Bohemian artist who enjoyed a close association with Francis Bacon
By David Buckman | The Independent | 22 October 2011
Denis Wirth-Miller and Francis Bacon
Wirth-Miller was one of a group of artists who for many years injected
the spirit of bohemia into the life of Wivenhoe, a small shipbuilding
and repairing town on the
stories, true or untrue – among the latter is one that after Bacon's
death his former Wivenhoe house was kept as a shrine by Denis and Dickie
– have tended to overshadow Wirth-Miller's achievements as a painter.
One recognition of this will be a forthcoming small retrospective at the
undermining Wirth-Miller's reputation was the fact that from the early
1970s sight problems hindered him and that latterly he suffered from
dementia. All this must have been hard for a man who had shown in
Bacons streaming back on the market
A portrait of a mystery man from 1953 by Francis Bacon could go for £11 million.
Study for Portrait by Francis Bacon from 1953
A painting by Francis Bacon that he gave to another artist in return for the use of his studio could fetch as much as £11 million at Christie’s next month. In 1951, grief-stricken at the death of his former nanny and companion, Jessie Lightfoot, Bacon left his flat in Cromwell Place, South Kensington, which they shared, and embarked on a nomadic existence, borrowing the studio of the Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art, Rodrigo Moynihan, to work in. He used the studio for another two years, producing some of the most haunting images of his career, and exercising a powerful influence on the students at the college.
Study for Portrait was one of the last works he produced there. For Bacon, according to his biographer Michael Peppiatt, 1953 was an “annus mirabilis as inventive as it was prolific”. In spite of “flitting from debt to debt, and digs to digs”, he managed to produce more than 20 “majestic and terrifying” paintings including eight paintings of popes.
With the artist finding stimulation in adversity, Peppiatt concludes, “this was the period when Bacon acquired the means he needed to bring forth his vision.”
The subject of Study for Portrait is not known. The painting bears resemblances at once to Velazquez’s Portrait of Philip IV of Spain, to a photograph of Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference, to the art critic David Sylvester and to Bacon’s lover at the time, Peter Lacy. Whoever it is, it is a figure of power, seated on a semi-gilded throne and staring menacingly down at the viewer from the dark, caged solitude in which he is trapped. Look closely at the darkness, and it is a vivid Prussian blue-black that recedes in tone to the depths of the unknown where the subject sits regally, his starched white collar and brilliant flesh tones glowing like a ghostly apparition.
At some point, the painting was acquired from Moynihan by the successful Irish artist, Louis Le Brocquy, known for his spectral paintings of Bacon, who in turn sold it to Marlborough Fine Art, which had become Bacon’s principal dealers.
In 1984 it was bought from Marlborough by the Swiss entrepreneur and wine producer Donald M Hess, who, though not identified as such by Christie’s, is the seller next month.
Hess, 75, who announced his retirement from the family business last week, is one of the world’s top art collectors with more than 1,000 contemporary art works, including 30 by the American light artist James Turrell, which he displays in three museums dotted around the world in locations where his winery business operates: in Napa Valley, California; Paarl, South Africa; and Salta, Argentina. A fourth museum is being planned in the Barossa Valley, Australia. Of his art buying, Hess has said: “When I have seen an art piece which keeps me awake over several nights, I know that this art piece has touched me deeply and this is one of my most important criteria to buy an art work.” But he is not known to have previously sold any art from his collection. His website states: “Sales of artwork are for Hess taboo.”
So why is he now breaking that taboo? Hess has also said that he favours buying the work of living artists. He bought this Bacon when the artist was still alive, and is now thought to be buying more works by living artists.
His timing might be good because the market for paintings by Bacon is back on the boil again. During 2007, buyers such as the investor Joseph Lewis and Sheikha Mayassa of Qatar paid record prices of between £25 million and £30 million for Bacon masterpieces, and in May 2008, Roman Abramovich lifted that record to £44 million for a large triptych. In the downturn that followed, several works went unsold, and then little appeared on the market.
This year, however, another Russian buyer, thought to be banker Pyotr Aven, paid £23 million for a small triptych of paintings of Lucian Freud. As a result, Bacons are streaming back on to the market, and two were sold this month in New York. Both had been on the market relatively recently, as has a reclining female nude which is to be sold by Sotheby’s next month with a £7 million to £9 million estimate.
The Hess portrait may be dark – and other dark paintings from this period, while relished by academics and critics, have not always proved commercially successful. But it is fresh to the market, which counts as a bonus. And, like the £44 million Bacon, which was sold by the Mouieux family, producers of Château Petrus wines, it comes from a collector with proven taste.
Michael Wojas, Tom Baker, Francis Bacon, Ian Board, John Edwards
The Colony, fundamentally an afternoon drinking club, in the days of restricted pub hours, formed, from 1948, a notable part of the real-life, comic-tragic soap opera of Soho. Wojas, an English Pole with a nasal London accent and a long chiv-mark down one pale cheek, arrived as a barman in 1981 and took over on the death of Ian Board in 1994.
Board, who called himself Ida after his supposititious initials, was a monster: hoarse-voiced, swollen-nosed and foul-mouthed, he fell into uncontrollable rages. He was also very funny. While the club's founder, Muriel Belcher, had taken to using as an affectionate diminutive a four-letter word with the letter -y tacked on, Board's speciality was a torrent of obscenities artfully studded with demoralising terms such as "dreary".
For 13 years under Board, Wojas served quietly behind the bar in the upstairs room with its dark-green walls covered with photographs and its carpet like asphalt. He dried up glasses, all the while clocking the peculiarities of the customers: Bacon, alternately hilarious and stiletto-tongued; Daniel Farson, who would suddenly turn from affability into strangulated tirades of abuse; Graham Mason, a former television journalist known for his stupendous intake of alcohol, once going for nine days without eating. Wojas knew too the habits of the solicitor who often fell backwards off his barstool, or of the old woman known as Mumsy whose son had died. At his best, Wojas was a therapist.
In his first two years at the club, each day would begin with a hunt to find the previous day's takings, which a suspicious Ian Board had hidden behind a mirror or inside the piano before passing out and forgetting the spot.
Some members grew tired of being insulted, and Wojas attempted after Board's death to prevent the club from turning into a museum by encouraging its use by a generation of young British artists such as Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin.
Wojas would sit on the high stool at the end of the bar near the door, taking note of who should be repelled. He also decided who could become a member. On top of the fridge by the window a bust of Ian Board, in which his ashes had been inserted, sullenly eyed proceedings. Opposite, a smoke-darkened mural by Michael Andrews covered the wall behind the piano that was seldom played.
But Wojas initiated music nights in the one small room, attracting names such as The Magic Numbers, Alabama 3, Billy Bragg and Paul Weller. Suggs, from Madness, whose mother had long visited the club, presented a music series for ITV from there.
Wojas also came up with the wheeze of holding a series of art exhibitions by members. Behind the bar, above a caption "Not worth a fucking penny", hung a spot-painting by Damien Hirst, who bucked the general trend by giving up drink and moving to the country.
Like most stories associated with the Colony, Wojas's ended in tragedy, with the closure of the club at the end of 2008, and a tangled series of lawsuits over his right to artworks he had offered for sale.
Michael Wojas was born in London on August 9 1956. After Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School, he studied Chemistry at Nottingham University. The rest of his life he gave to Soho.
Habitués of the Colony were used to the florid symptoms of decay of fellow-drinkers; observing them was said to be Ian Board's pastime. In the last decade of his life Wojas, who died of cancer, could sleep only by leaving on the radio and rocking backwards and forwards. The rocking and shaking increasingly invaded his daytime life.
He did not marry, but had a succession of more or less long-term girlfriends.
The Times | 8 June, 2010
If the walls of the Colony Room Club in Soho could speak, polite society would blush. It had been the archetypal louche drinking den for artistic bohemians for the past 60 years or so, with only three proprietors, the last of whom was Michael Wojas.
He did not cut a prepossessing figure. Pale, diminutive and hunched, he tended to slink through the streets of Soho in dark glasses, hugging the walls, as if trying to look inconspicuous. He had a serious vodka habit and the characteristic etiolated look of one for whom daylight was anathema. One acquaintance described him as looking like a blade of grass growing under a bucket. In his latter years he said little but would sit on a chair quietly rocking. He never seemed to eat. Or, at least, that’s what some saw. To others, he was quite the opposite: talkative, amusing, sensitive and with a great capacity to listen and dispense sympathetic advice — “our twisted shepherd”, as one friend described him. He was also an enthusiastic cook.
Some 18 months ago he incurred the wrath of some of the club’s stalwarts by giving up the unequal struggle to make ends meet and handing the premises back to the landlord, thus bringing down the shutters not only on their favourite watering hole and meeting place but also on a little piece of Soho history.
Over the years the tiny first-floor club in Dean Street, with its bilious green walls and battered carpet with countless cigarette burns, had beceome celebrated for its unbridled conversation and excess. It had gained notoriety in the 1950s as the place where the painters Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud let rip in heroic drinking bouts under the baleful eye of its then chatelaine Muriel Belcher, a Portuguese-Jewish lesbian with an acid tongue who referred to everyone as “she”. Bacon mixed generosity with tartness. “Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends,” he would say.
The Labour MP and journalist Tom Driberg (later Lord Bradwell) was a regular, sometimes with a young man on his arm. The jazz singer George Melly was a habitue; the artists Patrick Caulfield and Frank Auerbach were members, as was Colin MacInnes whose novel about London life in the 1950s, Absolute Beginners, has more than a whiff of the Colony Room Club about it.
Tennessee Williams, Noël Coward, E. M. Forster, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, even, it was said, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon — all had made the pilgrimage to the bohemian shrine and crossed the tattered threshold to savour its disreputable atmosphere. In recent yearsy, the club had been colonised by the Britart pack of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn, Gavin Turk and Sarah Lucas.
Michael Wojas was born in Edgware, North London, in 1956 and was educated at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School and then Nottingham University where he read chemistry. On graduating he came to London where he got a job as a barman at the Colony Room in 1981. His girlfriend’s mother was a friend of Muriel Belcher who had set up the club in 1948. Belcher had died a year before he arrived and her place had been taken by the even more foul-mouthed Ian Board.
“I thought I would work there for a couple of months before I figured out exactly what I wanted to do,” Wojas said. “I didn’t realise at first that I had found my home. I spend more time here than I do in my flat.
“I had led quite a sheltered upbringing, coming from a scientific background,” Wojas said, “and I was fascinated by the range of crazy extroverts here; Ian perhaps being the maddest. The first couple of years Ian would hide the takings from the till every night, when he was drunk. The next day we would spend an hour trying to find them. He thought I was going to nick the money. It took him two years before he realised I was going to stay, and he started to trust me. He drove a lot of people away.”
Board died in 1995 and left the business to Wojas. “I’m the proprietor, the bar manager, lavatory attendant, psychiatric counsellor, odd job man and accountant. There certainly isn’t anything I haven’t done,” he said.
Latterly, Wojas had suffered from depression and the vodka had taken its toll on his liver. He is survived by his long-term partner, the actress Amanda Harris.
Michael Wojas, proprietor of the Colony Room Club, was born on August 9, 1956. He died of cancer on June 6, 2010, aged 53
Michael Wojas obituary
Genial barman and owner of the Colony Room, a boozy den of Soho bohemia
Paul Willetts | The Guardian | Friday 11 June 2010
Michael Wojas, who has died aged 53, was the former barman and owner of the Colony Room, a Soho drinking club famous for being the haunt of Francis Bacon and other sharp-tongued, bibulous denizens of the metropolitan art scene. But Wojas's duties extended far beyond those of genial host. "I am the proprietor, bar manager, lavatory attendant, psychiatric counsellor, odd job man and accountant," he said.
Like many a romance, his love affair with the Colony Room started by accident. Born in London, Wojas attended Haberdashers' Aske's school, Hertfordshire, and went on to study chemistry at Nottingham University. On completing his degree in 1981, he looked around for temporary employment while he pondered what to do with the rest of his life. Via his girlfriend's mother, he landed a job as barman of the Colony, a cramped and dingy one-room drinking den on the first floor of a Georgian building in Dean Street.
Founded in 1948, it was the longest surviving of those clubs that had flourished in the era before the liberalisation of British licensing laws in the early 1960s. In those days, the Colony and other such establishments enabled determined boozers to continue drinking when the pubs were closed. Its founder was Muriel Belcher, an imperious lesbian with a fondness for insulting banter. Under her tenure, the club acquired a raucous, artistic clientele that encompassed not only Bacon but also Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, John Deakin and Michael Andrews. In settlement of overdue bar bills, hard-up members got into the habit of handing over works of art. Together with an assortment of photographs and other memorabilia, several of these hung on the club's dark green walls, the colour of which accentuated its claustrophobic ambience.
When Belcher died in 1979, her throne was inherited by her bottle-nosed, brandy-marinated barman, Ian Board, who maintained her tradition of unprovoked belligerence. While Belcher dispensed acerbic one-liners, Board specialised in expletive-strewn tirades.
Being a gentle, rather shy young man who had enjoyed a sheltered upbringing, Wojas appeared ill-equipped for this sort of environment – bohemian London's equivalent of a gladiatorial arena, swords and tridents replaced by barbed comments, withering sarcasm and assorted bad behaviour. Yet he flourished at the Colony, offering an incongruously sensitive and gentle counterpoint to his boss's excesses. "I was fascinated by the range of crazy extroverts there," he admitted.
nstead of leaving after a few months and pursuing a conventional career, Wojas remained as Board's sidekick for 13 years, during which he spent more time at the Colony than at home. Board repaid this stamina-sapping loyalty by bequeathing the club to Wojas on his death in 1994.
Aware that the club could not survive on its reputation and ageing membership, Wojas set about recruiting fresh blood. Before long, a new generation of young artists was cavorting in his dishevelled, smoke-wreathed kingdom. Perched on a bar-stool near the entrance, his demeanour infinitely more hospitable than either of his predecessors, Wojas cast an indulgent eye over the frivolous antics of the artists Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst and their circle.
"I remember evenings when the revels went on through the night," said the film-maker John Maybury. "I fondly recall Michael performing the Alastair Sim-like role of gym mistress while Sarah Lucas, Lisa Stansfield and I – all completely blotto – did forward-rolls across the carpet."
As part of the process of reviving the club, Wojas started holding exhibitions of artwork by its members. He also launched regular music nights, the entertainment provided by Suggs, Billy Bragg and other well-known performers. His most inventive promotional gimmick entailed him persuading members and their friends to work as guest bar staff. Each Tuesday night, anyone from Kate Moss to Sam Taylor-Wood could be found serving drinks.
In 1997 Maybury exploited similar communal spirit when he filmed his brilliant Francis Bacon biopic, Love Is the Devil, starring Derek Jacobi. "Michael was happy to let me shoot the Colony sequences in the club, but there wasn't enough space there for all our equipment," Maybury recalled. "I ended up building an exact replica of the club in a film studio. I employed Michael as an extra. He brought with him numerous old-time members who appeared as extras, too. When Jacobi walked on to the set, several sozzled veterans thought he was Francis. Michael had to patiently explain to them, 'It isn't Francis because Francis is dead, and this isn't the Colony Room.'"
A decade after Maybury's film came out, the lease on the Colony's premises expired. His health deteriorating, Wojas decided to close the club and sell its better-known pictures, notably a large Michael Andrews painting. The announcement and ensuing auction provoked a bitter legal dispute with many of the regulars.
Diagnosed as suffering from cancer soon after the club's closure, in the final year of his life Wojas was proud to register what was, for any Colony Room stalwart, a rare accomplishment – he gave up smoking and drinking. He is survived by his mother.
Michael Wojas, club owner, born 9 August 1956; died 6 June 2010
Pop Goes the Art Market
Never underestimate the power of suggestion: On Tuesday, Sotheby's hired waiters with silver trays to offer up tiny glass bottles of soda pop to collectors arriving for its major evening sale of contemporary art. Half an hour later, eight bidders fought over the sale's priciest offering - Andy Warhol's 1962 soda bottle, Coca-Cola  [Large Coca-Cola]. A telephone bidder won it for $35.3 million, over its $25 million high estimate.
But the sale relied heavily on faraway collectors to pick up its priciest pieces, including examples by boom-era favourites Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon. An Asian telephone bidder paid $22.4 million for a lemony, untitled Rothko from 1955 that was being sold by architect Graham Gund. Sotheby's London-based expert Oliver Barker also fielded the $14 million winning telephone bid for Bacon's orange-and-blue Figure in Movement, which was priced to sell for up to $10 million with fees. (Sale prices include the auction house's commission, which estimate prices omit.)
Eager Collectors Snap Up Pop Art at Sotheby’s Auction
By CAROL VOGEL |THE NEW YORK TIMES | NOVEMBER 9, 2010
It was to have been Warhol’s night. Waiters in black served Coca-Cola in old-fashioned green-glass bottles to the throngs of collectors and dealers who packed Sotheby’s salesroom on Tuesday night, an homage to a 1962 Coke bottle painting by the artist that was on offer.
There has been far less work by Francis Bacon to come on the market this season than in years past, but Figure in Movement, a 1985 painting of one of the artist’s anguished figures, this one wearing knee pads and boxed in by sky-blue bars against a black background, was a present from Bacon to his doctor, Paul Brass, who had decided it was time to sell and was watching the sale from a skybox. Four people fought over the painting, which was estimated to bring $7 million to $10 million, and sold for $14 million.
ART UNCOVERED: THE PUBLIC'S ARTWORK DENIED AN AUDIENCE
IN THE current tough climate of arts cuts, Jane Clinton reports on the treasures that are costing taxpayers thousands of pounds to store but which remain hidden from view for much of the time.
By Jane Clinton | Sunday Express | Sunday November 7, 2010
THEY are the art treasures that are often away from view and include works by Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst.
News that the Arts Council
“We are like a gallery without walls,” says a spokeswoman. “We have a third of our collection on show whereas some museums have less than 10 per cent of theirs on display.”
Among those not on loan are Francis Bacon’s Head VI, 1949, Lucian Freud’s Girl In A Green Dress, 1954 and Damien Hirst’s He Tried To Internalise Everything, 1992-1994.
The Arts Council
has also launched a new process whereby organisations will have
to reapply for their grants. Despite the cuts, however, it
insists the loans collection will not be sold off and is not
under threat. “Selling off the collection would mean these
world-class works would be lost to the British people for ever,”
says Arts Council
“I’ve not heard anyone suggesting that we should sell off any of our other great national collections to pay off the national debt.
“A modest amount is invested on behalf of the public, supporting artists at the very beginning of their careers, many of whom have gone on to become key figures in the history of art. Francis Bacon’s Head VI was bought for £60 in 1952 and is now worth an estimated £12million. This means that these important works, a world-class collection of post-war British art, belong to, and can be seen by, the British people for ever.”
There are, however, plans to review the amount spent on new
acquisitions. The Arts Council
However, leading art critic Brian Sewell believes the Arts Council should sell off the collection to free up funds and save on the expense of storage and conservation. “I see no purpose in the collection at all,” he says. “The Arts Council is in many ways just duplicating what is done by the Tate and other collectors and collecting bodies. There is a great mass of material being accumulated by the museums and galleries that no one ever sees and the Arts Council simply joined in.
It has very little out on loan. The collection should be spread into galleries. The Tate Gallery, as the heritage body in contemporary art, should be encouraged to go through the collection and select what it doesn’t have. Then that should automatically pass to the Tate. “The rest of it could easily be sold and even if it doesn’t make a substantial amount of money you will immediately save the costs of storage, conservation, maintenance security and curatorial staff. It would be a neat solution to the budget cuts.”
Kundera, unmoved, turns the canon on itself
Encounter: Essays By
Geordie Williamson | The Australian | October 30, 2010
It is in the novel, that zone of total imaginative freedom, where the Czech author's genius for melding pure idea to character and narrative is most apparent.
Taking in the four volumes of essays made available in English since The Art of the Novel in 1986, we might say Kundera's nonfiction operates as a series of retrospective explanations and genealogical justifications for the louche, playful and incorrigibly metaphysical content of his imaginative work.
Nonetheless, there is much that is fresh here, not least because the writer's attention is thrown outward, towards other creative figures (hence the title). The collection opens, for example, with an essay on Francis Bacon that aims straight at the heart of that magnificent and brutal artist's program:
Bacon's portraits are an interrogation on the limits of the self. Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself? To what degree of distortion does a beloved person still remain a beloved person? . . . Where is the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?
What impresses Kundera about Bacon is not only his quest for an originality that does not sever modernism from earlier painterly traditions, but also his willingness to search, "in a time when the 'self' has everywhere begun to take cover", for (in Bacon's words) "that treasure, that gold nugget, that hidden diamond" that is "the face of the self".
And so Bacon serves as a template for what the creative figure should possess: "a clear-sighted, sorrowing, thoughtful gaze trying to penetrate to the essential". writing unique: "
Geordie Williamson is The Australian's chief literary critic.
An encounter on familiar turf
Schools Cancel Trip to Bacon Show
CONTEMPORARY ART EVENING
Session 1: Tue, 9 Nov 10, 2010, 7:00 PM
Figure in Movement 1985 Francis Bacon
LOT NO. 31
FIGURE IN MOVEMENT
$7,000,00 - 10,000,000
Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 14,082,500 USD
A gift from the artist to the present owner in 1985
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., Francis Bacon: Paintings, May - July 1985, cat. no. 17, p. 39, illustrated in colour
Glasgow, McLellan Galleries, Glasgow's Great British Art Exhibition, March - May 1990, p. 37, illustrated in colour
Paris, Centre national d'art et de culture Georges Pompidou, Francis Bacon, June - October 1996, cat. no. 81, p. 217, illustrated in colour
The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, Francis Bacon, January - May 2001, p. 111, illustrated in colour
London, Tate Britain; Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Francis Bacon, September 2008 - August 2009, p. 243, illustrated in colour
London, Tate Gallery, 2000 - 2010 (extended loan)
Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Modern Masters: Francis Bacon, New York, London and Paris, 1986, no. 102, p. 107, illustrated and illustrated in colour on the back cover
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, Paris, 1987, no. 149, n.p., illustrated in colour
catalogue to the spectacular retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1985,
the museum's renowned director Alan Bowness described the art of Francis
Bacon thus: "His own work sets the standard for our time, for he is
surely the greatest living painter; no artist in our century has
presented the human predicament with such insight and feeling....for
Bacon, the virtues of truth and honesty transcend the tasteful. They
give to his paintings a terrible beauty that has placed them among the
most memorable images in the entire history of art" (Exh. Cat.,
Gifted by the artist to his physician Dr. Paul Brass, who followed his father Dr. Stanley Brass as Bacon's personal doctor and with whom Bacon maintained a close bond until his death in 1992, Figure in Movement possesses an exceptional provenance. The terms of its ownership vividly reflect its importance to Bacon: not only was Dr. Brass a most trusted friend, but when he was first offered a choice of painting and initially suggested another work, the artist instead recommendedFigure in Movement, assuring his doctor that it was a superior painting. Eminently regarded through its distinguished exhibition history in major shows in Moscow, Paris, London and The Hague, as well as its long-term loan to the Tate; this marks the historic occasion of its first appearance to market.
Foremost among Bacon's innermost clique in 1985 was John Edwards, a
handsome East-Ender and the artist's closest companion at this time.
Edwards wrote, "it was a perfect relationship. I was never Francis'
lover, but I loved him as the best friend a man could have. He was fond
of me like a son" (Exh. Cat.,
While the figure twists and writhes as if to struggle free of the canvas, it is contained within indications of rigid cricket pads. The sport was a subject of fascination for the artist's later career. A photograph of source material littering his studio floor reveals the intriguing arrangement of a copy of Physique Pictorial lying on top of England cricketer David Gower's book With Time to Spare, so that the legs of a brooding male bodybuilder join up with the cricket pads of a batsman underneath. This fusion of diametrically opposed images is archetypal of Bacon's ability to meld starkly eclectic themes to portray the chaos of human existence, and provides apt parallel with Figure in Movement. Bacon draws on his knowledge of art historical precedent, such as the incomparable figural studies of Michelangelo. He accelerates the effects of light and shadow, plunging form in and out of darkness so that several passages of light flow in simultaneous chorus. Chiaroscuro rhythms of anatomic gesture negotiate between material and void, while the figure's left leg dissolves in the black ether of the platform.
More than any other artist of the 20th Century, Bacon held a mirror to the nature of the Human Condition, and Figure in Movement provides the perfect reflection of what he saw. He was fascinated by the postwar works of the French existentialists Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir, and their themes of alienation, imprisonment and the absurd. The most important actors of Bacon's canon, typified by this figure, crystallise this entire philosophical enquiry, as they let go of the sureties of the past and stand on the threshold of an unknowable future.
An interview between Sotheby's Michael Macaulay and Martin Harrison, editor of the Francis Bacon catalogue raisonné in preparation for publication.
MM: Could you share your opinion of Bacon's late work of the 1980s and explain how Figure in Movement from 1985 fits into this important period?
MH: Bacon's project in the 1980s can be summed up as refining to their essence the themes that preoccupied him most of his career – the human body, gesture and movement. In eliminating superfluous detail, he could be described as a figurative minimalist. Figure in Movement is a quintessential exemplar of this process. It is a compelling variation of a concept he had first essayed in 1982, in which a naked form wearing cricket pads was raised on a dais. In the 1982 paintings, the 'figure' is an abstracted semi-torso, as in the panel Study from the Human Body, 1982–84, from the diptych in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D. C. and in Study of the Human Body, 1982 (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). Evidently, in Figure in Movement, 1985, Bacon set himself the challenge of representing a more complete human body.
MM: How does Bacon's symbolic content, in this case the gladiatorial inference of the inclusion of the cricket pads, relate to the isolation of his figures?
MH: The reference to cricket is deliberately ambiguous: the figure, isolated in an artificial arena, is simultaneously vulnerable and aggressive. Bacon's figures are radically decontextualised into a kind of existential vacuum: cricket is an outdoor sport, but Bacon's visual field is neither exterior nor interior. Figure in Movement is one of a select group of works made in the last decade of his life that feature a dominant, bright cadmium orange ground, Bacon's favourite colour. In its positive and vibrant aspects it intensifies the confinement of the abject yet heroic figures.
MM: The cricket pads invoke Bacon's appropriation of found imagery as cues for composition. How had the artist's treatment of found imagery altered by this stage in his career?
MH: Bacon collected images of cricketers in the 1980s, and four books on cricket that remained in his Reece Mews studio at the time of his death are now in the collection of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane: Patrick Eagar and John Arlott, An Eye for Cricket, (1979); David Gower and Alan Lee, With Time to Spare (1980); Mike Brearley, Phoenix from the Ashes: The Story of the England – Australia Series 1981, (1982); Patrick Eagar and Graeme Wright, Test Decade 1972–1982 (1982). He was familiar with cricket through his relationship with Eric Hall from the 1930s to the 1950s; Hall was an aficionado of the sport and on intimate terms with many of the leading players. Bacon greatly admired David Gower, one of England's leading batsmen renowned for his good looks, and David Sylvester identified Gower as a specific spur for the paintings. [Interviews, p. 180] However, even in the last painting to reference cricket, the central panel of Triptych 1987, the head is unequivocally that of John Edwards whose representations were based on photographs: therefore, Bacon's modus operandi in terms of appropriated imagery remained the same as it had since the 1940s, when he first adapted reproductions of Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X and Eadweard Muybridge's Animal Locomotion.
MM: This work was executed seven years before Bacon's death. Do you perceive a growing sense of his own mortality, and what does Figure in Movement say about the artist's self-perception in this final period?
MH: Crucial to Bacon's anti-narrative strategy, he located the elements of Figure in Movement in a zone of ambiguity. The protagonist is non-specific, adopting neither an offensive or defensive attitude. The figure also defies spatial logic, occupying an abstract field both behind and in front of the pale blue and black backdrop. The padded left leg dissolves into a smoky shadow on the floor of the elevated dais, the dissociated 'field of play' that acts as a cipher for the confrontation between batsman and bowler on the cricket field. It is too facile to relate the dissolving of forms to his consciousness of mortality, although the black backdrops – opaque voids that resemble tombstones – tend to support such an interpretation, as would the collapsing of the head into the negative space.
This intense and deceptively simple painting transforms the role of the viewer from a passive to an active state: Bacon's fragmented forms and anatomical diversions – the tilt of the body and the violent diagonal sweep of the sketchy arms and hand – insist on a creative interaction. Our gaze is drawn through the converging perspective of the wicket/pedestal and we become both observer and participant.
Last week’s auctions fetched more than double the amount achieved last year.
By Colin Gleadell | The Daily Telegraph | 18 Oct 2010
Study for a Dog Francis Bacon
No one, it
seems, was bold enough to bid at Christie’s fund-raiser for the
By Anita Singh, Arts Correspondent, The Daily Telegraph, 12 October 2010
Francis Bacon's Figure in Movement is estimated to fetch over £6 million at auction.
The 1985 painting, Figure In Movement, is being sold by Dr Paul Brass, the artist's friend and personal physician. It depicts a figure wearing cricketer's kneepads - Bacon had a lifelong passion for the sport.
who died in 1992, was the perfect patient, Dr Brass said. "He was always
15 minutes early for every appointment." The portrait has been on loan
Figure in Movement, a gift to the artist's friend and GP, expected to fetch at least £4m in Sotheby's sale
Mark Brown |arts correspondent | The Guardian | Monday 11 October 2010
Francis Bacon’s Figure In Movement
A Francis Bacon painting of a tortured cricketer twisting and writhing is to be sold at auction after hanging in Tate Britain for much of the last decade, Sotheby's announced today.
The painting is being sold by Bacon's friend and personal doctor, Paul Brass, who was given the portrait in 1985, the year it was completed.
loaning it to the Tate, Brass has decided to sell and an estimate of
$7m-$10m (£4.4m-£6.3m) has been placed on it ahead of the auction in
Figure in Movement, featuring a typically agonised figure, common in Bacon's work, this time in cricket pads and against a black and bright orange background with blue cage-like struts, also featured in the major 2008 Bacon retrospective at Tate Britain, which toured New York and Madrid.
Brass took over the role of being Bacon's personal physician from his father, Dr Stanley Brass, and was offered a choice between two paintings – the cricketer and one of a jet of water.
In an interview with the New York Times, Brass said: "I was tempted to opt for the jet of water, but when I told that to Francis, he said no, that painting happened by mistake when he spilled white paint on the canvas. He told me, 'If I were you, I would choose the cricketer'."
died in 1992 and his works attract some of the biggest prices for any
20th century artist although no one expects the painting to get anywhere
near the record, set in 2008 when Bacon's Triptych
1976 was bought by Roman
Abramovich for $86m, reportedly to hang on the walls of his
have been disagreements about what is going on in Figure
In Movement and who it is
based on. The figure seems to resemble John Edwards, the man Bacon found
solace in after the suicide of his lover George Dyer in 1971, but there
have also been suggestions Bacon based it on David Gower, captain of the
Il compito dell'artista? Svelare qualcosa di me
La mostra milanese di Maurizio Cattelan fa riaccendere il dibattito sul ruolo dell'arte: ha una missione sociale o la sua responsabilità è di altro tipo? Per capirlo, proviamo a fare i conti con «due giganti del Novecento»
di Giuseppe Frangi,
Francis Bacon Autoritratto.
Complice (anche) la mostra milanese di Maurizio Cattelan, sui giornali è riaffiorata una domanda che tendiamo a dare un po’ per scontata, quando si parla di artisti contemporanei. Esiste una responsabilità sociale dell’arte? Insomma, l’artista ha dei doveri, un compito, in qualche modo “una missione da assolvere” nei confronti della società a cui si rivolge? Rispondo provocatoriamente dicendo di no. L’arte ha un’altra responsabilità: quella di “rispondere” alle domande che riguardano la radice dell’essere.
Faccio un esempio, per rendere più chiara l’idea. I due artisti che più passa il tempo e più si affermano come i due giganti del secondo Novecento, Francis Bacon e Alberto Giacometti, non si sono mai fatti nessun problema sulla ricaduta sociale delle loro opere. Semplicemente sono stati fedeli a loro stessi e al bisogno vertiginoso di cogliere il mistero dell’essere dentro una società che chiudeva tutti gli spazi al Mistero. Bacon e Giacometti però, così facendo, sono stati artisti di enorme rilevanza sociale, perché per primi e senza timori hanno colto il dramma di quella «
Bacon e Giacometti sono stati due grandi solitari, scontrosi e spesso asociali nei loro atteggiamenti. Non hanno risposto a nessuna delle chiamate civili o culturali che la società lanciava. Eppure, andando al fondo alla verità di se stessi, alla fine hanno restituito un messaggio di vera rilevanza sociale. Hanno messo l’uomo davanti alla sua condizione. Hanno rilanciato in modo drammatico e tranchant la domanda che sta poi alla base di ogni possibile consesso sociale: quella sul destino. Il loro modo di essere “sociali” è quello di essere stati testimoni fedeli della propria inquietudine e della propria ansia di verità.
Oggi, con il nuovo Millennio, l’arte tende a scansare questa grande sfida lanciata da Bacon e Giacometti. Magari siamo davanti ad un’arte “socialmente corretta”, ma è un’arte svuotata dalla sua capacità di rischiare, di esporsi per comunicare all’uomo la tensione di una condizione o di un’attesa.
Se poi si vuole parlare nello specifico di Cattelan, dirò - consapevole di trovare poco consenso - che questo artista, in fondo, è molto più serio di quanto la vulgata mediatica non voglia fare apparire. La sua rappresentazione del Papa colpito dal meteorite, solo, nell’immenso spazio delle Cariatidi, abbarbicato al pastorale con la Croce, è un’immagine dirompente
Art Daily | Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Untitled (Crouching Figures), c.1952 Francis Bacon
of Francis Bacon has generously placed an important painting by the
artist on loan to The
Courtauld Gallery. Untitled
(Crouching Figures), c.1952, went on display from yesterday and will
initially be presented alongside Honoré Daumier’s Don Quixote and Sancho
Panza, c.1870, in recognition of Bacon’s admiration for Daumier’s
When James Thrall Soby, curator at The
Untitled (Crouching Figures) is one of Bacon’s most important works from the early 1950s, a period when he was emerging as the leading British painter of his generation. It is one of a group of works in which nude figures are paired in sexually charged homoerotic compositions. In the post-war world of the 1950s, Bacon’s revelation through his paintings of the potentially destructive potential of human desire resonated particularly strongly.
Miguel de Cervantes’s great 17th century novel tells the story of the farcical Don Quixote who sets out on a series of illusory chivalrous quests, mounted on his emaciated horse Rocinante and accompanied by the witness squire Sancho Panza. Bacon scholar Martin Harrison, who first recognised the importance of Fischer’s correspondence with Soby, has written of Daumier’s Don Quixote: “To gaze at this great painting is comparable to experiencing a slightly scaled-down Bacon of the 1950s”, pointing out how the subdued palette and loose brushwork of Daumier’s painting is echoed in Bacon’s work. Bacon may have also have felt an affinity for Daumier’s bleak representation of the tragicomic figures from Cervantes’s novel.
Master Painters Side by Side for the First Time in the
With the series ‘Conversation Piece’, the
Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992) was extremely indebted to tradition; as he formulated it himself: ‘in the long run art cannot cut loose from its tradition, but only renew it in a way which will be compelling to a contemporary sensibility.’ In this connection, he also repeatedly acknowledged having a strong affinity with Michelangelo. Bacon particularly admired the Italian master’s nudes: ‘the fleshy figure, coiled around his own axis as if he were about to hurl a discus.’ This description could equally apply to the two works by Cornelis van Haarlem.
Tension and drama
In the painting From Muybridge The Human Figure in Motion: Woman Emptying a Bowl of Water / Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (1965; on loan from the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam) the contorted, misshapen figures infuse the composition with enormous tension and drama. The way in which the paint twists and turns gives the painting a sense of plasticity and movement. The human body has a fleshy fullness and assumes an expressive pose that lend it a distinct sculptural quality. This is also seen in the work of Cornelis van Haarlem.
Le Figaro 14/09/2010
Black and white photograph of Francis Bacon, 1967. John Deakin
L'endroit est incroyable. Au cœur de la même Galerie municipale d'art
moderne, l'atelier du peintre irlandais Francis Bacon apparaît dans une
salle tel qu'il fut au 7, Reece Mews (
Paul McCartney and David Bailey are fans and friends; Francis Bacon chose him to look after his estate; and later this month the Pope will bless his work. Meet Brian Clarke, the world's grooviest stained-glass artist.
By David Jenkins | The Daily Telegraph | 08 September 2010
Pyramid of Peace,
a stained-glass window in one corner of the former ballroom that
occupies the first floor of Brian Clarke’s west
It’s by Clarke and, as the 57 year-old talks about it, his rich Lancashire accent throbbing with enthusiasm, he sings a hymn to the glory of light and of stained glass as a medium: how the blue becomes transparent, the red goes on fire and the white becomes incandescent at 6pm each day, just 30 summer days a year. It’s how ‘stained glass is always kinetic’ that he adores, the ‘liquid element’ of glass that he loves, the ‘transillumination’ he reveres.
Beneath the glass is an ice-blue, geometric, double-sided sofa designed for him by his old friend Zaha Hadid to complement the window, a window she calls ‘fluid and stunning’; on the other walls are a huge lead on sheet lead representation of his even older friend Paul McCartney’s hands – ‘I was drawing his face for a record cover or something and he started playing air guitar, and I drew that, so it’s a sort of portrait of Paul’; a Warhol of Jackie Kennedy – ‘you felt, when you were with Andy, that you were with an artist. He was Narcissus looking into the pool and telling us our reflection was all right’; and a Francis Bacon – ‘I said to Francis once: “You know Francis, some of the things you’re doing could translate into stained glass in a tremendously interesting way, and you’d have the benefit of transmitted colour rather than reflected colour. Have you ever thought of doing any stained glass?” And Francis said [Clarke adopts a camp and bitchy voice]: “No, dear – and I’ve not done any macramé either.”’
Clarke honks with laughter, his broad, large-eared face creased with amusement and shakes his head. ‘He was such a b-----d.’ (Clarke is chairman of the Bacon Estate; so, he says, ‘a lot of people in the art world are, you know, very, very keen to be my friend’).
For all his famous friends and success as a painter, it’s for his stained glass that Clarke is best known. He has, he says, done ‘more stained glass than anyone, probably ever’, and it’s found in settings as diverse as the Pyramid of Peace in Kazakhstan, the Pfizer building in New York, the Holocaust memorial in Darmstadt and the lobby of the Apax Group in Jermyn Street – the last a shimmering mix of deep blues, greens and carnation reds that is, Hadid says, like a ‘window to the outside world, very controlled, very strong’.
now, though, Clarke is having an ecclesiastical moment, having fled the
overpowering shadow of church architecture 25 years ago: last weekend,
in Linköping Cathedral, Sweden, three of his windows are being unveiled
in a medieval church that has never before had stained glass in it
(‘They went on a tour of Europe, the bishop and his mates and advisers
from Swedish Heritage, to look at contemporary stained glass. And they
saw a Cistercian Convent I’d done in
‘I’d said it wasn’t really my bag: I’m definitely not holy. But the Papal Nuncio is a genuinely cool guy, he really is; he’s everything you want in an archbishop. It’s a small work, but I’m very, very pleased with it – it’s a winner.’
