, right. Sorry.”


Bacon: “I think realism incorporates the subjective and the objective.”


Sylvester: “Yes.”


Bacon: “No, I don’t for a moment think there are two realities.”39


The end result of the written interviews gives the impression of two amiably talking art professionals, who both appear to be very eloquent and articulate. This is a great accomplishment of Sylvester (and coeditor Shena Mckay) and not unimportant for his own image of an insightful art critic. It is interesting though, that Bacon apparently got to see several draft versions of the eighth interview before it was published and got a chance to comment on it. The corrections in the manuscript seem to focus in particular on how Bacon wants his work to be described, such as his vision on realism, which in the published interview is connected to the work of Picasso and Van Gogh. 40


In addition, it is obvious that Bacon felt very strongly about phraseology. He erased words like ‘very, very’, or ‘well’, and ‘you see’, but added words like ‘accident’ and ‘artificial’.41 Bacon was controlling biographical information in the sense that he avoided answers to questions – like in the questionnaire – about his training as an artists or the shift from interior design to painting. However, this manuscript does not contain a lot of biographical data. The most biographical interview is the last (ninth) interview. Part of the answers to the questionnaire however, return in this last interview.


David Sylvester’s personal archive probably contains tape recordings of numerous artists’ interviews, including the ones with Bacon and other manuscripts of the Bacon interviews. The archive was purchased by the Tate Archive from Sylvester’s Estate in 2008, and is located in the Hyman Kreitman research Centre at Tate Britain.42 Once these papers become catalogued and available for researchers, research into this matter can be conducted and may provide further interesting insights into their collaboration and Sylvester’s approach to interviews with other artists.




Interviewing David Sylvester


In 2000, Andrew Brighton, an art historian and at the time senior curator of public programmes at Tate Gallery, held a public conversation with Sylvester to celebrate the publication of his book Looking back at Francis Bacon (2000).43 Sylvester had just gotten out of the hospital, and was still very fragile – he would die a year after –, but he was very candid and willing to talk about the process of interviewing Bacon. Brighton was curious to know whether he felt that Bacon had learned how to formulate his ideas about art through Sylvester, but he denied this forcefully. Looking back, he regarded the first interview with Bacon as the best one. Bacon’s personal language was already there. According to Sylvester one could arguefirst two interviews, since he kept on drawing from them. One should also note, that in 1962, at the time of the first interview, Bacon already was in his early fifties and had formulated a strong vision about his own art.


At the time of the first publication of the collected Interviews in 1975 Sylvester had been criticized for not being objective. Willem Feaver mentions in The Listener that Sylvester: “becomes the impresario and director, controlling the flow pattern, presenting his star at his best.”44 It took Sylvester five exhibitions and a book to leave Bacon behind. These exhibitions would not have been possible while Bacon was alive, Sylvester told Brighton, since Bacon would have definitely interfered.45 For the same reason he felt the need to write Looking back at Francis Bacon:


“It seemed to me that, while the interviews were in progress and I was serving as a sort of henchman to the artist, I couldn’t trust myself to perform with detachment as a critic or historian of his work. Shortly after he died, the floodgates opened and this book is the consequence.”46


Brighton started the public discussion by asking if Sylvester ever felt that Bacon was misleading him, for instance regarding the existence of preliminary sketches. Sylvester answered that he did see drawings on the last page of a paperback edition of poems by T.S. Eliot, but that he regrettably did not confront Bacon about it.47 “I had been gullible enough to not have realised that these were the tip of an iceberg.’48 However, Sylvester did not regard this as a deliberate conceit. He felt that for artists it is essential not to expose everything to the public. Nonetheless, the drawings, over-painted photographs, and the hand-written notes, are of great importance. They give insight into the process of transformation that Bacon applied: [on] “how he could superimpose the images”, as Sylvester put it.49


Today, these sources are an important focus of new research on Bacon, and one could say that they lead attention away from the work itself; something Bacon was very keen on preventing. As Sylvester pointed out, he was a modernist art historian, mainly interested in formalistic aspects and therefore did not pay a lot of attention to a psychoanalytical approach to Bacon’s work or the identification of all of Bacon’s source materials. Brighton on the other hand was interested in autobiographical elements, in particular regarding Bacon’s youth, in his paintings and discussed these later on in the publication Francis Bacon (2001).


In the public interview Brighton confronted Sylvester with the question that he had been a part of Bacon’s construction and manipulation of his own reception.50 Sylvester was very frank in his response and admitted that the more he learned about Bacon, the more he became aware that he was very influenced by his image. But, as Sylvester rightfully argued: in order to interview an artist, one has to go along with his vision to a certain degree, or the interview will not go very smoothly or even come to an end. Sylvester continued to say that as an interviewer, one should not interfere too much. One should let the artist talk, like a psychoanalyst let’s his patient talk. He said that if he would have mentioned for instance that he saw influences of Rothko in Bacon’s paintings, while Bacon denied such interpretations, the interview would have stopped. At the end of the interview Brighton asked Sylvester how he had gotten Bacon’s trust, upon which Sylvester answered that he did now know if he ever had it.






The influence of Sylvester’s published interviews with Francis Bacon is still significant. Almost every text about Bacon contains quotations from them. Bacon used the interviews to formulate and refine standard answers to recurring questions from the press, such as an explanation for the ‘horrific’ character of his work, the motif of the crucifixion, or the placement of his paintings behind glass. His explanation for the use of the crucifixion theme in the second interview from 1966 is well-known: “Perhaps it is only because so many people have worked on this particular theme that it has created this armature – I can think of no better way of saying it – on which one can operate all types of feeling.”51 Another famous remark is about the connection that according to Bacon exists between meat and the crucifixion: “Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go in a butcher’s shop I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal.”52 Questions about the use of religious iconography, autobiographical interpretations or the narrative aspects in his work were cleverly evaded.53 Bacon only hinted at his working methods, such as the use of dust or the throwing of paint. He discouraged a thorough analysis of his work and always referred to the same inspirational sources: Picasso, Velázquez or Van Gogh, photographers like Muybridge or books on radiology and diseases of the mouth, and films by Eisenstein.


In recent years, artists’ interviews have become an important source for museums for the documentation of the way in which art works are to be installed and preserved, but they also continue to be an important source for historical research.54 As I have argued, Sylvester’s interviews with Francis Bacon are carefully constructed and therefore not very reliable as a form of oral history, but they are extremely interesting from the point of view of representation and of the controlling of the interpretation of the work.


As Sylvester rightfully mentions, the interviewer has a difficult position. In hindsight it is easy to criticise the interviewer for not being critical enough or for missing certain things, such as the existence of hand-written notes and sketches by Bacon. Moreover, he can be accused, as Sylvester was, for being used as a henchman. But in order to gain an artist’s trust and to be able to talk in depth about his art, one perhaps has to except that certain topics are difficult to address.






1. David Sylvester, Looking back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 8.


2. David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, (1987) New York 2004, ‘Editorial Note’, p. 202-203. The original interview can be listened to on the BBC archive website – Francis Bacon at the BBC -


 3. Sylvester 2000, Looking back at Francis Bacon, p. 8. They met in 1950.


4. ‘David Sylvester on Francis Bacon in conversation with Andrew Brighton’, Tate Modern June 6, 2000, TAV 2217 A. Tate Audiovisual Archive, Hyman Kreitman Research Centre, Tate Gallery, London, hereafter referred to as TAV.


5. A similar analysis of the painting process, not as a static form of intention, but as a “numberless sequence of developing moments of intention”, is given by Michael Baxandall in Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures, (1985), New Haven and London 1986, p. 63.


6. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 14.


7. See for a discussion of the Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion as ‘primary work’, Sandra Kisters, ‘Orchestrating the beginning – Francis Bacon’, in Véronique Meyer and Vincent Cotro [eds.], Le Première Oeuvre, Universities of Tours and Poitiers, forthcoming 2013.


8. See Martin Harrison, In Camera: Francis Bacon, Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, New York 2005, p. 38. Harrison refers to Roy de Maistre, Bacon’s mentor and lover in the 1930s, who painted Bacon’s studio at Royal Hospital Road in 1934. In the painting Bacon’s studio is clearly filled with semi-abstract paintings.


9. As Martin Hammer, Andrew Brighton, Anne Baldassari and Martin Harrison already have shown, Bacon was influenced by Roy de Maistre, Pablo Picasso and Graham Sutherland, amongst others. See Martin Hammer, Bacon and Sutherland, New Haven and London 2005, Andrew Brighton, Francis Bacon, London 2001, Anne Baldassari, Bacon-Picasso: The Life of Images, Paris 2005, Martin Harrison, In Camera: Francis Bacon, Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, New York 2005.


10. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 70.


11. Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: The Anatomy of an Enigma, New York 1996, p. 67-68.


12. He for instance told this to John Rothenstein, the director of Tate Gallery at the time of Bacon’s first retrospective exhibition at the Tate. See John Rothenstein ‘Introduction’, in John Rothenstein and Ronald Alley (eds.), Francis Bacon, London 1962, exh. cat. Tate Gallery.


13. The importance of the friendship with Graham Sutherland for the development of his career as a painter has been described thoroughly by Martin Hammer, Bacon and Sutherland, New Haven and London 2005. See for instance, p. 14 and 30.


14. In the catalogue of the 1962 retrospective at Tate Gallery, four works from before 1944 were included, while in later catalogues, such as the catalogues for retrospectives in respectively 1971 Grand Palais in Paris and 1985 at the Tate all start with the Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion as the first (colour) plate. A more detailed discussion of the growing influence of Bacon on his retrospective exhibitions at Tate Gallery in 1962, 1985 and even the posthumous exhibition in 2009 can be found in Kisters, ‘Orchestrating the beginning – Francis Bacon’, in Meyer and Cotro (eds.), Le premiere Oeuvre (forthcoming 2013).


15. Op. cit 9. 16. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 38.


17. See Harrison 2005, In Camera, Barbara Dawson and Martin Harrison [eds.], Martin Harrison, Francis Bacon: Incunabula London 2008 and Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty, exh. cat. Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane, Dublin 2009.


18. See the analysis of Bacon’s studio contents in Margarita Cappock, Francis Bacon’s Studio, London 2005.


19. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 21.