As he tells me this we’re sitting in the kitchen of his house, eating chicken wrapped in bacon, couscous and salad. He’s wearing a pink shirt, khaki-coloured jeans and no shoes; glinting in his right earlobe is a gold cross. The house has been home to many artists from the late Victorian era onward, though Clarke bought it from the singer Leo Sayer (‘we found one of his clown outfits in the attic’) after his then dealer – the ultra-hip and very dangerous Robert Fraser – found it and told him: ‘If you don’t buy it, I’ll regard it as a personal insult.’
Ever ready with an anecdote and dauntingly erudite, Clarke is very affable company. ‘He’s good fun,’ cackles David Bailey, another good friend, ‘though not as funny as me – he hasn’t got my vicious cockney tongue.’ And it’s true: there’s a Lancastrian warmth to Clarke that helps explain why he’s so liked by so many.
of working-class parents, Clarke was born in the cotton-spinning town of
he won a scholarship to the
he says, an idyllic existence, but the capital beckoned and in 1978 he
Clarke was, John McEwen wrote in the Spectator, ‘the most Sixties character to have emerged in the London art scene since the Sixties’, and, Clarke says, his Finsbury Square studio became ‘a hub of activity and of what today, I suppose, is called glamour’. Bailey became a friend (‘I learnt a lot about light from Bailey’), and Bacon’s lover, John Edwards, and then the McCartneys.
An electrifying period, then? ‘Oh yeah. I was the kid, I was the young one. And if I’d thought about it long enough, I couldn’t possibly have dealt with Francis, for example, because I would have been in awe. But I wasn’t, because I thought I was as good as he was: I was full of the arrogance of inexperience. And I wasn’t impressed, you know – by then I’d become friends with Paul [McCartney], close friends with Paul and Linda, and after Paul and Linda it’s difficult to be impressed, really.
‘They took it all so easily, so matter-of-factly – they were so unimpressed themselves. They were very supportive: they bought paintings from me, commissioned me to do stained glass projects for their home, stage sets. Paul really gets art: he gets it very quick, very sharp. And I was working ferociously.’
As McEwen put it when a show of Clarke’s paintings reopened Fraser’s gallery in 1983: ‘A year for Clarke is an age for most of us. His energy is both undeniable and commendably against the English grain.’
But there’s something very English in the singer and actor Richard Strange’s memory of that opening: Clarke’s mother was the guest of honour at an event littered with stars. And, Strange says, Mrs Clarke saw a familiar face across the room and said: ‘“Ooh Brian, you’ve got to introduce me.” So Brian took her across the room, saying: “Excuse me, Andy, excuse me, Mick, I’ve got to introduce my mum to someone.” And they come up to Paul McCartney and Brian says: “Now, mum, I’d like to introduce you to…’ and she interrupts him and says, “Oh Brian, Derek Nimmo needs no introduction.’”
Another important friend made at this time was Norman Foster, with whom Clarke later worked extensively. ‘We shared enthusiasms,’ Clarke says. ‘One of them is light. And the early period of our friendship – by which I mean the first 15 years or so – was just ricocheting from one thrilling moment to another. We’d see each other three or four times a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner, with telephone calls in between. It was all about discovery, new things; we developed new technologies.’
Clarke developed techniques that involve the bonding of glazed colours to architectural ‘float’ glass, often doing this in multiple layers that create an oscillating visual effect; a method that allows colour to be applied to large areas of glass without the familiar dividing lead strap work. Colour, in Clarke’s case, that’s radiantly life affirming.
Many of Clarke’s best friends are architects – Hadid, Foster, Peter Cook, the late Jan Kaplicky – and it is, Hadid says, ‘very rare to have someone who’s an artist who knows about architecture’.
Still, Clarke says: ‘I’ve done things I consider among my best work and they’re in buildings I think should be pulled down, quite frankly. But I can’t do that any more, because it’s lipstick on a gorilla. I can only really do my best when it’s in harmonious tandem.’
harmony is what he enjoys about working with architects. ‘Artists work
on the principle that they have a direct line to God. Well, very often
that direct line has bad reception. And what was so thrilling about
It was that savage poet of violence, Francis Bacon who threw a spanner in Clarke’s works. ‘Francis quite liked talking about dying and how he was leaving everything to John – he kind of boasted about it. And John would say: “I don’t know what I’m going to do, Francis; I don’t know how I’ll manage all this.” And Francis would say: “Oh, Brian’ll help you.”
‘It was like that. And then it became that; I’d made a solemn promise I would. And John was as close a friend as I’ve ever had – he had great intuition; he could spot a phoney across a crowded pub. And Francis had been dead about three years and John came for help; he said to me: “I don’t understand these papers.”’
Clarke was, he says, in the middle of ‘an incredibly productive and exciting period of my life’. Still, at Edwards’s request, the High Court made Clarke sole executor of the Bacon Estate and he took up legal cudgels against Bacon’s old gallery, the Marlborough.
He assumed the matter would be over in months; six years later, litigation was still going on – at one stage, Clarke had 20 lawyers working for him. ‘It was horrible. It nearly killed me. If I could rewind the clock, that would be something I would definitely not want to be involved with.’
While the case was going on, ‘we moved Francis’s studio [from Reece Mews, Kensington] to Dublin and that helped me, because it showed some good could come out of this s---, as well as angst and anger and money – the money got bigger and bigger’. No surprise, really: as Clarke notes: ‘Francis used to say: “What people like about my paintings are the noughts.”’
Edwards died before the case was over, leaving Clarke his sole executor. He is chairman of the Bacon Trust, but he’s keen to resign. Meanwhile, a catalogue raisonné is in preparation, works are loaned and gifted, grants given. And ‘there’s one big pay off: I’ve been so close to Francis’s work now, at such an intimate level, with access to great masterpieces on a daily basis’.
studio was famously squalid and chaotic. Clarke’s – on an industrial
estate in north-west
Over here are the stairs down which Dennis Hopper fell on a visit to the studio; over there an oil on canvas study for a portrait of Andy Warhol. Here are drawings Clarke is making of paint tubes and of chocolate caramel sweet wrappers – ‘I’ve eaten thousands of them.’ Here’s the Fleur de Lys glass he did for Linda McCartney. Here’s multiple evidence of the ‘great hand’ and ‘fine line’ both Hadid and Doris Saatchi Lockhart praise. Here are the skulls that preoccupy him.
here’s a large-scale proposal he’s preparing for a stained-glass
He pauses. ‘Stained glass – I’m more excited about it than I’ve ever been. It can transform the way you feel when you enter a building in the way nothing else can.’
Milan Kundera's exhumed essays cast a spell with their insights into creativity, writes Geoff Dyer
Geoff Dyer | The Observer | Sunday 2 August 2010
Milan Kundera, Czech born writer who has lived in exile in
It is a tribute to Kundera's ability to weave his essayistic spell that my interest was undiminished by the fact that I am either wholly ignorant of many of the composers and writers discussed (Iannis Xenakis, Marek Bienczyk, Gudbergur Bergsson) correct or am familiar with them only through Kundera's earlier books. In any case, Kundera's subjects are mirrors, offering variously distorted reflections on his own work and situation. As he says with reference to a remark by Francis Bacon about Beckett: "When one artist is talking about another, he is always talking (indirectly, in a roundabout way) of himself, and that is what's valuable in his judgment."
book kicks off with a particularly outrageous example as he reflects on
and reprints a piece from the 1970s. In 1972, in an apartment in
"Unconscionable" though this desire was, Kundera cannot disavow it; it forms the basis of his understanding of "the brutal gesture" – the "hand movement that roughs up another person's face in hopes of finding, in it and behind it, something that is hidden there" – of Francis Bacon's art. This may not be art history as understood by Kenneth Clark but it shoves us into a horrible confrontation with Bacon's art. The standard art-critical habit is to comment on the horror without conveying it so that we look and listen quite comfortably.
Memory and forgetting, exile, identity and the power of art as a safeguard against the erosion of history and our own humanity: these are the themes that dominate this excellent collection of essays in which
Writing about the art of Francis Bacon, Kundera praises Bacon’s ‘clearsighted, sorrowful gaze trying to penetrate to the essential’.
Yet that description could just as easily apply to Kundera’s own writing here, whether he is celebrating the music of Janácek or delighting in the comic marker laid down by Rabelais.
At one point, Kundera bemoans the demands of contemporary fashion (cultural ‘blacklists’) in a world where the importance of art is becoming diminished.
Book review: ‘Encounter’ by
Compelling essays by someone who writes of authors, composers and artists from whom he continues to learn.
By Michael S. Roth, Special to the
"Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself?"
Milan Kundera asks this question in writing about the painter Francis Bacon, one of many cultural figures he addresses in his commanding, compelling new collection of essays, "Encounter." It's a question that resonates throughout the book. To what degree can we be distorted by violence and fear — in short, by history — and still be ourselves? Kundera sees this distortion everywhere, a distortion that art engages. As the author looks at contemporary culture, his skepticism curdles into pessimism. In a world increasingly disinterested in art, when do we cross the border and forget what art has taught us about being human? Would we even realize that we crossed that border?
“Bacons Finsternis”: Immer dem Maler nach
von Florian Asamer, Die Presse, 31.07.2010
Im Kunstgeschichte-Krimi "Bacons Finsternis" sucht und findet ein verlassener Ehemann Trost und jede Menge Abenteuer in den Bildern des Leinwandapokalyptikers Francis Bacon.
Auch dieser Griechenland-Urlaub endet, wie Griechenland-Urlaube eben enden: bei Meerblick und Wein in der Taverne. Zum Nachtisch erfährt Arthur Valentin von seiner geliebten Frau Isabel allerdings, dass mit dem Urlaub auch ihre Ehe vorbei sein wird.
Zurück in Wien stürzt Arthur, der ein Antiquariat betreibt, nach dem Auszug von Isabel ins Bodenlose. Er verlässt die ehemals gemeinsame Wohnung kaum mehr, überlässt die Arbeit im Antiquariat zur Gänze seiner Partnerin Maia und hängt rosaroten Erinnerungen an seine Ehejahre nach.
Monaten der Verzweiflung führt ihn eine Laune ins
Fesselnde Bacon-Interpretationen. Inzwischen ist Arthur eine Art Bacon-Spezialist geworden. Er liest sich quer durch die Arbeiten zu dem Jahrhundertmaler und versinkt in vielen biografischen Details und Zitaten des homosexuellen Künstlers (der ideale Liebhaber?, „der Nietzsche des Football-Teams“). So bringt Wilfried Steiner dem Leser auch die Geschichte der Beziehung zu George Dyer, die Rolle der Isabel Rawsthorne und vor allem Bacons Freundschaft zu Malerkollegen Lucian Freud, dem Enkel von Sigmund Freud, näher.
Dabei glänzt das Buch mit detaillierten Schilderungen – nein, fesselnden Interpretationen vieler Bacon-Gemälde, die dazu einladen, sie gleich noch einmal zu lesen, diesmal mit einem Bacon-Katalog in der Hand. Vor allem mit der seitenlangen Beschreibung des Triptychons „Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion“ gelingt es Steiner, den Leser in tiefe Beunruhigung zu versetzen.
Tate Modern in
Wilfried Steiner, der als künstlerischer Leiter am Linzer Posthof arbeitet, verbindet in seinem Roman drei Stränge: eine anschauliche kunstgeschichtliche Reise durch das Leben von Francis Bacon, die tragisch-ironische Schilderungen eines gebrochenen Verlassenen, der über die Trennung von seiner großen Liebe nicht hinwegkommen will, und schließlich einen Kunstdiebstahl in Rififi-Manier. „Bacons Finsternis“ verdankt seinen unbestreitbaren Reiz wohl gerade dem Kontrast zwischen der in jeder Hinsicht schweren Bacon-Kost und einer etwas leicht geratenen Krimihandlung.
Wilfried Steiner, Bacons Finsternis, Deuticke Verlag, 286 Seiten, 20,50 Euro.
Wilfried Steiners zweiter Roman
Ruth Halle, ORF, o6/08/2010
Ist es ein Krimi, eine intelligente Kunstgeschichte rund um den Maler Francis Bacon oder ein Liebesroman? Wilfried Steiners soeben erschienenes Buch "Bacons Finsternis" ist von allem etwas und lässt sich dennoch nur schwer kategorisieren.
Der Linzer Schriftsteller stellt in seinem bei Deuticke publizierten Buch die faszinierende Figur des radikalen Francis Bacon in den Mittelpunkt und umkreist den irischen Maler mit einer sehr komplexen und auch humorvollen fiktiven Handlung.
Ein Ehepaar verbringt einen harmonischen Urlaub auf Kreta
und genießt den letzten Abend auf der griechischen Insel in einer
Taverne. Für Steiners Protagonisten Arthur Valentin nimmt der Abend
allerdings eine völlig unerwartete Wendung. Beinahe nebenbei erfährt
Arthur Valentin nach 15-jähriger Beziehung von seiner Ehefrau, dass dies
der letzte gemeinsame Urlaub gewesen sein soll.
Selbtmitleidig vergräbt sich Arthur in seinen Schmerz und überlässt seiner Geschäftspartnerin die Führung seines Antiquariats. Es sollte ausgerechnet der irische Maler Farncis Bacon werden, der Arthur Trost spenden wird. Der 1992 verstorbene Maler warf gleichsam Kreaturen ohne Sinn und Aussicht auf Erlösung auf die Leinwand.
Steiners linkischer Protagonist, den er überzeugend zeichnet und mit erquickender Selbstironie ausstattet, besucht eine Bacon-Ausstellung und ist von der Kraft und Energie Bacons begeistert - eine Begeisterung die Romanfigur und Autor teilen.
die Faszination für Francis Bacon erweist sich in Steiners Roman
keineswegs als probate Beziehungstherapie: Während Arthur der
Beschaulichkeit und Innigkeit seiner Ehe nachtrauert, setzen sich die
Ereignisse temporeich und von Steiner stakkato-artig erzählt in Gang.
Arthur reist den Bildern Bacons quer durch Europa nach, und vermeint aus den Gesprächsfetzen zwischen seiner Exfrau und einem Kunden die Ankündigung eines Kunstraubs herauszuhören.
"Bacons Finsternis", den zweiten Roman des Linzer Autors
Wilfried Steiner, einordnen zu wollen, erscheint schwierig: Er ist
sowohl eine teils humoristisch erzählte Liebesgeschichte, ein rasant und
klug erzählter Krimi, als auch eine aufschlussreiche, gut recherchierte
Abhandlung über das Leben und Werk Bacons.
Der 50-jährige Linzer Autor Wilfrid Steiner hat mit "Bacons Finsternis" sein siebentes Buch und zugleich seinen zweiten Roman vorgelegt. Sieben Jahre hat der künstlerische Leiter des Linzer Posthofs an diesem Buch geschrieben.
Wie auch schon in seinem ersten Roman "Der Weg nach Xanadu", in dessen Mittelpunkt der englische Romantiker Samuel Taylor Coleridge stand, fasziniert ihn auch hier wieder das Ausloten der vorstellbaren Grenzen, die Faszination des Denkbaren.
Textfassung: Ruth Halle
Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy
The Arts and Human Suffering
by Stephen K. Levine
Jessica Kingsley, 2009
Review by Marko Zlomislic, Ph.D.
Metapsycholog, Volume 14, Issue 32, Aug 10th 2010
Levine would have us "embrace our own chaos". However, what does this exactly mean? He writes, "Since we are chaotic, we can face the chaos of trauma without feeling that we must expel it from our being". Is it not the other way around? Since we are not chaotic, we have such difficulty with trauma. If chaos were the essence of our Heideggerian ground, then there would be no problem in dealing with trauma. Trauma would be just another form of chaos that we already are. The experience of trauma says otherwise.
Levine asks, "What kind of art is adequate to the experience of trauma? To me, the answer is the art of the terrible, the grotesque, and the ugly". Here Levine cites the paintings of Francis Bacon. Bacon's work had a huge impact on me. I thought, yes, this is it. I must take his work further into ugliness and darkness. Therefore, I painted a la Bacon and then I had an epiphany.
What I was painting was only giving strength to death, darkness and chaos. I then began to paint landscapes and I think this is when I began to heal. Ten years after my traumatic event, I realize that art cannot save us from anything. Art is not salvific. It is not a salve or ointment. Returning to life is the grace that saves.
Wokingham Times - 3 Aug 2010
Thatching work on a cottage once occupied by painter Francis Bacon led to a lesson in fighting thatch fires.
Wokingham fire crews passing Long Cottage in Davis Street, Hurst, took the opportunity to quiz master thatcher James McCormack on how thatch roofs are constructed so they would have a better idea of how to fight a future thatch blaze.
Mr McCormack, of Country Thatching based in Wokingham, told firefighters about the types of reed and straw used in thatching and explained how twisted hazel spares are used to fix bundles of wheat reed to the original thatch.
The impromptu lesson proved so popular a further five teams from fire stations around Wokingham went along to quiz Mr McCormack, who has been a thatcher for 21 years.
He is currently working on Long Cottage which is believed to date back to 1629 and has featured in a BBC film about 20th century painter Mr Bacon.
The owners of the cottage would like to hear from anyone with details about the history of the cottage.
Gagosian Gallery is pleased to present the exhibition Crossing the Channel: Friendships and Connections in
This exhibition spans the period from 1946-the year that the international borders reopened--to 1965, when the Tate Gallery presented Giacometti's retrospective. During this time, the web of friendships and alliances between artists, patrons and collectors from
The eldest of the three artists, Giacometti was, to some extent, the trio's imaginative lynchpin. With Watson's assistance, Freud travelled to
Bacon and Freud became close friends around 1943. Each chose to paint only their most intimate friends, although Bacon worked exclusively from photographs while Freud painted from live models. Freud's portrait of his future wife Lady Caroline Blackwood, Girl in Bed (1952) was one of the many paintings that travelled with him between
Francis Bacon portrait fails to sell at auction
A rare portrait by Francis Bacon which was expected to fetch up to £6 million has failed to sell at auction amid fears that the recession is hitting collectors.
By Murray Wardrop | The Telegraph | 12 February 2009
The painter's Man in Blue VI was one of a series of seven paintings he completed in the spring of 1954.
It had been estimated to fetch a price of between £4m and £6m when it went under the hammer at Christie's auction house in London on Wednesday night.
However, bidders failed to reach the asking price and the painting was returned to the vendor.
The work reveals a smartly dressed man whose features seem obscured, seated at the centre of a cavernous dark canvas.
The painting is unusual in that the artist appears to have painted the sitter from life as opposed to using a photograph, which was Bacon's typical method.
The sitter is an unknown man who Bacon is thought to have met at the Imperial Hotel in Henley-upon-Thames, where the painter was living at the time.
Despite the disappointment of the Bacon picture failing to sell, Christie's reported that 79 per cent of the other pieces on offer in its Post-War and Contemporary art sale had been sold.
The auction house blamed the style of the painting itself rather than its price tag in the economic gloom for disinterest in the sale.
Christie's spokesman said: "I don't think we can blame the credit crunch for the Bacon picture not selling. It was quite an academic piece.
"Collectors still have that liquidity in the market.
"There was a lot of interest in the painting in the run up to the sale and there has been immediately after."
He said it was possible that the painting may now be subject to a private sale.
Francis Bacon painting Man in Blue VI
Rare pair of Francis Bacon rugs to go on sale
A rare pair of rugs designed by the young Francis Bacon are to be auctioned.
By Ben Leach | The Telegraph | 25 February 2009
Hand knotted shirt runner designed by Francis Bacon to be sold at the Netherhampton Saleroom, Salisbury, Wiltshire.
It had been thought that only three of the painter's early carpet designs remained, including one held by the Victoria and Albert Museum.
But an auction house in Wiltshire claims to have found the only surviving works from Bacon's first exhibition of his own designs in 1929.
They were apparently donated by an Iranian carpet dealer who had cleaned out one of her storerooms.
Ian Bennett, a textile specialist at Netherhampton Salerooms, near Salisbury, told The Times newspaper that the donor was unaware of the rugs' significance.
He said: "This particular batch of rugs contained the usual mix of good, bad and indifferent, but there were a lot of them and initially they had to be gone through fairly quickly.
"All of a sudden, in the middle of a pile of Persian tribal weavings in varying stages of disintegration, there appeared two obviously European Modernist rugs, which I threw aside with an instant semi-automatic valuation of a few hundred pounds.
"Just as they were about to be covered up by other rugs, I vaguely noted the presence of writing at the bottom of each piece and suddenly what I had only half seen came into sharp focus. I said, 'Hang on a minute!'. In large capital letters was the name Francis Bacon."
He said the donor told him she had bought them ten years ago from an elderly lady who had been using them in her hallway.
He added: "She thought they were impractical. She kept on tripping over them. She didn't know what they were."
Bacon spent time as a furniture and rug designer in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
No records survive of the 1929 exhibition, but it was successful enough for Bacon to follow it up with a second one in 1930.
A year or two later he gave up design to concentrate on painting. The rugs will be auctioned on March 12.
PAUL GORMAN | “FEELING HIS WAY”: FRANCIS BACON’S MODERNIST FURNITURE | JANUARY 13, 2015
In 2012 a pair of rugs were withdrawn from sale after doubts were cast when compared with the half-dozen undisputed rugs made for Bacon by Wilton in the late 20s and early 30s. Measuring 1.65 x 91cm and 2.24 x 91cm, these rugs were withdrawn from sale in 2012.
Bacon was characteristically dismissive of his furniture designs, telling his chronicler David Sylvester that they were “over-influenced by the French and not very original”. Nevertheless, as Farson wrote, this work appears to have helped him “feel his way”; the patterns and bold use of colour were mirrored in such contemporaneous works as Painting 1929, for example.
The confidence with which the design pieces are executed communicates not only Bacon’s disavowal of early 20th century British art (including the “picturesque subjects, anecdotal details and other winning little tricks” identified by Richardson), but also the development of a dark and muscular response to modernism.
Bacon's theatre of the absurd
by David Yezzi
On Francis Bacon at the Tate Britain, London.
Features | The New Criterion |Volume 27 Number 4 | December 2008
High-priced meat-under-glass has been a staple of British art for the better part of a century, long before Damien Hirst’s fashionable sharks and calves appeared on the scene. Witness the current career retrospective of paintings by Francis Bacon (surely the ultimate nom de charcuterie), timed in accordance with the artist’s centenary in 2009. Bacon’s take on the human condition was simple: “We are meat,” he liked to say. His paintings of sixty years, from Crucifixion (1933) toTriptych (1991) in the Tate show, rarely stray off message, recapitulating his dark matter in image after traumatic image. (From the mid-1960s on, Bacon displayed most of his sanguinary subjects behind glass, placed in gilded frames.) It is worth noting that the exhibition originates at Tate Britain, not at Tate Modern, as I initially assumed—a far better venue for staking Bacon’s claim as the greatest British painter since Turner (and, in the eyes of many, as one Tate press release has it, Britain’s greatest painter period!). But Bacon’s ubiquity and collectability, abetted by his famously theatrical subjects and bravura technique, mainly confirm his star status, not his mastery.
Certainly, anyone possessed of a glancing acquaintance with modern art knows what a Bacon looks like: arrays of distended viscera, steaming sides of beef, screaming Popes in “space-frames,” crucifixions, menacing dogs, swirled faces, contorted nudes decomposing on divans, Muybridge-esque figures recast in blurs of paint. Brutal, bloody stuff. It’s also attention-grabbing stuff, both pictorially and commercially. Even those who couldn’t give a fig for art will have noticed Bacon’s recent record-breaking outing in the marketplace: Triptych (1976) sold in May at Sotheby’s for over $86 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for a contemporary art work. Last month, Study for Self-Portrait (1964), estimated at $40 million, sat on the block at Christie’s without a bid, but one assumes this was due more to our economy’s recent resemblance to a Bacon painting than to any decline in Bacon’s blue-chip stock.
Only Bacon’s friend Lucian Freud, among the London School painters, comes close to rivaling his celebrity and mystique. Bacon worried that his biography would over-weight viewers’ interpretations of his work, and not without reason; his was a colorful life tinged with tragedy. One needn’t scratch the surface very deeply before biographical details emerge, particularly in the portraits and late paintings. Bacon’s reputed drinking, gambling, and masochism (he fled one severe beating clothed only in fishnet stockings) fueled his image as a peintre maudit. His greatest subject was ultimately Francis Bacon.
Darling of the bohemian intelligentsia, Bacon spent his bad-boy early years in London commuting “between the gutter and the Ritz” (as he put it): dodging rents, committing petty crimes, and living off of patrons and friends. He took pride in the fact that he never received formal training as a painter. Born in Ireland to English parents, he fled a violent homelife in which his horse-trainer father oversaw regular whippings of his son by the grooms. In 1927, Bacon traveled to Germany with Cecil Harcourt-Smith, a family friend (with whom he wound up in bed). He found Berlin in the Twenties much as Auden described it at that time—“a bugger’s daydream.” It was seeing Picasso’s work in Paris, where he traveled after Berlin, that set him on the road to becoming a painter.
Bacon’s earliest painting in the Tate exhibition is his spindly, Picasso-inflected Crucifixion (1933). Crucifixions became a signature motif for the artist. Among his most well-known images are Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), his first major triptych, andPainting (1946), a splayed cow carcass and bloody-mouthed figure arranged as an abattoir-altarpiece, which Alfred Barr acquired for the Museum of Modern Art. Bacon followed these with a series of Popes, beginning with Head VI (1949) and culminating in the streaked and gilded bombast of Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X(1953). The Popes were one of a number of motifs Bacon would come back to later in his career with diminishing returns. (Bacon was extremely self-critical and destroyed a great deal of work, but by the time he came to repent the Popes presumably it was too late to get his hands on them.)
Bacon often equivocated when asked questions about his influences and the significance of his work, but certain things were repeated often enough to be believed: 1) that he was an Nietzschean atheist, 2) that Picasso had meant a great deal to him, 3) that he intended no religious meaning with his crosses and Popes, and 4) that his greatest guiding principle as a painter was the Surrealist notion of chance. According to Michael Peppiatt in his recently updated biography,  what Bacon most wanted was to “excite” himself, to stir emotion ruthlessly, to “remove veils” from experience, to provide direct access to the valves of feeling. His means: bloody mouths, bones, flesh, screaming heads. Peppiatt once claimed, in the September 1984 issue of Connoisseur, that “even his detractors would agree that there is nothing of the easy chair about the work of Francis Bacon. Far from ease, it offers extreme disquiet.” I can’t say that I’m convinced. A kind of bathos dogs Bacon’s work, arising from the fact that his disquiet is, so to speak, always in an “easy chair,” swathed in gorgeous magenta and crimson and served up with a Sargent-like facility of the brush.
Bacon’s seductive paint handling is the first thing that viewers notice after the carnage. His methods of applying paint were as idiosyncratic as they were versatile. Hugh Davies and Sally Yard describe his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, in which his materials ranged from:
Brillo pads to cashmere sweaters, as brushes are joined by rags, cotton wool, sponges, scrub brushes, garbage-can lids, paint-tube caps, the artist’s hands, and whatever else he can find in the studio for the application and shaping of painterly passages… . Thick impasto coexists with thinned washes of pigment and raw canvas, sand and dust are occasionally used to give texture to the paint. A few works of the 1980s are veiled in the haze produced by applying paint with an aerosol spray.
Reviewing Bacon’s show at the Malborough-Gerson gallery in 1968, Hilton Kramer found him “one of the most dazzling pictorial technicians on the current scene.” Why, then, he asks, does the work “strike me as being clever rather than profound—brilliant rather than authentic?” Kramer ends with a recognition of “exactly how safe an artist Mr. Bacon really is.”
Safe and also stagey. Bacon’s characteristic space is theatrical, suggesting operating theaters, thrust stages, wrestling rings, circus rings, bull rings, throne rooms, closets, altars—all playing areas in Bacon’s theater of the absurd. Beckett is a name that tends to come up when considering Bacon’s vision, but it’s closer to Genet (whose plays he recommended to friends). Think of the bishop in Le Balcon, who is in fact a man in costume acting out a ritualistic sexual fantasy in a brothel that the madame calls a “house of illusions.” In the critic Martin Esslin’s description, absurdist theater portrays “a world that functions mysteriously outside our conscious control… . It no longer has religious or historical purpose; it has ceased to make sense.” This is Bacon’s world, in which the artist rejects both narrative and didactic purpose and attempts to confront, in Esslin’s phrase, “the spectator with the harsh facts of a cruel world and his own isolation.”
This sense of chance and of confrontation is a key element of Bacon’s most touted images, such as Painting (1946), with its absurdist illogic and raw imagery. Yet the “safety” that Kramer perceived in the late Sixties already exists here in the picture’s pink and mauve symmetrical background. Bacon’s paint handling is so delicious, it’s like a mountain of crème Chantilly—far from horrified by it, you want to eat it with a spoon. Bacon is continually betrayed by his beginnings as an interior designer, no where more so in Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. As Peppiatt notes of the background color of Studies, “It is worth recalling that cadmium orange, which had become the fashionable color in avant-garde interior design in the 1930s, remained Bacon’s favorite color.” Bacon’s fashion colors and mod furniture come off as frivolously elegant.
Frivolity is, of course, the last thing most people associate with Bacon’s work. As Bacon’s Soho crony and (unauthorized) biographer Daniel Farson writes: “To appreciate Bacon’s work, it helps to see him as a deeply moral artist.” This strikes me as exactly what Bacon is not, so much so that I wonder if Farson could really believe it himself. Elsewhere he says that Bacon repeatedly told him that he believed in “nothing.” John Richardson, the biographer of Picasso, repeats the error: “By holding a mirror up to our degenerate times Bacon proves himself to be one of the most moral artists of the day. Far from titillating us, he castigates us.” But Bacon does no such thing. Firstly, he is not concerned with our “times” in any historical sense, except in so far as he personally embodies them. For Bacon, images from news photographs and films—the screaming nurse on the Odessa steps in Potemkin or a Nazi armband, for example—have little to say about “our degenerate times” and volumes to say about Bacon’s roiling inner life. When a television commentator suggested that Bacon’s work was a condemnation of man’s inhumanity to man, Bacon retorted: “That’s the last thing I think of.”
It is not Bacon’s stark subject matter that disqualifies him as a “moral artist”; it is his aestheticization of the horror depicted. As the critic Yvor Winters explains, the moral artist does not shy from exploring the extremes of human experience, but he portrays evil as evil and makes us know it as evil. This is not the case with Bacon, either in his professed world view or in his practice:
In all the motor accidents I’ve seen, people strewn across the road, the first thing you think of is the strange beauty—the vision of it, before you think of trying to do anything… . There’s no one more unnatural than myself, and, after all, I’ve worked on myself to be as unnatural as I can. I can’t really talk about painting because I only work for myself and just by chance it happens that for some reason I’ve been lucky enough to be able to live by something that obsesses me, but I haven’t got any morals to preach… . I just work as closely to my nerves as I can.
One leaves the Bacon show at the Tate feeling beaten up by images of the dying George Dyer (Bacon’s tragic lover) vomiting into a sink, the gaping wounds, the twisted flesh. Bacon sought to transmit emotion as immediately as possible, which in a sense he did, but it’s not emotion he transmits so much as sensation. Shock lends Bacon’s work its edge, but it diminishes it as well. The paintings register like a trauma on the spinal column, without ever reaching the more complex centers of the brain. Later in Bacon’s career, when shock gave way to chic, the game was lost. Second Version of Triptych 1944, his reworking of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, replaces the brushy energy of the earlier work with a spray-painted softness that makes Bacon’s phallic Furies look like tchotchkas in a Madison Avenue boutique. His Innocent X of 1965 replaces the pontiff’s rictus with the taffy-pull features of the later portraits. Bacon became convinced that he could have done the Popes better than he had, but this is no proof. Nor is the reworking of Painting from the 1960s (not included in the Tate show), which dresses the macabre scene up with a sunny yellow background and what look like paper garlands—a travesty of Gauguin’s Yellow Christ (1889). Bacon detested illustration, but in the end he failed to escape it, and the portraits moved him even further in this direction.
The Peppiatt book contains a revealing quotation: “When I was young, I needed extreme subject matter for my paintings… . Then as I grew older I began to find my subject matter in my own life. During the 1960s the Furies, the dictators and screaming Popes, the anonymous figures trapped in darkened rooms gave way to portraits of living identified beings.” And here is the disconnect: Bacon reviled abstraction because for him it was all design, empty aesthetics. Bacon relied on his figures to ground his work in reality, to lend his paintings the force and horror of the real world. But the triptychs and portraits of the Sixties and later marinate in the very aesthetic stew he had hoped to avoid. Bacon’s contortions of angst become so pretty, so tasteful. The large squares of pink and orange (orange is the new pink, or is it the other way around?), the natty black suits, the distinctive chaises and tables make the lot seem very “safe” indeed.
The selection of works for the exhibition is judicious, suggesting more variety in the work than is really there. After the monotony of the Bacon treatment—floating central figures against disconnected flat colors—sets in, the decline is steady: the final paintings are his least interesting. As David Sylvester prophesied in 1955, “many of the things that make [Bacon] exciting today may render him laughable for future generations.” The colored arrows pointing to newspapers and wounds and bodies on toilets; the globs of thrown white paint; the increased staginess—all seem like precious, empty gestures. The Tate retrospective carefully elucidates Bacon’s photographic sources; it includes BBC footage of Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester that highlights his considerable charm, but the work itself seems no different that it did at the MOMA retrospective in 1990—except that it has grown a little more tired with the passage of time.
Bacon’s paintings, ostensibly transmitting high-pitched emotion, are cut off from emotion. He never flinched from working on a grand scale, from putting his feet up against the masters—Grünewald, Titian, Vélazquez—but in the end his almost mechanical serialism and cool shocks bring him closer to Warhol, whose films Bacon admired even as he turned his nose up at the paintings. Rather than being the greatest British painter since Turner, Bacon may better be seen as the great precursor to the soullessness of Damien Hirst, whose shark is currently on view at the Met. When “Francis Bacon” arrives in New York next summer, viewers will have a chance to consider the two artists under one roof.
Francis Bacon opened at Tate Britain, London, on September 11, 2008 and remains on view through January 4, 2009. The exhibition will travel to the Museo National del Prado, Madrid (February 3–April 19, 2009) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (May 18–August 19, 2009).
A catalogue edited by Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens, with essays by Martin Harrison, David Alan Mellor, Simon Ofield, Gary Tinterow, and Victoria Walsh, has been printed by Tate Publishing (288 pages, £24.99 paper).
Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, by Michael Peppiatt; Constable, 456 pages, £12.99 paper.
Desperately seeking Daddy
Lewis Jones is fascinated by details of Francis Bacon's demons.
By Lewis Jones | The Daily Telegraph | 22nd December 2008
In search of a cruel father: Francis Bacon
Michael Peppiatt knew Francis Bacon for nearly 30 years, and in 1997 published an authoritative biography, Anatomy of an Enigma. The 14 essays and interviews collected in Studies for a Portrait necessarily cover much of the same ground, but offer fresh perspectives.
In “Bacon’s Eyes”, for example, he publishes extracts from a discarded memoir he wrote as a Cambridge undergraduate, when he drank with Bacon in the bars and clubs of Soho. This is brave of him, as the passages selected are embarrassingly self-conscious and derivative – his publisher remarked that they would sound better in French. Still, they catch something of the artist: “Gargoyle face jutting out on nightairs, with a bone structure from a butcher’s. Under barlight, pinkchopped, the smooth skin glistening over the powerful mandibles.”
Bacon was all of a piece, and his talk – recorded here in interviews laid out in the reverential French style – could be as brilliantly perverse as his paintings. “I always think of friendship,” he said, “as where two people can really tear each other to bits.” Such friendships are a staple of his work.
In the essays, Peppiatt writes perceptively about Bacon’s endlessly contradictory nature, his generosity and cruelty, his violence and tenderness, his dandyism and love of squalor, his spectacular dissipation and iron self-discipline, and what he called his “exhilarated despair”. There is a contradiction, too, in the biographer’s approach to his subject. On the one hand, he accepts the artist’s assertion that his paintings are inexplicable, signifying nothing, while on the other he naturally does his best to explain their significance. He is excellent on Bacon’s literary influences, particularly Aeschylus and TS Eliot, and quotes some lines from The Family Reunion (where the two meet) which perfectly describe the paintings:
In and out, in an endless drift
Of shrieking forms in a circular desert
Weaving with contagion of putrescent
On dissolving bone.
His main source of explanation, though, is the painter’s life, particularly his tortured adolescence. Bacon’s sexual feelings were first aroused by his father, a brutal military man turned unsuccessful horse trainer, who may have had his asthmatic son horsewhipped by the stud farm grooms – a possible inspiration for all the primal screams of the paintings (“the moment of truth, where all pretence and deceit fall away”). In 1927, when Francis was 16, Captain Bacon expelled him from home when he discovered him trying on his mother’s underwear. The boy was entrusted to a suitably manly uncle, who took him from the wilds of County Kildare to Berlin and to his bed, then left him to fend for himself on the streets.
Peppiatt argues persuasively that Bacon spent the rest of his life in search of a “cruel father”, a quest dramatised in his obsessive depiction of demented authority figures, whether subfusc businessmen or empurpled popes (“the ultimate Papa”).
He recreated his Berlin experiences in London, amid the depravity of post-war Soho, where he helped create the Colony Room, a seedy drinking club (still standing, just) whose bilious green décor provides the background for some of his paintings. In his novel England, Half English, Colin MacInnes captures the atmosphere in the club, which he calls Mabel’s: “To sit in Mabel’s, with the curtains drawn at 4pm on a sunny afternoon, sipping expensive poison and gossiping one’s life away, has the futile fascination of forbidden fruit: the heady intoxication of a bogus Baudelairian evil.”
It was there that Bacon met Peter Lacy, his perfect “cruel father”, a former Spitfire pilot who drank three bottles of spirits a day and had an extensive collection of rhino whips, with which he belaboured the painter and his paintings. The couple spent time in Tangiers, where Bacon was repeatedly found wandering the streets at night in an appalling state. A concerned British consul alerted the chief of police, who reported, “Pardon, mais il n’y a rien à faire. Monsieur Bacon aime ça.”
Bacon painted his voluptuous abattoir visions – screaming monkey men, snarling cripples, twisted, hacked and smeared – with the exquisite skill that Van Gogh brought to his sunflowers. A few are lavishly reproduced in Studies for a Portrait. Most of his masterpieces are to be found in full coffee-table format in Peppiatt’s Francis Bacon in the 1950s, first published two years ago as the catalogue for an exhibition of the same name at the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia.
Francis Bacon in the 1950s
There are few painters who embody the artist myths of tortured genius and creation from chaos quite as well as Francis Bacon. Long before his death in 1992 Bacon was acknowledged as a 20th century master, his visceral paintings of screaming popes, blood-spattered carcasses and copulating male couples constituting some of the most influential images of his era.
Yet for all their existential anonymity, the origins of these images are personal and grounded in a decade that was perhaps the most influential in Bacon's life: the 1950s.
In Francis Bacon in the 1950s, Michael Peppiatt, author of a previous biography on the artist, documents Bacon's development during that period, fleshing out the personal scandals and artistic crises that ruled his ascension to fame.
In drab postwar London, homosexuality was still illegal and Peppiatt reminds us how transgressive a figure Bacon was, not only as a painter, but also as a person.