20. Ibid., p. 194-195


18. See the analysis of Bacon’s studio contents in Margarita Cappock, Francis Bacon’s Studio, London 2005.


19. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 21.


20. Ibid., p. 194-195.


21. Matthew Gale researched and described the collections of poet Stephen Spender and Bacons friends Peter Pollock and Paul Danquah in Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, London 1999. Other collections, such as Barry Joule’s, are still the topic of debate.


22. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 189. 23. Ibid, p. 191. 24. Ibid, p. 189,


25. Brighton 2001, Francis Bacon, p. 75


26. See for instance the catalogue Francis Bacon. Recent Paintings, London 1965.


27. The Marlborough Fine Art Gallery did all kinds of other promotional activities, such as initiating retrospective exhibitions, like the one in Tate Gallery in 1962. This is discussed in my dissertation Leven als een kunstenaar. Invloeden op de beeldvorming van beeldend kunstenaars. Auguste Rodin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Francis Bacon, VU University Amsterdam 2010, p. 321-326.


28. He edited the interviews together with Shena Mackay, see Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 203. In an ‘Editorial Note’ at the end of the edition of 2004 he gives additional information about the sources for each edited interview.


29. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p 6-7.


30. Ibid.


31. Ibid, p. 7.


32. Sylvester 2000, Looking back at Francis Bacon, p. 8. In part 3 ‘Fragments of Talk’ Sylvester included leftover material of the 18 recordings, which is grouped in themes.


33. I would like to thank Margarita Cappock, Head of Collection at Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane, for bringing the manuscripts of the interviews that were found in the studio to my attention.


34. Stephen Spender, ‘Armature and alchemy’, Times Literary Supplement, March 21, 1975, p. 290-291.


35. Sylvester 2000, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, p. 191.


36. They were found during the relocation of the studio from London to the Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane, and can be consulted through the database of the Francis Bacon Studio Project, Dublin under the numbers F1A:122A, F1A:122F, F1A:122G, F1A:122J, F1A:122K and F1A:122M. 36. I would like to thank the Francis Bacon Estate for their permission to include a few quotations from these manuscripts.


37. Francis Bacon Studio Project, F1A: 122A. The answers are partly typed, partly handwritten and partly crossed out.


38. Ibid.


39. Ibid. p. 5. 40. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, in particular p. 170-71.


41. Francis Bacon Studio Project, F1A: 122G. Typed manuscript of an edited interview of Sylvester with Bacon entitled ON REALISM: interview with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester recorded in 1982, 15 pag.


42. ‘The personal and professional papers of the curator, writer and art historian, David Sylvester, 1940s–2001’, purchased from the Sylvester’s Estate, 2008. Tate Gallery Archive, Hyman Kreitman Research Centre, Tate Gallery, TGA 200816. The Sylvester papers are currently uncatalogued and are therefore difficult to consult.


43. TAV 2217 A. 44. William Feaver, ‘All flesh is meat’, The Listener, May 15 1975, p. 652-653. 45. TAV 2217 A.


46. Sylvester 2000, Looking back at Francis Bacon, p. 8. 47. The Francis Bacon Studio Project has a large amount of books covered with drawings or paintings in their archive: studio relocation and Cappock 2005, Francis Bacon’s Studio.


48. Sylvester in Matthew Gale, Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, London 1999, p. 9.


49. TAV 2217 A. This superimposing of images; the combination of several inspirational sources within one work has been analysed in depth by Martin Harrison. Op. cit. 17.


50. TAV 2217 A.


51. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, Interview 2, p. 30-67, p. 44.


52. Ibid, p. 46.


53. Recently, a new study has appeared discussing this very theme: Rina Arya, Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World, London 2012.


54. For instance, the ‘Artist Interview Project’ of the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art.




Were Francis Bacon’s Torturous Portraits

Influenced by Nazi Photography?



ARTINFO, Saturday, September 1, 2012



Francis Bacon’s tortured figures might allude to more than his own conflicted psyche. In a book that will be published by Tate later this month, Martin Hammer suggests that the British painter also drew heavily on Nazi photographs found in books and magazines after the war.

It’s a radical new reading of Bacon’s oeuvre. Hammer, a professor of history and philosophy of art at the University of Kent, told The Independent: “The use of Nazi imagery in Bacon’s work was an important aspect of his creativity; it is present in many works. It was something that hadn’t been addressed.”

The professor is also quick to acknowledge that his findings might not be unanimously well received by Bacon scholars: “The visual evidence is compelling, but it’s hard to know what to make of it,” he said. “It’s open to interpretation.”

Hammer first noticed the visual affinities between some of Bacon’s paintings and Nazi photographs at Tate’s 2008 retrospective of the artist’s works. His subsequent research led him to the conclusion that it was “a consistent feature of Bacon’s work from the 50s and 60s.”

Several of Bacon’s “source” photographs were shot by Heinrich Hoffmann, a photographer belonging to Hitler’s entourage. According to the art historian, the artist worked on these images for more than two decades, increasingly submerging the Nazi references.

“Bacon started working with this imagery, looking at the true nature of the regime that had emerged,” said Hammer. “He used it to explore the instinctive, savage, bestial nature that was dominating everyone’s lives.”