Peppiatt is at pains to keep the art at centre stage but it can be hard for the reader to concentrate on aesthetics when presented with the sheer drama of Bacon's life. The start of the decade finds him living in London with sugar daddy Eric Hall, "a prosperous and respectable married man" who had left his wife and children to be with Bacon, as well as the elderly Jessie Lightfoot, the faithful "nan" who was still in Bacon's employ long after his Irish childhood.
Given Bacon's penchant for seeking out rough trade in the backroom bars and illicit casinos of Soho, this cosy domestic scenario was not to last. Precipitated by the death of his beloved Nanny Lightfoot in 1951, Bacon broke up the household and plunged into a sadomasochistic relationship with the man who was to be one of the great loves of his life, former Spitfire pilot Peter Lacy. Lacy, whose nerves had been shattered by war, had a brooding dominant masculinity that Bacon found irresistible and which he celebrated in some of his most intense portraits.
Despite Lacey's wit, appetite for alcohol (Bacon was a great lover of boozy conversation) and his ability to play the latest hit songs on the piano, his violence became so extreme that the relationship impacted negatively on Bacon's artistic output, reducing it to a trickle when his career was starting to gain real momentum.
They decamped to Tangiers with its freer lifestyle and endless supply of cheap Moroccan boys, and it was here that Lacy eventually drank himself to death, freeing Bacon to re-engage more fully with his art.
Although Bacon's output was diminished by their relationship, what he did produce during that time is among his finest work and of a range hitherto unseen. The lurid images of screaming popes in purple robes alternate with monochromatic renderings of anonymous businessmen, their perverse grins scraped in white paint onto fields of dark blue. Bacon also embarks on his famous Van Gogh series, now confident enough to experiment with the artists that have inspired him.
Yet while Bacon's private life was dominated by unfettered chaos, his professional life was underpinned by a pragmatism befitting a vaultingly ambitious artist. When it became clear that the always supportive Hanover Gallery did not have the wherewithal to launch Bacon as the major artist he clearly wanted to be, Bacon had little compunction in transferring to the more high-powered Marlborough Gallery, which helped launch him as an artist of international stature.
Peppiatt, a long-term acquaintance of Bacon, renders the artist with the same unflinching gaze Bacon himself turned on those close to him. The resulting study and the accompanying 70 high-quality colour reproductions of Bacon's work, combine to make this little-documented account of his 1950s period a vital missing piece in the puzzle that was Francis Bacon.
Anthony Macris is the chairman of research in the faculty of creative arts at the University of Wollongong.
ART IN REVIEW;
Tony Shafrazi | 119
Wooster Street, SoHo | Through May 18
ART IN REVIEW; FRANCIS BACON
Tony Shafrazi | 119 Wooster Street, SoHo | Through May 18
By KEN JOHNSON | THE NEW YORK TIMES | APRIL 26, 2002
If you were depressed by the joyless art of Gerhard Richter at the Museum of Modern Art, you might not think a visit with Francis Bacon would be much help. Bacon is popularly thought of as the pontiff of existential horror, his most famous image being of a screaming Pope Innocent X based on a portrait by Velázquez. What Bacon produced, however, was more a kind of black comedy; increasingly as time passed he realized it in suavely designed, vibrantly hued, generously spacious compositions.
Far from depressing, the late paintings in this show combine the sensuous and the visionary to exhilarating effect. All of the large canvases from the 1980's feature the painter's familiar iconography of smeary lumps of humanity -- or, in one case, a dangling, plucked chicken -- in empty rooms. They are like updates of Christian altar paintings. The largest work, a triptych in which a vignetted male pelvis has wounded areas circled or pointed to by a small graphic arrow, refers unmistakably to the Passion, even as the third panel with the silhouetted head of a bull adds pagan resonance.
In anyone else's hands such imagery would be unbearably heavy. But Bacon managed his traumatic vision with a light, almost Pop-style touch. He paints the space around his deftly distorted figures with the hedonistic delight of a Color Field painter. In the triptych and two related paintings, broad fields of scrumptious Creamsicle-orange are balanced by windows of sweet sky blue. The ultimate effect is of a zany and voluptuous beauty.
Archive: the story of Lucian Freud's stolen portrait of Francis Bacon
As Francis Bacon’s triptych of his great friend Lucian Freud emerges after 45 years on the art market, we look back at the story of Freud's famous portrait of Bacon from the same period, which was stolen in 1988 and has not been seen since.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH | 22 JUNE, 2001
Freud designed the 'wanted' poster, and 2,500 copies of were splashed across Berlin in 2001, in a bid to trace the stolen image in time for Freud’s Tate retrospective
Until now, Lucian Freud's only acknowledgement of the theft of his portrait of Francis Bacon has been in the way he has allowed photographs of the work to be used.
"Partly because there was no decent colour reproduction, partly as a kind of mourning, I've only allowed it to be reproduced in monochrome," he told The Telegraph yesterday, the first time he has spoken about the theft. "In fact the painting is quite near monochrome - so it comes out quite well, and I thought it was a rather jokey equivalent to a black arm band. You know - there it isn't!"
The theft was very unusual. Most art thefts are committed by criminal gangs who use them as negotiable assets in underworld deals. Generally, sooner or later, feelers are put out for a ransom deal. But in this case, the little picture has disappeared into a void. Nothing, not a whisper, not a rumour, has been heard of its whereabouts.
Freud speculates that it might have been taken by a Francis Bacon fan, since Bacon is highly regarded in Germany. "I wonder whether it was taken by a student because it was stolen when the gallery was full of students. Also, for a student to take a small picture is not that odd, is it?"
He remembers painting the portrait, nearly half a century ago. "I saw a lot of him at that time and we were very friendly, so it was natural for me to paint him." Freud and Bacon are to be seen in close conversation, for example, in Michael Andrews's group portrait at the famous Soho drinking club the Colony Room, painted in 1962 (which will be included in the Michael Andrews exhibition at the Tate, opening next month). "But of course," he adds, "I was pleased that he agreed to sit."
Freud's working methods are notoriously slow, often involving sittings for many months. At that time, he was employing a painstaking, almost miniaturist technique. "In those days I worked with the painting on my knees rather than standing at an easel, as I do now. I always take a long time to paint a picture, but I don't remember the Bacon portrait taking particularly long.
"Bacon complained a lot about sitting - which he always did about everything - but not to me at all. I heard about it, you know, from people in the pub. Really, he was very good about it."
In any case, the result was a remarkable study in suppressed tension. The art critic Robert Hughes has compared Bacon's face to a grenade a fraction of a second before it explodes. Freud, less extravagantly, notes that "I was pleased with it, and he seemed to like it as well". Bacon also painted Freud, but his portraits, less demandingly, were almost all done from photographs.
The idea for the poster comes from Freud himself. "I did a rough sketch. The idea is to have a monochrome reproduction of the painting, with the word 'Wanted' in red, and the reward in red. Then simply the telephone number, to make it absolutely plain, like those posters in Westerns which I've always liked very much."
By a minor historical irony, Freud, a painter now so much associated with London, spent the first 10 years of his life in Berlin. The Freud family (his father Ernst, an architect, was the son of Sigmund) lived near the Tiergarten until they fled to England in 1933. Many of his early memories concern the very area of Berlin from which his picture later disappeared
He recalls swapping cigarette cards with dealers around the Potsdamer Platz - "certain cards were rare, you could swap three Marlene Dietrichs for one Johnny Weissmuller, that kind of thing" - and falling through the ice while skating in the Tiergarten ("it was very exciting"). He also remembers how he loved the pavement pillars on which advertisements were posted (100 large Wanted posters will be placed on their modern-day equivalents).
So, all that remains to be seen is whether the picture will turn up. Freud would very much like to see it included in the big show at Tate Britain scheduled for his 80th birthday year next year. Some auguries are good. Under German law, prosecutions can no longer be brought after 12 years - so the thief has little to fear.
The reward is generous. And, if all else fails, Freud suggests that a highly unusual proposal might be made to the robber. Would, he wondered, the thief be prepared at least to lend the picture to the Tate exhibition? In an art world that has seen practically everything, that would almost certainly be a first.
A Few Prized Obsessions
Hugh M. Davies brings together a series of Francis Bacon's papal portraits from
the U.S. and abroad to form an intimate exhibition.
Curator Hugh M. Davies brings together a series of Francis Bacon's papal portraits from the U.S. and abroad to form an intimate exhibition.
LEAH OLLMAN| ART & ARCHITECTURE | LOS ANGELES TIMES | JANUARY 10, 1999
SAN DIEGO —In the summer of 1953, British painter Francis Bacon invited his friend, art critic David Sylvester, to sit for a portrait in the "gilded squalor" of his studio. Sometime during the fourth sitting, Sylvester's likeness mutated (as Bacon's images were prone to do) into a sombre, ghost-like portrait of the pope. Obsessed as he already had been for years with a portrait of Pope Innocent X painted by Velazquez in 1650, Bacon launched feverishly into a series of eight variations on the papal portrait.
Twenty years later, the series itself sparked a new obsession. Hugh M. Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, was just beginning research for his doctoral dissertation on Bacon in 1973, when he noted to himself that the papal portrait series of 1953 had never been exhibited in its entirety. The notion of organizing such a show gestated quietly until just a few years ago, when Davies actively started to hunt for the eight paintings, which had landed in both private and public collections, in the U.S. and abroad. Through aggressive courtship and delicate pressure, Davies negotiated the loans, with the eighth lender signing on only last fall, to avoid, he said, "being the skunk of the party." Next Sunday, Francis Bacon: The Papal Portraits of 1953 opens at the museum's main facility in La Jolla.
"It's the longest series in Bacon's career," Davies explains from his office facing a panoramic expanse of the Pacific. "It's the one series that dates from what I consider his strongest year. It's when he really hit his stride. The intersection of his technical ability and his vision were at a critical moment. And this is the subject which was the signature theme of his career."
Bacon (1909-1992) made his first painting in response to the Velazquez in 1949, and continued with the theme, off and on, through 1972, painting a total of 25 versions of the papal portrait. A photocopied chronology of the paintings is taped to the wall in a small foyer outside Davies' office, and will be reconstructed in an information gallery as part of the show.
Most of the paintings by Bacon resemble the Velazquez in structure, with the pope in traditional vestments, seated in a chair trimmed with gold finials and turned at a slight angle away from the viewer. Bacon made the image his own, made it work directly and violently on the nervous system, as he put it, through his distinctively raw handling of paint, veiling the figure behind curtain-like stripes and often painting him with his mouth agape in a frozen scream.
A self-professed nonbeliever, Bacon was legendary for disavowing any social content in his work, preferring to link its violence and "exhilarated despair" to his own psyche and not to the human condition in general or the horrors of the 20th century. Though he was fixated on the image of the pope (as well as the crucifixion), he denied that his paintings had anything to do with religion.
"Some people say that the pope [represents] Bacon's father, and he's wrestling with the whole Oedipal thing, which is probably true," Davies says. "Other people have said the obvious, that this is a very powerful masculine figure in feminine clothes--laces, a dress and pretty colors. There is something hilarious, particularly to a gay man"--as Bacon was--"to see the pope in drag."
Bacon himself said that the Velazquez image haunted him, that he was obsessed with the grandeur of its color and the role of the pope.
"Pope Innocent X was the most powerful man in the world at that time, in 1650," Davies says, recalling conversations he had with Bacon, "and it is a very powerful, official portrait. He was a very strong individual, but also very corrupt, and Velazquez shows you that. What is brilliant in the portrait is that you can look at this guy's face and see that he misused his power. He's so haughty. Velazquez pleased the client and at the same time passed on the fact that the guy's corrupt. It's all there."
Bacon, who never attended art school, taught himself to paint by looking at Velazquez, Rembrandt, Van Gogh. He loved "the glitter and color that comes from the mouth" and hoped one day, he said, "to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset." But he was also intrigued by the power of photography and its various manifestations, such as film and X-ray imaging.
"I see every image all the time in a shifting way and almost in shifting
sequences," Bacon once said, accounting for the feel of cinematic
progression in his serial work. He often quoted 19th century
photographer Eadweard Muybridge's pioneering motion studies of humans
and animals. The scream motif, too, originated from a photographic
source, a scene from the 1925 Eisenstein film "Battleship Potemkin," in
which a nanny who has lost control of her young charge is seen in a
tightly framed close-up, her eyeglasses askew and her mouth stretched
open in an agonizing cry. ART GUIDE
Galleries: SoHo The New York Times | J
ART GUIDE Galleries: SoHo
The New York Times | January 8, 1999
* FRANCIS BACON, Important Paintings From the Estate, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 119 Wooster Street, (212) 274-9300 (through Jan. 16). Velazquez's 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X so fascinated Bacon (1909-1992) that he did some 30 versions of it, recasting it into his own 20th-century terms. Trapped behind vague screens or curtains, the popes are seen screaming in existential anguish, worlds away from the confidence and power that Velazquez's ''Innocent'' radiates. Two long-missing paintings from this series are included in this show of more than a dozen works from the Bacon estate, dated from 1949 to 1991. There is also an exhilarating landscape after Van Gogh that matches his painterly passion. Although not a retrospective, the show gives a robust look at the basics of Bacon's work (Glueck).
By Oliver Bennett| The Guardian | Saturday 16 January, 1999
For half a century, the tiny Colony Room bar has been a second home to some of the great names in British art. Today, the faces have changed, but its boozy charm remains.
You walk up a dingy, stygian stairwell into a small, slightly claustrophobic room full of paintings, posters, yellowing cuttings and artworks. A piano lies on one side, a bar the other. The green carpet has fag burns all over it. If the ageing banquettes could talk, they'd insult you.
This is the Colony Room, a private-members club in London's Soho that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. It is a small and rather intense place, with an intimidating reputation for rudeness.
Its walls - where they can be seen behind the jumble of artworks - are painted bright green, which compounds the sense of being in a world apart; one that is either restful, womblike and gemütlich, or intense and claustrophobic, depending on your bent.
The Colony has a small but unique position in British post-war culture, despite being a place that, as its incumbent manager, Michael Wojas, puts it, is "just a front room with a bar in it".
It is best-known for being the second home of Francis Bacon - much of John Maybury's recent film about Bacon, Love Is The Devil, was filmed in a Colony Room set. It has also been the bar of choice for Lucien Freud, Michael Andrews, the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde, the Johns Deakin and Minton, Barry Flanagan, Frank Auerbach, Patrick Caulfield; many of whom became known, to use Ralph Kitaj's 1976 soubriquet, as the "School Of London".
Over the years, it has also attracted bibulous journalists such as Dan Farson and Jeffrey Bernard, as well as a rich, maverick pageant: odd names include Tom Baker (the best ever Doctor Who); Labour MP Tom Driberg; Suggs from Madness, and his mother; actor Trevor Howard; singer Lisa Stansfield. "Licorice Allsorts," is Wojas's word for them, and he adds that "everyone is treated with equal contempt". The Chairman (a regular who wishes to be called just that) calls them "non-conformists". Like other places with arty-boho reputations, such as Paris's Les Deux Magots, the Colony has international word-of-mouth.
"Sometimes students from art schools or abroad turn up in groups to look around," says Wojas. Unlike Deux Magots, however, it is not on tourist heritage trails. You can't just walk in, which is why, says George Melly, "it hasn't turned into a place where a coffee costs £40". Not even its 250 members, who currently pay £75 a year, can all come at once; it is far too small.
It has a certain heaviness of atmosphere, which, says Wojas, divides its visitors. "They either walk in and go, 'Wow, this is brilliant', or sit there with their head in their hands." In his waistcoat, dark glasses and scar up one cheek, Wojas is continuing the club's reputation for colourful proprietors, as the luminous figure in Colony legend remains Muriel Belcher - "A handsome, Jewish dyke," as one member recalls - who started the club in 1948 and ran it till her death in 1979.
"She had been running a war-time club called the Music Box in Leicester Square, got together some independent means, found the room and secured the 3pm-11pm drinking licence," says Wojas. "Pubs closed at 2.30pm then, and you had to have somewhere to go." That club licence persists to this day, and, while London's opening hours have been liberalised, a sense of iniquity in the afternoon still pervades the Colony. It somehow turns the day into night, rather than Soho's new glossy pubs, which turn the night into day.
Belcher had a charisma that attracted people, and the Colony's older clientele still refer to it as "Muriel's". "Its reputation was all initially down to her impact," says Melly. "Muriel was a benevolent witch, who managed to draw in all London's talent up those filthy stairs. She was like a great cook, working with the ingredients of people and drink. And she loved money."
Belcher attracted many gay men to the club - a lot of them brought in by her Jamaican girlfriend, Carmel - and the Colony became one of a few places where it was safe to be openly homosexual. Julian Cole, who, with Akim Mogaji, is making a film about the club, says, "She realised the power of the pink pound in the Fifties, 30 years before everyone else. It was a forerunner of gay Soho."
Eminences such as Christopher Isherwood drank here.
But, as Wojas says, "It has never been a gay club as such. It is better to have a mix." Ian Board [Belcher's successor from 1979 to 1995] was homosexual, and used to say, "I don't mind those poofs, as long as they keep their distance." The same dyspeptic formula applied to artists. "There's always been that tendency, probably due to Francis," says Wojas. "But it would be really boring if it was just artists talking about art all night long. Muriel always said, 'I know fuck all about art.'"
By some strange symmetry, the Colony Room now attracts the Sensation! generation of Young British Artists (or YBAs, as the acronym has it). Members include Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn, while Sarah Lucas once worked as a bartender here for a couple of months. "It just came about as an idea between me and Michael [Wojas]," she says. "I'd been going there for quite a time, and had always liked the way it has been going on for so long and was that traditional and historical." Their patronage has helped to renew the Colony.
"Two-thirds of the selection committee are young artists, which is lovely," says the Chairman. Indeed, the youngest member is Damien Hirst's son, Connor, given an honorary membership at three weeks old.
Could this be an example of what the art critic Matthew Collings, in his YBA chronicle, Blimey, calls "retro-bohemianism"? All the Colony's manifestations of Fifties épatant la bourgeoisie - the boozing, the smoking, the swearing - have now been given a certain continuity. "They're paying homage to Francis," says Melly. "People are nostalgic about the idea of old Soho, and the Colony is the last of the lot."
Also, the club retains the allure of discovery. Art dealer James Birch, who recently put on a 50th anniversary Colony Room show at his Clerkenwell gallery, says, "It's like a secret society, which is why Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons and Dennis Hopper all wanted to go there when they came to London."
Perhaps it should be made an annexe of the Tate Gallery, as over the years it has built up quite an art collection, including a nicotine-stained Michael Andrews mural (there is an Andrews painting at the Tate called The Colony Room) and various newer pieces, including Gavin Turk's blue plaque, made for his graduation show. But space is limited. "When Damien [Hirst] wanted to give us a picture, I said you've got to size it accordingly," says Wojas, who keeps the overspill at his home.
The real thread that runs through the Colony's 50 years, however, is drink. "In the Fifties, we drank all day long and went to Muriel's every day," said the late Henrietta Moraes, an ex-Colony regular. "Muriel was a very powerful personality. She was so funny, and could keep up the wit for hours at a stretch. She sat on a mock-leopardskin high chair, and she would vet everyone that walked in." Fatefully, one of those people was Francis Bacon.
"There was an immediate affinity," says Wojas. "Francis didn't have money at that time, but he had an outrageous streak."
Belcher had good antennae for interesting people, gave Bacon free drinks in return for new custom and established the Colony's close-knit member profile. "She loved money, and people who spent money," says one long-standing regular. "'Put your hand in your handbag,' she would cry," recalls the Chairman. Older members also recall her as kind-hearted, raising funds raised for the local school and ailing confrères.
She also established a cult of rudeness. Belcher's favourite word was "cunt", delivered in ringing tones, and a hierarchy of insults ensued. "'Cunt' was a term of abuse, 'Cunty' was meant affectionately," says the Chairman. "And if she called you 'Mary', you were really in." Men would be called "she". "Muriel made everything sound good, even when it wasn't exactly a Wildean epigram," says Melly. "She was camp, and the very delivery of camp makes your sentences sound witty." The Colony thus became a kind of anti-Cheers, where everyone may have known your name but instead called you "cunty".
When Belcher died, her protege, Ian Board, took over, and the Colony sustained its withering reputation. "You had to be resilient, and you'd gain respect," says the Chairman.
"If you weren't tough, it was harsh. There would be cries of 'boring'."
Melly says Board was as rude as Belcher, but not as witty, and many walked out, despising the place and its large, red-nosed proprietor. Now, though the Colony retains a forbidding edge, those days are gone.
"The people here are very friendly and interested in new people," pleads Wojas, and members laud it as a place where strangers talk to one another. "It's gentler now, and that's not such a bad thing," says the Chairman.
In the early Eighties, it had a sticky patch. "Ian was finding it difficult," says Wojas. "He was worried about whether he could cope, and was drinking very heavily. Also, the generations changed one lot had died and drifted off, and the younger ones hadn't yet come along." This coincided with the era when Soho's new members clubs such as the Groucho and Black's were opening. The landlord wanted to change its use, and a petition was drawn up to save it.
But then new members started to come, and, at Francis Bacon's funeral wake-cum-party at the Colony in 1992, a new generation became evident. "The fucking worms crawled out of their holes, but the extraordinary thing is that the younger generation came in full fucking bloom," recalled Board in Dan Farson's biography of Francis Bacon, A Gilded Gutter Life. When Board died in 1995 - "He had a scarlet nose, just like WC Fields," says member Christopher Moorsom, "and when he died his nose went white" - he received huge obituaries, and it showed that the Colony had become a national institution.
The world has changed outside, but the Colony has militantly remained the same: no late licence, cocktails, draught beer, coffee, tea or ciabatta sandwiches - though Wojas admits, he "begrudgingly serves the odd glass of mineral water". As for Soho, Wojas says that he doesn't particularly like it on Friday or Saturday night any more. "All those drunken idiots on their night out up West."
The Colony now lures acolytes and drinkers with the promise of an oasis of authenticity in the midst of office London. And all the people who walk in - some drawn by its reputation, some drunk, some thinking it's a clip joint - will be subject to the same routine.
"I sit on
the perch [as Belcher's chair is still called] and suss each person as they
arrive," says Wojas. "You've got to catch them at the door. Once
they're in, you've lost them."
Kristine McKenna |
| Sunday, October 11, 1998 A star was born when
I, Claudius premiered on
PBS in 1977. A 13-part adaptation of Robert Graves' saga of corruption
in the Roman empire, the BBC series starred British actor Derek Jacobi
as a stuttering, twitching boy who grows up to be emperor. Jacobi was 37
when the series was shot and was already an acclaimed stage actor in
England. He was virtually unknown to Americans, however, who were
thunderstruck by his exquisitely nuanced performance. It seemed unlikely
that Jacobi would ever get a screen role as meaty as Claudius, so it's
not surprising that he's devoted most of the last two decades to
theater, much of it classical. A part worthy of Jacobi's talent came his
way in 1994, however, when a scruffy young painter named John Maybury
offered him the lead in a low-budget film about Francis Bacon. Anyone who knows a bit about modern art knows
that this is a lot for an actor to take on. Born in Dublin in 1902 to
British parents, Bacon began painting in the '20s, and by the '40s had
developed his signature style. Imbuing human flesh with the quality of
flayed meat, Bacon's paintings are tormented evocations of loneliness,
isolation and the human capacity for inflicting pain. Regarded as one
the most significant artists of the 20th century, Bacon is credited with
bringing the human figure back into painting at a point when it had been
almost totally eclipsed by abstraction. Alcoholic and a sadomasochist,
Bacon had a rather untidy personal life. It was there, however, that
Maybury found the linchpin for his film, Love Is the Devil, which
focuses on Bacon's affair with George Dyer, a petty criminal who was the
subject of some of the flamboyantly homosexual artist's greatest
paintings. The affair ended in 1971 with Dyer's suicide. Amateurs obviously need not apply for the job
of portraying this complex and brilliant man, but Maybury never dreamed
Jacobi would take it on. 'I assumed he was way too grand for my little
movie, but I sent him the screenplay anyway,' the director says. 'He
responded that it was one of the best screenplays he'd read in years and
would love to do it. Needless to say, I was thrilled.' Dining on the patio of a West Hollywood hotel,
Jacobi, 59, comes across as elegant and self-effacing to a fault. Having
recently sat enraptured through the entirety of 'I, Claudius,' a
reporter tells him she'd knight him herself if Queen Elizabeth II hadn't
already done it. He threatens to blush. Jacobi's modesty demands that he
change the subject, so he says, 'When I met John, my instinct told me he
was totally on top of his subject. John's a painter himself, so he knew
what he was doing, and he wrote a very literate, intelligently
structured script.' The film is essentially a chronicle of the
disintegration of Dyer, who's played by Daniel Craig in his first major
role. Maybury recalls that 'Daniel was extremely intimidated when he
heard that Sir Derek Jacobi would be playing Bacon - in fact, I had to
beg him to take the part.' 'It's true I was nervous, but thank goodness
John persuaded me to do it,' says Craig, who's currently in Africa
shooting Hugh Hudson's I Dream of Africa with Kim Basinger. 'It's
always a danger to meet your heroes, but Derek was fantastic. He threw
himself into it completely and was an absolute sweetheart.' Having lined up his cast, Maybury then had to
contend with some self-appointed keepers of Bacon's flame who were
determined to derail the film. 'The most problematic people were those
who've made careers off their connection with Bacon,' says Maybury,
whose film went into development two years after Bacon's death in 1992.
'John Edwards [Bacon's sole heir] gave his full support, but the
Marlborough Gallery [the former executors of Bacon's estate] forbade us
to show any of his paintings. Edwards eventually took the estate out of
Marlborough's hands because they were being destructive on several
fronts. [Critic] David Sylvester also said that if I used one word from
some interviews he'd done with Bacon that he'd sue me off the planet.' These constraints were matched by constraints
Maybury imposed on himself. 'There was no point in doing a bio-pic
because there are documentaries on Bacon,' he says. 'Nor did I want to
make a dodgy film about painting. I focused on the relationship with
Dyer because the paintings of George are my favourite. George Dyer is
like Manet's 'Olympia.' He's one of the great icons of 20th century art,
yet it's as if he never existed. He has no family I'm aware of, and very
little is known about him.' Maybury was free to take poetic license with
his characterization of the mysterious Dyer, but such was not the case
with Bacon. The subject of three biographies and several documentaries,
Bacon was an intensely social man, and Maybury discovered an endless
parade of people who'd crossed paths with the artist and had an anecdote
to tell. 'Bacon was very much on the scene, and I often saw him at
parties and bars,' recalls the 40-year-old director, who was born in
London and attended art school there from 1975-80. 'As a student, I
lived in a squat in Kensington around the corner from his studio, so I'd
see him at the tube station, too. There he'd be, this funny, mad little
queen.' As to how Jacobi and Maybury arrived at their
interpretation of the artist, Maybury says, 'We watched tapes of TV
interviews Bacon had done, and decided Derek shouldn't attempt a
pantomimic impersonation of Bacon. Derek doesn't do Bacon's voice, for
instance, which had a plummy, upper-class sound, and occasionally lapsed
into Cockney for effect. If Derek had attempted to do Bacon's voice, the
picture could've slipped into something comedic. What he did instead was
master Bacon's body language, his funny little gestures and mannerisms.'
Jacobi says the transformation was unsettling. 'Bacon wasn't a looker,
so it was a bit disconcerting how easily I was made to look like him,'
he says of the artist, who brushed his teeth with sink cleanser and
colored his hair with boot polish. 'What concerned me more than how I
looked, however, were the scenes that show Bacon painting. We've all
seen bio-pics of painters, and when the actor picks up a brush and
approaches the canvas, the heart sinks because you know that what you're
about to see won't be believable. So, there are only two scenes where
I'm painting, and the canvas is always off screen in those.' Shot in 6 1/2 weeks for $900,000,
Love Is the Devil looks astonishingly good considering its budget. Lit with naked
lightbulbs - a recurring image in Bacon's work--the film has an
artificial, overtly cinematic look. Images flutter, blur and dissolve
into grotesque distortions. 'A film about a visual artist should be
visual, so we were extravagant with the production design,' Maybury
says. 'My production designer, Alan MacDonald, and I spent a long time
looking at Bacon's paintings, and they told us how the film should look:
the claustrophobic, airless environments, nicotine stains, the skin
tones--it's all in the pictures. 'We restricted the colour palette of the
film the way Bacon does in his paintings, and devised all sorts of
visual tricks. Some images are shot through large chunks of glass,
others are shot with a boroscope lens, which is a scientific tool
usually used for studying nature.' Curiously enough, all this flash
converges to create a film with a morbid weight remarkably evocative of
Bacon's art. 'Francis was pessimistic about life, and often
said it was 'nothing but a short period of consciousness between two
blackouts,' ' Jacobi says. 'I agree with him about the blackouts, but
not with his dismissal of life. Life is filled with suffering, but it's
also miraculous and wonderful. He prided himself on his wit, but his wit
was always tinged with the lash, and I wouldn't want to have been a
friend of his,' Jacobi adds. 'I doubt we would've gotten on well because
there was an element of the monster in Francis. That, of course, had its
roots in his horrendous childhood. He was physically, emotionally and
mentally abused by his father, and the only person who gave him any love
was his maternal grandmother.' Such was not the case for Jacobi, who adored
his parents. 'My father [Alfred Jacobi] left school when he was 14 and
managed a department store, and my mother [Daisy Jacobi] was a secretary
prior to her death in 1980,' Jacobi says. 'Neither of them had any
knowledge of the theater, but they were wonderful people who were
totally supportive of me. I have no idea where my appetite for acting
came from because I wasn't an especially self-confident child, but as
far back as I can remember, that's what I wanted to do.' Making his
stage debut at 19 as Hamlet in an English National Youth Theatre
production, Jacobi was awarded a full scholarship to Cambridge. He made
his professional stage debut in 1960 as a member of the Birmingham
Repertory Theatre, where he spent three years. Sir Laurence Olivier
spotted Jacobi playing the lead in a Birmingham production of Henry
VIII, and invited him to join the National Theatre Company, where
Olivier was director. 'It was astounding to get to work with him,'
recalls Jacobi, who was with the National from 1963-71. 'It's an example
of the luck that's dogged my career; this is a profession with 85%
unemployment, so to get to work is luck.' It was through Olivier that
Jacobi made his film debut, in a 1965 adaptation of 'Othello' that was
staged by Olivier, who starred in the film, and directed by Stuart
Burge. A few years later came 'I, Claudius,' and a new chapter of
Jacobi's career began. Among those who came to revere Jacobi while
watching I, Claudius was Kenneth Branagh, who subsequently worked with
Jacobi in several plays and three films, including Branagh's 1989
directorial debut, 'Henry V.' 'Derek has an amazing facility for naturalism
and for lyric poetry,' says Branagh, who's currently in L.A. shooting a
western. 'I saw him on Broadway in the 1984 production of Cyrano de
Bergerac, and I remember thinking at the time, 'This is what great
acting can do--it can transform an entire room.' It really was as if
Derek was unveiling Cyrano's soul.' Critics have theorized that part of what makes
Jacobi such an effective actor is that he doesn't project a strong
persona off-screen that conflicts with the characters he plays. 'I
suppose it's true,' Jacobi says and sighs, 'but it's only because I
simply don't have the facility to be a celebrity--and it's too late to
get it now.' Jacobi laughs heartily when one comments that it's never
too late to sell out. 'No, I don't think I can sell out because I don't
know the script,' he replies. 'I marvel at actors who go on chat shows -
I could never do that because I don't have the gags. I'd be
totally intimidated.' This could prove problematic in light of the shift
Jacobi hopes to make in his work. 'I've spent most of my career in
classical theater and television, but for the last third I'd like to
work in film. That may require compromises of a sort I haven't had to
make thus far, but at the moment I'm prepared to make them.' Next year, Jacobi can be seen in
Up at the Villa, Philip Haas' adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novella about a
group of people in Florence, Italy, before World War II. 'I play a sort
of Quentin Crisp character,' says Jacobi, who co-stars with Kristin
Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Jeremy Davies and Anne Bancroft. 'I haven't
played many villains, but that may be my forte in movies,' Jacobi says.
So, was Francis Bacon a villain? 'Francis was a masochist who needed to
be hurt sexually, but on an emotional level he was quite sadistic. He
had to know he was destroying George Dyer. Everyone saw the state George
was getting himself into, and people warned Francis that he was
dangerously unstable. A villain? I don't know about that. But what he
inflicted on George was far more destructive than physical pain.' Sitwell's rejection of hard drugs confirms the
rule that alcohol is the favoured muse of creative spirits. "Only
too much is enough," was Francis Bacon's battle cry when questioned
as to whether the next drink was a good idea.
Described by Margaret Thatcher as "that
dreadful man who paints those horrible pictures", Bacon is now
regarded as the most important artist of his generation and one of the
giants of 20th-century art. A famous better, boozer and bohemian, Bacon
would hold court in The Colony Room, a Soho club, drinking champagne
with his friends, mostly petty criminals and eccentrics like
Sid the Swimmer.
Daniel Farson, television journalist and
photographer, was a member of Bacon's Soho set. When he died last year,
the Daily Telegraph noted in his obituary that his last public
appearance was an interview on Radio 4. Farson had such a hangover that
his voice sounded as if it came from inside a wardrobe. His favourite
tipple was "a rapid succession of large gins scarcely diluted by
tonic", after which he would become a noisy drunk and have to be
forcefully chased out of the club by the proprietor, wielding an
If kicked out of The Colony Room, there was
always The Gargoyle, with Matisse's masterpiece The Red Studio (current
estimated value at least R300-million) hanging on the wall. Bacon and
Farson were part of a Soho bohemia which included Irish writer Brendan
Behan, whose favourite drink was Black Velvet (champagne and Guinness);
and Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who died of "an acute insult to the
39 after drinking 18 whiskies. When asked why his drinking input was so
large while his writing output was so small, Behan quipped: "I am a
drinker with a writing problem."
Jeffrey Bernard, the "Low Life"
columnist for The Spectator, was also a fixture in the pubs of Soho. So
much so that tourists used to sit for hours in The Coach and Horses in
Greek Street in the hope of being insulted by the great man.
Bernard had a habit of cadging drinks
from strangers before telling them to "piss off".
In his later, more famous years, he was
commissioned to write his autobiography. This was a little tricky for a
life led in an alcoholic haze,
so he placed an advertisement asking if anyone could tell him what he
had been doing between 1960 and 1974. His life was turned into a West
End hit play,
Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell
, a phrase which also became a synonym for being drunk.
Some comedians seek inspiration and solace in a
bottle. US comedian Lenny Bruce would often perform under the influence,
and breakfast for "the funniest man in England", Peter Cook,
would consist of a couple of screwdrivers (vodka and orange juice) and a
packet of cigarettes. Private Eye, the satirical magazine of which Cook
owned a 40
percent share, has the ultimate euphemism for being drunk - "tired
and emotional". Cook described his own life as "a lifelong
battle with boredom", an excuse for overindulging echoed in
novelist Christopher Isherwood's diaries, where he admits "the
worst of not getting drunk is that most people bore me pissless".
Not that all creative heavy drinkers are men.
Feminist writer and companion of existentialist
philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, used to kick off the
day with a vodka before moving on to Johnnie Walker Red Label. Tracey
Emin, bad girl of the British art scene and finalist for the Turner
prize for contemporary art last year, appeared drunk on UK television at
the awards dinner. Claiming to be the only true artist present, she
explained that all she wanted to do was phone her mum and go home to get
drunk with her friends.
Some drinkers are more sympathetic than others.
Among the likeable rogues is TV chef Keith Floyd, famous for his
"little slurps" of wine on air, and Austrian actionist artist
Hermann Nitsch, known as the grand master of atrocity, who paints in
blood and swears by his homegrown organic wine, which he drinks before
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the baby-faced star of
Titanic, gets drunk on neat vodka and then takes a chauffeur-driven
limousine to the Brooklyn Promenade to drop litter on the cars
travelling below, according to the New York Post. While hardly in the
class of the legendary overindulging actors Richard Burton, Oliver Reed
and Peter O'Toole, at least Leo doesn't drink and drive.
Of course, the most prominent modern drinkers
are politicians, with Russian president Yeltsin the undisputed leader.
Who else would keep the Irish prime minister waiting at Shannon airport
for a day while he slept off the effects of the in-flight bar service or
drunkenly conduct a German oompah band in front of a bemused Chancellor
South Africa has never had a shortage of
politicians who like their drink, but their legends are told, seldom
Of course, society grants an artist, actor or writer an unwritten
licence to drink, while a drunk surgeon or pilot is another matter
The last painting that Francis Bacon ever did
was quite fitting: an outstretched
hand holding a glass of wine, the label of Bordeaux superstar Chateau
Mouton 1990, one of the outstanding vintages of the century.
Self-Portrait 1930 Francis Bacon The
Daily telegraph, 18 June 1998
A Self-Portrait by Francis Bacon, one of the artist's earliest
works, has been unearthed from a private collection and is to be
exhibited for the first time this month.
The painting, completed in 1930 (see note below), is one of the most
important "missing" works by Bacon to have come to light since
his death in 1992 at the age of 82.
The discovery will reignite rumours long circulated in the art market
about important Bacon canvasses hidden in private collections of
It has been suggested that several disappeared from Bacon's studio
in Reece Mews, South Kensington, shortly after his death.
The self-portrait was traced by Angus Stewart, curator of the
forthcoming exhibition of Bacon's work at the Fine Art and Antiques
Fair, Olympia, who persuaded its owner to part with it temporarily after
several months of negotiation.
He first heard about the painting after seeing it referred to in a
catalogue among papers belonging to a friend of Bacon's, Jean Shepeard,
who died in 1990.
Shepeard was an actress and artist who contributed drawings to an
exhibition in Bacon's studio in 1930.
Bacon included the self-portrait and several other paintings in the
exhibition but it received scant attention. Nevertheless, the
catalogue's discovery five years ago started Mr Stewart's search for the
"Untrained and virtually unheard of, he suddenly produced this
extraordinary work" "Nobody seemed to know about it and it was
months before someone finally said 'I've got something'," he said.
"It was a tense six weeks while we waited for the painting to be
brought to England. It hadn't been photographed and we had no idea what
to expect." Mr Stewart was not disappointed. "It is an amazing
painting, made all the more so by the fact Bacon was just 21 when he did
it," he said. "Untrained and virtually unheard of, he suddenly
produced this extraordinary work."
Although Bacon destroyed most of his early work, the self-portrait
became one of his favourites and he kept it in his studio for 50 years
before giving it to the present owner in 1982. The owner remains
anonymous but lives abroad.
Ronald Alley, author of the Bacon classified catalogue, said:
"Although an exercise in cubism and influenced by Picasso and also
perhaps by his friend [the painter] Roy de Maistre, this self-portrait
clearly relates to Bacon's later works.
He is pulling the features first one way and then another, which is what
he was to do again much later in his more characteristic works."
Mr Stewart has secured two other works not exhibited since they were
painted - Figures 1933 and Crouching Figure 1959 - which
are also likely to excite Bacon enthusiasts.
They may also help to re-invigorate the market in his work. Though his
paintings commanded up to £250,000 in auctions in the 1980s, prices
have slipped in recent years Note:
In a letter published in The Times of 2 March 1996, the art
historian Richard Shone stated that the 'Rathbone' canvas board on which
the portrait was painted was, according to his research, not available
Entering an Empire of
Only too much is enough
Drink has long been the muse of
NEIL PENDOCK takes a look at the favourite
tipples of some creative spirits
The Sunday Times, 25
Sitwell, the famous English writer and eccentric who fancied herself as
the last of the Plantagenets, used to hold red lunches at the Sesame
Club in Grosvenor Street, London. A red lunch consisted of a lobster, a
punnet of strawberries and a bottle of pinot noir per
person. After one such meal, the beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg offered his
hostess some heroin. "Good heavens, no," exclaimed the
poetess, "I find it gives me spots."
secret face revealed for show'
inspired Picasso, Giacometti and Bacon, among others. But she was not just a
model and muse - she was a distinctive artist in her own right.
Kristine McKenna | The Los Angeles Times | Sunday, October 11, 1998
A star was born when I, Claudius premiered on PBS in 1977. A 13-part adaptation of Robert Graves' saga of corruption in the Roman empire, the BBC series starred British actor Derek Jacobi as a stuttering, twitching boy who grows up to be emperor. Jacobi was 37 when the series was shot and was already an acclaimed stage actor in England. He was virtually unknown to Americans, however, who were thunderstruck by his exquisitely nuanced performance. It seemed unlikely that Jacobi would ever get a screen role as meaty as Claudius, so it's not surprising that he's devoted most of the last two decades to theater, much of it classical. A part worthy of Jacobi's talent came his way in 1994, however, when a scruffy young painter named John Maybury offered him the lead in a low-budget film about Francis Bacon.
Anyone who knows a bit about modern art knows that this is a lot for an actor to take on. Born in Dublin in 1902 to British parents, Bacon began painting in the '20s, and by the '40s had developed his signature style. Imbuing human flesh with the quality of flayed meat, Bacon's paintings are tormented evocations of loneliness, isolation and the human capacity for inflicting pain. Regarded as one the most significant artists of the 20th century, Bacon is credited with bringing the human figure back into painting at a point when it had been almost totally eclipsed by abstraction. Alcoholic and a sadomasochist, Bacon had a rather untidy personal life. It was there, however, that Maybury found the linchpin for his film, Love Is the Devil, which focuses on Bacon's affair with George Dyer, a petty criminal who was the subject of some of the flamboyantly homosexual artist's greatest paintings. The affair ended in 1971 with Dyer's suicide.
Amateurs obviously need not apply for the job of portraying this complex and brilliant man, but Maybury never dreamed Jacobi would take it on. 'I assumed he was way too grand for my little movie, but I sent him the screenplay anyway,' the director says. 'He responded that it was one of the best screenplays he'd read in years and would love to do it. Needless to say, I was thrilled.'
Dining on the patio of a West Hollywood hotel, Jacobi, 59, comes across as elegant and self-effacing to a fault. Having recently sat enraptured through the entirety of 'I, Claudius,' a reporter tells him she'd knight him herself if Queen Elizabeth II hadn't already done it. He threatens to blush. Jacobi's modesty demands that he change the subject, so he says, 'When I met John, my instinct told me he was totally on top of his subject. John's a painter himself, so he knew what he was doing, and he wrote a very literate, intelligently structured script.'
The film is essentially a chronicle of the disintegration of Dyer, who's played by Daniel Craig in his first major role. Maybury recalls that 'Daniel was extremely intimidated when he heard that Sir Derek Jacobi would be playing Bacon - in fact, I had to beg him to take the part.' 'It's true I was nervous, but thank goodness John persuaded me to do it,' says Craig, who's currently in Africa shooting Hugh Hudson's I Dream of Africa with Kim Basinger. 'It's always a danger to meet your heroes, but Derek was fantastic. He threw himself into it completely and was an absolute sweetheart.'
Having lined up his cast, Maybury then had to contend with some self-appointed keepers of Bacon's flame who were determined to derail the film. 'The most problematic people were those who've made careers off their connection with Bacon,' says Maybury, whose film went into development two years after Bacon's death in 1992. 'John Edwards [Bacon's sole heir] gave his full support, but the Marlborough Gallery [the former executors of Bacon's estate] forbade us to show any of his paintings. Edwards eventually took the estate out of Marlborough's hands because they were being destructive on several fronts. [Critic] David Sylvester also said that if I used one word from some interviews he'd done with Bacon that he'd sue me off the planet.'
These constraints were matched by constraints Maybury imposed on himself. 'There was no point in doing a bio-pic because there are documentaries on Bacon,' he says. 'Nor did I want to make a dodgy film about painting. I focused on the relationship with Dyer because the paintings of George are my favourite. George Dyer is like Manet's 'Olympia.' He's one of the great icons of 20th century art, yet it's as if he never existed. He has no family I'm aware of, and very little is known about him.' Maybury was free to take poetic license with his characterization of the mysterious Dyer, but such was not the case with Bacon. The subject of three biographies and several documentaries, Bacon was an intensely social man, and Maybury discovered an endless parade of people who'd crossed paths with the artist and had an anecdote to tell. 'Bacon was very much on the scene, and I often saw him at parties and bars,' recalls the 40-year-old director, who was born in London and attended art school there from 1975-80. 'As a student, I lived in a squat in Kensington around the corner from his studio, so I'd see him at the tube station, too. There he'd be, this funny, mad little queen.'
As to how Jacobi and Maybury arrived at their interpretation of the artist, Maybury says, 'We watched tapes of TV interviews Bacon had done, and decided Derek shouldn't attempt a pantomimic impersonation of Bacon. Derek doesn't do Bacon's voice, for instance, which had a plummy, upper-class sound, and occasionally lapsed into Cockney for effect. If Derek had attempted to do Bacon's voice, the picture could've slipped into something comedic. What he did instead was master Bacon's body language, his funny little gestures and mannerisms.' Jacobi says the transformation was unsettling. 'Bacon wasn't a looker, so it was a bit disconcerting how easily I was made to look like him,' he says of the artist, who brushed his teeth with sink cleanser and colored his hair with boot polish. 'What concerned me more than how I looked, however, were the scenes that show Bacon painting. We've all seen bio-pics of painters, and when the actor picks up a brush and approaches the canvas, the heart sinks because you know that what you're about to see won't be believable. So, there are only two scenes where I'm painting, and the canvas is always off screen in those.'
Shot in 6 1/2 weeks for $900,000, Love Is the Devil looks astonishingly good considering its budget. Lit with naked lightbulbs - a recurring image in Bacon's work--the film has an artificial, overtly cinematic look. Images flutter, blur and dissolve into grotesque distortions. 'A film about a visual artist should be visual, so we were extravagant with the production design,' Maybury says. 'My production designer, Alan MacDonald, and I spent a long time looking at Bacon's paintings, and they told us how the film should look: the claustrophobic, airless environments, nicotine stains, the skin tones--it's all in the pictures. 'We restricted the colour palette of the film the way Bacon does in his paintings, and devised all sorts of visual tricks. Some images are shot through large chunks of glass, others are shot with a boroscope lens, which is a scientific tool usually used for studying nature.' Curiously enough, all this flash converges to create a film with a morbid weight remarkably evocative of Bacon's art.
'Francis was pessimistic about life, and often said it was 'nothing but a short period of consciousness between two blackouts,' ' Jacobi says. 'I agree with him about the blackouts, but not with his dismissal of life. Life is filled with suffering, but it's also miraculous and wonderful. He prided himself on his wit, but his wit was always tinged with the lash, and I wouldn't want to have been a friend of his,' Jacobi adds. 'I doubt we would've gotten on well because there was an element of the monster in Francis. That, of course, had its roots in his horrendous childhood. He was physically, emotionally and mentally abused by his father, and the only person who gave him any love was his maternal grandmother.'
Such was not the case for Jacobi, who adored his parents. 'My father [Alfred Jacobi] left school when he was 14 and managed a department store, and my mother [Daisy Jacobi] was a secretary prior to her death in 1980,' Jacobi says. 'Neither of them had any knowledge of the theater, but they were wonderful people who were totally supportive of me. I have no idea where my appetite for acting came from because I wasn't an especially self-confident child, but as far back as I can remember, that's what I wanted to do.' Making his stage debut at 19 as Hamlet in an English National Youth Theatre production, Jacobi was awarded a full scholarship to Cambridge. He made his professional stage debut in 1960 as a member of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, where he spent three years. Sir Laurence Olivier spotted Jacobi playing the lead in a Birmingham production of Henry VIII, and invited him to join the National Theatre Company, where Olivier was director.
'It was astounding to get to work with him,' recalls Jacobi, who was with the National from 1963-71. 'It's an example of the luck that's dogged my career; this is a profession with 85% unemployment, so to get to work is luck.' It was through Olivier that Jacobi made his film debut, in a 1965 adaptation of 'Othello' that was staged by Olivier, who starred in the film, and directed by Stuart Burge. A few years later came 'I, Claudius,' and a new chapter of Jacobi's career began. Among those who came to revere Jacobi while watching I, Claudius was Kenneth Branagh, who subsequently worked with Jacobi in several plays and three films, including Branagh's 1989 directorial debut, 'Henry V.'
'Derek has an amazing facility for naturalism and for lyric poetry,' says Branagh, who's currently in L.A. shooting a western. 'I saw him on Broadway in the 1984 production of Cyrano de Bergerac, and I remember thinking at the time, 'This is what great acting can do--it can transform an entire room.' It really was as if Derek was unveiling Cyrano's soul.'
Critics have theorized that part of what makes Jacobi such an effective actor is that he doesn't project a strong persona off-screen that conflicts with the characters he plays. 'I suppose it's true,' Jacobi says and sighs, 'but it's only because I simply don't have the facility to be a celebrity--and it's too late to get it now.' Jacobi laughs heartily when one comments that it's never too late to sell out. 'No, I don't think I can sell out because I don't know the script,' he replies. 'I marvel at actors who go on chat shows - I could never do that because I don't have the gags. I'd be totally intimidated.' This could prove problematic in light of the shift Jacobi hopes to make in his work. 'I've spent most of my career in classical theater and television, but for the last third I'd like to work in film. That may require compromises of a sort I haven't had to make thus far, but at the moment I'm prepared to make them.'
Next year, Jacobi can be seen in Up at the Villa, Philip Haas' adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novella about a group of people in Florence, Italy, before World War II. 'I play a sort of Quentin Crisp character,' says Jacobi, who co-stars with Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Jeremy Davies and Anne Bancroft. 'I haven't played many villains, but that may be my forte in movies,' Jacobi says. So, was Francis Bacon a villain? 'Francis was a masochist who needed to be hurt sexually, but on an emotional level he was quite sadistic. He had to know he was destroying George Dyer. Everyone saw the state George was getting himself into, and people warned Francis that he was dangerously unstable. A villain? I don't know about that. But what he inflicted on George was far more destructive than physical pain.'
Sitwell's rejection of hard drugs confirms the rule that alcohol is the favoured muse of creative spirits. "Only too much is enough," was Francis Bacon's battle cry when questioned as to whether the next drink was a good idea.
Described by Margaret Thatcher as "that dreadful man who paints those horrible pictures", Bacon is now regarded as the most important artist of his generation and one of the giants of 20th-century art. A famous better, boozer and bohemian, Bacon would hold court in The Colony Room, a Soho club, drinking champagne with his friends, mostly petty criminals and eccentrics like Sid the Swimmer.
Daniel Farson, television journalist and photographer, was a member of Bacon's Soho set. When he died last year, the Daily Telegraph noted in his obituary that his last public appearance was an interview on Radio 4. Farson had such a hangover that his voice sounded as if it came from inside a wardrobe. His favourite tipple was "a rapid succession of large gins scarcely diluted by tonic", after which he would become a noisy drunk and have to be forcefully chased out of the club by the proprietor, wielding an umbrella.
If kicked out of The Colony Room, there was always The Gargoyle, with Matisse's masterpiece The Red Studio (current estimated value at least R300-million) hanging on the wall. Bacon and Farson were part of a Soho bohemia which included Irish writer Brendan Behan, whose favourite drink was Black Velvet (champagne and Guinness); and Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who died of "an acute insult to the brain" at 39 after drinking 18 whiskies. When asked why his drinking input was so large while his writing output was so small, Behan quipped: "I am a drinker with a writing problem."
Jeffrey Bernard, the "Low Life" columnist for The Spectator, was also a fixture in the pubs of Soho. So much so that tourists used to sit for hours in The Coach and Horses in Greek Street in the hope of being insulted by the great man.
Bernard had a habit of cadging drinks from strangers before telling them to "piss off".
In his later, more famous years, he was commissioned to write his autobiography. This was a little tricky for a life led in an alcoholic haze, so he placed an advertisement asking if anyone could tell him what he had been doing between 1960 and 1974. His life was turned into a West End hit play, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell , a phrase which also became a synonym for being drunk.
Some comedians seek inspiration and solace in a bottle. US comedian Lenny Bruce would often perform under the influence, and breakfast for "the funniest man in England", Peter Cook, would consist of a couple of screwdrivers (vodka and orange juice) and a packet of cigarettes. Private Eye, the satirical magazine of which Cook owned a 40 percent share, has the ultimate euphemism for being drunk - "tired and emotional". Cook described his own life as "a lifelong battle with boredom", an excuse for overindulging echoed in novelist Christopher Isherwood's diaries, where he admits "the worst of not getting drunk is that most people bore me pissless".
Not that all creative heavy drinkers are men.
Feminist writer and companion of existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, used to kick off the day with a vodka before moving on to Johnnie Walker Red Label. Tracey Emin, bad girl of the British art scene and finalist for the Turner prize for contemporary art last year, appeared drunk on UK television at the awards dinner. Claiming to be the only true artist present, she explained that all she wanted to do was phone her mum and go home to get drunk with her friends.
Some drinkers are more sympathetic than others. Among the likeable rogues is TV chef Keith Floyd, famous for his "little slurps" of wine on air, and Austrian actionist artist Hermann Nitsch, known as the grand master of atrocity, who paints in blood and swears by his homegrown organic wine, which he drinks before each "performance".
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the baby-faced star of Titanic, gets drunk on neat vodka and then takes a chauffeur-driven limousine to the Brooklyn Promenade to drop litter on the cars travelling below, according to the New York Post. While hardly in the class of the legendary overindulging actors Richard Burton, Oliver Reed and Peter O'Toole, at least Leo doesn't drink and drive.
Of course, the most prominent modern drinkers are politicians, with Russian president Yeltsin the undisputed leader. Who else would keep the Irish prime minister waiting at Shannon airport for a day while he slept off the effects of the in-flight bar service or drunkenly conduct a German oompah band in front of a bemused Chancellor Kohl?
South Africa has never had a shortage of politicians who like their drink, but their legends are told, seldom printed. Of course, society grants an artist, actor or writer an unwritten licence to drink, while a drunk surgeon or pilot is another matter entirely.
The last painting that Francis Bacon ever did was quite fitting: an outstretched hand holding a glass of wine, the label of Bordeaux superstar Chateau Mouton 1990, one of the outstanding vintages of the century.
Self-Portrait 1930 Francis Bacon
The Daily telegraph, 18 June 1998
A Self-Portrait by Francis Bacon, one of the artist's earliest works, has been unearthed from a private collection and is to be exhibited for the first time this month.
The painting, completed in 1930 (see note below), is one of the most important "missing" works by Bacon to have come to light since his death in 1992 at the age of 82.
The discovery will reignite rumours long circulated in the art market about important Bacon canvasses hidden in private collections of friends.
It has been suggested that several disappeared from Bacon's studio in Reece Mews, South Kensington, shortly after his death.
The self-portrait was traced by Angus Stewart, curator of the forthcoming exhibition of Bacon's work at the Fine Art and Antiques Fair, Olympia, who persuaded its owner to part with it temporarily after several months of negotiation.
He first heard about the painting after seeing it referred to in a catalogue among papers belonging to a friend of Bacon's, Jean Shepeard, who died in 1990.
Shepeard was an actress and artist who contributed drawings to an exhibition in Bacon's studio in 1930.
Bacon included the self-portrait and several other paintings in the exhibition but it received scant attention. Nevertheless, the catalogue's discovery five years ago started Mr Stewart's search for the "missing" portrait.
"Untrained and virtually unheard of, he suddenly produced this extraordinary work" "Nobody seemed to know about it and it was months before someone finally said 'I've got something'," he said. "It was a tense six weeks while we waited for the painting to be brought to England. It hadn't been photographed and we had no idea what to expect." Mr Stewart was not disappointed. "It is an amazing painting, made all the more so by the fact Bacon was just 21 when he did it," he said. "Untrained and virtually unheard of, he suddenly produced this extraordinary work."
Although Bacon destroyed most of his early work, the self-portrait became one of his favourites and he kept it in his studio for 50 years before giving it to the present owner in 1982. The owner remains anonymous but lives abroad.
Ronald Alley, author of the Bacon classified catalogue, said: "Although an exercise in cubism and influenced by Picasso and also perhaps by his friend [the painter] Roy de Maistre, this self-portrait clearly relates to Bacon's later works.
He is pulling the features first one way and then another, which is what he was to do again much later in his more characteristic works."
Mr Stewart has secured two other works not exhibited since they were painted - Figures 1933 and Crouching Figure 1959 - which are also likely to excite Bacon enthusiasts.
They may also help to re-invigorate the market in his work. Though his
paintings commanded up to £250,000 in auctions in the 1980s, prices
have slipped in recent years
In a letter published in The Times of 2 March 1996, the art historian Richard Shone stated that the 'Rathbone' canvas board on which the portrait was painted was, according to his research, not available until 1937.
Martin Gayford | The Daily Telegraph | 25 July 1998
There are careers which are Napoleonic without being military. One such was that of the painter Isabel Rawsthorne; her milieu was not the battlefield, but artistic bohemia, and there she conquered the commanding heights as model and muse to not merely one great artist, but several.
Her own work, of which there is currently an exhibition at the Michael Parkin Gallery, Motcomb St, London SW1, is little known. But her face and figure live on in the works of Epstein, Derain, Picasso, and - abundantly, even obsessionally - in those of the two artists closest to her, in very different ways: Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon.
Rawsthorne made an overwhelming physical impression on people. Sir Edouardo Paolozzi remembers her entering a restaurant in the Forties with an equally striking friend, Anna Philips: "The diners were transfixed by their beauty and all the raised forks remained suspended in the air until the glamorous pair were seated."
Her effect on the sculptor Giacometti was even more profound. The memory of a glimpse he once caught of her standing at midnight on the Boulevard Saint-Michel - remote, imperious - lies behind all his sculptures of extraordinarily thin, unreachable women.
Her relationship with Francis Bacon was quite different, that of friend and drinking companion; yet hers is one of the faces that haunts his work. One remembered sight of her lay behind one of his finest pictures, Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho (1967).
According to James Lord, the biographer of Giacometti, she was "tall, lithe, superbly proportioned" and "moved with the agility of a feline predator. Something exotic, suggesting obscure origins, was visible in her full mouth, high cheek-bones, and heavy-lidded, slanting eyes, from which shone forth a gaze of exceptional, though remote, intensity."
Exotic though she might appear, she was born Isabel Nicholas in east London in 1912, the daughter of a master mariner, and brought up in Liverpool. She attended Liverpool School of Art, and the Royal Academy Schools, and worked as a painter and designer of ballets. The current exhibition reveals her to have been a minor but distinctive member of the neo-Romantic movement, an artistic personality distinct from any of her famous circle.
Little survives from her early days. In the late Forties, bird skeletons were her subject (she always kept the bones of a bat, presented to her by Paolozzi). In the Fifties and Sixties, she designed sets and costumes for a number of ballets, starting in 1951 with Tiresias, the last composition of her third husband, Constant Lambert. Ballet dancers became a favourite subject. Then, after a trip to Africa in 1961, she produced African landscapes that put one in mind of the Australian painter Sidney Nolan.
During her lifetime, however, it was largely as a personality that she made her impact. As much as the way she looked it was an inner vitality, an attitude to life, that impressed people.
Lord noted "a prodigal exuberance, a fierce animal confidence in her right to do as she pleased". Daniel Farson, the chronicler of Soho, wrote in her obituary of a less alarming, more engaging quality. "She wore the surprised expression of someone who has just heard a marvellous joke and wishes to share it."
This striking being was depicted by different artists in radically different ways. Her first artistic incarnation was as a model for Jacob Epstein, for whom she modelled and worked as a studio assistant in the early Thirties. His bronze bust Isabel of 1933, in which she is bare-breasted but wearing enormous squiggly ear-rings, is a work of strident sensuality.
It served, however, as an introduction to her first husband, the foreign correspondent Sefton Delmer. As he writes in his autobiography, Trail Sinister, the Epstein was "the latest passion of my imagination. 'You,' I said to the bust, 'are the girl I am going to marry.' " In September, 1934, on her first evening in Paris, whom should she run into but Delmer. "Isabel gazed at me with wide-open, friendly eyes and then the bronze that had turned to flesh spoke. Instead of the resonant musicality with which I had endowed her in my dreams came sounds emanating, so it seemed to me, from a larynx made of tin." (The "metallic shriek" of her laugh was noted by Lord.)
Then began a splendid period. Married to Delmer, she was installed in a luxurious apartment in Place Vendome, and immediately plunged into artistic and intellectual Paris. ("How I loved Paris," she told Farson. "It gave me everything.") The first painter she intrigued was André Derain: "He was the most French person you could hope to meet. That's how I learned the language." Derain's Portrait of Isabel (1963), included in the Michael Parkin exhibition, is the gentlest, prettiest image of her.
Next, Alberto Giacometti conceived a Proustian passion for her, exacerbated by uncertainty both about their relationship and his ability to produce work corresponding to his feeling of reality. Simultaneously - possibly to torment Giacometti - Picasso started to take an interest in her.
"Alberto worked all night," she told Farson. "But at five every evening we drank at the Lipp. Picasso used to sit at the table opposite and one day, after staring at me particularly hard, he jumped up and said to Alberto: 'Now I know how to do it.' He dashed back to his studio to paint my portrait with little red eyes, wild hair and a vertical mouth - one of five he painted from memory." The result, savagely distorted in the manner of Picasso's Guernica period, is radically different from the delicate beauty of Derain's portrait.
The relationship with Giacometti was left unresolved when the war parted them in 1939. She joined him again in 1945, the marriage with Delmer having fallen apart, but she lived with him in his spartan studio for only a matter of weeks. Subsequently, she married the composer Constant Lambert; after Lambert had died, suffering from delirium tremens and diabetes, in 1951 she married his friend and fellow composer Alan Rawsthorne.
Her friendship with Bacon was less intense than with Giacometti, although he once boasted to the magazine 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." (This, if true, would have been a very rare heterosexual deviation from Bacon's otherwise strongly homosexual path.)
Part of her interest for Bacon was probably her connection with Giacometti; she arranged a meeting between the two at which Bacon, fearing he was boring the great man, overturned the restaurant table.
In the forthcoming Francis Bacon film, Love is the Devil, which opens in America in September, Isabel's part will be played by Anne Lambton.
to Farson, she continued to enjoy "a life of uninhibited exuberance until
the onslaught of old age". Her last years, spent in a cottage near Thaxted,
were quieter and devoted to painting the natural world. It is, however, as the
personality behind an image in other artists' work that her name will survive.
The crucifixion of Francis
I would like my pictures
to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a
trail of the human presence.
Francis Bacon, 1955
By John W. Whitehead, Gadfly, March 1998
"We are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher's shop I always think it's surprising that I wasn't there instead of the animal," Francis Bacon confided in a remarkable set of interviews with David Sylvester. To Bacon, planet earth seemed a slaughterhouse on the verge of annihilation at any moment.
Bacon was an enigma to many. He was fiercely atheistic, believing life was futile and meaningless. But he said, "You can be optimistic and totally without hope." Bacon was acerbic and difficult but kind and generous to friends and relatives. Gay with a sado-masochistic bent, he was predominantly right-wing in his thinking (although too individualistic to classify politically or otherwise).
Bacon, who died in 1992, had a despairing and often sarcastic sense of humour, along with a total disdain for convention. Indeed, he once booed a member of the British royal family who had decided to sing before a crowd at a ball. Publicly hissing at Princess Margaret may have been cruel and shocking, but it also demonstrated his honesty and sense of criticism. She was, in fact, singing off-key. Bacon had a way with words as well. When a member of the royal family asked him what he did for a living, "I'm an old queen," he replied.
Bacon's honesty and enigmatic personality translated to the canvas. Where at times Picasso was clearly playing an art game, Bacon's work always spoke of a different message. Bacon might very well be the greatest post-World War II painter. He inspired awe with his paintings of twisted body parts and distorted animalistic human faces which seemed intensely concerned with the torn and alienated human condition.
Bacon's paintings portray an intense loneliness, despair and inner turmoil. He saw violence, hatred and human degradation as essential elements in the parade of life.
Bacon expected his paintings to assault the viewer's nervous system. He strove to "unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently." Toward the end of his life, he was delighted to hear that a woman viewing one of his paintings in Paris had closed her eyes and crossed herself.
The great painter became who he was through many influences and experiences. A primary influence was his childhood.
"I think artists stay much closer to their childhood than other people," Bacon once remarked to a friend. "They remain far more constant to those early sensations."
The aspects of Bacon's childhood that most strongly affected his art were his aberrational family relationships, his war-time childhood, his life-long struggle with asthma and his introduction to homosexuality.
BACON: My relationship with my father and mother was never good. We never got on. They were horrified at the thought that I might want to be an artist.
The enfant terrible was born in Dublin in October 1909 to English parents who were continually moving between Ireland and England or from mansion to mansion in Ireland. Francis would later say, "My father and mother were never satisfied with where they were." This rootlessness would set the course for much of his adult life.
Bacon was a frail, sensitive child, often life-threateningly ill with attacks of asthma. His upbringing in Ireland would prove to be so traumatic that in later years an attempt to return to Ireland would bring on such a severe case of asthma that he came near to choking to death.
Although luxurious, his home life and childhood were characterized by dysfunctional relationships, and Bacon later spoke of his family with bitterness.
His father, Anthony Bacon, a veteran of the Boer War, was at least fourteen years older than Francis' mother, Winifred Firth, an heiress to a steel business and coal mine, who brought to the marriage a comfortable dowry.
Anthony was a soldier and horse trainer, and he raised his sons as if they were army horses, becoming violently outraged if anything went wrong. He gambled frequently, sometimes sending Francis to the post office to place a bet by telegram before the "off." Anthony regularly estranged his friends by his quarrelsomeness and was no better at getting along with his children. Francis later described him as "an intelligent man who never developed his intellect at all."
Domineering and prone to fits of rage, Anthony had Francis viciously horsewhipped by their Irish stable boys on at least one occasion. He also forced the boy, who was sensitive to pain and terribly allergic to horses and dogs, to go fox hunting—-a traumatic experience that brought on Francis' asthma. The father was also antagonistic toward Francis' homosexual leanings and banished him from the house at the age of 16 after discovering the boy dressed in his wife's underwear.
BACON: I disliked him, but I was sexually attracted to him when I was young. When I first sensed it, I hardly knew it was sexual. It was only later, through the grooms and the people in the stables I had affairs with, that I realized that it was a sexual thing towards my father.
Francis' mother was more gregarious by nature. She kept the house immaculate and was more easy-going than Anthony. However, in later years Francis would speak of her with resentment, claiming she seemed more concerned over her own pleasures than his needs as a child.
Francis had two brothers, the younger of whom died of tuberculosis as a child, prompting the only tears Francis ever saw his father weep. He also had two much younger sisters, born shortly before he left home.
In the face of his father's outright rejection and his mother's more subtle rejection, one person Francis truly loved was his lively, strong-willed maternal grandmother. She was a flamboyant and forceful woman who loved people and gave grand parties. "My grandmother and I used to tell each other everything," Bacon recalled. "I was a kind of confidant for her, I suppose, and I used to take her to the hunt balls and other things that went on when I was an adolescent."
Francis was terrified of his grandmother's second husband, Walter Loraine Bell, however. Cruel and sadistic, Bell was known as "Cat" Bell for his habit of hanging cats while he was drunk and of throwing live ones, trapped in bags, to his hounds. Among other cruelties, Bell put Francis' mother, uncle and grandmother on unbroken horses, forcing them to ride in terror for their lives. Francis' grandmother eventually divorced Bell for cruelty, but he made a lasting impression on Francis.
When his grandmother married a third time, Francis continued to spend much time with her at Farmleigh, her new home in Ireland. Bacon's new step-grandfather, Kerry Supple, was the Kildare District Inspector of the Royal Irish constabulary. As such, Supple drew the wrath of the new Sinn Fein, the Irish army rebelling against the English. In later years, Francis would recall the frightening days at Farmleigh when the windows were sandbagged against invaders, and snipers waited at the edges of the fields. But the rooms that overlooked the garden were beautiful—semicircular with bay windows—a theme later reflected in the curved backgrounds of some of his triptychs.
The violence prevalent in Bacon's work also had some of its roots in World War I and the Civil War in Ireland, both of which occurred during his childhood. As a youngster in Ireland, Bacon lived near a British cavalry regiment that trained close to his home. Sometimes the soldiers galloped up the driveway of the Bacon mansion, carrying out maneuvers. And, in the dead of night, the family could sometimes hear bugles in the forests as the troops practiced.
Bacon would later remark, "Just the fact of being born is a ferocious event.... I was made aware of what is called the possibility of danger at a very young age." And Bacon carried a sense of annihilation with him the rest of his life which, according to biographer Michael Peppiatt, sharpened "his appetite not only for pleasure but for every aspect, however banal, of what he called 'conscious existence.'"
BACON: I remember that when there was a blackout they used to spray the Park with something phosphorescent out of watering cans, thinking that the Zeppelins would suppose it was the lights of London and drop bombs on the Park; it didn't work at all.
When the war began, Anthony Bacon was appointed to the War Office in London and the whole family moved there, introducing the 5-year-old Francis to black-outs, charred remnants of homes, the whine of bombs and the stealthy approach of the Zeppelins. By day, Francis collected shell fragments and shrapnel in a nearby park. At night, searchlights raked across the dark sky looking for an airborne enemy, impressing upon the child the idea that death might drop at any instant. The distorted human figures that loom from the frightening night in Bacon's paintings may have their ancestors in the Londoners who would suddenly appear from the dark and disappear again, continuing on their way through the shadowy streets.
The most long-lasting influence of that stay in London was the impression of the newsreels and photographs of actual trench warfare, a far cry from the exhibition trenches dug in Kensington Gardens. "From that awareness," wrote biographer Andrew Sinclair, "he would often choose the monochrome and the snapshot as an insight into reality rather than the many-coloured surface of what he could see, which might be only propaganda." Later in life, Bacon painted mainly from photographs and newspaper clippings rather than from real life.
After the Armistice, Anthony Bacon returned to Ireland with his family, at the onset of the Irish Civil War. In 1919, the Irish Republican Army formed, and armed bands of guerrillas began to roam the Irish countryside during Francis' formative years. "I suppose all that leaves some impression," Bacon said later. "You can't separate life from suffering and despair."
As English gentry in an Irish land, the Bacons were, in many respects, the enemy. Anthony Bacon frequently cautioned his children about what they should do if the IRA attacked their home during the night. Francis would visit his grandmother in fear, their car dodging snipers on the corners of her fields. Police barracks were torched, bodies hacked to pieces with axes, men hunted with bloodhounds and women shot for consorting with the British.
One night, a military guard dispatched to guard the home of Bacon's grandmother was ambushed. The men were shot as they tried to climb over the locked iron gates and left to hang there. The image would probably later influence Bacon's paintings of dead meat in butcher shops such as Painting (1946) which shows a split carcass suspended like a human body crucified.
The military transports soon were caged with wire netting in an effort to protect the soldiers from grenades, just as similar steel netting had been erected in London during the war to protect buildings and monuments. The cage theme later appeared in many of Bacon's works, for example around the figure of a screaming pope.
The theme of stalkers and their victims also found its way into Bacon's work. Some were more obvious, such as figures which appear to be in mortal combat. Other paintings seem to contain figures, writes Michael Peppiatt, who simply watch, either for "sexual excitement or—like the hidden snipers—the desire to destroy."
There was a genuine trauma in living through two wars, but many children suffered the same wartime experiences. Peppiatt has noted that the dramatic effect upon Bacon may have been due to his desire to seek out the strong sensations of fear and dwell upon them. Bacon, perhaps fuelled by a need for high drama, was fond of describing his childhood in desolate and harsh terms, and it tainted everything within his reach.
Another element of Bacon's character which profoundly impacted his art was his homosexuality. The point when his leanings toward homosexuality began is difficult to determine, but at one fancy-dress party, Francis arrived as a flapper with an Eton crop, dressed in a backless gown and sporting long earrings, much to the amusement of the ladies and the disgust of his father.
At some point in his adolescence or earlier, Francis had sexual encounters with the Irish grooms at his home, possibly the same grooms who carried out the horsewhippings ordered by his father. The pain and humiliation of the horsewhippings, combined with the sexual attraction for the grooms and his father, no doubt gave rise to some of the violent sexual imagery in his artwork, as in Two Figures in the Grass (1954). Bacon felt that the subject of human coupling was limitless: "You need never have any other subject, really," he remarked. "It's a very haunting subject."
At age 16, Francis was banished from the family home and left to support himself, with a weekly allowance from his mother. Having concluded that instinct and chance were the driving forces of life, he set out to see where life would take him. He went at first to London where he took on a series of odd jobs to supplement his income and, according to Peppiatt, entered the gay underworld and frequently earned extra money by being picked up by wealthier gay men.
It was while in London that Bacon read some of Nietzsche's work, lost the last vestiges of any religious belief and came to the conclusion that life was futile unless he could somehow do something "extraordinary" with it.
After some time, Anthony Bacon again made an attempt to "straighten out" Francis, this time by entrusting him to the care of a distant family relative travelling to Berlin. However, things did not go the way his father planned, as it was only a short while before Francis and the "uncle" were in bed together.
In Berlin, Francis found himself in a luxurious and violent world of gay cabarets, transvestite clubs and nude dancing—an environment that offered any sexual experience he could desire. As a "pretty" young man, he had no trouble getting picked up and getting money.
In Berlin, Bacon also discovered the functional art of the Bauhaus movement which influenced the design of the furniture he began to build a few years later.
Eventually, Bacon's uncle moved on, and at 17, Francis set off for Paris. In Chantilly, a French woman and her family took him in, and he learned French and saw the sights. Eventually, he moved out on his own and entered the gay circles in Paris.
BACON: I went to Paris then for a short time. While there I saw at Rosenberg's an exhibition of Picasso, and at that moment I thought, well I will try and paint, too.
In Paris, he saw a work that deeply stirred his imagination, Poussin's Massacre of the Innocents (1630-31), which showed a mother trying to defend her child from a soldier's sword. The scream of the victim so affected him that he later referred to it as "probably the best human cry ever painted," and the human scream became one of his most painted subjects. Perhaps, as Peppiatt suggests, this is because it "corresponded to the release of a tension so deep within him."
In either Berlin or Paris, Bacon viewed Eisenstein's classic film The Battleship Potemkin (1925). He was especially stirred by the image of a nurse shot on the Odessa steps. Her face is bloodied, her glasses shattered and her mouth open in a terrified scream. He later credited the film as an important catalyst to his work, and he used the idea in Study for the Nurse (1957).
The impact of Massacre of the Innocents and Potemkin led him to purchase a medical book on diseases of the mouth. It contained hand-painted illustrations, and Bacon used it constantly when he painted. He once commented, "I've always been very moved by the movements of the mouth and the shape of the teeth. People say these have all sorts of sexual implications, and I was always very obsessed by the actual appearance of the mouth and teeth... I like, you may say, the glitter and colour that comes from the mouth."
In 1927, Bacon attended a Paris exhibition of Picasso's work, something he often mentioned later. Picasso's attempts to allow the subconscious to flow into the conscious and his use of chance to produce uncalculated results particularly impressed Bacon. The exhibit inspired him to begin drawing and making watercolors on his own. Six years later, his first recognizably Baconian image, Crucifixion (1933), reflected Picasso's influence. However, where Picasso's 1930 Crucifixion was made of bones, Bacon reduced his to an X-ray of a wraith-like figure.
Bacon repeated on various occasions that he saw the Crucifixion in terms of a "self-portrait," but, as Peppiatt notes, he did not elaborate on "the astonishing implications" of this concept—-a concept he projected in many of his other paintings. "For over half of his career," writes Peppiatt, "Bacon's work revolved around two of the most potent images of the Christian faith, the body on the cross and the Pope on his throne."
Other influences at this time included artists Soutine, de Chirico, Arp, Picabia and Dali, the art magazine Cahiers d'Art, and Luis Buñuel's film Un Chien Andalou. Bacon was also influenced by the review Documents which contained photographs of a screaming mouth and pictures of bloodied animal carcasses and Positioning in Radiography, a reference book which had photographs showing the position of the body for X-rays to be taken and the X-rays themselves.
Around age 20, unable to make a living in Paris, Bacon returned to London, carrying with him images of violence and anger—carcasses and screams that would impact the rest of his life. In London, he took up residence with Roy de Maistre, a man he saw as both father-figure and lover. De Maistre had money, which enabled Bacon to spend time designing and manufacturing furniture. De Maistre was also a painter, and the two held a joint art exhibit in their garage. It was during this time that Francis painted several crucifixions which would later lead to his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), perhaps inspired by de Maistre's convictions as a convert to Roman Catholicism.
Bacon himself was antagonistic toward religion, perhaps partly as a reaction to his dictatorial father whom he found both terrifying and attractive. As a boy Francis claimed to fear the Bible, the law and his father's verdict. Although his entire family had attended a Protestant church, Bacon saw this as primarily a public protest against Catholicism in the Irish country where civil war brewed. In addition, the Catholic Church condemned sodomy and homosexuality. Bacon, however, would later deny that religion played any role in his Crucifixion paintings and claim that he simply found the elevated human figure intriguing.
After a failed art show a few years later, Bacon was so discouraged by the lack of response to his work that he destroyed most of the works he had displayed and painted very little for the next ten years. He parted ways with de Maistre and took up a wandering lifestyle again, making a living through petty theft, running a roulette wheel, doing odd jobs and occasionally receiving requests to design furniture. "I think I'm one of those people who have a gift for always getting by somehow," Francis would later muse. "Even if it's a case of stealing or something like that, I don't feel any moral thing against it."
During this time gap, World War II broke out, and Bacon again found himself in a torn and violent landscape. Yet the bodies and bombed-out buildings intrigued him. His father died, and the relief Bacon felt after that "release," in addition to the exhilaration of the war, sent him back to his brushes. He began to paint again, and by 1945 his first famous work, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, was on display.
BACON: I've always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion. There've been extraordinary photographs which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death. We don't know, of course, but it appears by these photographs that they're so aware of what is going to happen to them, they do everything to attempt to escape. 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 nonbeliever, it was just an act of man's behaviour, a way of behaviour to another.
Bacon, an atheist, believed life was futile, a "mere spasm of consciousness between two voids." However, in a perverse way, he was one of the most deeply religious painters of the century.