Francis Bacon inspired by Nazi propaganda



Art historian Martin Hammer’s new book argues that the creative potential of photographs

and posters from Nazi Germany were "an important aspect" of painter Francis Bacon’s work.






The artist Francis Bacon dealt with "man’s capacity for savage violence" by using elements of Nazi propaganda in his work for more than two decades, a leading art historian has claimed.

Professor Martin Hammer, who studies history and philosophy of art at the University of Kent, said:

"The use of Nazi imagery in Bacon’s work was an important aspect of his creativity; it is present in many works. It was something that hadn’t been addressed."

Professor Hammer believes works including Bacon’s famous 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion were primarily inspired by the photographs of Adolf Hitler’s close associate Heinrich Hoffmann, whose images were circulated in British magazines at the time of the second world war.

In Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda, Professor Hammer analyses Bacon’s paintings from the angle of his "horrified fascination" with the Nazi regime.

"Bacon started working with this imagery, looking at the true nature of the regime that had emerged. He used it to explore the instinctive, savage, bestial nature that was dominating everyone’s lives," Hammer said.

"There was a horrified fascination with the image of Hitler and the Nazi leadership," he added, in particular a "screaming orator-like figure with a military helmet," an image from Figure Study II, which "clearly sets up the Nazi leadership as these grotesque creatures. You get a sense of his horrified reaction to this culture."

Bacon’s chronic asthma exempted him from military service during World War Two, and he spent the early war years in Hampshire, and later in London during the Blitz.

Hammer believes Bacon’s work shows elements of fascist imagery until well into the 1960s, when he shifted his focus away from extreme imagery and onto portraits of close friends.

On the subject of why fascist elements have remained unnoticed for so long, and why the artist himself never spoke of his precoccupation with Nazi imagery, Hammer claims he "wasn’t asked about it. Interviewers either didn’t recognise it or thought it shouldn’t be talked about."




                                                                              Francis Bacon’s work has long been controversial for its violent imagery













One of Francis Bacon’s iconic Pope paintings will appear at Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale in New York on Nov. 13. Untitled (Pope), from circa 1954, is part of the artist’s series of screaming Popes painted in the wake of the Second World War. The painting has been in a private collection since a 1975 auction at Sotheby’s. Earlier this year, Bacon’s Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror (1977) sold for $44.9 million. Untitled (Pope) is expected to go for $18/25 million


Referencing Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X (1649), Bacon’s Pope series portrays the Supreme Pontiff violently afflicted by the terrors of World War II. This version from the series most closely resembles the artist’s Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, now housed in the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa


Untitled (Pope) is now on public exhibition for the first time in 40 years, at Sotheby’s Los Angeles and will be exhibited in London from Oct. 7 and Doha later this Fall.





                                            Francis Bacon Untitled (Pope), ca. 1954



Disturbing, raw and graphic
so was

Francis Bacon inspired by the Nazis?



Evidence of fascist imagery in artist’s most important paintings has been ignored




Francis Bacon appropriated Nazi propaganda for some of his most important paintings to explore "man’s capacity for savage violence", a leading art historian claims.

Critics have long ignored the depth of inspiration the painter drew from fascist imagery despite "compelling" visual evidence, Martin Hammer says. Several of Bacon’s most violent works, which are generally interpreted as sexual and autobiographical, actually contain "submerged" attempts to deal with the horrors of Hitler’s regime, he argues in his book, Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda.

It aims to shed new light on one of the greatest British artists of the 20th century. Hammer, professor of history and philosophy of art at the University of Kent, said: "The use of Nazi imagery in Bacon’s work was an important aspect of his creativity; it is present in many works. It was something that hadn’t been addressed."

Where contemporaries sought to bury wartime memories, Bacon appropriated and transformed Nazi photography, using the imagery as a springboard for works painted over 20 years. The professor says it is remarkable that Bacon’s Nazi aesthetics have not been scrutinised before: "The visual evidence is compelling, but it’s hard to know what to make of it. It’s open to interpretation."

Bacon was born in 1909. He experienced the Blitz in London, but unlike many of his contemporaries he did not participate in the Second World War or become a war artist. Professor Hammer said: "Bacon started working with this imagery, looking at the true nature of the regime that had emerged. He used it to explore the instinctive, savage, bestial nature that was dominating everyone’s lives."

The influences came from photographs and posters, often by Heinrich Hoffmann, a photographer close to Hitler. Many of the German images were recycled in books and magazines in the UK, Professor Hammer said.

"There was a horrified fascination with the image of Hitler and the Nazi leadership." The book refers to a painting of a "screaming orator-like figure with a military helmet, it clearly sets up the Nazi leadership as these grotesque creatures. You get a sense of his horrified reaction to this culture."

The professor added: "His earliest pictures using Nazi imagery were pretty obvious, which is why he abandoned them. Increasingly these references were submerged."

In his book, published next month by the Tate, Professor Hammer addresses the question of how and why Bacon appropriated the Fascist imagery. The trigger for the book, was the major Bacon exhibition at the Tate Britain in 2008.

"It started a purely visual observation. I noted the parallels between one or two of the paintings and certain Nazi images I was aware of," he said. That started a process of research that accumulated a whole series of other images. "It got to the point where I felt this was a consistent feature of Bacon’s work from the 50s and 60s."