As Peppiatt puts it, "A fetish force appear[ed] to draw him back repeatedly to religious themes all through the earlier part of his artistic development, as if he had to make a belief out of his nonbelief, using structures of established religion to proclaim his distance from them." And use them he did. Bacon, notes Peppiatt, pillaged "the central truths of both the Greek and the Christian faith: only there, he was convinced, could he find the structure to convey the extent and the implications of his own drama."
Bacon had reached a position not only of unbelief but also of despair for anything beyond what one can actually see or experience: "Man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without purpose, other than of his own choosing." On another occasion he remarked: "We are born and we die and there's nothing else. We're just part of animal life." His paintings express modern man's condition—a dehumanized humanity dispossessed of any durable paradise, supernatural or otherwise. This outlook, along with Bacon's homosexuality, would greatly affect his canvases.
The importance of Bacon's homosexuality to his life and vision, as Peppiatt recognizes, cannot be overstated: "One might reasonably say that, along with his dedicated ambition as an artist, his sexuality was the most important element in his life." Bacon said he painted to excite himself. And, despite his atheism, he seemed to identify his own suffering from his homosexuality with the anguish of the Crucifixion. "Homosexuality is more tragic and more banal," Bacon said, "than what is called normal love." Indeed, he had always been plagued by an acute sense of guilt "caused," as Peppiatt records, "in part by his homosexuality and the way it had made him an outcast from his own family." Moreover, Bacon "openly regretted it on occasion. 'Being a homosexual is a defect,' was the way he put it in certain moods. 'It's like having a limp.'"
As Andrew Sinclair, another Bacon biographer, notes, "He feared exposure and expulsion and even imprisonment. Especially sensitive and observant, he particularly felt as an adolescent the four crosses of the homosexual at that time—isolation and illegality, insecurity and guilt."
In a hypocritical world that condemned his acts, Bacon could see little hope. Perhaps in this vein, the flesh often crucified in Bacon's paintings may be the great painter's own. Peppiatt muses, it is possible "that Bacon identified with Christ on the Cross." Indeed, Bacon referred to the whole theme of the Crucifixion "as a kind of self-portrait conveying deeply personal truths."
Daniel Farson in his book on Bacon notes of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944): "The forcefulness with which these three Greek Furies... hurl their misery and rage at us proves the extent of his own loss of faith."
Clearly, with Three Studies Bacon's work began to epitomize the nihilistic spirit of twentieth century thinking. He once said: "Nietzsche forecast our future for us—he was the Cassandra of the nineteenth century—he told us it's all so meaningless we might as well be extraordinary."
Several other important subthemes underlie Three Studies. One is sexual, and relates to Bacon's interest in the open mouth. The pleading figure in the middle panel reflects the concept of "penis dentatus." This may be a variation on the Surrealists' concept of "vagina dentata" or the combination of sex and mouth.
In addition, artistic influences may have led to the gloomily phallic Three Studies. Bacon had a good knowledge of art history, and it is logical that Grünewald's crucifixion paintings would have influenced him. There is little doubt that the idea for the cloth bandage above the snarling mouth in the central figure of the triptych was inspired by Grünewald's Mocking of Christ (1503). Grünewald had also influenced Picasso's earlier Guernica (1937).
BACON: One of the pictures I did in 1946, the one like a butcher's shop, came to me as an accident. I was attempting a bird alighting on a field.... I had no intention to do this picture; I never thought of it in that way. It was like one continuous accident mounting on top of another.
Bacon's public breakthrough was with Painting (1946). Although it was hardly seen before it was bought for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it is generally the painting by which he is best known all over the world to this day.
At just under 40 years of age, Bacon had arrived as one of the dominant figures in the art of his day. Painting (1946), as art analyst Lawrence Gowing writes, "brought the ominous incongruities, the dramatic fall of light around the umbrella and the catastrophic implication all together for the first time." The scene might be in a butcher shop where the carnivorous protagonist, no more a butcher than a priest or judge, awaits his prey among the sides of meat displayed around him.
Bacon's concern with the human condition may be a clue to this work and his other paintings. As he told David Sylvester, "the greatest art always returns you to the vulnerability of the human situation." Shortly before Painting (1946) was completed, 70,000 people had been slaughtered and approximately that same number died later of the new manmade death, radiation sickness, from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in April 1945. The umbrella looks suspiciously like a mushroom cloud, and the judge or priest with the carnage of meat surrounding him is the perpetrator of mass death.
Painting (1946) also shows Bacon's fascination with blood and carnage. It is a gruesome replacement of the ornate throne of the traditional state portrait. Bacon combines three of the major themes of his time—war, the dictator and dead meat—and suggests the bomb's sinister impact on mankind's future.
While it may be true, as Bacon said, that "you only need to think about the meat on your plate" to see the general truth about humankind in his paintings, no modern artist has hammered at the twentieth century human condition with more repetitive pessimism. Painting (1946) also reflects Bacon's view of life as an accident and a spasm of brutality, "suffering what cannot be explained because it has no meaning."
BACON: I think that man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason.
Bacon was a realist who tried to force viewers to shed their shallow belief in the euphemisms of a glittering neon culture that merely provides a distraction from the reality of nonmeaning.
Bacon's fascination for the irrational is evident in his imagery of the abnormal and the impaired, which underscores a darker view of humanity—a humanity only partially evolved from an ignoble, animal condition.
His paintings after the photos of Eadweard Muybridge such as Study for Crouching Nude (1952) and the more explicit Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (from Muybridge) (1961) reduce human beings to an ignominious animal state and suggest evolutionary regression.
BACON: I realized when I was seventeen. I remember it very, very clearly. I remember looking at a dog-shit on the pavement and I suddenly realized, there it is—this is what life is like. Strangely enough, it tormented me for months, till I came to, as it were, accept that here you are, existing for a second, brushed off like flies on the wall.
Bacon's 1953 Man with Dog, as contrasted with his Study for Self-Portrait—Triptych (1985-86), shows the artist in a hunched, tortured posture with legs coiled. Not only does this reflect the crouching dog but it also seems to imply a connection with his crouching nude of 1952. Bacon himself, thus, is a regressed animal like us all, except that as an artist he was aware of his status and could record it for the world to see.
Bacon's distorted and idiosyncratic images bear eloquent witness to the events of the post-World War II period and more generally to twentieth century humanity's capacity for mass violence. Bacon, the artist as prophet, is the extreme voice of despair in which people are totally dehumanized, blurred, decrepit banshees. Robert Hughes writes: "In his work, the image of the classical nude body is simply dismissed; it becomes, instead, a two-legged animal with the various addictions: to sex, the needle, security, or power."
BACON: I am unique in that way; and perhaps it's a vanity to say such a thing. But I don't think I'm gifted. I just think I'm receptive.
Bacon emphasized the chance element in his work, but when discussing it he unavoidably spoke in religious terms. Like Duchamp and other artists, Bacon saw himself as a "medium": "I always think of myself not so much as a painter but as a medium for accident and chance."
Speaking in much the same way as a painter like Rembrandt, who within the Judeo-Christian tradition could readily accept the divine hand on his work, Bacon would say: "I think that I have this peculiar kind of sensibility as a painter, where things are handed to me and I just use them." It's Bacon's choice of words—"handed to me"—that implies a personal force outside of himself that he was quick to deny.
This is interesting and mystifying when one realizes that much of Bacon's work dealt with religious icons and subjects, such as Velasquez's portrait of the Pope. Bacon did not believe in an afterlife but thought that art gave substance to life. That is how he expressed his chaos of emotions and came to terms with life's confusion.
BACON: I've always thought that this was one of the greatest paintings in the world, and I've used it through obsession. And I've tried very, very unsuccessfully to do certain records of it—distorted records. I regret them, because I think they're very silly... because I think that this thing was an absolute thing that was done and nothing more can be done about it.
Bacon's Study After Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) turns Diego Velasquez's powerful portrait of Pope Innocent X Pamphili into a "screaming Pope." Bacon executed the painting from a photograph. Study introduced an element of dislocation from the primary image, a concept that greatly influenced modern art.
The Pope in Study seems a snare and a threat. He is held in a skeletal cube—a boxed hell without escape. "The picture assaults the power of the Church: it is blasphemous," Sinclair notes. "It represents Bacon's heresy and protests against the rule of the organised religion which he had known in Ireland." This is a derisive view of the Catholic religion that Bacon probably inherited from the Surrealists.
It is clear that the image of the Pope touched a deep division in Bacon. On the one hand, he was fascinated with the man set above all others. On the other hand, there was a desire to tear away at the pomp and pretense of the high office of Supreme Pontiff—a self-protective illusion that Bacon believed was at the core of all religious belief.
Bacon, thus, seems to project anxiety concerning his own mortality as well as rage against authority in his portrait of Pope Innocent X. "Painting," Bacon said, "is the pattern of one's own nervous system being projected on the canvas." Moreover: "One of the problems," Bacon said, "is to paint like Velasquez, but with the texture of a hippopotamus skin."
With his 1962 Three Studies for a Crucifixion, Bacon again returns to the subject of the crucifixion. Three Studies (1962) literally reeks of blood and was painted under a tremendous hangover from drinking. "It's one of the only pictures," Bacon later said, "that I've ever been able to do under drink. I believe that the drink helped me to be a bit freer."
Sinclair notes that the "figures in the three canvases were joined in the theme of the violence that men did to one another by the power of sex and hatred. The body on the right, lying head down, suggested an inverted crucifixion by Cimabue, which Bacon thought was like 'a worm crawling... just moving, undulating down the cross.'"
With Three Studies, a self-generating quality of painting began to emerge, which Lawrence Gowing believes changed the character of art. Until 1962, the date of Bacon's first exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London, most of his paintings had been devoted essentially to simple embodiments. From this point on in his work, figures are more often concerned together in a simple episode or in an identifiable setting—a landscape or a townscape or a habitable interior. The subjects are more often actions, whose purpose we may or may not be allowed to construe. As Gowing writes: "Pictures like this extended Bacon's art and his reading of human drama into a region of instinct and unknowing, nervous awareness, a region seemingly unknown and unknowable, which was quite new to modern figurative art."
BACON: There are very few paintings I would like to have, but I would like to have Rembrandts.
Bacon understood the importance of art history. To this end, he paid tribute to Rembrandt—"abstract expressionism has all been done in Rembrandt's marks."
Rembrandt, however, lived in an age saturated with Christian beliefs to which Rembrandt himself subscribed. This can be seen in his classic crucifixion painting, The Raising of the Cross (1633). Here we see Rembrandt at the base of the cross with his eyes fixed on Christ. The message is that Rembrandt saw himself as one of the many fallible people who had forced Christ to the cross.
Bacon's retort was that Rembrandt painted at a time when people were still "slightly conditioned by certain types of religious possibilities, which man now, you could say, has completely cancelled out for him." In other words, Rembrandt's culture believed in the existence of a personal God who provided a solution—the Crucifixion—for humanity's problems.
That hope, to Bacon, had been lost and man must "beguile himself." "You see," Bacon said, "all art has become completely a game by which man distracts himself." Distracted from what? The futility of existence, of course.
"We are born and we die," Bacon proclaimed, "but in between we give this purposeless existence a meaning by our drives." Sex, food, body functions, the will to create—these all give some meaning, although varied, to human existence. Maybe this explains in part Bacon's Triptych Inspired By T. S. Eliot's Poem Sweeney Agonistes (1967). Bacon had been reading Eliot's verse dramas and the famous three-part summary of the human situation:
That's all the facts when
you come to brass tacks:
Birth, and copulation, and death.
The center panel, with its lonely futility, was left unpeopled while that on the right, derived from Muybridge's wrestlers, offered Bacon's customary formulation for sexual passion.
In 1988, a few years before his death, Bacon revisited the original Three Studies with a fresh, more defined look at the crucifixion in Second Version of Triptych (1944). The figures are still bound and appear to be only the projections of certain body parts that he had defined in such works as Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981). An uneasy sense of cruelty and despair resonates from these late works. "Anything in art seems cruel," he said, "because reality is cruel."
BACON: 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.
In the deepest sense, Bacon's paintings are about his knowledge that the inhabitants of his world are alive. To understand Bacon the man, you must know the private damage and demons that drove him to paint his form of despair and that even today drive onlookers to their knees.
Bacon projected his nervous system onto his canvases, and his scream is the scream of twentieth century humanity that has debunked its past, tradition and values. Bacon's crucifixion of himself on canvas expresses the pain and torment of guilt that seems to endlessly plague modern humanity.
Bacon could feel the cold winds blowing across the wasteland and he knew, or believed he knew, the only alternatives. He sincerely believed we are all damned in the slaughterhouse of life.
BACON: I think that most people who have religious beliefs, who have the fear of God, are much more interesting than people who just live a kind of hedonistic and drafting life.... I can't help admiring but despising them.... But I do think that, if you can find a person totally without belief, but totally dedicated to futility, then you will find the more exciting person.
In one of his later interviews, David Sylvester asked Bacon, "Don't you think that any believing Christian who felt that he was damned would prefer not to have an immortal soul than to live in eternal torment?"
Bacon replied: "I think that people are so attached to their egos that they'd probably rather have the torment than simple annihilation."
Sylvester then asked: "You'd prefer the torment yourself?"
Quick to reply, the great painter said, "Yes, I would, because, if I was in hell I would always feel I had a chance of escaping. I'd always be sure that I'd be able to escape."
CHRISTIAN RAVARINO, an Italian-American journalist, has hundreds of drawings by the English painter Francis Bacon. Some of them are in the boot of his Audi. But he's having trouble with the central- locking system.
Bacon was not just screaming popes and butchered triptychs, says Ravarino. He was not just "the world's greatest living painter" - a label he was already learning to live with when Ravarino first met him in 1980. He was also, says Ravarino (who likes to talk), a great draughtsman. A great wielder of the pencil and the blue Biro, on sheets of typing paper which his Italian friend provided.
Bacon in Italy in the last 12 years of his life (he died in 1992, aged 82) is not an impossible scenario. He travelled constantly, alone or with an ever-changing group of friends; and travel, for Bacon, meant putting the Channel far behind him. Bacon drawing is another thing altogether. The official line is that he just didn't do it, at least not after his career as a painter had taken off.
Michael Peppiatt, a longtime acquaintance, and author of the 1996 biography Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, is adamant that Bacon "did almost no drawings - and the ones that we do have are very painterly. He was a painter through and through." The drawings owned by Ravarino are currently at the centre of a legal wrangle in his home town of Bologna. The case was instigated by his main customer, a Bolognese dentist and art collector called Francesco Martani, who bought a job lot of around 50 drawings in 1992 for what Ravarino says was "a few million lire each" (3m lire is currently around £1,000). Ravarino says that he was forced to sell them off in a hurry because his mother had just died and he needed the money to pay the US death duties. "In any case," he says, "they were by no means the best."
A few years after his purchase, Martani began to get cold feet. He says that he hopes the drawings turn out to be authentic - but he is convinced that bringing in Italy's Art Police (the Nucleo tutela del patrimonio artistico) and accusing Ravarino of having sold him a bunch of fakes is "the only way of getting at the truth". The case will rumble on for at least another year. In the meantime Ravarino, like the Ancient Mariner, is desperate to get the story off his chest. Ravarino says that he first met Bacon in Calderino, a village in the wine-growing hills west of Bologna, in November 1980. The artist was staying in the holiday villa of a certain Bernard Sellin (or Sellen), who claimed to be "a pediatric surgeon at the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London".
Ravarino was 28 at the time. He was introduced by a friend of his mother's who knew both Bacon and Sellin. He got five articles out of their meetings, including an interview published in Italian Penthouse in April 1982. In 1996 he gathered these articles together in a book published by a small Bologna press, with reproductions of some of the drawings and a rambling afterword. Later, when Bacon visited the ski resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo in the Italian Dolomites, and again in Venice, Ravarino was a hanger- on. He also talks of trips to Rome and Florence "sometime in the mid- to late Eighties", including one visit to the Uffizi Gallery during which Bacon tried to wrench Artemisia Gentileschi's gory painting of Judith Slaying Holofernes off the wall. The police let Bacon off with a warning. He couldn't see what all the fuss was about: "I would have given them one of mine in exchange," he explained to Ravarino.
Francis Bacon in Sicily
SINCE THE early Eighties, when Bacon apparently praised his boyish good looks and his pert bottom, Ravarino has - by his own admission - gone to seed. In fact, it's difficult to connect him in any way with the cherubic passport photograph he shows me, dated 1972. The frayed brown overcoat, the scuffed supermarket trainers, the long hair, streaked with grey, the puffy face - Ravarino looks like a method actor three months into preparation for his role as Down-At-Heel Writer And Italian Friend Of Bacon. He drives a clapped-out Audi with a rattling gearbox. He talks earnestly and incessantly in great arcs of free association that lead from Velazquez to the Mafia. He hangs a right when he sees a police car up ahead ("Shit, what are they doing here? They don't normally wait on that corner").
But he can also be calm and cultured, with the smooth, persuasive voice of a breakfast radio host. The only time I hear Ravarino stumble is when I ask him if he ever had sex with Bacon. Um, well, basically, the thing is . . . he doesn't remember. Sorry? "You have to realise just how much these people drank, and how much you had to drink if you didn't want to offend them . . . I was often in a kind of alcoholic coma." He goes on to tell me a story about Bacon putting a rose on the breakfast table one morning, in some hotel, he doesn't remember where or when. Or why. Ravarino - whose English is far from fluent - holds an American passport. He also claims to act as an advisor to the US Department of State, and talks of an uncle who works for the Planning Organization Board - "the decision-making body of the National Security Council, which controls the American President". He writes the way he talks: leaping from one conspiratorial hub to another, even when he is ostensibly discussing Bacon. Aldo Moro is in there, of course, and the Kennedy assassination. So is the Pont de l'Alma in Paris, Blackfriars Bridge in London and the omnipresent Licio Gelli (former head of Italy's P2 Masonic lodge). They're all connected, deep down. Such things fascinated Bacon, according to Ravarino, and he claims to have spent hours talking to the painter about espionage, terrorism and the Mafia.
In a long memoir he wrote in 1995, Ravarino recalls an episode which took place in the Hotel Danieli in Venice in 1991. Bacon was watching a TV interview with Mafia godfather Michele Greco, and was enchanted by the fact that his Italian nickname was Il Papa (The Pope) - so much so that he immediately ordered Ravarino to send the man a drawing. Like most of the other Bacon drawings that Ravarino claims to have posted to eminent personages (the former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, among others), this one was stolen by an unscrupulous assistant before it reached the great man. The problem with Ravarino's "Bacon and I" stories is that there are no photographs, no tape recordings and few witnesses. No one seems to have heard of Bernard Sellin - the surgeon friend Bacon was supposed to have been staying with in Calderino. The Great Ormond Street hospital has no record of him. Paul Brass, who was Bacon's personal doctor, never once heard Bacon mention Sellin.
The other important claim made by Ravarino - that at this time Bacon believed he was dying of cancer, hence the "urgency" of the drawings - baffles Brass. But he concedes that Bacon "did tend to worry about his health". Just as one is beginning to believe in some magnificent fictional construct, a few Italian sightings come to Ravarino's rescue. Calderino wine producer Carlo Gaggioli remembers a visit to his cellars by a "very merry" group of foreigners, including an older English artist. He has a drawing similar to those owned by Ravarino, "which was given to me by the artist - or by Ravarino, I don't remember. But they definitely gave it to me that same day."
Bacon was also spotted in Cortina d'Ampezzo, the ski resort where Ravarino claims to have interviewed him "towards the end of the Eighties". Gloria Pagani remembers Bacon's rowdy visit to her restaurant, La Siesta - which was followed the next day by the gift of a drawing. And Vincenzo Lucchese, an architect who teaches at Venice University, has testified that he saw Bacon and Ravarino together at a Venetian Carnevale party "at the end of the Eighties" (though Ravarino, in one of his few stabs at precision, sets this meeting in 1991). According to Ravarino it was during this Venetian visit, when Bacon was around 80, that the artist presented him with the bulk of the drawings. Bacon was staying with "some rich English friends" who owned an apartment in Venice, and Ravarino remembers that "he wasn't feeling very well". As usual with Ravarino's stories, the Venetian scenario comes complete with theatrical mise-en-scene. "Bacon said to me: 'I told my friends that you would go round to the flat to tidy up.' I was a bit put-out by this, but I said, 'Fine'. Then Bacon said: 'But make sure you don't steal anything.' That was one of the few times I ever got angry with him - I really blew a fuse.
He quite liked it when people shouted at him. Anyway, he said he'd been joking, and that he only meant I should be careful with the crystal glasses. So along I go to the flat, which is really something - Sebastiano del Piombo paintings on the wall, the whole works. And I find that it's spotlessly clean. Then I notice a big package sitting on a table, with a typewritten note: 'Per il dottor Ravarino.' Inside were hundreds of drawings." The last time he talked to Bacon, says Ravarino, was when the artist rang him a few weeks later. When Ravarino asked him why he had bothered to type out the note, Bacon replied: "So you don't have anything on me. I don't want anyone to recognise my handwriting. I don't want you to make this into a book. And I haven't decided what I want you to do with the drawings yet." So why, then, did Bacon sign the drawings? Ravarino says that he talked the artist into signing them "when I brought them to him in Rome". His chronology - unreliable at the best of times - goes very fuzzy around this point. It's unclear, for example, whether this "last meeting" took place before or after the phone-call referred to above. "I was shaking all over. He was drunk, and I was worried he was going to destroy them. Instead, he started signing them. Some he initialled, some he signed with his full name, some just with an 'F' - like those early paintings that were published recently in a book with a preface by Milan Kundera - paintings which nobody had ever seen before."
Francis Bacon with his Spanish lover in Italy
Ravarino has certainly done his homework. There is no doubt that these are the kind of drawings a clever forger would turn out if he was trying to "do a Bacon". They are all heads, done in two different styles. The first type is aggressively pointilist, like a join-the-dots puzzle for schizophrenics. Clustered entrails mess up the mouth and nose, or hang down from the chin. The eyes are insect-like. One of these heads looks like a child's drawing of a caterpillar; another like Darth Vader with acne. The second type of drawing is more fluent, more convincing. The bare essentials of a face have been jotted down, and then overlain by long, rapid, curving strokes of the pencil. The effect is that of long grass in a strong wind, seen from above, as in Bacon's painting Landscape 1978. The focal point (always a face) is worked on and worked over obsessively, nearly erased. The rest is clean, confident and geometric: a suggestion of shoulders and collar, enclosed - in some cases - in one of the box- frames that we recognise from Bacon's paintings. Since Bacon's death in April 1992, various "official" early sketches have turned up. A group of four scrappy studies for paintings from the Fifties and Sixties was included in the major Pompidou Centre show in 1996.
More interesting perhaps is the group of 42 works on paper acquired by the Tate Gallery earlier this year. Dating from the early Fifties to the early Sixties, these include a few sketches in ballpoint pen and pencil as well as others in gouache, oil paint and ink. The style is not particularly close to that of the Ravarino drawings, but the press release put out by the Tate to announce the acquisition makes an interesting point: "Though few post-war works on paper by (Bacon) were known, it has now become clear that this is only because he did not wish the existence of this type of work to be revealed beyond his own circle." The works acquired also include some pages from a boxing magazine overpainted by the artist. Ravarino, too, has a group of sketches done on the flyleaves of various English and Italian books. Sometimes these take up hints from their surroundings: a rapidly sketched portrait on the title page of Reginald Berkeley's The Lady With a Lamp seems a parody of the portrait of Florence Nightingale on the facing page. Ravarino believes that the Bacon establishment has closed ranks to keep him out. If so, they have understandable reasons for doing so.
The Marlborough Gallery, which represented the artist from 1958 onwards, has had to act on Bacon's behalf more than once in the past when false or abandoned paintings turned up in the marketplace. There is even an Italian precedent: in the mid-Seventies a group of left- wing students in Milan painted and sold a number of fake Bacons, using the proceeds to finance the Glorious Revolution. Kate Austin voices the official Marlborough Gallery line when she says that "stylistically it seems impossible that these drawings are authentic. The hand is very tight - it's certainly not Bacon's." She also claims that "the artist knew about these drawings and was very upset about them". As for Ravarino, she says that "it is debatable whether he ever knew Bacon personally".
British art critic David Sylvester was (and is) Bacon's Boswell. His conversations with the artist - first published in 1975 - have become the Baconologist's bible. Sylvester has also curated most of the important Bacon exhibitions since the artist's death in 1992, including the recent Hayward Gallery show. He is emphatically not part of the Ravarino camp; in fact, the whole story irritates him. "This is about the eighteenth time I've been asked about these drawings," he says. "They're fakes - you only have to look at them to see it. There is absolutely no documentary proof that they are Bacon's - so in the end you just have to trust your eye."
An assiduous collector of testimonials, Ravarino has his own list of friendly critics and collectors. His chief supporter is Italian writer and self-taught art critic Giorgio Soavi, who has written a book about the whole affair, Viaggio in Italia di Francis Bacon (Umberto Allemandi, Turin). Soavi has also bought two drawings from Ravarino - so he could be said to have a vested interest. Soavi became excited, he says, by "the fictional potential" of parts of the story - including Ravarino's most extravagant claim, that Bacon was involved in the death of a male prostitute in Rome - an "accident" which was immediately covered up by the US secret services. So convinced is Soavi that the drawings are authentic that he agreed to appear as an expert witness for the defence in the first Bologna hearing on 10 February. Paul Nicholls, an English art dealer based in Milan, was enlisted by the court as a witness for the prosecution. He declared that "the drawings in question were not carried out by Bacon, and are foreign to his whole way of working". Nicholls also believes that "this whole thing should be deflated. I don't think it does Bacon any good." More than once, Ravarino himself refers to Bacon's legacy as a "curse".
He says that his next move will be to "go to England with a couple of hundred drawings and take them around the most important critics". But he is reluctant to do this, he says, because "it's depressing to think that I have to go to ask a bunch of critics whether my story is true, when I know for a fact that it is". One gets the impression that it is the way Ravarino has dealt with the drawings as much as anything else which, in the absence of any definite proof that they are by Francis Bacon, annoys the critics. There is an etiquette to authentication, and Ravarino has not respected it. He has exhibited his drawings in third-class galleries and hotels around Italy. He has published them in obscure local magazines. He has given them away to lovers and politicians, and sol them outside the gallery circuit at prices which, he says, range from pounds 1,000 to pounds 12,000. If the drawings were authenticated, the best could fetch at least pounds 50,000. Ravarino is coy about numbers, but he hints that he has more than 500 drawings still in his possession. It would be easy for the experts if Ravarino really was the likeable charlatan he appears to be. But there's a problem here. Reliable witnesses saw Bacon and Ravarino together in Italy, and drawings purported to be by Bacon were given away on those occasions.
Ravarino may, of course, have been going around with a Bacon look- alike who was under strict instructions to get drunk and play the crazy Eengleesh artist. Alternatively, he may have been tracking Bacon around Italy and popping up the next day with forgeries to distribute to restaurant owners and wine producers as gifts from il maestro. "Either way," says Bolognese journalist Luigi Spezia, who has been following the case for La Repubblica, "the man would have to be a genius." So far the only person to have approached Ravarino's claims with any degree of forensic rigour is the writer and art critic Enzo Rossi-Roiss. He has been following Ravarino's sales of the drawings since they began in 1981. He has photocopies of 150 drawings plus, in some cases, copies of the cheques paid for them. According to Rossi- Roiss, Ravarino's own figures are too high: "He's been selling off sketches for as little as 500,000 lire (pounds 170) each."
Rossi- Roiss is working on a book about the case, due out this autumn. He believes Bacon did indeed visit Calderino in 1980, where he met Ravarino and left behind a few drawings. He believes that Ravarino then appropriated these, forged Bacon's signature, and used them as models for hundreds of fakes, which were carried out by more than one artist - hence the difference in style.
IN 1975, Bacon wrote a brief tribute to Giacometti, one of the contemporaries he most admired, for a show of his drawings at the Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris. "For me," he wrote, "Giacometti is not only the greatest draughtsman of our period, but one of the greatest of all time." Giacometti himself considered drawing to be fundamental to both painting and sculpture: "I think only about drawing," he once said. French critic Jacques Dupin believes that Giacometti's admiration of Bacon's paintings was tempered by the fact that "he was uncomfortable that Bacon didn't draw".
If Bacon was prompted into trying to produce finished drawings in the last decade of his life, his decision to leave them in Ravarino- limbo could have been a reflection of his own lack of confidence in them. At the same time, though, he would have been reluctant entirely to destroy these traces of an activity in which his masters - Giacometti, Picasso, Michelangelo, Guercino, Velazquez - all excelled. We know that by the time Ravarino claims to have met him, Bacon was weary of the whole gallery circus. In an interview published in Art International in the autumn of 1989 - soon after one of his triptychs had sold in New York for US$6m - he said: "The whole thing has become so boring and bourgeois. Art is just a way now of making money."
Giorgio Soavi believes that these drawings were left behind as a spanner in the works. At the end of his semi-fictionalised account of the affair, he has a ghostly Bacon return to earth to say: "I left them in the hands of this long-haired rocker simply to annoy my dealers . . . to take my revenge on them." It could just be that these drawings were left behind as a spanner in the works. Bacon loved using calculated chance in his paintings, and the choice of such an unreliable messenger as Ravarino as the repository of his final secret - or last laugh - would do for his life what a careless smudge of paint did for a painting. "I think that painting today is pure intuition and luck and taking advantage of what happens when you splash the stuff down," he wrote in 1953. Up there in orbit, 500 drawings are still waiting for splashdown.!
The body and soul of Francis Bacon
Richard Dorment on a show that reveals more than ever before about the tormented artist's struggle for identity
Richard Dorment | The Daily Telegraph | 07 February 1998
I HAVE never really liked
Francis Bacon's work. While I recognise his great gifts as a colourist and
handler of paint, the content of his pictures has always struck me as
melodramatic and self-pitying. But the exhibition that opens at the Hayward
Gallery tomorrow, Francis Bacon: The Human Body (until April 5), has made
me look again. By focusing on his figure studies, and isolating them from his
landscapes and portrait heads, the show brings us closer to Bacon's complex and
compelling personality than any I've seen so far.
In his representations of the human body, Bacon, who died in 1992, was, of course, describing his own psychological dilemma. What I hadn't realised is that he was doing so in images so precise that they could almost be described as clinical.
Our sense of reality begins with our own bodies. Contact with the real world starts in childhood with a struggle to accept facts so basic that as adults we never give them a second thought: that we are either male or female, for example, or that, belonging to one sex, we can't belong to the other. The task of maturation in childhood is to distinguish between our own bodies and those of others, to work out that our bodies not only have weight and mass, but also boundaries, limits, perimeters. Crucial to this lifelong struggle to achieve a separate and secure identity is a sense of our own corporeal existence.
But look at the figures in most of Bacon's paintings. There is no solidity in their wobbly outlines, no corporeality in the way the bodies and faces are partially erased by smears of dragged paint. The naked man sitting on the lavatory in the left-hand panel of the 1964 triptych Three Figures in a Room is boneless, distorted, and looks as though his body could be poured into a container to keep him from oozing away. His hands and feet don't end in contours, they simply fade away.
In their lack of substance, and in the uncertainty of their perimeters, Bacon found in these figures a poignant way to suggest the plight of a person whose body does not feel real. In their contorted poses and blurred outlines, he suggests the exhausting - and ultimately unsuccessful - struggle of such a person to create a sense of identity. In most of these canvases, the figures are shown in isolation, as though the effort is so all-consuming that it prevents contact or interaction with other people.
Often, the bodies look flayed, or partially dissected. In the most abject of them, it is impossible to know whether we are looking at the inside of a body or the outside, as though the two had become so confused in Bacon's mind that he hardly distinguished between them. But sanity depends on learning to tell the difference between our feelings (which are subjective and hidden) and our bodies (which have an objective reality and are visible). And here what we know about the violence, drinking and sexual excess of Bacon's life becomes relevant.
Without that fundamental distinction between inside and out, feelings lead inexorably to deeds: anger is enacted as violence, and the need for love experienced as desperation leading to promiscuity. That is why these pictures are seeped in actual or potential violence, even when a hideously maimed figure is physically incapable of an aggressive act and is alone on the canvas; that is why both women and men display their bodies in poses that suggest sexual surrender.
Bacon himself denied that his figures were based on his own body, but in his catalogue essay the critic David Sylvester clearly implies that he doesn't believe it. Neither do I. My own feeling is that, lacking a secure sense of his masculine self, Bacon had difficulty in maintaining contact with reality. In the harrowingly honest self-portraits that make up the great triptych of 1985-86, you see him alternate between a masculine and feminine identity, sometimes tucking his legs primly under the chair like a lady covering her knees with her skirt, at others emphasising the massive arms, broad shoulders and macho boots. In other pictures it can be hard to determine the sex of the person depicted.
"The two sexes met in Francis Bacon," writes Sylvester, "more than in any other human being I have encountered. At moments he was one of the most feminine of men, at others one of the most masculine. He would switch between these roles as suddenly and as unpredictably as the switching of a light."
All this matters because it affects our interpretation of these pictures. If Bacon's figures are seen as broken and defeated, once-whole bodies that are now decomposing, melodramatically breaking up in front of our eyes, they are what all the clichés say they are: the "cries of pain" that I frankly find tiresome and self-indulgent in a great deal of Expressionist art, beginning with Edvard Munch. If instead they are seen as embryonic shapes desperately trying - and failing - to form a single, secure identity, then they speak of a universal human condition, the aboriginal calamity with which we struggle all our lives - and this is the stuff of the greatest art.
Too often, however, Bacon made the wrong artistic decisions, and these tended to trivialise what should be paintings of terrifying grandeur. At his best Bacon can create a sense of immanence that Sylvester rightly compares with the monumental abstractions of the American Mark Rothko. But in other works, as though frightened to cut himself adrift from a tenuously held reality, Bacon constantly made the mistake of adding naturalistic details to pictures that would have been stronger without them.
It is interesting to hear how he justified the addition of a hypodermic syringe in one of his portraits of Henrietta Moraes. Claiming that its use was "purely formal", he described it as "a form of nailing the image more strongly into reality". You understand exactly what he meant, but it would have been as though Rothko had added a little figure at the bottom of one of his canvases, because he didn't trust the picture to hold together without it.
With five triptychs and 18 single canvases dating from 1943 to 1986, this is the perfect size for a Francis Bacon exhibition, avoiding the sense of repetition that for me marred last year's retrospective in Paris. The show looks wonderful at the Hayward.
Francis Bacon with Daniel
Farson at the first Soho Fair Daniel Farson, who
has died aged 70, was a talented television journalist, writer and
photographer; he was also a nightmare drunk.
Farson was a prime specimen of Soho at its height, the Soho of Francis
Bacon, Dylan Thomas, John Minton, John Deakin, Jeffrey Bernard, Muriel
Belcher and other strange characters. To Farson, Soho meant home, and
he, convinced he was a misfit, never felt at home anywhere else.
From middle age on Farson was a fat man - the solid kind rather than
sagging jelly. He never lost his hair, which was fair; in old age he
presumably dyed it. In London he dressed in a smart suit with sleeves
cut long to cover the tattoo of a fish on the back of one hand that he
had had done in the merchant navy.
He was a brave man even when sober and strong enough to make an
antagonist think twice. He would go off at night to such places as a pub
nicknamed The Elephants' Graveyard. It was some surprise that, with his
alarmingly risky sex life, he had not been murdered.
To meet Farson at nine in the evening in the Colony Room Club, for
example, was to witness a transformation that any film actor in Dr
Jekyll and Mr Hyde would have thought strained credibility. Within
minutes, fuelled by a rapid series of large gins scarcely diluted by
tonic, his polite talks about his great uncle Bram Stoker or his
interlocutor's latest book would turn into a rant of increasing volume
and decreasing intelligibility: "I loathe you, I can't stand
you," he would roar, gargling in his podgy throat. "You're so
clever, so patronising." Sometimes the late Ian Board, the club's
proprietor, would chase him down the steep, dark stairs, belabouring him
forcefully with an umbrella.
Often, the morning after, Farson would appear with a cut face, from a
fall, a fight with a rent boy or some forgotten tussle with a policeman.
But he would return immediately to the alcoholic fray and the
never-ending job of seeking work from newspapers or publishers.
Farson could take good photographs. He caught the changing moment and
his pictures were often of interest for their subjects - a hungover
Jeffrey Bernard, head in hands under the statue of King Charles in Soho
Square, or the smoky French pub, with Gaston Berlemont opening another
half bottle of champagne for a crowd of overcoated and hatted men and
women. Others had poignancy, such as the little boy with a dirty face
and a dart in one hand at Barnstaple Fair or the handsome beggar with
two peg-legs in Barcelona.
Farson, in his books, photographs and conversation, idealised Soho,
though he was aware from experience of its destructive power. In Soho in
the Fifties, one of his better books, he described the round of
drinking: from the French pub to Wheeler's for lunch - with luck in the
company of Francis Bacon - then on to the Colony Room Club during the
afternoon (when the pubs were shut from 3pm to 5.30), back to the Coach
and Horses perhaps, and on into the night, at the Mandrake or some
shabby homosexual club. Farson was fortunate enough usually to have
money to pay his way, and was closer to the oysters and champagne side
of things than the cadged halves of bitter familiar to the likes of John
Farson had an annoying way of claiming intimacy with famous people and
writing about them on the strength of it. It was not that he did not
know them, but that he wrote, often inaccurately, about private
conversations from past years. His book about Bacon was called The
Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon - which sounded silly, though it was
a quotation from a joking telegram that Bacon had once sent him. More
recently, Farson set great store by his acquaintance with Gilbert and
In later years he lived in moderate peace in Devon (though he was barred
from all but one pub in Appledore), writing books. Every now and then,
on the pretext of an interview, he would make increasingly suicidal
raids on London, getting drunk earlier and earlier in the day. He would
miss his train back to Devon, and perhaps return to the country two or
three days late.
Over and over again Farson's assaults on London meant drinking all day,
picking up a rent boy and very often being robbed by him at his hotel.
He was barred from several hotels for trivial offences such as being
found with his trousers round his ankles in the corridor. One Sunday
afternoon in the Coach and Horses an angry rent boy (aged about 30) came
into the pub and tried to shame Farson into paying him for his
afternoon's services. Farson was shameless: "But you didn't bloody
do anything," he shouted back. "And I bought all the
The two most admirable things about Farson were his energy and his
determination to start his life again each time he ran into a
Negley Farson was born on Jan 8 1927. His father Negley Farson was an
American-born journalist who would bring the boy an elephant's tooth or
an embryo alligator from his trips abroad. During one trip on which
little Dan accompanied him, the boy was patted on the head by Hitler as
a "good Aryan boy". Negley resigned suddenly from the Chicago
Daily News in 1935, but then made money from his autobiographical books,
The Way of a Transgressor being the best known.
Of Negley, Dan was to write: "He was a stronger man than I am, free
from the taint of homosexuality." But he was also an alcoholic.
Daniel Farson described how he set off with his parents in 1935 to drive
across Europe: "I crouched underneath a blanket on the floor at the
back, pretending to be asleep - impossible with the arguments raging in
the front, my father constantly wanting to stop, seizing any excuse for
a drink, while my mother implored him not to. Occasionally he lost his
temper, sometimes violently, followed by angry silence and the utter
desolations of my mother's sobs, when I did not dare to move. Then there
were whispers as they remembered I was there." Dan lived up to his
parents' tortured example for the rest of his life.
In 1940, Dan's prep school, Abinger Hill, was evacuated to Canada.
During the holidays he was sent to stay with variously unsuitable
relations and friends of his father's in the United States. One day he
was collected in a car by Somerset Maugham and his secretary Gerald
Haxton. They took him to visit another homosexual, Tom Seyster, who, for
some reason, was in fact his godfather. Nothing untoward occurred. The
two younger men drank a great deal; Maugham synmpathised with the boy's
loneliness and responded later with a kind letter to some poetry he had
In 1942 young Daniel sailed back to wartime England, feeling more
comfortable amid its dangers and shortages than in untroubled America.
He was sent to Wellington, a ridiculous misjudgment. After a year he
persuaded his parents to let him leave.
He desultorily set about learning Russian, but soon landed a job at the
Central Press Agency. This decrepit organisation was staffed by an aged
skeleton staff during the war, but it had the privilege of sending a
lobby correspondent to Westminster. The head of the agency, Guy
L'Estrange, had not been to the Commmons since the end of the 19th
Century, and Farson, aged 17, was sent to cover Parliament. This
blond-haired youth was a strange sight in the corridors of Westminster,
down which he was pursued without success by the predatory MP Tom
For a while, though, his career almost progressed backwards. He served
in the American army, during which time he was sent on a journalism
course. He went with the army to Germany, where he discovered the
possibilities of photography in the ruins of Munich. He then went up to
Pembroke College, Cambridge, aged 21. Though he took a degree, he
thought he had wasted his time academically. He did learn about the
realities of sexual relations, but never found a satisfactory way of
accommodating his own preferences.
Farson spent a short time at an advertising agency and then in 1951
joined Picture Post as a staff photographer. At this time he made such
friends as the impossible, drunken, annoying photographer John Deakin,
who had utterly broken with his Liverpudlian background on coming to
London. Deakin, arrested for indecency when a night club was raided, was
asked in court if he had not thought it odd to see men dancing together.
"How could I possibly know how people in London behave?" he
replied; he was acquitted. Farson was sacked from Picture Post at about
the same time Deakin was sacked from Vogue.
In the 1950s, Francis Bacon took to Farson, despite occasional
differences. One night in the Gargoyle club, a male friend with whom
Farson was infatuated butted in on Bacon's conversation. Farson
apologised to Bacon, only to be met by: "It's too bad that we
should be bored to death by your friend and have to pay for his drinks,
but now you have the nerve to come over as well, when you're not
invited." But next day, Bacon bought Farson champagne in the Colony
Room Club: "If you can't be rude to your friends, who can you be
Farson's next bright idea was to join the merchant navy. He joined the
crew of 634 on the 30,000 ton Orcades and sailed 50,000 miles around the
world, crossing the equator four times. He thought for a moment that he
had got Soho out of his system.
He next found work with the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail; he
persuaded Colin Wilson, the author of The Outsider, to speak
unguardedly, and published the damaging interview in Books and Art. Then
he was commissioned to interview Cecil Beaton for This Week on
television, and a new chapter opened.
Farson could have been made for television of that period. He was
quick-thinking, still handsome, with enough charm to beguile
interviewees. He drew out Dylan Thomas's widow in a live broadcast which
had to be faded out when he provoked her to fury.
Farson went from strength to strength. He caused outrage with a
programme, Living for Kicks, about coffee bar teenagers, dubbed
"Sexpresso Kids"' by the Daily Sketch. He produced a series
Farson's Guide to the British. He was fascinated by misfits. His series
Out of Step dealt with oddities from witchcraft to nudism.
Farson was in the middle of filming a programme about lonely old people
at Christmas when he was called to the phone and heard that his mother
had died after falling down stairs at the end of a lunch with Lady
d'Avigdor Goldsmid. A man in a pub told him he had just heard the news
on television: "Daniel Farson's mother dies in fall."
In 1962, with money left him by his parents, Farson bought the tenancy
of a pub on the Isle of Dogs, on the Thames in the East End of London.
The pub was given a boost by a television documentary Farson made called
Time Gentlemen Please! The idea of the Waterman's Arms was to stage
old-fashioned music hall, but the scheme also appealed as a chance to
play the host, drink and meet attractive men. But whatever money the pub
made never found its way into Farson's pockets.
The venture lasted a year. In all he lost perhaps £30,000 - enough in
1963 to buy a row of houses. His days in television were numbered too. A
documentary he made, Courtship, proved "dull". Farson thought
he had gone stale and threw in the towel, though many thought he had
been sacked for drunkenness or emotional instability.
He moved to Devon, living in his parents' house near the sea, and made
an income from journalism and books. He also contrived a television quiz
show on art called Gallery. He was hit badly when his younger friend,
Peter Bradshaw, who lived with his girlfriend in Farson's house, died in
There was life in Farson yet. He traced his father's footsteps over the
Caucasus and went to Moscow for a show by Gilbert and George. He went
frequently to Turkey, always getting drunk and picking up men there.
Farson knew he was dying of cancer when his autobiography Never a Normal
Man was published just after his 70th birthday. It begins: "Two
nights ago I flew into Istanbul to sort out my life. So far I have not
done well." In it he confessed all - or rather confessed to a
larger audience than he had been confessing to for years late at night
At the same time he held an exhibition of photographs in a Mayfair
gallery and went on Radio 4's Midweek with such a hangover that his
voice sounded as if it came from inside a wardrobe. The title of the
book, the reader soon discovered, was a remark made about his father,
On the day of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, Farson went to
the Coach and Horses in Soho, straight from a trip to Sweden. He stood
at the bar, noisily impersonating a friend, Sandy Fawkes, bursting into
tears. Behind him young people told him to shut up because they were
trying to hear the speech of Earl Spencer on the television. Such had
become the bohemia that he was shortly to leave for the last time. John Russell JOHN RUSSELL
| THE NEW
Obituary: Daniel Farson
interviewer, writer and photographer who turned into a monstrous drunk
in his beloved Soho
The Daily Telegraph
29 November 1997
To be in Francis
Bacon's company was to be dazzled and confused, seduced and stunned
Francis Bacon with Daniel Farson at the first Soho Fair
Daniel Farson, who has died aged 70, was a talented television journalist, writer and photographer; he was also a nightmare drunk.
Farson was a prime specimen of Soho at its height, the Soho of Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas, John Minton, John Deakin, Jeffrey Bernard, Muriel Belcher and other strange characters. To Farson, Soho meant home, and he, convinced he was a misfit, never felt at home anywhere else.
From middle age on Farson was a fat man - the solid kind rather than sagging jelly. He never lost his hair, which was fair; in old age he presumably dyed it. In London he dressed in a smart suit with sleeves cut long to cover the tattoo of a fish on the back of one hand that he had had done in the merchant navy.
He was a brave man even when sober and strong enough to make an antagonist think twice. He would go off at night to such places as a pub nicknamed The Elephants' Graveyard. It was some surprise that, with his alarmingly risky sex life, he had not been murdered.
To meet Farson at nine in the evening in the Colony Room Club, for example, was to witness a transformation that any film actor in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would have thought strained credibility. Within minutes, fuelled by a rapid series of large gins scarcely diluted by tonic, his polite talks about his great uncle Bram Stoker or his interlocutor's latest book would turn into a rant of increasing volume and decreasing intelligibility: "I loathe you, I can't stand you," he would roar, gargling in his podgy throat. "You're so clever, so patronising." Sometimes the late Ian Board, the club's proprietor, would chase him down the steep, dark stairs, belabouring him forcefully with an umbrella.
Often, the morning after, Farson would appear with a cut face, from a fall, a fight with a rent boy or some forgotten tussle with a policeman. But he would return immediately to the alcoholic fray and the never-ending job of seeking work from newspapers or publishers.
Farson could take good photographs. He caught the changing moment and his pictures were often of interest for their subjects - a hungover Jeffrey Bernard, head in hands under the statue of King Charles in Soho Square, or the smoky French pub, with Gaston Berlemont opening another half bottle of champagne for a crowd of overcoated and hatted men and women. Others had poignancy, such as the little boy with a dirty face and a dart in one hand at Barnstaple Fair or the handsome beggar with two peg-legs in Barcelona.
Farson, in his books, photographs and conversation, idealised Soho, though he was aware from experience of its destructive power. In Soho in the Fifties, one of his better books, he described the round of drinking: from the French pub to Wheeler's for lunch - with luck in the company of Francis Bacon - then on to the Colony Room Club during the afternoon (when the pubs were shut from 3pm to 5.30), back to the Coach and Horses perhaps, and on into the night, at the Mandrake or some shabby homosexual club. Farson was fortunate enough usually to have money to pay his way, and was closer to the oysters and champagne side of things than the cadged halves of bitter familiar to the likes of John Deakin.
Farson had an annoying way of claiming intimacy with famous people and writing about them on the strength of it. It was not that he did not know them, but that he wrote, often inaccurately, about private conversations from past years. His book about Bacon was called The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon - which sounded silly, though it was a quotation from a joking telegram that Bacon had once sent him. More recently, Farson set great store by his acquaintance with Gilbert and George.
In later years he lived in moderate peace in Devon (though he was barred from all but one pub in Appledore), writing books. Every now and then, on the pretext of an interview, he would make increasingly suicidal raids on London, getting drunk earlier and earlier in the day. He would miss his train back to Devon, and perhaps return to the country two or three days late.
Over and over again Farson's assaults on London meant drinking all day, picking up a rent boy and very often being robbed by him at his hotel. He was barred from several hotels for trivial offences such as being found with his trousers round his ankles in the corridor. One Sunday afternoon in the Coach and Horses an angry rent boy (aged about 30) came into the pub and tried to shame Farson into paying him for his afternoon's services. Farson was shameless: "But you didn't bloody do anything," he shouted back. "And I bought all the drinks."
The two most admirable things about Farson were his energy and his determination to start his life again each time he ran into a cul-de-sac.
Daniel Negley Farson was born on Jan 8 1927. His father Negley Farson was an American-born journalist who would bring the boy an elephant's tooth or an embryo alligator from his trips abroad. During one trip on which little Dan accompanied him, the boy was patted on the head by Hitler as a "good Aryan boy". Negley resigned suddenly from the Chicago Daily News in 1935, but then made money from his autobiographical books, The Way of a Transgressor being the best known.
Of Negley, Dan was to write: "He was a stronger man than I am, free from the taint of homosexuality." But he was also an alcoholic. Daniel Farson described how he set off with his parents in 1935 to drive across Europe: "I crouched underneath a blanket on the floor at the back, pretending to be asleep - impossible with the arguments raging in the front, my father constantly wanting to stop, seizing any excuse for a drink, while my mother implored him not to. Occasionally he lost his temper, sometimes violently, followed by angry silence and the utter desolations of my mother's sobs, when I did not dare to move. Then there were whispers as they remembered I was there." Dan lived up to his parents' tortured example for the rest of his life.
In 1940, Dan's prep school, Abinger Hill, was evacuated to Canada. During the holidays he was sent to stay with variously unsuitable relations and friends of his father's in the United States. One day he was collected in a car by Somerset Maugham and his secretary Gerald Haxton. They took him to visit another homosexual, Tom Seyster, who, for some reason, was in fact his godfather. Nothing untoward occurred. The two younger men drank a great deal; Maugham synmpathised with the boy's loneliness and responded later with a kind letter to some poetry he had shown him.
In 1942 young Daniel sailed back to wartime England, feeling more comfortable amid its dangers and shortages than in untroubled America. He was sent to Wellington, a ridiculous misjudgment. After a year he persuaded his parents to let him leave.
He desultorily set about learning Russian, but soon landed a job at the Central Press Agency. This decrepit organisation was staffed by an aged skeleton staff during the war, but it had the privilege of sending a lobby correspondent to Westminster. The head of the agency, Guy L'Estrange, had not been to the Commmons since the end of the 19th Century, and Farson, aged 17, was sent to cover Parliament. This blond-haired youth was a strange sight in the corridors of Westminster, down which he was pursued without success by the predatory MP Tom Driberg.
For a while, though, his career almost progressed backwards. He served in the American army, during which time he was sent on a journalism course. He went with the army to Germany, where he discovered the possibilities of photography in the ruins of Munich. He then went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge, aged 21. Though he took a degree, he thought he had wasted his time academically. He did learn about the realities of sexual relations, but never found a satisfactory way of accommodating his own preferences.
Farson spent a short time at an advertising agency and then in 1951 joined Picture Post as a staff photographer. At this time he made such friends as the impossible, drunken, annoying photographer John Deakin, who had utterly broken with his Liverpudlian background on coming to London. Deakin, arrested for indecency when a night club was raided, was asked in court if he had not thought it odd to see men dancing together. "How could I possibly know how people in London behave?" he replied; he was acquitted. Farson was sacked from Picture Post at about the same time Deakin was sacked from Vogue.
In the 1950s, Francis Bacon took to Farson, despite occasional differences. One night in the Gargoyle club, a male friend with whom Farson was infatuated butted in on Bacon's conversation. Farson apologised to Bacon, only to be met by: "It's too bad that we should be bored to death by your friend and have to pay for his drinks, but now you have the nerve to come over as well, when you're not invited." But next day, Bacon bought Farson champagne in the Colony Room Club: "If you can't be rude to your friends, who can you be rude to?"
Farson's next bright idea was to join the merchant navy. He joined the crew of 634 on the 30,000 ton Orcades and sailed 50,000 miles around the world, crossing the equator four times. He thought for a moment that he had got Soho out of his system.
He next found work with the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail; he persuaded Colin Wilson, the author of The Outsider, to speak unguardedly, and published the damaging interview in Books and Art. Then he was commissioned to interview Cecil Beaton for This Week on television, and a new chapter opened.
Farson could have been made for television of that period. He was quick-thinking, still handsome, with enough charm to beguile interviewees. He drew out Dylan Thomas's widow in a live broadcast which had to be faded out when he provoked her to fury.
Farson went from strength to strength. He caused outrage with a programme, Living for Kicks, about coffee bar teenagers, dubbed "Sexpresso Kids"' by the Daily Sketch. He produced a series Farson's Guide to the British. He was fascinated by misfits. His series Out of Step dealt with oddities from witchcraft to nudism.
Farson was in the middle of filming a programme about lonely old people at Christmas when he was called to the phone and heard that his mother had died after falling down stairs at the end of a lunch with Lady d'Avigdor Goldsmid. A man in a pub told him he had just heard the news on television: "Daniel Farson's mother dies in fall."
In 1962, with money left him by his parents, Farson bought the tenancy of a pub on the Isle of Dogs, on the Thames in the East End of London. The pub was given a boost by a television documentary Farson made called Time Gentlemen Please! The idea of the Waterman's Arms was to stage old-fashioned music hall, but the scheme also appealed as a chance to play the host, drink and meet attractive men. But whatever money the pub made never found its way into Farson's pockets.
The venture lasted a year. In all he lost perhaps £30,000 - enough in 1963 to buy a row of houses. His days in television were numbered too. A documentary he made, Courtship, proved "dull". Farson thought he had gone stale and threw in the towel, though many thought he had been sacked for drunkenness or emotional instability.
He moved to Devon, living in his parents' house near the sea, and made an income from journalism and books. He also contrived a television quiz show on art called Gallery. He was hit badly when his younger friend, Peter Bradshaw, who lived with his girlfriend in Farson's house, died in 1992.
There was life in Farson yet. He traced his father's footsteps over the Caucasus and went to Moscow for a show by Gilbert and George. He went frequently to Turkey, always getting drunk and picking up men there.
Farson knew he was dying of cancer when his autobiography Never a Normal Man was published just after his 70th birthday. It begins: "Two nights ago I flew into Istanbul to sort out my life. So far I have not done well." In it he confessed all - or rather confessed to a larger audience than he had been confessing to for years late at night in Soho.
At the same time he held an exhibition of photographs in a Mayfair gallery and went on Radio 4's Midweek with such a hangover that his voice sounded as if it came from inside a wardrobe. The title of the book, the reader soon discovered, was a remark made about his father, not him.
On the day of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, Farson went to the Coach and Horses in Soho, straight from a trip to Sweden. He stood at the bar, noisily impersonating a friend, Sandy Fawkes, bursting into tears. Behind him young people told him to shut up because they were trying to hear the speech of Earl Spencer on the television. Such had become the bohemia that he was shortly to leave for the last time.
JOHN RUSSELL | THE NEW YORK TIMES |JULY 27, 1997
That there was a book to be written about the life of Francis Bacon (1909-92) was never in doubt. No one who had seen Bacon in the street, let alone in a crowded room, could forget his spring-heeled tread, his pink, pulpy and most often convivial features, and his cannonading diction. Quite apart from the paintings that made his name, and eventually his very large fortune, he was one of the great English originals of this century. As such, he was talked about, argued about and speculated about.
The problematic element was that ever since he had been banished from his father's house at the age of 16 - reportedly for trying on his mother's underclothes - Bacon lived a layered life. Secrecy, make-believe and a flamboyant mischief were fundamental to it. From adolescence he referred to himself as ''completely homosexual,'' and at 17 he learned his way around two great cities - first Berlin and then Paris - in which appetites of every kind could be satisfied. ''To find yourself,'' he said to his biographer, Michael Peppiatt, ''you need the greatest possible freedom to drift.'' Bacon enjoyed that freedom. But how, where, when and with whom?
The answers to these questions were as if written in the sand dune of which Bacon was to paint an amazing picture late in his life. But almost all of them could have been washed away by the equally amazing jet of wild water he painted in 1979.
Among those who knew Francis Bacon most vividly - some for half an hour, others for half a lifetime - many were never known by name to anyone but him. Almost all those who were known have lately died off, one after another. Others, still living, have refused to speak about him and are not going to change their minds now. Than that there is no greater compliment.
So there is a huge disparity between the recorded and the unrecorded. Bacon handled these matters to perfection. In what passes for formal society, he had beautiful manners (inherited from way back) and appeared to give his whole self to any company he was in. But there almost always came a moment at which other people elsewhere had priority, and he was suddenly gone. Few men have been at home in so many worlds, or so adroit in adjusting from one to another.
When talking about himself, he could dazzle and confuse, seduce and stun. But when he was bored or provoked, he could carry on like an intelligent windup toy whose every word torched the air. His friendship, once given, was so irresistible, inventive and generous in spirit that when he withdrew it, as he sometimes did, the loss was very hard to bear. These were private matters, but they make life difficult for a biographer.
All this notwithstanding, Michael Peppiatt's Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma' is pleasurable reading on the whole. It has a good, steady beginning, in which the reader learns that one of Bacon's maternal great-great-grandfathers founded a small steelworks in Sheffield that grew into ''one of the world's biggest suppliers of castings for guns.'' (It was, in Bacon's view, the prospect of a residuary fortune from Sheffield steel that persuaded his father to propose to his mother.)
His great-aunt Eliza married the heir to a shipbuilding fortune, and Bacon as a boy spent summer holidays in her mammoth neo-Gothic mansion near Newcastle. From his mother's mother he inherited a sense of fete and a gift for cosmopolitan and open-handed hospitality. Peppiatt also reminds us, though Bacon himself never did, that Byron dedicated Childe Harold to one of Bacon's paternal great-grandmothers.
He gives a good account of Bacon's early career in London as a designer of furniture, rugs and other domestic incidentals, some of which had a second life in his paintings. Much of the story told here about his life after that is already familiar - and not all the gossip reported is substantiated. But the story is skillfully sewn together and rebuttoned (or, in some cases, unbuttoned), even if a little too much comes inevitably from memoirs that are malicious or self-serving.
Peppiatt first met Bacon in 1963, when he was editing a student magazine called Cambridge Opinion, and they got on well. In 1966, Peppiatt went to live in Paris, where he eventually became editor and publisher of Art International. In the 1970's, when Bacon decided to live in Paris and see how he liked it, Peppiatt was always at hand. He therefore had a 30-year acquaintance with his subject and made good use of it. (Bacon's late-night soliloquies in Paris ring particularly true.) His book is also enriched by echoes, all of them duly credited, of the many tributes to Bacon that were printed after his death. (In many of these, one can sense a feeling of relief that Bacon would never read them.)
Peppiatt has also been able to draw on what will from now on be an indispensable biographical source. It is unique in its kind, consisting of the sumptuous mulch of photographs, newspaper cuttings and leavings of every kind that Bacon had trodden into the floor of his studio. It has since been taken apart, piece by piece.
Among the treasures on the floor was a long series of beat-up photographs by Bacon's friend John Deakin. When rescued not long ago, these were shown at the National Portrait Gallery in London. In those battered images, Bacon himself lives again, as do his favourite subjects - Isabel Rawsthorne, Myriel Belcher, Henrietta Moraes, Lucian Freud, Peter Lacy, George Dyer, and others from intellectual, social and artistic circles in London.
Without Deakin's photographs, Bacon's portraits of those same people could seem weird, perverse, even hostile. But as he said himself: ''I terribly don't want to make freaks, though everyone seems to think that that's how the pictures turn out. If I make people look unattractive, it's not because I want to. I'd like them to look as attractive as they really are.''
Also - and unlike most of Bacon's boon companions - Peppiatt has done some original work. He tracked down, for example, the daughter of a French woman of the world, a pianist and connoisseur of the arts called Yvonne Bocquentin, who had taken the 17-year-old Bacon in hand in 1927 - a daughter with an excellent memory. Not only did Mme. Bocquentin invite Bacon to lodge in her house in Chantilly; she made sure he made the most of all that Paris had to offer in the way of high culture.
When it comes to the art, neither Bacon nor Peppiatt is well served by the boilerplate jacket copy of this book, in which we read of Bacon's ''canvases of screaming popes,'' which are said to be ''defining images of 20th-century anguish.'' ''Get real!'' is the only answer to this phrase, which is the equivalent in marketing to friendly fire in warfare. These ancient fallacies do no honor to the publisher.
Where are these ''screaming popes''? Anyone who looks with a fresh eye at the Head VI of 1949 or the Study After Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X of 1953 - classic pieces, both - may conclude that the Pope figure is not screaming at all. He may be singing along, in full-throated Italian style. He may be yawning after a long day at the office. He may also be roaring with laughter. Bacon left his options open, no matter how often others preferred to ignore them.
After all, what did he actually say? ''I am not a preacher, I have nothing to say about 'the human situation'. '' What he wanted, among other things, was to reinvent the language of portraiture in ways that summoned the rest of us to reinvent the language of criticism.
Peppiatt does not
quite do that, but he has one or two enviable inspirations. One of them is to
quote at the end of his book a passage from Marcel Proust that might have been
written with Bacon in mind. ''People do not die immediately for us,'' Proust
said, ''but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life. . . . It is as though they
were travelling abroad.''
Just as there is an esthetic compulsion to look more and more closely at Bacon's paintings - especially when they are gathered "in the flesh" at a major exhibition of this kind - so there is a moral imperative to come to terms with Bacon's violence. In a way, though, these two levels of attention are mutually exclusive. The work's painterliness enjoins us to aestheticize any extremities of depiction, such as the way faces are mashed by unexpected twists of the brush, just at the very moment when we might be groping for psychological or political excuses for such distortions. Pondering Goya's etchings, Disasters of War, Jean Genet describes a similar quandary: "We are so absorbed by the lightness and vitality of Goya's line that the beauty of the spectacle makes us forget to condemn the war it represents."
There is a standard intepretation of Bacon as an artist who reflects the violence of his century, but this has come to seem inadequate precisely because it fails to confront the ambiguity of the violence in his work, as well as the fact that the word "violence" operates on different levels in the artist's own statements. Andrew Sinclair exclaim his recent biography, Francis Bacon: His life and Violent Times (1995), that the artist "read the entrails of his half-century, pulverised them and vomited his three Eumenides in paint" [see A.i. A., Dec. '94]. This is a reference to Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), which Bacon identified as a depiction of the furies in the Orestia of Aeschylus.(1) Sinclair is able to draw upon plenty of reserves of violence in Bacon's life, from his childhood in Ireland during the Troubles and in London during the zeppelin raids of World War I (he was born in Dublin in 1909 to English parents), through an adolescence all the more turbulent because of his homosexuality and his ambiguous relationship to his tyrannical, racehorse-trainer father. He follows Bacon's move to the seedy Berlin of the Weimar Republic and Paris of the 1920s, where the artist came of age and defined his outlook (it was after seeing a Picasso exhibition in Paris that he resolved to become a painter). During the 1930s Bacon was predominantly a designer of innovative modern future; he never darkened the door of an art school but experimented during these years with the current French artistic avant-garde as his models. Sinclair also draws liberally upon the historical calamities that marked the years of Bacon's public emergence. The artist was excused from military service on account of his asthma, but World War II nonetheless had a galvanizing effect on him. As he launched his painting career in earnest towards the close of 1944, Auschwitz and Hiroshima were godparents to his painted furies. But Sinclair's biographically and historically causal view can be countered with Mark Roskill's contention - ever fresh from his 1963 essay Francis Bacon as a Mannerist - that "if both Rosso Florentino's art and Bacon's look "sick" to us, this is because they play upon our sensations in parallel ways, not because their periods gave them the relevant imagery and mood."(2)
Bacon's use of the word "violent" in his interviews with David Sylvester(3) (who, along with Fabrice Hergott, curated the current retrospective) was not always literal, despite enough blood-and-guts in his images to warrant such a use. The "violence" of images - apart from specific scenes of mutilation or torture - can as often mean, to Bacon, the abruptness or keenness with which images present themselves. He can thus speak of making things "more clearly, more exactly, more violently." Violence is as much what happens to images as within them. Bacon's people don't always suffer from their mutilations; many are quite able to go about their usual business. It is in this sense that he is a mannerist: violent distortion is just his way of doing figures, of painting faces. His stylistic distortions of body or visage - the mangled, lacerated features, the radical contortions or mutilations of limbs - as often accentuate aliveness as portend death.
But Bacon has it both ways with violence: he elevates and sanitizes injury to the level of style, but he also trades on the emotionallly charged resonance of injury, exploiting the repulsion and fascination that such wounds - were they real - would elicit. Bacon exhibits an ambivalence toward violence not only in his finished paintings but also in the procedures underlying them. For instance, he said that he preferred to develop his portraits from photographs rather than have the person actually sit for him. The living presence of his sitters would inhibit him, he told Sylvester, "because, if I like them, I don't want to practise before them the injury that I do to them in my work. I would rather practise the injury in private by which I think I can record the fact of them more clearly."
Bacon was famously and consistently disdainful of abstraction. He told Sylvester that "it can convey very watered-down lyrical feelings, because I think any shapes can. But I don't think it can really convey feeling in the grand sense." Elsewhere he insisted that "the image matters more than the beauty of the paint." Invariably, however, viewers must adopt a point of view diametrically opposed to the painter's if they are to survive the assault of his art. At some conscious or unconscious level, every admirer of Bacon has to say to himself or herself: the paint matters more than the ugliness of the image.
An anti-epicurean stance comes through in Bacon's avowed preference for Picasso over Matisse. Matisse was "too lyrical and decorative. ... He doesn't have Picasso's brutality of fact." And yet Matisse springs to mind on seeing the first painting in the Paris exhibition, Interior of a Room (ca. 1935). When Bacon fully embarked on his painting career in 1944-45 (with the Three Studies) he destroyed his previous output. Those few early pieces which were already in other hands, and thus survived, would be omitted from exhibitions during his lifetime. The exception to this rule was the ghostly, Picassoid Crucifixion (1933), which had been reproduced by Herbert Read in his landmark 1934 book, Art Now, marking Bacon's first official recognition as an artist. (Read had wanted to include Bacon in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition at the Burlington Galleries, but bizarrely his co-selectors deemed him "not Surrealist enough.")
An accurate reckoning of his pre-1944 output within the context of his entire career is now possible, and is one of the things that makes the Paris/Munich show so significant - and the most comprehensive Bacon retrospective to date, even though there were more pictures in the 1985 Tate survey, and at the Grand Palais, Paris, in 1971. Another of the artist's own myths exploded by this exhibition is that of his not having made drawings. The curators have gathered several revealing works on paper - in gouache, pen and crayon - as well as his paintings over photographs in books.
The 1935 Interior of a Room is richly prophetic on a number of counts. It already announces Bacon's love for spatial ambiguity and somewhat nauseating color. Structurally, the composition is probably too ambitious for its own good, but it is telling that there is (loosely speaking) a tripartite division, anticipating his adoption of the triptych format. And there is evidence of another consistent trait, the desire to do subversive things with paint, smudging and smearing it to gain disconcerting effects. But with all the cubistic complications of space and the intrusions of both oddly biomorphic elements and irregular rods, there is an unfamiliar decorative intensity in the lozenge shapes we can read as wallpaper in the center of the image, and in the luscious red and purple stripes to the right. The way the lozenges - yellow and green on green - are "written" in a pinched, abbreviated, uneven handwriting seems pure Matisse. What would happen in subsequent work is that a dualism of living matter and mm" surroundings would sharpen: the dog at bottom right is the only living thing depicted, but it is passive and inert; there is more life in the ambiguous forms in the opposite corner. The vitality invested in these lozenges will be reinvested in organic forms (the dog will spring into action, so to speak). Backgrounds will become exactly that - background, consigned to a secondary role - and they win be forced to take on an intentionally deadpan quality, creating all the more heightened a contrast with the main event, the concentrated, centered having form. Sometimes the background will be painted in "dead" acrylic, the figures in "fleshy" oil to intensify the dichotomy.
The decorative element, so joyously bodied forth in the painting of the young interior designer, would be subordinated, once he relaunched his career, but not expunged. The stripes of the top right corner of Interior reassert themselves in Painting (1950). Here they look more Bonnard than Matisse, perhaps because the nude - of uncertain gender - is standing in a bathtub. The stripes are the second subject, but only just. Although they and the blue and red rectangles topping and tailing the composition can be read as depicting the wall and the side of the bath, there is an unnerving consonance between this figure painting and then-contemporary American abstraction.
Various considerations conspire to block appreciation of the decorative aspects of Bacon's work: his disdain for abstraction; his status as (apart from Giacometti, whom he much admired) quite probably the greatest reinventor of figuration after Picasso; the sheer brutality of his subject matter. And yet, the abstract qualities are an indispensable component of the paintings. However compelling the central figure in Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho (1967), however intriguing the ambiguous animal-cum-automobile form behind her, the first and last memory of the work is of the rich blue flapping shapes at the top of the composition and the swerving spiral that ares below. Of course, these can be "read" - as awnings and road respectively - but this does not distract from their autonomy as abstract shapes, their right to be regarded as flat shapes on the canvas. Likewise, the brushwork m the decorate flooring/plush carpet of the 1973 triptych Three Portraits: Posthumous Portrait of George Dyer, Self Portrait, Portrait of Lucian Freud (1973), with its gay abandon, is too involved in its own lyricism to be explained away in descriptive terms. Often in Bacon one senses an abstract painting bursting to escape from the figurative space it is enlisted to describe.
But this is to discuss abstraction as if it is a quantifiable state apart from from. Bacon's argument with abstraction is not that he despises the abstract, but that he takes it to be inextricably linked to other facets of painting. "I think painting is a duality," he explained, "and that abstract painting is an entirely aesthetic thing. It always remains on one level. It is only really interested in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes." The patterns and shapes in the two paintings just mentioned, admired for their abstract, "aesthetic" qualities, can also be absorbed within denser, more multifaceted readings of the images they serve. The billowing awnings in the Isabel Rawsthorne painting rhyme with the swelling of Rawsthorne's skirt, the voluptuous tightness of her clothing. The very involvedness of the ground in the triptych intensifies the isolation of three figures depicted within the same space. That the pattern arises from undisciplined doodles, with colors that are loosely flesh tones, lends to it a sexual suggestiveness.
Bacon's suspicion of the "entirely aesthetic thing" and his plea for another level of meaning recall Ruskin's famous distinction between "aesthesis" and "theoria," between "mere animal consciousness of the pleasantness" and "exulting, reverent and grateful perception." Of course, Ruskin's moral universe is turned upside down by the time this dualism reaches Bacon: his outlook is so imbued by a Nietzschean sense of vitalism that "mere animal consciousness" is actually the "exulted" condition he seeks. Ruskin's projected state beyond the esthetic, with its overtones of moral rectitude, would have smacked to Bacon of "illustration," to which he was just as hostile as he was toward "decoration" and "abstraction."
Illustration, according to Bacon, transports imagery along a cumbersome route through language, association, meaning. His ideal was to bypass such laborious stages of cognition in a brutal assault directly upon the core of our physical being: "Some paint," he said, "comes across directly onto the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain." He is ever the inverted Cartesian, rooting for the body in its dualistic struggle with the mind. ("I masturbate, therefore I am," as Donald Kuspit once put it apropos of Bacon's men.(4)) To Bacon, the physical being is more real, more true than any moral or social being. A line from Andre Gide's The Immoralist making a similar Nietzschean plea for the authentic in raw physicality suggests itself as almost prophetic of Bacon's art: "The layers of acquired knowledge peel away from the mind like a cosmetic and reveal, in patches, the naked fresh beneath, the authentic being there."(5)
Bacon the dualist is as prone to play form against meaning as meaning against form. He is even capable, at times, of talking like a true formalist, as when he came to justify his use of a swastika armband in the right-hand panel of Crucifixion (1965).(6) This motif, appearing in a work, moreover, belonging to the Staatsgalerie in Munich, naturally gave rise to fanciful historical and political interpretations of precisely the kind Bacon preferred to avoid for his work. Pressed on the matter of the armband in his second interview with David Sylvester, Bacon disconcertingly replied that he wanted to "break the continuity of the arm and to add the colour .... You may say it was a stupid thing to do, but it was done entirely as part of trying to make the figure" work - not work on the level of interpretation of its being a Nazi, but on the level of its working formally." The swastika happened to present itself to him, he claims because he had just been studying photos of Hitler and his entourage.
When Bacon made his distinction between illustrational and nonillustrational form, his preference was obviously for the latter, for the form which works upon the nervous system, bypassing memory and expectation. And yet he is a realist in the sense that he paints immediately recognizable objects and forms from the observed world in a pictorial language that is predominantly accessible, and when ambiguous, deliberately and contrastively so. The dichotomy of real versus illustrational has one status in his statements, another in his work, for it is in fact the distorted, ambiguous forms - usually the figures - which are the more vital and urgent forms, the more "real." As with the way Bacon paints background very differently from foreground, so in this respect his work presents a duality of different kinds or degrees of realism. There are the moments of radical distortion and painterly spasm, but these are offset by surrounding passages of blandness, in which the mode of depiction is as deadpan as the paint-handling. Everyday objects - furniture, baseboards, mirrors, rolller blinds, fight bulbs, door knobs, etc. - are often achieved with the studied simplicity of a commercial artist, of a cartoonist or (dare one say it) an illustrator. This makes all the more forceful the explosions of flesh, the deformative smudges, or the onanistic ejaculations of paint which are allowed to intrude upon and puncture this otherwise innocuous surface. Opposite in execution as in appearance, these heightened moments stand apart from the calculated banality of what surrounds them - the real as in the actual substance of paint is pitted against "realism" as in pictorial representation.
"I want a very ordered image, but I want it to come about by chance," Bacon once said. Chance, with its risk of spoiling everything, is a sort of violence committed against Bacon's own meticulousness, a rude interruption of the smooth, measured surface. His infatuation with chance has none of the idealism of Surrealist or Abstract-Expressionist notions of automatism, which link spontaneity to freedom or truth. Instead, his chance is imbued with a nihilistic, existentialist sense of the arbitrary. Flung and frenzied marks declaim the violence of their moment of becoming.
It would be a mistake, though, to think of the miraculous splurges as the authentic Bacon, and the rest as the painter marking time. This is not just because the distinction between the two modes is frequently blurred. It also has to be stressed that the background Bacon is often Bacon at his most lyrical; that his design is capable of compelling compactness (as with the blue a= in the Rawsthorne portrait); that even the shorthand details and illustrational passages can have the sort of mesmerizing hold of such masters of the deadpan as Hopper and Magritte. But there is another reason not to overrate the chance effects, namely that they are not as "chancy" as they might appear. Bacon was in actual fact a compulsive gambler, losing large sums at the roulette wheel, but in the act of painting, the wheel can be said to have been weighted. Through his studio risk taking, he could simulate the thrill of the wheel knowing that each "gamble" would eventually pay off: time and an unlimited supply of paint and canvas were on his side. He could keep working until he won.
In a painting done toward the end of his career, Jet of Water (1988), life is seen to imitate art: a burst of water from a faucet in an anonymous street provided Bacon with a perfect subject to pursue his connection of the fluid, the violent and the effects of chance. In general, Bacon's work of the last 20 years had neither the disturbing power of the paintings of the 1940s and 1950s nor the compelling design quality of the 1960s canvases. Relative to his earlier work, a diffuseness bordering on sterility began to set in; the sharpness of contrast between figure and ground was a casualty, even as the dead-centered figure became almost ubiquitous, making the contrast especially needed. But, with a burst of the old energy, Jet of Water - and several other quietly sumptuous works from the last years gathered in the Paris/Munich exhibition - defied the impression of talent going to seed. This image redramatizes the dichotomy between an almost fey and punctilious background - actually very reminiscent of Pittura Metafisica, with its pale blue sky, delicately drawn architectural elements, characteristic dry-brush fines and edges - and a vigorous foreground, here very literary a "splash" of paint.
Bacon, who rightly insisted that he was not an expressionist, is
arguably at his most canny when the materials seem most freely handled and
invested with personal feeling and surprised response. It is telling that these
qualities should emerge so forcefully in one of the numerous works done in
homage to Velazquez, that master of control: Study for Portrait of Pope
Innocent X (1965), with the brushiness of the flame- and limb-like folds of
the backcloth, the diaphanous whiteness of the pontiff s frock, the unfinish of
his oddly misshaped throne, the bravura economy of his cape. An almost love-hate
ambivalence towards the very stuff of paint comes through in Study for
Portrait of Van Gogh (1957) with its voluptuous yet disdainfully fluid
dollops of red and white, and blue and black, mixed as much on the brush as on
the sickly yellow ground.