Bacon never referred to the Nazis, "largely because he wasn’t asked about it. Interviewers either didn’t recognise it or thought it shouldn’t be talked about," Professor Hammer said.



                    Bacon never went on record referring to the Nazis






Soho’s Colony Room brought back to life



London Evening Standard, Thursday, 23 August 2012


A welcome return to the Colony Room as one of its habituées, writer Sophie Parkin, is set to publish a history of the infamous Soho club.

“It’s about the cultural and social hub of London from 1948 to 2008,” she says. “The book will be crammed full of gossip, some of it 50 years old.”

Regulars at the club included artist Francis Bacon and journalist Jeffrey Bernard. Parkin’s book is being published in December by Vink Ink, which is run by her husband Jan Vink.

Parkin, who was a member of the club for 25 years, has had access to a raft of unpublished material.

“The archive came from Michael Wojas after he died,” says Parkin. Wojas was the barman and last owner of the club, which closed its doors in 2008.

“He had all the stuff from Muriel Belcher, the original owner, and Ian Board, who took over. A lot had fallen to pieces but there were John Deacon’s photos, which Francis Bacon used for his pictures and all membership forms.”

Parkin made an early entry to the club. “My mum, Molly Parkin, made me a member for my 18th birthday — not a traditional present. I joined in 1980 for a quarter of a century. My mum had been going there since the Fifties with Henrietta Moraes and Francis Bacon and so on.”

Michael Parkin, Sophie’s father, was an art dealer who held the first exhibition of artists from the Colony Room 30 years ago. The book is timed to mark that anniversary.





    Soho set: Parkin recalls Francis Bacon being among the Colony Room crowd







            Crucifixions and Popes




Religious Imagery in the works of Francis Bacon












Bacon’s paintings were screams from the abattoir, cries from the execution pits of World War II. His deranged executives and his princes of death in their pontifs’ robes lacked all pity and remorse. His popes screamed because they knew there was no God.

(J. G. Ballard)1


The subject of this paper is the analysis of the reinterpretation of religious motifs in the works of Francis Bacon, the crucifixions and the portrait of the popes, not as a Christian motif but as an emotional response to personal dramas and historical events witnessed by the artists.

Despite being a confessed atheist during all his life, in his works Bacon employed a number of religious motifs and references, such as the portraits of popes and the crucifixions. Also the form of the triptych, characteristic to his work has religious connotations. The religious imagery was present in his early works since the 1930s and was abandoned almost completely in the mid-1960s. Bacon started his career as a painter twice, first in the early thirties, although he destroyed most of the paintings from that period, and in 1944. In both cases, when he started, he painted crucifixions. The popes are his first mature portraits, first of them dating in 1949 (Head VI). Bacon never attended an art school, although he received some technical advice from fellow artists, such as the Australian painter Roy de Maistre and Graham Sutherland. He also collected reproductions of paintings by his favourite artists such as Picasso, Degas, van Gogh or Velázquez and used them as a source of inspiration for his own works.

Bacon always worked with photographs and printed images rather than with life models. In his studio he stored material on very different subjects, such as books on art, forensics, ornithology, medicine, poetry, Greek tragedies or contemporary history. He used them as a visual and intellectual reference for his paintings.

In 1950 the American art historian Sam Hunter took several photographs2 of working material from Bacon’s studio in South Kensington at 7, Cromwell Place (fgs. 1–2).3 The selection shows books and images torn from books and magazines dating from the 1930s till the late 1940s, including a large reproduction of Velázquez’s Innocent X (possibly removed from Lafuente Ferrari’s monograph on the Spanish master)4 and a reproduction of Christ Bearing the Cross (1523–1525). That page was torn from the book by Hans Heinrich Naumann, Das Grünewald-Problem und das neuentdeckte Selbstbildnis des 20 jährigen Mathis Nithart aus dem Jahre 1475.5 On the second photograph taken by Hunter there is an image of another Pope. The leaf in question was torn from a book, most likely: Vatican behind the Scenes, with photographs by David Seymour,6 published in 1949. It represents Pius XII carried in his sedia gestatoria through the Sala Ducale on the 10th anniversary of his coronation as pope.

None of this material survived to this day and was probably disposed of after Bacon abandoned,7 Cromwell Place in 1952. He often changed his residence and studios till 1961 when he found his definitive working space, a small apartment, in reality a converted stable, with an attic at 7, Reece Mews in South Kensington. After his death Francis Bacon’s studio and all his working material and books were removed from the house and donated to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin; currently, the reconstructed studio is on display. The material found in the studio was catalogued and its analysis offered numerous new points of view on Bacon’s sources and the inspirations he took for his paintings.7

Some of the material found was related to religious subjects, but not to religion itself. Many of the images are related to the crucifixion and the scenes of Passion of Christ, such as the fragment of a reproduction of Cimabue’s Crucifxion’ (Santo Domenico, Arezzo).8 The image shows the suffering on Christ’s face and his anatomy emaciated to the point that one can almost see all the structures that otherwise hide in the flesh under the skin. This image, as well as the other Cimabue’s Crucifix from Santa Croce in Florence, always fascinated Bacon. In an interview with David Sylvester he compared the body of Christ to a worm crawling down the cross. I did try to make something from the feeling which I’ve sometimes had from that picture of this image just moving, undulating down the cross.9 Cimabue’s paintings inspired the central figure from Bacon’s Crucifixion (1962) although Bacon inverted the crucified figure, making it look like a carcass hanging from a hook.