There is actually a sort of violence in the way Bacon cannibalizes historic sources; his attitude toward the old masters mixed awe and contempt. As with his depictions of contemporaries, he was more comfortable working from photographs of past art than from the originals. (Numerous creased, paint-splattered art reproductions and photographic portraits recovered from the floor of Bacon's studio are included in the Pompidou catalogue.) Just as the 16th-century Mannerists subverted the classical perfection of Raphael so Bacon repeatedly took up artists of calm and measure in seeming contrast to his own sensibility - the unaffected naturalist Velazquez, the restrained classicists Poussin and Ingres, the rationalist pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge - twisting their images around for his own expressive purpose. (The contrast in sensibility was admittedly less when he borrowed from van Gogh.) Idealism and positivism are turned on their head when a pair of Muybridge's male wrestlers, for instance, naked for the purpose of documenting movement, metamorphose into male lovers. "Bacon's compulsive emotion would break Poussin's precious, porcelain mouth to pieces" says Donald Kuspit, referring to Bacon's appropriation in countless images of the aghast mother's expression from Poussin's Massacre of the Innocents.(7)
Bacon's willful misreading of the old masters can border on the deconstructive as he homes in upon unconscious lesions and incongruities which make the images so alive for him. Citing Degas's After the Bath in London's National Gallery, he delight in the way "the top of the spine almost comes out of the skin ... this gives it such a grip and a twist that you're more conscious of the vulnerability of the rest of the body than if he had drawn the spine naturally." But there is no arrogance in his exploitation of the masters. On the contrary, talking with David Sylvester he wonders, looking at a favourite Rembrandt, why any modern should bother competing with such an image. Logically speaking, his actual connection with the old masters is tenuous: he never trained academically, after all, never drew in life-class or copied in museums. And yet his relationship with them is more profound than the staginess of his appropriations would at first allow, and more meaningful than that of most self-conscious traditionalists: experience of Bacon's work puts one in mind of great paintings of the past. I have often detected in my own response to Bacon a marked discrepancy between attitudes in the presence of actual works and memories of them. In memory, as indeed in photographic reproduction, the image out-balances its conveyance, and one thinks of the paintings in iconographic or narrative terms. Seeing an immaculately hung and judiciously selected retrospective such as the Paris/Munich show restores the extraordinary sense of design and scale, the sheer painterliness, of Francis Bacon. But still, the images come across even more strongly. His aestheticized violence, like that of Titan's Flaying of Marsyas or Rape of Lucretia, of Goya, Delacroix, of Manet's Execution of Maximillian, genuinely invokes what Bacon called "feeling in the grand sense."
(1.) A fragile work belonging to the Tate Gallery which is rarely allowed to travel, it is included in the Paris/Munich show.
(2.) The Listener, London, July 25, 1963, quoted from Art International, September 1963, p. 44.
(3.) Conducted between 1962 and 1986 and collected in a third edition as The Brutality of Fact (1987). Reviewing an earlier edition, the novelist Graham Greene reckoned that these dialogues "rank with the journals of Delacroix and the letters of Gauguin." All the quotes from Francis Bacon in this article come from the Sylvester interviews.
(4.) Donald Kuspit, Francis Bacon: The Authority of Flesh, Artforum, Summer 1975, p. 50.
(5.) From the translation by Richard Howard, New York, Knopf, 1970.
(6.) This triptych was only exhibited in Munich; the Guggenheim's Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962) was its substitute in Paris.
(7.) The painting is at Chantilly and was actually seen by Bacon (unlike the Velazquez portrait of Pope Innocent, in Rome, which he only knew from reproduction) when he was living in Chantilly as a language student in 1928. Another acknowledged source for the gaping mouth form which so fascinated him was a still from the scene of massacre on the steps from Eisenstein's movie Battleship Potemkin (1925).
The Francis Bacon retrospective appeared at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris [June 27-Oct. 14, 1996], and is currently on view at the Haus der Kunst, Munich [Nov. 4, 1996-Jan. 31, 1997]. It is accompanied by a 335-page catalogue with contributions by the exhibition's curators, David Sylvester and Fabrice Hergott, as well as Jean Louis Schefer, Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, Herve Vanel and Yves Kobry.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Brant Publications, Inc.
FRANCIS BACON by Michael Peppiatt Weidenfeld, pp. 366
By Richard Shone | The Spectator | November 9, 1996
Francis Bacon was one of the most arresting personalities in post-war Britain. Few others can hold a candle to his striking affirmation of individuality. He conferred on British art its sharpest international edge, raising its profile beyond the earthy sobriety of Moore and the genteel anxieties of Sutherland. His direct influence as a painter was always dangerous but his example as liberator and free spirit was cherished by a wide range of artists
From several, mostly recent publications, we already know a good deal about Bacon. Michael Peppiatt's biography has two advantages - he knew his subject for over 25 years and he knows something about art. Of these new books, his is the most reliable. He may not have that affinity with the gilded gutter that was Daniel Farson's trump card or the contextual sweep that upholstered Andrew Sinclair's 1993 biography, but he has laborious merits of his own. Future books on Bacon will owe him a solid debt.
From the start, Peppiatt established Bacon's extreme individuality and personal magnetism. He sifts facts from legend in the early years to achieve the most convincing portrait yet published of this dissolute, amoral, asthmatic, immensely intelligent sprig of a well-to-do, unattractive English family living in Ireland. To escape his punitive and anti-social father whose only advice to his son was 'If anyone talks to you, run and get the police', the teenage Bacon began several years of self-education in London, Berlin and Paris. A weekly allowance from his mother was supplemented by short-lived domestic jobs, thieving and the generosity of older men. In 1929 we find him established in a mews in South Kensington as a swish interior decorator specialising in modernist steel and glass furniture. He began to paint and draw, diffidently exhibiting in the 1930s and 40s works in which sensationalism and high camp contributed to his blazing images. He was nourished by selected Old Masters, by Van Gogh and Picasso, by wide reading (Peppiatt is good on the influence of Eliot, for example), by the cinema and news photographs, by his masochistic sexual preferences, and above all by his being constantly on the look-out for 'the dog beneath the skin'.
From the early 1950s which saw the screaming Popes, grimacing heads and men in claustrophobic rooms where curtains are closed and blinds down against the prying glare of orthodox morality, Bacon's professional career went from strength to strength. More feted in Europe than in the United States, he became one of the few post-war painters who inched forward the European figurative tradition in an era of triumphant abstraction. In Britain he was viewed as an isolated and subversive artist: his lines of compatibility snaking out to Giacometti and Fautrier, Picasso and de Kooning, were frequently underestimated. The ambitiousness of the true dandy and the longing for aesthetic certainties of a man obsessed by transience and nihilism came together to produce some of the unforgettable images of post-war art. Peppiatt is good on Bacon's ill-starred lovers and their effect on his life and work. Less happy are his portraits of Bacon's circle, those friends and models who were essential to his existence and to several of whom Bacon was lavishly generous. Peppiatt's long residence in Paris gives conviction to his picture of Bacon in the capital he loved, but his evocations of Soho are lacklustre, partly because his style is serviceable rather than vivid. For pertinent illustrations, much needed in a book that examines a mass of the artist's work, we must look elsewhere: they are in black and white, one is upside down and several are printed in reverse or with a triptych's panels in the wrong order. But a bonus is the painter's reported conversations with his tenacious Boswell. They are authentically Baconian in their 'exhilarated despair'.
Copyright Spectator Nov 9, 1996
High anxiety maybe - not high art
Pompidou Centre, Paris, 27 June - 14 October 1996
A Francis Bacon show in Paris is drawing crowds, but Richard Dorment is repelled by the artist's work
Richard Dorment | The Daily Telegraph | 18 July 1996
IN Study of the Human Body of 1982 Francis Bacon presents us with an image of a mutant creature composed of a man's genitals and buttocks, standing on two bare legs covered from feet to knees in cricket pads. To be frank, the picture strikes me as too silly for words. But the reason it is high camp and not high art has less to do with its subject than its composition. Bacon is giving visual form to a sexual fantasy, depicting another person not in terms of his humanity but as fragments of his body.
Since those cricket pads reek of fetishism, the painting may interest students of abnormal psychology. But artistically it is a failure. Instead of limiting the amount of space around the central motif (as Magritte or Courbet instinctively did in their tightly cropped close-ups of women's sexual organs), Bacon places the body parts on a pedestal in the middle of the canvas and surrounds them with space, asking us to regard them as objects of aesthetic contemplation, not of fetishistic fascination.
The result invites ridicule. It may be unfair to judge Bacon by a painting done 11 years before his death in 1992. For most people it is the work of the first half of his career that places him among the most important British artists of this century. But is this division between the early and later work really so acute? The occasion of the British Council's retrospective of his work at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (until October 14) gives us a chance to revise the received view by taking a long, hard look at the career as a whole.
The show has been selected and installed by Bacon's formidable advocate, the critic David Sylvester. My enormous admiration for Sylvester means that this exhibition represents the best and probably the last opportunity I will have to come to terms with an artist who has always left me cold. Before seeing it, I had always thought that Bacon's paintings perfectly captured the angst of the post-war period, but that his work did not transcend his own time in the way that, say, Pollock's has, and Jasper Johns's surely will. Having now seen the show, I wish I could say it changed my mind. But, though Bacon at his best ranks as the most gifted painter of the School of London, seen from an international perspective he is the most overrated artist since Bouguereau.
Where to begin? Technically, Bacon is such a limited painter. He found it nearly impossible to sustain the visual interest in a picture over the entire surface of a canvas, from the central motif to the edges. A face or figure may contain ravishingly painted passages, but it will typically be surrounded by vast areas of dead, flat pigment.
It isn't that Bacon didn't try, in works like the Study for a Portrait of 1953, to create space and atmosphere with modulations of light and dark, but that, having tried, he soon lost interest, and eventually gave up. In the later works he simply used a can of spray paint. As early as the Self-Portrait of 1956 it feels to me as though he was working on too large a scale - too large, that is, for a neo-Romantic artist who was no draughtsman and had no technical training. As the paintings get bigger, they flare into life only in isolated passages, usually where impastoed paint is used to evoke gobs of viscera, spattered brains and smeared bloodstains.
Another problem is Bacon himself, as we know him through his pictures. When Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was first seen by the British public in 1944, the three armless and legless torsos howling with rage or pain were seen as symbols of spiritual despair or of suffering humanity. But Bacon was not happy with that interpretation. When he returned to the subject on a much larger scale in 1988, he made changes which conveyed a much nastier message: that these were not timeless archetypes, but sado-masochistic fantasies, creatures who, in order to feel anything at all, offer their bodies to be violated and mutilated. You have to conclude that Bacon finds pain erotic. Because his paintings are so often filled with lovely colours, Bacon aestheticises physical and emotional suffering.
There are two outstanding paintings in this exhibition. The pit bull terrier in Man with Dog of 1953 is set against a nocturne of silvery blacks and blues beautifully painted with a dragged brush. Against an uptilted plane, the animal becomes as mysterious and threatening as a Cerberus guarding the entrance to the underworld, here suggested by a sewer. And the Study for Portrait of Van Gogh III of 1957 is wonderfully voluptuous, colour-saturated painting, demonstrating that Bacon might have been a de Kooning, if not a Van Gogh, if only he had not been so desperate to enter the pantheon of great artists by taking on ever more portentous subjects.
But what are we to make of the succession of enormous triptychs in which men in their underpants defecate or vomit or look as though they've just been beaten to a pulp? The answer is: quite a lot if you are a psychoanalyst treating them purely as material for interpretation. I have no objection to this approach if, as with some contemporary conceptual artists, this is how the viewer is invited to respond to the work. But to do that, you first have to set aesthetics aside. Bacon wanted his work to be judged as painting, he was asking us to see beauty in pain and death. This to me is repellent.
But what I dislike most about Francis Bacon's art is that in both earlier and later paintings he manipulates his viewers. I hate being told what to feel in front of a picture. It is like the difference between Grand Guignol and Chekhov. The first is crass and crude and admits of only one possible response: revulsion.
Real art is more complex. It allows us to bring our own thoughts and feelings to it. I just don't understand an artist who pitches the level of anxiety in all his pictures so high that it crowds out anything remotely resembling a real thought or feeling. You can do one of two things in front of an image of unadulterated horror: either you go along with it and scream, or you say "this has nothing to do with my experience". Since 4,000 people a day are pouring into the Paris show, and Bacon is one of the most revered of all British artists, I realise that his work says something to them that I just can't hear.
The Francis Bacon retrospective, organised in collaboration with the British Council, is at the Pompidou Centre in Paris until October 14. Information: 00 33 1 44 78 12 33.
Georges Pompidou Center, Paris
Ten years after London's Tate Gallery, Paris has finally given itself its own retrospective of the greatest British painter of the twentieth century. In total, 79 oils and some 7 gouaches on paper. Less exhaustive than the Pisanello show at the Louvre (which certain uninformed Parisians still insist on pronouncing "Pizzanello" as if he were some sort of pizza delivery boy), but more copious than the "Vermeer in The Hague" show which was so unrelentingly shoved down our throats this Spring, this anthology of Francis Bacon's swollen-fleshed figures, currently taking up the fifth floor of the Georges Pompidou Center until October 14, clearly constitutes THE cultural event of 1996.
The press had already sufficiently set the stage with its barrage of cliched Baconisms ("quartered thoraxes," "disemboweled intestines"). In fact, the tales of entrails and blood-stained sheets had reached such a point that some articles read more like accounts of a visit to a slaughter-house (said journalists would have done much better to remind readers that that man sitting in his glass cage was possibly none other than Eichmann, the Nazi executioner, at the time of his trial in Jerusalem). But, thanks to the loans from Marlborough Fine Arts collection and the Beyeler collection from Basel (among others), several already well-known facts were now verified: 1) the Church does not hold a monopoly on chalices, crucifixes and triptychs, 2) Bacon was certainly not Jack the Ripper, and 3) all Parisians are not equal before Painting.
For proof of this last point, one need only consider the hushed chit-chat overheard at the opening. Some only saw in the master's art a display of butchery, spasm and convulsion. Others murmured in perplexed tones the language of claustrophobia and psychological imprisonment (But who said painting had to be happy?). One person had scurrilously titled his comments in the visitors book "A Nice Slice of Bacon." And there were some who railed at the fact of their own reflections in the paintings, never considering for a moment that the constant use of identical glass framing was perhaps a deliberate choice on the part of Bacon himself, given his concern for the notion of unifying all pictorial surface. Still others had hastily gone through Gilles Deleuze's well-known (if not slightly incomprehensible) essay The Logic of Sensation before declaring to their companion just how much they liked "Bacon's use of the diagram." (!) I also saw a gentleman from City Hall discussing other things entirely with a woman from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; an adolescent who proceeded from painting to painting, facetiously counting the number of wash basins, bidets, and toilets; and another who stopped in front of one painting to consider the creamy thickness in Bacon's depiction of an extremely muscled male calf. As for me, I was quite simply hooked by the colours: after all, it wasn't all hemoglobin-red - there was also plenty of muck green.
Initially, it was the green touches of an early Tangiers landscape which seduced me (between 1956 and 1962, Bacon seems to have rented an apartment in Tangiers next door to William Burroughs, but the details are hard to pin down). Next, certain flashes of orangey-pinks, then, the crude contrast of navy blue and apple green in the superb Triptych inspired by T.S. Eliot's poem Sweeney Agonistes, 1967 (from the Smithsonian)
But ultimately, it was the later series which definitively stole my heart: their monochromatic expanses, especially of pink, occasionally interrupted by hopelessly black Venetian blinds. I loved this later pink in Two Studies of George Dyer with Dog, 1968, Lying Figure, 1969, and Studies of the Human Body, 1970. Now, suddenly, crimson erupted into these pools of pink. The floor plan in my catalogue told me we were in room D. D as in Bacon's friend Dyer. Or, as in implacable Death. Hence, the period 1971-1973, and now in front of our eyes was the Triptych, August 1972 (Tate Gallery) and the Triptych, May-June 1973 (private collection, Switzerland), surely among the most poignant and disturbing of Bacon's works. I had to turn away. And suddenly , there it was: an enormous wall of glass. At this last moment, the exhibit's first and only window. And through it, the vast, open sky and the rooftops of Paris, a chance to breathe.
On leaving the Grand Gallery, eyes still filled with the Second Version of Triptych 1944, painted in 1988, the most conscientious visitors will not miss the 13-minute film on view - a chance to see the master in his South Kensington studio, armed with his brushes, rags and spray paint. But the film shows much more than that. From this wounded man who compared himself to a cement mixer (which mixes everything, images and lived moments), precious confidences are revealed. Listen closely - they speak solemnly, reverentially, of the progressive and irreversible progression of death. And as the faces of all the now-departed friends Bacon painted marched before one's eyes - Lucian Freud (grandson of Sigmund), Henrietta Moraes, George Dyer, Isabelle Rawsthorne and John Edwards - Bacon ponders two questions: Is there a good reason to remain optimistic? And, how does one deal with Sorrow? And so, the visitor takes leave of Francis Bacon, genuinely touched, thinking how next winter, the show will be in Munich, at Christoph Vitali's Haus der Kunst, formerly the Third Reich's official temple of art. It's an appropriate nose-thumbing at dictators.
Review: Francis Bacon. Venice
Jeremy Lewison | The Burlington Magazine | Vol. 135, No. 1088 | November, 1993.
Gossip of a gay genius
The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon by Daniel Farson
John Russell Taylor on an intimate life of the late Francis Bacon
The Sunday Times, May 1993
Bacon: full of nerve and completely without nerves
There are books, and there are documents. What the world will eventually need on Francis Bacon is a book - measured, considered, carefully researched, neither spiteful nor grovelling. But not, perhaps, quite yet.
Meanwhile, a document will do very nicely. And Daniel Farson's is nothing if not a document. Thrown together from what looks like a very quick rummage through the press cuttings, and constantly maddening in its inconsistencies of date and spelling, its tendency to repeat things almost word-for-word a few pages on, it yet has the inestimable advantage of being written by a real intimate who has flung down his recollections in a white heat, if not of inspiration, then at least of eagerness to get there first.
For this immediacy it can be forgiven a lot - especially if one can regard it as a personal memoir which others later, at a more critical distance, will quarry. Too much discretion, too many second thoughts, can be a dangerous thing. And in any case, Farson seems to be remarkably without malice towards almost anybody, so that his tales of Bacon and his associates have the tone of good-natured gossip in a bar over a few drinks. Very much the circumstances in which Bacon himself was seen at best conversational advantage, indeed, through his nearest and dearest could hardly claim that his alcohol-fueled talk was always good natured.
Bacon, though oddly unwilling to discuss Ireland in any shape or form, seems to have been at times quite expansive about his Irish experiences, notably his relations with his father. According to his accounts, his father would seem to have been a sadist who thought that the best way to make a man of his cissified 'artistic' son was to let the stable staff thrash him within an inch of his life and (with some tacit consent, presumably) exact whatever sexual favours they wanted from him.
At least this makes a convenient explanation of the link between sex and violence in his life. Not that diagnoses of this kind mean very much. Bacon was, as Farson points out, "the embodiment of all that was advantageous in being homosexual", full of nerve and completely without nerves. When Lord Rothermere proved in 1990 to have forgotten who Bacon was (as well he might, after a traumatic earlier gathering under his aegis in which Bacon was the only one present to dare boo Princess Margaret's off-key rendition of "Let's Do It"), he asked the artist hopefully: "And what do you do?" Bacon blandly answered: "I'm an old poof." He had by that time turned down all possible honours up to an OM.
Naturally, everyone wants to read this tittle-tattle, while deploring the fact that anyone thinks it worth publishing. But in Bacon's case, it is, because the homosexuality, the bravado, the drink and the discipline are all central to the art of someone who was widely considered the greatest living painter after the death of Picasso.
The book also contains other, rather more alarming revelations. For instance, the tragedy hitherto tactfully glossed over, of Graham Sutherland's early married life, at just the time he was closest and most helpful to Bacon, was the birth of a child so agonisingly malformed that when it inevitably died the Sutherlands were forbidden by doctors from having another child, for fear that their clashing genes would assert themselves again the same way.
Bacon was intensely sympathetic. But we
are told that the child was "so deformed that there was little more than a
stump and a heart, no arms or legs". Sounds curiously familiar in the
imagery of Bacon's mature work? If there is any truth in the story, it was
hardly kind of bacon to revert, even unconsciously, to something so painful in
the history of a close friend. But then, maybe he thought art was more
important. Maybe, in this case, it was.
Francis Bacon and Daniel Farson in 1987 © Terence Pepper
HIS VIEW of life could hardly be harsher. He did not believe in
God, in morality, in love or in worldly success - only in 'the sensation of the
moment'. Francis Bacon, above all, conveyed 20th-century man in his various
states of loneliness.
To understand the man it is necessary to accept that he was
contradictory. He was a loner, though he relished company. His work is seen as
pessimistic, yet he had an innate optimism which helped him to survive. He was
the best company, the funniest and most humorous. He could be kind and generous,
as I knew from experience, yet capable of sudden anger, even petulance. He
betrayed many of his close friends, especially if they were rival artists, and
some did not forgive him. He was totally amoral.
He was born in 1909 in Dublin, of English parents, and was
brought up in considerable luxury and style. His father had been a major in the
British Army who moved to Ireland. Later he moved to train horses in Co Kildare,
to a comfortable house with outbuildings and stables, ideal for a child who was
fond of horses and hunting. Francis liked neither and he detested the
countryside for the rest of his life.
The only attempt his parents made to give him a formal education
was to send him to Dean Close School in Cheltenham but he stayed there for just
a few months. Partly because of his asthma, his education amounted to little
more than private tutorials with the parish priest. 'I had no upbringing at
all,' he once said. 'I used simply to work on my father's farm.' His closest
companion was his nanny.
How Irish was he? Lord Gowrie, the former arts minister,
understood his background - they shared the same roots. Gowrie told me that
Francis was not an 'Irish painter', although he was in many respects Irish and
his memories of Ireland had a traumatic effect upon him. Bacon himself said in
an interview: 'I grew up at a time when the Sinn Fein was going around. All the
houses in our neighbourhood were being attacked. I'll always remember my father
saying: 'If they come tonight, say nothing.' ' He has said: 'I was made aware of
danger at a very young age.'
Lady Caroline Blackwood, who was married to Lucian Freud and is a
member of the Guinness family, was very conscious of his horror for Ireland: 'He
had the intellectual Irishman's traditional dislike of Catholicism. The popes
that he painted were all screaming and distorted. Some of them were sitting on
the lavatory. Although he stubbornly denied that he had been influenced by his
Irish upbringing, the desolation of his vision was very similar to that of
Homosexuality was his nature and he had the strength not to wish
it otherwise. When he was 18, his father made a final attempt to 'make a man' of
his son by placing him in the custody of a friend of his: a tough,
no-nonsense-seeming horse trainer, but he turned out not to be what he seemed.
He was a man with a taste for decadence. 'We settled in Berlin for a time,' said
Francis, 'it must have been 1926 and by way of education I found myself in the
atmosphere of the Blue Angel.'
They stayed at the Adlon Hotel, where Francis enjoyed the luxury
of breakfast in their double bed, served by an unperturbed German waiter.
When he returned to London in the late Twenties, after a brief
sojourn in Paris, he embarked on furniture design, but in 1933 he abandoned that
to concentrate on painting. His picture Crucifixion was that year
included in Art Now by Herbert Read.
This was a sensational start, considering he was untrained and no more than 23
Francis had a deplorable war. When he received his call-up
papers, he hired an alsatian dog from Harrods and slept beside it in order to
aggravate his asthma. When he reported for his medical the next morning, he was
granted an immediate exemption and the unfortunate animal was returned to
Harrods - or so one hopes.
Instead of fighting, he stalked the 'sexual gymnasium of the
city', as he described the streets of London. No one gave a damn as to who did
what to whom, and the darkness of the blackout provided convenient cover as you
went in search of trade. Asked later if he liked rough trade, Francis said:
'Yes, and married men, too.'
The writer and painter Michael Wishart gave this account of
seeing him make up one evening in those years: 'He applied the basic foundation
with lightning dexterity borne of long practice. He was more careful, even
sparing, with the rouge. For his hair he had a selection of Kiwi boot polishes
in various browns. He blended them on the back of his hand, selecting a tone
appropriate for the particular evening, and brushed them into his abundant hair
with a shoe brush. He polished his teeth with Vim.'
Throughout the war, when he refused to exhibit - although it is
doubtful if many opportunities arose - he survived by gambling.
The Colony Room was a smallish room with a faded air at the top
of some shabby stairs in Dean Street in Soho, central London. It was a place
where you could drink in the afternoons after the pubs had closed. Owned by a
remarkable woman called Muriel Belcher, it was also known as Muriel's. Bacon
came to love her and the place and was a habitue for more or less the last 40
years of his life. 'It is a place,' he told me, 'where you can lose your
inhibitions. It's different from anywhere else.' Actually, he had no inhibitions
Though she enjoyed her members' success, Muriel had not the
slightest interest in art. This was all to the good. Generally the last thing
artists wish to talk about is art, and at Muriel's they gossiped about the
things that really mattered - sex, drink, scandal and daydreams. Though Francis
was unknown to the public 40 years ago, he was revered by his contemporaries,
especially the small group that met at the Colony Room and became known as the
'School of London' or, better still, 'Muriel's Boys'. They included Lucian
Freud, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach and Tim Behrens.
At Muriel's, as at Wheeler's, his favourite restaurant, Francis
always signed the bill. He would wave his bottle of champagne, slopping it into
the glasses of those around him, spilling much of it on the floor, with the
Edwardian toast: 'Real pain for your sham friends, champagne from your real
friends', a habit he had acquired from his father.
But Francis was never wholly relaxed, even at Muriel's. It was a
long time before I realised that, when he wandered off to the lavatory with his
glass in his hand as if he could not bear to part with it, he threw the contents
away; he drank less while filling the glasses of those around him.
He could be very nasty. An artist - I think he came from Trinidad
- came into the Colony one afternoon to present the club with his latest
painting, which was still wet. This generous gesture was accepted politely until
Francis made his entrance. He shook his bottle of champagne, aiming it at the
picture, whose colours dissolved into an even more frightful mess than it was in
the first place.
But he could also be very gracious. One afternoon an art student
navely showed him a leaflet he had produced. Francis asked if he could buy a
copy, adding that he would be grateful if the young man would sign it for him.
Francis made his day, as he had destroyed the Trinidadian's.
FRANCIS'S discipline was extraordinary. In the early Fifties he
worked from 6am with fierce concentration. He told me that drink and the
after-effects forced him to concentrate on his painting and at times it gave him
'a sort of freedom'. It was hard to imagine him asleep, indeed he could not have
slept much. I have seen him on mornings when he was grey and nearly sightless
from fatigue after drinking and gambling through the night, but a few hours
later he would reappear totally refreshed.
His output was consistent. The years 1951 to 1962, when he was
raging around Soho, were also the period of his artistic ascendancy. If we
compare his Three Studies for the Base of a Crucifixion, the painting
with which he burst on to the scene in 1945, with the masterpieces of his Soho
period (that is to say the popes, the remarkable painting Man with Dog,
his series on Van Gogh, the astonishing Two Figures, also called 'The
Wrestlers' and 'The Buggers', Miss Muriel Belcher, the Paralytic Child
Walking on All Fours, and the blood-spattered Three Studies for a
Crucifixion of 1962, completed while he was drunk), they confirm his
formidable development in a comparatively short time.
In 1974 he met John Edwards and formed a friendship that would go
on for the rest of his life and be a happy contrast to an emotional life which
had been often turbulent and punctuated with untimely deaths. They met through
John's elder brother David, the licensee of The Swan in Stratford East, who was
a frequent visitor to the Colony and good friends with Muriel. 'My brother used
to say Francis Bacon would be coming to The Swan with Muriel. She would tell us
to get champagne every week - and Francis Bacon would never turn up. We were
always stuck with the champagne because in those days people did not drink
champagne in the East End.'
One day John was taken to the Colony and when he was introduced
to Bacon he said: 'Why don't you turn up when you are supposed to for all this
Francis was amused and invited him to Wheeler's. From that day
they were friends. Ian Board ran the Colony with Muriel and eventually took it
over. He remembers: 'John was hypnotised. Francis told him: 'You don't want an
old boiler like me', but Francis was a great seducer and, to him, John appeared
to be a tough East Ender.'
'To my amazement,' says John, 'when I walked into his studio
about two months later, there was a picture he had painted of me. I never sat
for him. He was marvellous company, good fun and a great drinking companion. I
saw him every day.'
For an East End boy who could neither read nor write, it was an
extraordinary transition. Yet he had such self-assurance that Francis didn't
have to explain him to anyone. David Edwards says Francis liked John because he
told him exactly what he thought. Most people just bowed down to Francis; John
stood up to him.
Ian Board remembers asking Francis: 'Are you in love with him?'
'Oh no, dear, fond of him.'
'Then it became 'very fond of him'. Actually, he was riddled with
It had nothing to do with sex. John told me that they shared a
bed once after Francis passed out from drink and that was as far as it had gone.
What was important was that John was lively, young and streetwise, and of a
happy disposition, a welcome change for Francis.
By the time he reached 80, Bacon had been one of the world's most
famous artists for two decades, but he had time for some of the people who had
need of him. When Sonia Orwell (George's widow) was dying of cancer, he went to
the trouble of renting an attractive room for her in a hotel near the hospital,
and every evening when she returned from treatment she found champagne and
flowers waiting for her. He was also scrupulous in remembering people who might
have been forgotten, such as his childhood nurse. 'He remained strangely loyal,'
says Ian Board, 'it was one of his surprising characteristics. I'd meet him and
it was either 'I've just been to see the old girl', or 'I'm just going to visit
His stamina and powers of recovery were remarkable. Illness and
accidents were ignored. He was so pissed one afternoon that, going upstairs to
the Colony, he slipped and one of the metal strips hit the right side of his eye
and put it half out. He just pushed it back in again. After an exhausting day's
filming for The South Bank Show, Francis got Melvyn Bragg drunk in Mario's
restaurant. And, when they continued filming in the Colony next morning, Michael
Wojas, the barman, says he can't forget the look on Bragg's face when he saw
Francis already sparkling at 11am, having been there for an hour already. Bragg
sent out for black coffee; Francis continued on champagne.
'Francis saw him coming,' says Ian Board.
'Did he get Bragg drunk deliberately?' I asked.
'Oh yes. He made a particular point of topping up the drink.'
'To get the edge?' said Michael.
'To show what idiots they are,' said Ian, with a snort.
With a final flourish and sleight of hand, Francis Bacon died on
the morning of 28 April 1992 in Madrid. He was 82. This was what he had hoped
for: no fuss, no discovery of his body in an empty room a day or two later, not
even a funeral. It was not so much a death as a disappearance.
In his way he was triumphant to the end. He treated death just as
he had treated life. His whole estate went to John Edwards: pounds 11,370,244.
His friends were shocked by the news of his death, though at the
age of 82 death was hardly a cause for surprise. In Soho there was almost
revelry. Members climbed the dingy stairs to the Colony Room. 'It's been
electrifying,' Ian Board told me. 'The worms crawled out of their holes - I
thought many of them were dead - but the extraordinary thing is that the younger
generation came in full fucking bloom.'
My own sense of loss overwhelmed me for a few days but one letter
I received gave me particular pleasure, for it came from David Sylvester,
Britain's most distinguished art critic and one of Bacon's closest friends:
'Since he died, I've not thought about him as a painter. I've only thought about
the qualities that have long made me feel he was probably the greatest man I've
ever known, and certainly the grandest. His honesty with himself and about
himself; his constant sense of the tragic and the comic; his appetite for
pleasure; his fastidiousness; his generosity, not only with money - that was
easy - but with his time; above all, I think, his courage. He had faults which
could be maddening, such as being waspish and bigoted and fairly disloyal, as
well as indiscreet. But he
was also kind and forgiving and unspoilt by success and never
The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon by Daniel Farson is published by Century at pounds 17.99.
DANIEL FARSON met Francis Bacon in 1951 when he, Farson, was a young and pretty photographer and Bacon was just beginning to be known. Farson was, he admits, 'a celebrity snob' and a very willing recipient of Bacon's unquenchable generosity. Thereafter they whiled away many happy hours in Soho, and it is this slice of Bacon that Farson so brilliantly captures - the champagne lunches at Wheeler's (Bacon always paid), the drunken afternoons at Muriel's, the rent-boy pick-ups, the squabbles in the French pub, the outrageous scenes at parties, the drinking rituals and Bacon's quaint Edwardian benediction: 'Real pain for your sham friends, champagne for your real friends]'
Although their friendship deteriorated in later years - Bacon may have feared, with some justice, that Farson was exploiting him - they remained in touch and Farson writes movingly and gratefully of Bacon's many kindnesses, not least the ready cheques that helped him through lean times. In fact, he says, the greatest mistake he ever made was paying one of these cheques back and confiding to Bacon's lover, John Edwards, that he had done it from the advance on this book: Bacon didn't like to be paid back anyway, and he dreaded biographies - once or twice, in his cups, he gave Farson permission, but always withdrew it later.
Still, I think he has been well served by this book. It will certainly be the first of many biographies, and perhaps the slightest, but it preserves precisely the aspects of Bacon that will be hardest for scholarly researchers to capture. And although Farson rightly concentrates on what he knew at first hand - Bacon's Soho social life - he casts some interesting sidelights on the work, especially the revelation that in the late 1930s, when Bacon always claimed to be doing nothing, he was actually turning out dozens of drawings a day and painting, according to a lodger who shared his house, leafy Post- Impressionist landscapes - extraordinary if true. Farson knew many of Bacon's models - Muriel Belcher, of course, George Dyer, Isabel Rawsthorne and John Edwards (who became his heir) - and describes them in memorable vignettes. He traces the rise and fall of his relationships with fellow artists Graham Sutherland and Lucian Freud, and his lasting admiration for Giacometti.
Farson is good on Bacon's sex life, too. Knowing many of Bacon's boyfriends, he recognised his taste in pick-ups - 'masculine in suits' - and understood the intrinsic dilemma of being a masochist shopping for sadists. He says, interestingly, that paying for sex was Bacon's way of alleviating his guilt about being homosexual. He records Bacon's reply when asked what he would like to have been if not an artist - 'a mother]' - and makes a conscientious stab at trying to illuminate his childhood: the loveless parents, the choleric and drunken father, the doting nanny, the asthma attacks, the sense of gloom and violence that pervaded their various Irish homes. Bacon told Farson that he had enjoyed frequent orgies with his father's grooms; he told another friend that his father encouraged the grooms to horsewhip him.
Francis Bacon's painting has been characterized as accentuating a latent state of things, as writing (in many works we see a character seated on a stool), as frozen action, petrified in those images of water jets or in the use of small red, black, or white arrows. Despite this dynamism and impulsive vitality, the configuration of closed spaces, prevails in Bacon's works. Precisely on this stage of inner doors, ordered like an oppressive huis clos, Bacon establishes a web of sensitive relations that visually mark the limits of pictorial space. It is a question of a net formed with permanent indicators: the electric cable of a light bulb; straight or curved lines that make a box; arrows; circles that surround the isolated figures; paintings within the paintings; paper left on the ground.
This exhibition was drawn from the paintings of the last decade. Nine of them displayed a certain calm, a serene quiet. We were not standing before a series of images surprising in their novelty (something that did not seem to worry him), rather, in these last works, Bacon offers quietude and contemplation.
It would be easy and simplistic to read these works as an omen of death. There are no echoes of decadence nor forced signs of decrepitude that allude to his end. Bacon does not permit a teleological reading, rather, his works are filled with historicity. He was no stranger to the chaos of World War II, for example, nor to personal pain due to the death of his friend George Dyer, as exemplified in his series of triptychs, Triptych. August., 1972, Triptych. May-June., 1973, Triptych. March., 1974. The horror, the abjection that oozed from the crucifixes has been transformed in his last paintings into quiet solitude. The masculine bodies entwined in a carnal embrace have given way to the solitary figure leaning over the washbasin, standing firm on the smooth ground, neutral, bald-headed, his convex back deformed, his testicles contracted in a fold.
Bacon's concept of space has not been modified: the same sparse, even walls of horizontals and verticals and a similar chromatic treatment characterize these late works. The confined space in which his figures move or their apparent immobility are no more asphyxiating than in previous periods. Even in works like Study for Self-Portrait, 1981, a mocking smile begins to be seen on the face split in two.
Conscious of the deterioration that time and experience leave on bodies, Bacon does not hide the wear and tear left by the years--above all the marks on the face, the wrinkles, the thinning hair--in his self-portraits. Folding back into himself, his gaze explores the pulse of life, the internal fissure. He is not interested in the immediate contour that envelops his figures; the gaze is not fixed on the objects. The simple, spare atmosphere of the rooms indicates this, contradicting the golden, lustrous frames in a ridiculous even absurd manner. In a statement to Richard Cork, Bacon declared: "I used to think of making dozens of things that I have never made. Our energy fluctuates and there is never enough time. Since time passes so quickly, one can never speak in definitive terms, one can never plan the future. It simply happens ... suddenly. Everything else seems superfluous."
I first became aware of Francis Bacon shortly after World War II. I was then eighteen, and I was invited to a formal London ball given by Lady Rothermere, who was later to become Mrs. Ian Fleming. Princess Margaret was among the guests and could immediately be seen on the parquet floor wearing a crinoline and being worshiped by her adoring set who were known at the time as "the Smarties." She was revered and considered glamorous because she was the one "Royal" who was accessible. Princess Margaret smoked, and she drank, and she flirted. She went to nightclubs and she loved show business and popular music.
As a guest Princess Margaret used to send out confusing signals. At times she seemed to ask to be treated as an ordinary racy young girl. But her conception of "ordinariness" sometimes made her behave in a manner that embarrassed rather than reassured those who entertained her. In order to put them at their ease so that they could forget that they had a royal figure at their table, she would pick up strings of tomato-pasted spaghetti from her plate and make loud sucking noises as she ate them with her hands. However, because she had emerged from the insulated capsule of her regal upbringing with ideas of "normality" that were askew, Princess Margaret inspired fear among her contemporaries. She encouraged familiarity and then, without warning, drew herself up to her full, small height and administered chilling snubs in which she reminded the socially inept that they had offended the daughter of the King of England.
Toward the end of the ball given by Lady Rothermere, after much champagne had been consumed, Princess Margaret seemed to be seized by a heady desire to show off. She grabbed the microphone from the startled singer of the band and she instructed them to play songs by Cole Porter. All the guests who had been waltzing under the vast chandeliers instantly stopped dancing. They stood like Buckingham Palace sentries called to attention in order to watch the royal performance.
Princess Margaret knew the Cole Porter lyrics by heart but she sang all his songs hopelessly off-key. She was given unfair encouragement by the reaction of her audience. All the ladies heavy-laden with jewellery, all the gentlemen penguin-like in their white ties and perfect black tails clapped for her. They shouted and they roared, and they asked for more.
Princess Margaret became a little manic at receiving such approval of her musical abilities, and she started wriggling around in her crinoline and tiara as she tried to mimic the sexual movements of the professional entertainer. Her dress with its petticoats bolstered by the wooden hoops that ballooned her skirts was unsuitable for the slinky act but all the rapturous applause seemed to make her forget this. Just when she had embarked on a rendering of "Let's Do It," a very menacing and unexpected sound came from the back of the crowded ballroom. It grew louder and louder until it eclipsed Princess Margaret's singing. It was the sound of jeering and hissing, of prolonged and thunderous booing.
Princess Margaret faltered in mid-lyric. Mortification turned her face scarlet and then it went ashen. Because she looked close to tears, her smallness of stature suddenly made her look rather pitiful. She abandoned the microphone and a phalanx of flustered ladies-in-waiting rushed her out of the ballroom. The band stopped playing because they felt it was unseemly to continue in the face of this unprecedented situation. There was a buzzing of furious whispers as Lady Rothermere's guests started to take in what they had witnessed.
"Who did that?" I asked the nearest white-tied and black-tailed man who happened to be standing next to me. His face was already red but rage made it look apoplectic. "It was that dreadful man, Francis Bacon," he said. "He calls himself a painter but he does the most frightful paintings. I just don't understand how a creature like him was allowed to get in here. It's really quite disgraceful."
Later when I was married to Lucian Freud and I got to know Francis he once referred to this incident, which caused a scandal.
"Her singing was really too awful," he said. "Someone had to stop her. I don't think people should perform if they can't do it properly."