In general, Bacon was fascinated by images of meat and slaughterhouses, as a representation of an act of violence. Most of his crucifixions are set against a red background that reminds of the blood stained spaces of an abattoir. Bacon told David Sylvester that he was interested in the motif of the crucifixion, understood not as the sacrifice of God’s son, but as an act of cruelty of one human to another:

I’ve always been moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat. And to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion. There’ve been extraordinary which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death [...] I think these pictures were very much based on that kind of thing, which to me is very, very near this whole thing of the Crucifixion. I know for religious people, for Christians, the Crucifixion has a totally different significance. But as a non-believer, it was just an act of man’s behaviour, a way of behaviour to another.10

This statement reminds me of the opening sentence of Zofa Nalkowska’s Medallions, a compilation of short stories based on true events, an account of the Nazi atrocities in Poland: People to People prepared this fate.11 In my belief this is the same kind of human behaviour that Bacon attempted to represent through his crucifixions.

Bacon started painting relatively late, because he could not find a suitable subject. Religious motifs acted as a trigger for his artistic career, the crucifixion became an armature on which you can hang all types of feelings and sensations,
12 a subject that can be explored far from its original Christian connotations. Amongst his first original works are the Crucifixions’ executed in 1933, although Bacon himself did not consider anything he painted before 1944 to have any artistic value. Few of those earliest works have survived to this day. Disappointed by the response of the critics, Bacon destroyed most of his works and stopped painting for almost a decade. The early crucifixions represent ghostly, almost abstract creatures, with their arms raised. The three Crucifixions’ of 1933 and a similar painting entitled simply »Composition« are a reminiscence of the biomorphic figures from Picasso’s paintings of the 1920s and 1930s, such as ‘Nude standing by the sea,’ (1929)


Picasso was probably the most important influence in the earliest stage of Bacon’s artistic career. He decided that he wanted to become an artist after visiting an exhibition of Picasso’s drawings in 1927 at the Paul Rosenberg Gallery in Paris.


The 1933 ‘Crucifixions’ could also be related to a reproduction found in the artist’s studio of the engraving based on ‘Disrobing of Christ’ by Edouard Lievre, after Hans Holbein the Younger.13 It represents Christ lying exhausted on the ground with his arms raised, surrounded by an angry crowd and soldiers who violently rip of his clothes. Another soldier is preparing the cross, the scene shows Christ’s inevitable fate.


Bacon never attended an art school and was essentially a self-taught painter. He only received some basic technical advice from his friends and mentors, the Australian artist Roy de Maistre and the British painter Graham Sutherland, who also painted crucifixions inspired by Grunewald. The influence of Grunewald’s religious paintings, especially the Isenheim Altar, is also perceptible in Bacon’s 1944 triptych, although it is less obvious as it is the case with Sutherland. Grunewald’s naturalistic representation of the effects of torture on the crucified body as an almost a forensic account of suffering is certainly close to Bacon’s aesthetic and his own way of representing the human figure.


In 1944, Bacon executed his first triptych ‘Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ it was exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery a year later along with works by other artists. The triptych caused deep impact on the British art scene. The art critic John Russell described Bacon’s first mature work as:


“Images so unrelievedly awful, that the mind shut snap at the sight of them. Their anatomy was half-human, half-animal, and they were confined in a low-ceilinged and oddly proportioned space. They could bite, probe and suck, and they had very long eel-like necks, but their functioning in other aspects was mysterious [...]. Common to all three figures was a mindless voracity, an automatic unregulated gluttony, a ravening undifferentiated capacity for hatred. Each was cornered and only waiting for the chance to drag the observer down to their level.” 14


The term Crucifixion’ in the title of the painting and the form of the triptych suggest their religious connexions. The blindfolded figure in the central panel was possibly inspired by Grunewald‘s painting ‘Mocking of Christ’ which shows Christ with a cloth tied around his eyes. The three figures could also be interpreted as a representation of the mourners at the base of the cross, but the scene it also associated with Greek tragedy. The triptych was inspired by sensations that the artist experienced after reading the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The three figures represent the Furies chasing Orestes after his mother’s assassination. The figures in Bacon’s  first triptych are extremely ambiguous; they simultaneously represent the passive suffering of the victims and the fury of the revengers. Also the motif of the scream does not have a definite explanation, in Bacon’s works the screaming mouth has multiple connotations of pain and of the orgasmic scream, of the primordial and animal side of man. In Bacon’s works, the representation of screams was often linked to religious motifs. It is present in his first two Crucifixions’ and in many of the portraits of the popes.


In 1950, he executed the only crucifixion on a single canvas, entitled ‘Fragment of a Crucifixion.’ The painting represents an owl like screaming figure, probably inspired by the photographs of birds by Eric Hosking, being attacked by a beast, which is a close reminiscence of the mastiff from the photographs of dogs in motion by Eadweard Muybridge. The two Crucifixions’ of the 1960s are far more complex in terms of composition and metaphorical contents. The panels of the 1962 ‘Crucifixion’ represent a tortured semi-human figure lying on a bed being observed by other figures, probably caught in a perverse sexual act. The inverted crucified figure, inspired by Cimabue’s ‘Crucifixion’ (c.1625), is an almost satanic image of extreme suffering. This Crucifixion’ represented another turning point in Bacon‘s career; it was shown at Tate Gallery, as a part of his first retrospective. After that exhibition Bacon eventually gained recognition as one of the most important artists in Britain. Bacon admitted to David Sylvester that he was drunk while painting the 1962 triptych and it was sometimes interpreted as a subconscious account of his expulsion from home. The 1965 ‘Crucifixion’ shows a similar approach to religious subject; the sacrifice of Christ is set once again in a slaughterhouse. The eviscerated crucified carcass is placed in the central panel, surrounded by a scene of sexual violence and a bent male figure with a swastika band on his arm. Bacon refused to explain the symbolism of that element, claiming it was a purely formal component of the image, but it clearly refers to his experience of the II World War. It can also be linked to images of the Nuremberg Nazi rallies that were found in the studio. After 1965, Bacon abandoned the theme of crucifixions, with the exception of the ‘Second version of Triptych 1944’ (1988), although he kept painting triptychs with agonizing figures on beds, often observed by other figures that can be interpreted as either observers or executors that inflict pain. A frequent motif is a hypodermic syringe placed in the figure’s arm; this element can be read as a symbolical form of nailing the figure to the bed, which is probably a continuation of the theme of the crucifixions in his later triptychs. The other religious subject present in Bacon’s painting is the portraits of the popes. This series was initially inspired by the portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velázquez. Although he insisted that the whole series had nothing to do with religion and was meant/intended as a homage to the Spanish master. Yet, there is no doubt that Bacon was interested in the gure of the Holy Father, not just in that particular painting. He employed images of other popes and cardinals, such as the portrait of Cardinal Filippo Archinto by Titian and the script for Otto Preminger’s film ‘The Cardinal’ (1963) was found in his personal library.15 In is studio he also had images of more contemporary figures such as John XXIII and especially Pius XII who can be identified on many of the portraits, such as  ‘Imaginary Portrait of Pius XII’ (1955), ‘Study for a Head’ (1955) ‘Pope I, II and III’ (1951). In ‘Pope III’ he represented the pope on a throne adorned with ostrich feathers fans, clearly inspired by the photograph of David Seymour, reproduced on Sam Hunter’s montage.


Head VI’ (1949) is Bacon’s first pope and at the same time his first mature portrait. It is also one of his first screaming figures. During the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s the popes were subject of formal experimentation and he completely abandoned that motif around 1965. They were often represented screaming and disconnected, confined in slaughterhouses and glass cages, surrounded by animal carcasses and owls. The pope is represented as a tyrant and a victim at the same time. While Velázquez’s painting was the representation of power, of the Holy Father, Bacon’s popes are powerless and scream in despair. This topic can be interpreted as a depiction of the artist’s struggle with his own sexuality and his masculinity or the complicated relationship with his despotic father.16 Bacon always avoided explaining the significance of his own paintings, as he strongly opposed to any kind of narrative interpretations of his work. He opted for more independent and immediate form that transmits ideas and sensations, rather than scenes and stories. Bacon distinguished between paint which conveys directly and paints which conveys through illustration: “Some paint comes across directly onto nervous system and the other ones tell you the story in a long diatribe through the brain.”17


In my view, the religious motifs in Bacon’s painting can be analysed as the artist’s response to a trauma, either personal or collective. Bacon took the decision to become an artist in 1927 shortly after being expelled from the household as his father could not accept his homosexuality. During the period when the seemingly religious paintings were executed he experienced a series of personal dramas. His father died in 1940, followed by the death of Bacon’s beloved childhood nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, who was more important to Bacon than most of his family, in 1951. In 1962, Bacon’s lover Peter Lacy committed suicide in Tangier, on the day of the opening of Bacon’s retrospective at the Tate Gallery.


In addition, we cannot forget the historical events of the 1940s contemporary to those paintings, as a possible key to understanding the choice of imagery employed by Bacon in that period. As Bacon suffered from chronic asthma, he was spared from regular military service during the II World War, but he experienced the horrors of war working as volunteer in the Civil Defence Air Raid Precautions. His duties were to assist the wounded after bombings or remove the dead bodies. In addition, he remembered the constant fear he experienced living in Ireland, the threat of Sinn Fein’s attacks, and had memories of the I World War.


Bacon collected images of Nazi officials and Hitler (he showed a particular interest in the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg), photographs from war events, wounded faces and mutilated bodies. His fascination with the figure of the Pius XII could probably also be explained by the pope’s connection to Hitler’s government and his refusal to condemn Nazi politics. In his paintings the Pope is represented as a jailed tyrant, and Christ as a slaughtered victim, but both are tragic heroes put in an extreme situation.18 In addition, both seem to be understood by the painter as only human, despite their unique position as intermediaries between man and God.


Michel Leiris once said that Bacon was a realistic painter; he painted his reflections of reality filtered through his own life experience and the violent historical events he had witnessed. On one occasion Bacon admitted that painting a crucifixion was something very intimate, almost as painting a self-portrait.19 That might indicate that he identified himself either with the crucified or slaughtered figures. The inverted crucified bodies and screaming figures reflect the negation of values violated in the II World War events on a scale never seen before. His paintings can be read as a universal metaphor of the human condition and the expression of human suffering, but most importantly for Bacon the practise of painting was a form of personal redemption.





1 J. G. Ballard: Miracles of Life. London 2008, p.157.

2 Two of these photographs were published in Sam Hunter’s article: Francis Bacon: The Anatomy of Horror. In: Magazine of Art, New York, 95, 1952, n.1.

3 The studio formerly belonged to the pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais.

Enrique Lafuente Ferrari: Velázquez: Complete Edition. London 1943.

5 Hans Heinrich Naumann: Das Grunewald-Problem und das neuentdeckte Selbstbildnis des 20 jahrigen Mathis Nithart aus dem Jahre 1475. Jena 1930.

David Seymour (David Szymin) was a Polish photographer, cofounder of Magnum photo with Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

7 Margarita Cappock: Francis Bacon’s Studio. London/New York 2005.

Removed from the book by Paolo D’Ancona: Les Primitifs italiens du XIe au XIIIe siècle, Paris 1935.

David Sylvester: Interviews with Francis Bacon. London 2009, p.14

10 Sylvester 2009 (note 7), p. 23.

11 ZoÀ a Nalkowska: Medaliony. Warsaw 1946.

12 Sylvester 2009 (note 7), p. 44.

13 Removed from the book by Paul Mantz: Hans Holbein. Paris 1879.

14 John Russell: Francis Bacon. Oxford 1979, p.10.

15 See complete list of Francis Bacon’s books: The Department of History of Art and Architecture, Trinity College Dublin.

16 Father Figures and Crucifixions 1944–46. In: Michael Peppiatt: Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. London 1996.

17 Sylvester 2009 (note 7), p. 18.

18 Sylvester 2009 (note 7), p. 26.

19 Sylvester 2009 (note 7), p. 14.






Too risqué for Iran, Bacon’s lost’ painting goes on show











For the past quarter of a century, a major painting by Francis Bacon has languished in a storeroom in Iran, its eroticism deemed too inflammatory for public display. But now British art lovers are to get the chance to see the work which has been kept from Iranians. Tomorrow the extraordinary triptych Two figures lying on a bed goes on display after years of negotiations by the Tate.


The work is owned by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, an institution originally founded by the wife of the last Shah of Iran and the holder of an extraordinary collection of Western paintings. But it was one of dozens of depictions of nudes consigned to storage after the fundamentalists seized power in the 1979 revolution.


Like most younger Western academics, Stephen Deuchar, the director of Tate Britain, knew the work only through reproduction. So when he was on holiday in Iran in 2001, he naturally asked to take a look.


Even under the harsh fluorescent lighting of the underground store, it was striking. He asked whether he could borrow it. And the Iranian Ministry of Culture finally agreed. Surveying the work on the walls of Tate Britain yesterday where it is the highlight of a new temporary Bacon display, he said that it was even more striking seen properly.

"When you saw it under the fluorescent lighting in the store, you could tell it was a strong work, but it looks very vibrant here. The lilac background is very surprising," he said. Toby Treves, who has curated the display, said the work, which was painted in 1968 not long before it was sold to the Shah’s wife, clearly showed a homoerotic strand of Bacon’s work that was largely ignored.

"At the beginning of his fame after the war, there was a concentration on the existential aspect of the work, but not much discussion of the quite frank eroticism in many of the paintings," he said. "This triptych is probably the most overtly erotic of the paintings in this room."

The work shows figures in two flanking panels who appear to spy on two naked men lying on a bed in the central panel, with a splatter of white paint flung across them. "It is deeply ambiguous and deliberately so," Mr Treves said.

The Iranian loan is hung alongside another celebrated triptych, his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion, dating from 1944, and a work apparently based on photographs of the former cricketer David Gower. Bacon triptychs now command as much as £6m at auction.

The generosity of the Iranian museum and its director, Dr Ali Reza Sami Azar, was returned earlier this year when the Tate lent a Bill Woodrow to an exhibition of British sculpture organised by the British Council.

And extraordinarily, it now looks as if the Bacon may even be seen in Tehran itself. Dr Sami Azar is hoping to include Two figures lying on a bed in an exhibition provisionally entitled Figurative Tendencies in Western Art when it is returned to Iran in the autumn.










The only club in which Francis Bacon felt happy was the Colony Room, in Soho. Now a lifestyle e-shop has been set up to flog products based on his paintings and quotations. What, his drunken rants? The items include cashmere throws, silk scarfs, espresso cups, T-shirts, belts and beach towels. Fancy lying on a screaming pope?

Not too happy, however, is David Edwards, brother of the late John Edwards, Bacon’s close companion and inheritor of his estate. Edwards thinks this shopping venture, sanctioned by the artist Brian Clarke, now the sole executor, is a tad tacky. Yet it will be a useful earner for the estate, as there is a levy payable on every Bacon item sold.