Francis had an anarchic fearlessness which was unique. I can think of no one else who would have dared to boo a member of the Royal family in a private house. Among all the guests assembled in Lady Rothermere's ballroom, more than a few were secretly suffering from Princess Margaret's singing, but they suffered in silence, gagged by their snobbery. Francis could not be gagged. If he found a performance shoddy no conventional trepidation prevented him from expressing his reactions. Sometimes his opinions could be biased and perverse and unfair, but he never cared if they created outrage.
He could be fearlessly outspoken and crushing if provoked. I remember him being pestered in a bar by a very bad and irritating artist who was trying to make him come to his studio to look at his work. The artist said that he had the feeling that Francis only refused to come and look at his paintings because they threatened him. Francis replied that he didn't feel in the least threatened by the man's paintings.
"I don't want to come to your studio because I've seen your tie."
This same quality of fearlessness manifested itself in his work. The critics who found his painting obscene and ugly did not intimidate him. With big and masterful brush strokes he continued to stamp his canvases with the bleak but beautiful images that expressed his darkly Irish, pessimistic, and extremely personal vision.
There was also a fearlessness in his attitude to money, a wildness in his reckless generosity. When I first got to know him in Soho he was forty and he had not yet found any gallery prepared to give him a show because his work was considered too off-putting. Francis was broke at that time but somehow, mysteriously, he still managed to pay for rounds of drinks and he kept the champagne flowing. Later when he became world-famous and very rich there was no basic change in his behaviour. He continued to keep the champagne flowing, the only difference was that he filled his friends' glasses with champagne of a very much higher quality.
His generosity like his fearlessness was infectious. Extremely stingy and mean-fisted people who hated to pay for others would suddenly and amazingly offer to pay for a round of drinks while they were in his company. He could always shame the miserly.
In the Fifties, I remember Francis joining Lucian and me for dinner in his favourite fish restaurant, Wheelers, in Soho. The owner was perceptive and he allowed him to eat and drink there in return for his paintings, which were still spurned by the art world. Francis arrived late because he'd just been to the doctor. He came rolling in with the confident walk of a pirate making adjustments to the slope of the wind-tilted deck. As usual his round cheeks made him look cherubic, but his eyes were far more intelligent than those of the average cherub.
He said that his doctor had just told him that his heart was in tatters. Not a ventricle was functioning. His doctor had rarely seen such a hopeless and diseased organ. Francis had been warned that if he had one more drink or even allowed himself to become excited, his useless heart would fail and he would die.
Having told us the bad news he waved to the waiter and ordered a bottle of champagne, and once we had finished it he went to order a succession of new bottles. He was ebullient throughout the evening but Lucian and I went home feeling very depressed. He seemed doomed. We were convinced he was going to die, aged forty. We took the doctor's diagnosis seriously. No one was ever going to stop him from drinking. No one would ever prevent him from becoming excited. We even wondered that night if we would ever see him again. But he lived to be eighty-two. His attitude toward doctors and death was disdainful. They didn't frighten him. In his way, he jeered at them just as he jeered at the bad singing of Princess Margaret.
A younger British painter, Michael Wishart, once said to me that he thought that Francis had two major ambitions. He wanted to be one of the world's best painters and he wanted to be one of the world's leading alcoholics. Whereas most people discovered that these two ambitions were contradictory and self-defeating he felt that Francis had pulled them both off.
There was an "Irishness" in Bacon's temperament, although he vehemently denied it, having experienced his childhood in Ireland as traumatically painful. He found it impossible to return to Ireland although he loved its countryside. He developed a neurotic attack of asthma on the plane whenever he tried to get there. He could fly to any country in the world without physical mishap, but any flight to his homeland always proved disastrous.
"My father was a horse trainer," I remember him saying to me with a shudder. "A failed horse trainer," and he stressed the word "failed" with such disgust and anger that he made his father's occupation sound utterly repulsive. 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. His parents were very soon made to realize that he was never going to be the son they had wanted.
"Surely there's nothing worse," Francis once said to me, "than the dusty saddle lying in the hall."
Coming from Ireland myself, I sometimes tried to make him tell me more about his unlikely and horsey Irish upbringing. I wanted him to go on, I longed to hear more about his loathing of the awful dusty saddles that symbolically litter the Irish hall. But 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. I always stopped my questioning because it seemed cruel and tactless to upset him. I was told by a homosexual friend of Francis's that he'd once admitted that his father, the dreaded and failed horse trainer, had arranged that his small son spend his childhood being systematically and viciously horsewhipped by his Irish grooms.
But with all his horror of Ireland he had the intellectual Irishman's traditional dislike of Catholicism. The Popes that he painted were all screaming and distorted. Some of them were sitting on the lavatory. Although he stubbornly denied that he had been influenced by his Irish upbringing, the desolation of his vision was very similar to that of Beckett.
There was nothing tragic or untimely about his end, although his gallantry, his fearlessness, and his exuberance made one feel he could last drinking champagne forever. Fascinated by the inevitability of human physical decay, Francis, himself, never believed that he would last forever for one moment.
THE FIRST major painting by Francis Bacon to come up for auction since the modern master's death in April will be offered by Sotheby's in December.
The estimate of more than pounds 1m for Study of a Nude with Figure in a Mirror takes into account both the way that prices for a major artist's work are affected after his or her death and the slump in the art market. In 1990 a comparable picture sold for dollars 3.3m in New York.The painting, which depicts a reclining naked woman and one of Bacon's 'spectator' figures, is from a group he painted in the Sixties. It has been consigned by a private European collector.
Why Bacon was driven to destruction
Dalya Alberge | The Independent | 1992
Francis Bacon twice destroyed sackfuls of archival material about himself. The disclosure comes days after the death of the man widely considered the greatest British artists since Turner.
While the art world speculates about who might inherit the fortune of the painter whose work sold for millions, news that even a little archival material is forever lost will be a blow to art historians.
According to a friend, Bacon destroyed the material some years ago, after receiving a letter from what he considered "an officious person" in the Tate Gallery's archive. The archivist had asked him to send the Tate the source material relating to his paintings.
Bacon was so disgusted by the apparently arrogant tone of the "bureaucratic" letter that, according to the friend, he gathered up the papers - much of it photographic material from which he liked to work - and destroyed them, perhaps by burning.
Some two years later, the same archivist is said to have dispatched another letter, repeating the request. Bacon found some more suitable material, and, once again, got rid of the lot. The archivist was never told. As Bacon's friend explains: "Francis didn't like to be subjected to harassment, and disliked high-handed people." His actions were not directed against the Tate Gallery, to which he was well-disposed. Last year he gave it one of his triptychs and when two other major galleries clamoured to give him an exhibition, he chose to have it in the Tate.
A Bacon sold for £3.5m in 1989, making him the most expensive British living artist. That his work sold for such prices has led many to speculate about bacon's wealth. However, artists do not necessarily get what their works make in the salerooms. Back in the Fifties, the price for a Bacon was just £300, of which the artists received £50. It took six years from 1946 to persuade a public collection to accept one of his works, Study for the Magdalene: it had been a gift, to any museum that wanted it, from the Contemporary Art Society, the art charity. It hangs at Batley Art Gallery.
He was generous to friends and enjoyed encouraging young artists by buying their work.
No one quite knows who might stand to benefit from the Bacon inheritance, though many have been giving the impression that they do know.
In the past he had given generously to cancer research. While many believe that there are no paintings in the Bacon inheritance, one of his former friends was reported to be claiming that Bacon's paint-splattered studio door, which the artist used as a palette for trying out colours, belonged to him.
Just a pile of paint and a nightmare of chic thrills
Michael McNay takes a dissenting view of a 'genius'
Michael McNay | The Guardian Weekend | 2-3 May, 1992
All the world loves a picture. A picture with a story is even better. Ulysses Deridibg Polyphenus before Symphony in Grey and Black; The Last of England or the Hireling Shepherd before Dedham Vale. Better still - halcyon days of the Royal Academy when Munnings ruled and God was his heaven? - the puzzle pictures, a canvas that hinted at a story but which left the viewer guessing.
Francis Bacon bestrides this honourable tradition. Pictures, no paintings. Best of all, English narrative pictures. One must be careful here: he is of course "painterly" picture maker. His legions of admirers say so. Many of his admirers are painters themselves', some very good painters; though Bacon himself, we keep hearing, was the greatest living artist, the best British artist since Turner. But Bacon's paint is in the service of pictorial effect. The surface itself should not be scrutinised too carefully. Too often in doesn't describe what it purports to be describing. Bacon can't paint a foot or an ear or a hand. Some of the curves he used to describe physical forms are so slack they would have got him fired from a Disney workshop.
So Bacon smudged and threw paint and turned forms back in on themselves and disrupted their logic, instinctively hiding his own deficiencies. These smears of paint describing swollen and distended shapes, especially in the portrait, seize attention and distract the eye from what lies between. Which is nothing.
Nothing will come of nothing. And Bacon's nothing isn't even a black hole, it is a break down in communication. The painting stops dead between the smears of pigment. There is nothing there because it hasn't been described or constructed or placed.
Bacon lived the life of Riley, but despite the boozing and gambling and promiscuity he lived to a fine old age. That style of life must have made him sense that he was a man in a hurry, and he worked obsessively. But unlike Picasso painting in a hurry in his last days, Bacon's talent was not underpinned by training. He gambled and quite often won. Often, too, he lost, and because he had a painter's eye he could pick the losers.
This is no secret. Bacon groupies who fill the columns of the art press and who have been taking up radio time since the artist's death have described with suppressed excitement the way Bacon destroyed work that dissatisfied him, cut the heads out of portraits and left the canvases with gapping holes. They are like Nosey in Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth, stuttering excitement over every manifestation of the painter's genius, even the recognition of failure. Bacon himself was quite open about his methods.
His conversations with David Sylvester, published in the 1970s, are quite explicit. Bacon worked fast, and with a lot of paint, pushing it around the surface, waiting for the controlled accident to erupt. It it got out of hand, there was no going back. The canvas had to be abandoned.
The process, an eruption, sounds unpleasant, and it was; because the secret of bacon's successful work was the paint, like a gigantic eructation of pus. The Grand Guignol apparatus of screaming heads, the sides of raw meat, the smeared visages underpinned this visceral sense of horror. Bacon was the last and most extreme of the line of painters who followed van Gogh. But Bacon was self-taught, and unlike Van Gogh, never overcame his technical deficiencies. He borrowed motifs, fair enough, but imposed sketchily realised pictorial devices, like the frame crudely articulated to impose some sense of control over the central images sprawling like something from under a stone.
Given the shortcomings of imagination and technique, Bacon's success is singular. He caught a nerve, as Bryan Robertson put it in his Guardian tribute. The risk taking, the throw of the dice that characterised his encounter with the canvas, had its own excitement.
The nastiness of the images, the grandeur of the nightmare as some would have it, help to assuage a western civilisation that can't cope with its own darker compulsions. A bad dream by Bacon is the ultimate adjunct to any truly-chic boardroom. Which is why the front page of the Times was able to report: "The first test of the value of his works, which are (sic) certain to rise following his death, will come at a Christie's sale in London on July 2." As Wilde would have said, there's a reporter who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. No doubt the market will bear him out. But as for being the "best living painter", Bacon wasn't even the best painter living in North London.
The Horror of Francis Bacon
The Economist, May 1992
THE trauma of our age, after Auschwitz, after Hiroshima, haunts so many of his pictures. Francis Bacon, who died aged 82 on April 28th, was the greatest British painter since Turner but also something more. His works, like Picasso's, have left their mark on everyman, not just the art public. He nearly always painted the human face and figure, stripped bare of civilised niceties, set against backgrounds of stark colour and a terrifying clinical vacancy. "I hate a homely atmosphere," he once said, and there is nothing cosy or illustrative about his figures.
BACON & MESSIAEN: GIANTS OF THE ARTS
Two giants of the arts in the latter half of the 20th century died Monday. They were both modernists. One was a painter and the other a composer. The work of each was radical and even controversial, but both were thoroughly contemporary
The painter was Francis Bacon, a strange, shy, almost reclusive, little man who was perhaps Britain's greatest painter since Turner. His subjects were often grotesque, as were parts of his life. He twisted and reshaped the human form to tear off its mask. His colours and his use of paint were rich, warm and vibrant. There was no mistaking a Bacon painting, no matter how unsettling it might be. Life screamed and oozed from his canvases
The composer was Olivier Messiaen. He was French, and his music was both lyrical and repetitive. He was inspired by nature's beauty - he quoted the songs of more than 250 species of birds in his classical compositions - and by Roman Catholic mysticism.
His work was often difficult for the ear to assess. It was new, different. Where was it headed; what did it mean? He was a modernist, but not a mimimalist. Messiaen, who was 83 at his death, once said, 'When I hear music, I see colours, not through my eyes, but through my intellect.'
Bacon, who died at the age of 82, came from humble, rough-and-tumble beginnings. He was virtually self-taught as a painter, and he stuck to the human form. Some thought his paintings 'dreadful,' as Margaret Thatcher once put it, but Bacon said, 'I've no story to tell. ... You can't be more horrific than life itself.'
New art, whether music, painting or dance, is not always appreciated at
first. Not all of it deserves to be. Stravinsky was booed; Picasso
derided. We now know them as masters. Their work is part of the culture.
Bacon and Messiaen followed them in their own way. They gave us new ways
to see and to hear, and they deserve our thanks for that.
Francis Bacon, Master of Despair
At 80, the artist would seem to belong to another era; why do his paintings still take us off guard?
WILLIAM WILSON | LOS ANGELES TIMES | FEBRUARY 11, 1990
In the mid-1950s, a UCLA exhibition included a new British artist, Francis Bacon. He was represented by Study After Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Awed faculty dragged their budding-genius students down to have a look. It wasn't surprising that the kids had never seen anything quite like it, but neither had grizzled art teachers, who had seen a good bit.
The sinister, crafty Pope was pictured suddenly screaming. That seemed significant enough, but the painting's technique was even more striking--the Pope appeared flickeringly through vertical, thinly applied striations that suddenly gave way to the crazy, free-brushed drapery of his gown and then firmed up to an illusive but deftly realized rendering of his face and purple cap. The image seemed less seen than hallucinated.
Anti-Establishment beatniks roamed the campus in those days wearing black, drinking espresso and acting cool. Cool was the colloquialization of Alienation. Everybody was still learning about the Holocaust, Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism; Giacometti and Dubuffet; Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter. Smart people were learning that the Second World War had rendered the world Absurd.
In that ambiance, Francis Bacon had a certain inevitability. Besides, it looked to conservative artists as if this was the guy who would give new meaning to figurative painting in an era dominated by abstraction. Even among the Abstract Expressionists, there was a lot of talk that dribble-and-splash painting was washed up.
Now, some 35 years later, Samuel Beckett has recently died and the County Museum of Art presents a 58-work survey of Bacon's oeuvre --the first in the United States in some 25 years. The occasion marks the 80th birthday of the artist who has been called the world's greatest living figurative painter. Notable parallels exist between Beckett and Bacon. Both were born in Ireland but moved away--the playwright to Paris, the painter to London. Although Bacon is technically English, he joins Joyce, Beckett and Camus as either real or philosophical exiles. All startled and shocked the world with radical, disturbing art. By now, Bacon would seem to belong to a past era and thus in a neutral chronological slot where his work can be sorted into the bin marked Modern Classic or that labeled Period Piece.
Things about Bacon's art invite dismissal. Formalists like to kiss him off as little more than a juiced-up version of Picasso in his surrealist period. The art often seems overly theatrical, calculating its effects like the curtain-line in Pinter's The Caretaker when - after a long silence - a character blurts out, "What's the game?"
Bacon's work is increasingly full of empty, flat spaces punctuated by dramatically placed scumbles of figures. A recent diptych of studies from the human body is little more than a series of stagey red rectangles and risers bearing grotesque mutations of torsos. It's all about effect and we remember that Bacon started his career as a decorator and designer.
His art is intensely mannered and has changed only in nuance over the decades. His stylization invites impersonation and has affected a long string of artists from the now half-forgotten James Gill to Bay Area Figurative Art in general and Ron Kitaj, David Hockney and recent James Dine in particular. Bacon's mannerism leaves observers with the impression that he has made a career of impersonating himself. This effect is heightened by the character of the art. It seems fair to ask how anyone as immensely successful - and presumably wealthy - as Bacon can go on making art about despair.
The quick answer to that is that the rich and famous are not necessarily content and Bacon has been strange and haunted all his life--an out-patient recluse, compulsive gambler, serious boozer and a homosexual of sometimes self-destructive bent. Also - when so inclined - almost predictably viciously witty and charming.
Given all this, one approaches the retrospective ready to snicker. At first, the once-haunting Pope looks like the payoff of a Monty Python skit where mouse has just run up the pontiff's skirt. The snarling succubus in the 1950 Fragment for a Crucifixion has long since been made cuddly as E.T. Looking at a Bacon portrait where the skin of a face is peeling off, we think of a spy in Mission: Impossible pulling off the mask of a latex disguise. A study for a portrait of Van Gogh trudging the road begs for some such caption as, "Pardon me, madame, can you direct me to Arles?"
The World According To Francis Bacon
After 50 Years As An Artist, Bacon's Credo Remains The Same: Realism Pushed To The Edge
By Alan G. Artner, Art critic | Chicago Tribune | October 29, 1989
Eighteen years ago, an international poll of curators and museum directors named British artist Francis Bacon the world's finest living painter.
At the time, it was a questionable choice, given that Bacon's earliest and strongest influence, Pablo Picasso, was still alive. But Picasso had just reached 90, the re-evaluation of his late work had not yet begun and many felt he had already had more than his share of the limelight.
Now, with Bacon turned 80, the phenomenon repeats itself. For while Europeans tend to canonize Grand Old Men, Americans react differently, taking them down a peg or two, denying in life precisely the honors that will be acknowledged at death.
So the retrospective exhibition of 58 Bacon paintings at Washington D.C.'s Hirshhorn Museum, may not be quite the celebration its organizers intended. At the artist's last big show in an American museum-36 paintings at the Metropolitan in 1975-critic Tom Hess wrote that "Bacon's energy seems to flag" and artist Douglas Davis found "a parade of predictable images, mottled and distorted in predictable ways." The fangs already had been bared. Still, the biggest problem with Bacon today is less his work than nearly a half-century of its interpretation. After all, he was supposed to be the one painter who consistently tried to sum up the agony of modern man. He looked into the abyss and took away a tragic vision. He was the messenger who brought depravity, decay and death.
What's more, his images were said to have the strength of hammerblows. Crucifixions, screaming Popes, tormented animals, bestial lovers-all this was in Bacon`s painting. And there were few artistic refinements. Critics told us he was the mid-century's most violent nihilist.
But to those who asked the artist about his art, the answers were markedly different:
"I have nothing to express about the human condition . . . ."
"I can't paint for other people. I can only paint to excite myself."
"I have never tried to be horrific."
"I believe that reality in art is something profoundly artificial and that it has to be re-created."
". . . with all the mechanical means of rendering appearance, it means that a painter, if he is going to attempt to record life, has to do it in a much more intense and curtailed way."
In sum, here was an artist who thought like an artist, and that should not have surprised anybody. But the fact that Bacon put aesthetics before philosophy and was less involved with "message" than with colour and form has surprised people. And critics who saw his early paintings as existential illustrations later turned sour upon finding his newer works ever more concerned with the issues of art.
Admittedly, his view of life is unusual, insofar as he accepts calmly what others might find terrifying. But this way of seeing is an artist's way, and it shows extraordinary detachment. Where viewers of his paintings may react strongly and rush to judge, Bacon himself does not. He is the archetypally cool observer.
He also is a miraculous portraitist who captures not only the subject's appearance but what Bacon calls "the energy within the appearance." This he achieves through radical abbreviations and distortions. As he has said, "What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance." Put another way, he uses extreme artifice to reach verisimilitude.
Much of each painting Bacon attributes to chance. Working directly on the canvas without preliminary drawings, accidents often suggest new images, and so, what others again might see as a calamity, Bacon accepts as fortuitous.
He has tried to explain how he got that view, by recalling how his father caught him dressed in his mother's lingerie and sent him from his home in provincial Ireland. The happy result was that young Bacon ended up in Berlin in the 1920s, one of the most open cities in the world.
He has cited, too, how he saw a Picasso exhibition in Paris and, with no formal training or idea of his skills, knew he would become a painter. Until then, Bacon had little schooling of any kind and a distracting appetite for pleasure. But happening upon that exhibition instantly gave him resolve. And notwithstanding a brief, moderately successful interlude as a furniture designer, his course remained fixed.
The results have fallen into three distinct phases, only two of which are ever shown. Bacon destroyed nearly all of the Picasso-inspired pieces from the '30s, and no museum exhibition has ever brought the remaining ones together. Thus, his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), which depicts mutants at once sorrowing and menacing, has often mistakenly been seen as a product of the war instead of a world view the artist developed long before it.
The chief influences of Bacon's second phase were again other artists, though now through two specific works: Velasquez' 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X and the shot of the screaming nurse in The Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein's film from 1925. These images together are behind nearly a decade of Bacon's most famous works.
Then, in the late '50s, came the impress of motion studies by American photographer Eadweard Muybridge and Bacon's decision to make lovers and friends his primary subjects. This phase, gradually becoming more seductive in colour and form, continues today. But in the early '80s, Bacon also turned back to art, again taking inspiration from older paintings-including, surprisingly, his own.
The show at the Hirshhorn begins with the raw Figure in a Landscape from 1945 and ends with Second Version of Triptych 1944, a refined reimagination of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.
It is just this progression-rawness to refinement-that will once more disturb Bacon's sternest critics. For the changes he has effected in scale, surface and colour make the grisly biomorphic subjects of the Triptych more aesthetically satisfying but have little to do with the images' original power. Every painting on show is powerful, but not always in the way commentators once thought. They are powerful-and often quite beautiful-not as documents ripped from the psyche of an Everyman but simply as examples of painting, the practice that makes visible all sorts of accidents and deliberations.
For many, this will not be enough. Generations of viewers may well prefer Bacon's works when the artist was technically groping and his awkwardness enhanced an overall impression of rawness. But one should remember that Bacon's view of the world was always calm, distanced, matter of fact, and it was only natural that his formal delivery should one day also carry that tone. The newer works are wonderful precisely in the degree that they intertwine beauty and ugliness without any great fuss and absolutely no recoil. However, at this stage in the 20th Century, everyone is anxious about the status of painting and its continued ability to communicate. In fact, everyone has such nostalgia for the days when painting was more central to life that it proves a terrible letdown to have to acknowledge painting is now only painting and not an agent of catharsis embedded in some incredibly far-reaching philosophical tract.
Bacon has faced this like everything else. He has said: ". . .all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself." But he also has become awfully good at playing that game, and more's the pity if viewers fail to see it.
continues at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Independence at
Eighth Street, Washington, D.C., through Jan. 7. Thereafter, it will
travel to the Los Angeles County Museum (Feb. 11-April 29) and the
Museum of Modern Art, New York (May 24-Aug. 28).
Bacon in Moscow
Richard Dorment | The Daily Telegraph | 3rd February, 1989
It is a cliché to say that Francis Bacon's lifelong theme has been despair. But in the light of this latest painting I think we should begin to look back on his work and ask whether the cliché is really true. There is something here more deliberate, more chosen and more willed than despair. Something vicious and purely evil.
Francis Bacon's Study for Portrait II, 1953
Francis Bacon's Study for Portrait II, a brooding rendering of a man that was begun as a portrait of the artist's friend David Sylvester in 1953 and became a study of a pope, was sold for $1.76 million last night, a record at auction for the artist.
Bacon's blue-black study of a figure in a brass thronelike frame that suggests the papal seat, conveys motion in its play of lines against the black background, a favourite device of this artist.
This Bacon, and a second one - Portrait of George Dyer Talking, from 1966, a wild study of the French poet [sic] shown twirling in the center of a brilliant red, lavender and green room that sold for $1.43 million -brought the highest prices in the sale. Both were purchased by Jan Krugier, a Geneva dealer.
The record-breaking Bacon painting was the third work offered in Christie's sale - and the most important postwar artwork from Baron Lambert's collection of 17 contemporary pieces. All of the Baron's artworks offered were sold, for a total of $6.34 million.
They were the first of his art holdings to be offered, and they represented about a fourth of the value of his entire collection. A larger segment of Impressionist and modern works with an estimated worth of about $11 million are to be auctioned at Christie's next Tuesday night.
Baron Lambert, the great-grandson of Baron James de Rothschild, is stepping down as chairman of the Groupe Bruxelles Lambert in Belgium. The Baron collected contemporary art and other modern works worth about $20 million, and spread them through the bank's offices and his penthouse apartment in the corporate headquarters in Brussels.
Japanese buyers were unusually active Monday might at Sotheby's -they bought 10 out of 69 artworks -but they made no purchases at Christie's last night.
Pierre Apraxine, curator of the Gilman collection, which has been sold because the company is reducing the size of its New York office, said that the works last night brought more than three times what they were purchased for 10 years ago. ''The only reaction I had from Howard Gilman,'' Mr. Apraxine said, ''was that he was happy that the auction was a success but very sad to lose old friends.''
$15 Million for Art; 38 Individual Records Set at Christies
Judd Tully | The Washington Post | May 6, 1987
Francis Bacon's Seated Figure, a 1978 painting showing two men -one crouching, one in profile in suit and tie against a gloriously coloured background - was sold last night at Christie's for the highest price at auction ever achieved for a work by the British artist. The painting, one of the artist's favourites, was the most important of 10 works from the 20th-century art collection of Ted Ashley, the 64-year-old Warner Communications executive. It was purchased by a collector who was not identified.
The retrospective exhibition
of paintings by Francis Bacon at the Tate Gallery in London is not an event
about which I shall pretend to be objective. Among the many thousands of
exhibitions that I have seen on business and for pleasure, none is more vivid to
me than the first sight of Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a
Crucifixion at the Lefevre Gallery in London in April 1945. They are in
every book on Bacon. They are the predestined point of departure for every
retrospective exhibition of his work. They have been described a thousand times.
But, when seen at first hand, they still startle.
It should be said in this
context that in April 1945 the war in Europe was about to end. No one knew what
peace would be like, but there was a general reluctance in England to believe
that there was in human nature an element that was irreducibly evil. After
nearly six years at war, people preferred to think that everything was going to
be all right, and that we could go to an exhibition of new art in a spirit of
thanksgiving for dangers honorably surmounted (with some help from others).
Bacon's Three Studies
put forward a less comfortable point of view. They suggested that people would
always go on doing dreadful things to one another, and that other people would
always come by to gloat. That was not the whole meaning of the ''Three
Studies,'' but it was one of their meanings, and it made a lot visitors hightail
it out of the gallery. On any reading, these were terrifying images. The three
figures in question had anatomies that were part human, part animal and part
conundrum. They could probe, bite and suck, but their functioning in other
respects was mysterious. Ears and mouths they had, but two at least of them were
sightless. One was unpleasantly bandaged. Common to all three figures was a
mindless voracity, an automatic unregulated gluttony and a ravening
undifferentiated capacity for hatred. Each was as if cornered, and only waiting
for a chance to drag the observer down and savage him.
As a view of humankind, this
was thought to be as pessimistic as it was untimely. Was not violence about to
be outlawed from the world? If people had been on the wrong side, was it not
usually because they had had no choice? All that was needed to bring them back
into the fold was a little reeducation in civics. As for those who had fought on
the right side, no future could be too bright for them. (Anyone who saw Kate
Nelligan in David Hare's play, ''Plenty,'' will have seen this latter point of
view set out with an almost unbearable poignancy.) Bacon in all this was the
troublemaker, the specter at the vestigial feast, the doomsayer whom people
wished away. But he didn't go away, and the paintings had a weight and an
authority that had nothing to do with the newsreels of the day, terrifying as
those were beginning to be. Bacon in 1945 was not a beginner, but a man pushing
36 who had been about the world in an irregular, noctambular, totally
unprejudiced way. As a boy in Ireland, where his grandmother was married at one
time to the chief of police for County Kildare, he had known violence on the
road, violence in the house, and violence in the ditch. He had lived in Weimar
Berlin at the time when it was the only truly free city in Europe (and quite
possibly the most dangerous). Nothing human was alien to him, and it came out in
But in the late 1940's and
early 50's he was thought of as someone who habitually supped full on horrors
and came back for seconds. Only slowly did it get through that he had done no
more than reassert the terrible rightness of the summation that Shakespeare
gives to Thersites in Troilus and Cressida. ''Lechery, lechery; still
wars and lechery: nothing else holds fashion,'' is what Thersites says, and if
we look round the world we shall see that this estimate has not gone out of
As had happened with the Three
Studies - which were painted in 1944, by the way, and were in no way a
commentary on the news that came in thick and fast as the Allied armies pressed
ever deeper into Germany -there were paintings that with hindsight seemed to
have a premonitory air. (The most famous of these was the image that prefigured
the look of Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem.) Yet eventually it emerged that
Bacon's concern was as much with love and affection, and with the annals of an
idiosyncratic domesticity, as it was with public events. As a portraitist,
whether in the grand style or in the intimacy of close-up, he was in the
tradition formulated by Vincent van Gogh when he said that he wanted his
paintings to be ''inaccurate and anomalous in such a way that they become lies,
if you like, but lies that are more truthful than literal truth.'' Here again,
time has vindicated Bacon. His portraits - a record, in most cases, of loves and
friendships long preserved, though sometimes subject to intermittences - have
turned out to be, as van Gogh wished, ''more truthful than literal truth.'' On
the basis of long acquaintance with some of his more regular sitters, I can
attest that, like Bacon's portraits of himself, they grow more accurate year by
Partly for this reason,
Bacon's earlier retrospective in London (in 1962, at the Tate Gallery) left a
memory of long walls hung with tall paintings of single figures that created an
Old Masterly effect, as if they were van Dycks of the Genoese period that had
undergone (but not been diminished by) an unaccountable mutation. This element
in his work has come out more and more strongly in recent times, though once or
twice an unwonted sweetness has crept in. (In the triple portrait of Mick Jagger
in the present show the veteran troubadour gets, for instance, a soft and easy
run.) As against that, the portrait heads of his close friend, the French
anthropologist, autobiographer and authority on African art, Michel Leiris, have
a power, a discernment and a concision that make most of the other portraits of
our day look ridiculous.
Yet the locus of Bacon's
deepest and most reverberant activity may lie in images in which people carry on
as if they do in life when they think that nobody is looking at them. With a
formal portrait, no matter how searching, the presence of the artist is a given
- built in, that is to say, and inescapable. No matter how total the candor -and
Bacon in painting his friends (as in talking about them) is candor personified -
we look at the sitter's eyeballs and see, or think that we see, the image of the
painter reflected. Bacon may well be most himself when the subject is left free
to move around, dressed or undressed, in a purposeful but abstracted way.
At such times he can make
the most strenuous activity - murder, not least - seem a matter of every day. He
can also give an unnerving intensity to actions like shaving, switching off the
light, riding a bicycle and (in one case) turning a key with one's toes. Mating
the mythical with the quotidian, singling out this detail or that from a
commonplace interior, reinventing the human body as if no one had ever painted
it before, he makes us aware of the volatility and the irrationality of many a
notion that we are raised to think of as normal.
Reading the Tate Gallery
catalogue, it may strike us that whereas in England and in France Bacon's work
has prompted some of the best art writing of the last 30 and more years, it has
never had a comparable impact among Americans. This for instance is what Andrew
Forge, the English painter now teaching at Yale, has to say about the treatment
of the human body in Bacon's George Dyer Crouching (1966). ''The figure,
scrunched up at the end of a diving board, is formless at first sight. Then one
hits upon an eye, flat on the side of the head, precisely defined, unwinking,
Once that eye is seen, ''the
weight and thickness of the thighs, the downward stretch of the arm, the massive
crest of muscle upon the shoulders, the massive concentration of the lowered
head, all seem to leap out of the paint, triggered by the hard saurian eye
which, as with some fantastic knobbly lizards, seems to be embedded like a
living jewel in material that follows another order of form.'' Anyone who can
provoke writing of that quality has to have been doing something right.
DISTURBING IMAGES UNMELLOWED BY TIME
Billed as "the greatest living painter," Francis Bacon's power to jangle the nerves with some of the most disquieting images of 20th-century art remains undiminished after more than five decades of painting.
Michael Wise | Philadelphia Inquirer | June 8, 1985
His pictures of writhing, snapping beasts, neither human nor wholly animal, upset many people when first shown in London in 1945. They still disturb, as do scenes of slaughter, lone figures in desolate chambers and a set of portraits that have come to be known as "the screaming popes." All are back on view among more than 120 works by Bacon in a major retrospective that just opened at London's Tate Gallery.
Bacon, 75, shuns attempts to explain his work and believes many people dwell too much on what they see as horror in it. "Talking about painting is like reading a bad translation from a foreign language," the British artist says. "The images are there and they are the things that talk, not anything you can say about it." Bacon, still largely sandy-haired and cherubic, refers to himself as an ''image maker" who often "pulverizes" images drawn from other sources. These include photographs and film, paintings by Velazquez, Ingres and Van Gogh as well as poems by Aeschylus and T.S. Eliot. "Every artist will beg, borrow or steal anything that they think will be of any use to them."
Bacon, descended from the 16th-century philosopher whose name he bears, has also studied pictures from medical textbooks and of animals about to be killed. He bridles against interpreting his apparent obsession with cruelty as a response to war or genocide. Of an art critic who sees a likeness of Roosevelt at the 1945 Yalta conference in the figure in a 1946 picture containing bloody slabs of meat, he said, "That's completely wrong."
He says his paintings, often done as triptychs, do not consciously mirror the world but adds: "We live with this vast sea which we call the unconscious and which we don't know. . . . Everything which is going on probably sinks into it. Every so often these images refloat."
Many of his later works are portraits of himself and his friends, the faces violently distorted, frequently smeared. Like other modern artists, he says portraiture has been forever altered by the invention of the camera. ''There is no point in making a portrait that doesn't look like the person, but nevertheless one hopes to dislocate it from illustration."
Chance, he says, has a big part in a painting's outcome. Bacon has loved gambling since childhood in Dublin, where his father, a former British army officer, retired to train racehorses.
He left home at the age of 16 and spent several years in Paris and Berlin. After working briefly as a furniture designer and interior decorator, he decided to become a painter without any formal art training.
Now a passionate roulette player, Bacon says painting successfully is very much like winning at the gaming tables he frequents. "It's the moment of feeling that chance is just smiling on you for one second."
These days Bacon does not need monetary gain at the wheel. Museums and collectors avidly seek his paintings. One fetched half a million dollars at a New York auction last month. But he still occupies a sparsely furnished London mews house - "the same old dump that I've lived in for the last 24 years. I still paint a lot. I had thought of doing sculpture a few years ago and it suddenly came to me that I could do in painting what I would have done in sculpture."
He admires Michelangelo's "male voluptuousness," and nude men are among his latest works. Some resemble amputees in shin pads worn in cricket. Pastels complement oils he once used exclusively.
Narrative art holds no interest for him, and he dissociates himself from expressionism or surrealism. Asked to elaborate on one of the cricket pads or pieces of flesh, he responds with a degree of annoyance: "I just like the image in itself."
Bacon has no patience for critics who view it all as the product of personal torment. "I enjoy life but I have absolutely no belief in anything," he said. "I don't say that anguish doesn't play a part in my work. The very fact that you exist, that you see what's going on around you, that must create anguish in anybody."
Marlborough Gallery, 40 West 57th Street.
Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres (1983) Francis Bacon
The sphinx as subject matter has always brought out the best in Bacon. A recent example is the portrait of Muriel Belcher, done in 1979, in which sphinx and sitter become one. Mrs. Belcher, one of the most formidable London characters of her day, was a club owner renowned for her insubordinate spirit and hallucinatory freedom of speech. In Bacon's portrait, she lends her fine-boned physical structure to the sphinx of tradition. As for her gaze - from which nothing that was material could ever be kept - it merged completely with the static posture and elongated forepaws of the Egyptian riddler.
In painting his variant of the Ingres (which exists in several versions), Bacon produced a chesty little sphinx, built somewhat like Goldie Hawn and on the face of it more sportive than terrifying. Facing her, with a clear-browed stare, is an Oedipus still not much disquieted. This Oedipus flaunts a leg and a foot that are covered with blood, as if still marked by his childhood experience on the mountainside. No mean hand at confrontations of which none can foresee the outcome, Bacon here comes on very strong indeed.
But then, the show as a whole is full of new notions. Bacon has still not got around to making the sculptures that he has long been thinking about, but two new paintings here indicate that the preoccupation is still very much alive. One shows a giant sculpture in a public space, with dwarfed human figures making a detour around it. Another deals with sculpture in terms of a subject for still life. We might take the sculpture in question for a fragment from the antique; did it not relate rather to recent paintings in which the human body is metamorphosed into a free-form jug or vessel to which genitals and legs happen to be attached.
Bacon in his 75th year is as inventive as ever. Not only has he a whole new slew of images - some based on that unmistakable piece of English sporting equipment, the cricket pad - but after nearly half a century of painting in oils, he began not long ago to use both oils and pastels in the same picture. To the idiosyncratic sweep and smear of his oils there is therefore added, in more than one of the paintings in the show, the soft crumble of pastel.
And although it is not in his nature to sit idly by and watch the passing scene, there is distinctly a new resonance to the triptych dated 1983 that occupies a predominant position in the show. Where at one time all three panels might have been filled with implacable activities of one kind or another, the left- and right-hand panels now bear images of something close to a monumental resignation. Only in the central panel - an abduction scene, as powerful as it is enigmatic - does he revert to the hyperactive imaginings that have made his work ''an almost wounding presence'' (I quote from Michel Leiris, a French admirer of long standing) ever since the last years of World War II. (Through June 5.)
Philadelphia Inquirer | February 21, 1984
British painter Francis Bacon has brought his mutilated bodies, twisted torsos and disfigured faces to the French public. Sixteen large works, priced at $300,000 each, are showing at the Maeght Lelong Gallery. For the 73-year-old Bacon, who is regarded as one of the most powerful contemporary painters, it is his first one-man show here since 1977, and a prelude to a major retrospective next year at the Tate Gallery in London.
Critics say the works illuminate Bacon's obsession with murder, cruelty and violence. But the Irish-born artist says he is simply conveying the reality of the 20th century as he sees it. That reality, critics say, is "deeply disturbing, even disgusting," for it tragically portrays humanity in deterioration and death.
Bacon's grim message has reportedly been received here with unexpected enthusiasm. The gallery reports several hundred visitors a day, and up to 1,500 on weekends Bacon did not begin painting until the early 1940s, after asthma kept him out of the army.
In this exhibition, his self-portraits and studies of Michel Leiris    - a French author who has written extensively on Bacon - are three-dimensional dissections of the human face. A 1976 portrait of Leiris lacks a chunk of chin. Another has a bashed-in skull. Bacon never painted in the presence of his models, saying he preferred working from memory or photographs.
The most sensational paintings feature torsos or hunks of amputated flesh mounted on pedestals against a bright orange or red background. For Bacon, orange was the colour of both the sun and fire, life and death. Blood abounds. It drips from unrecognizable carcasses. It trickles into the spectator's line of vision from behind partially closed doors. In Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres (1983) blood seeps through the bandaged leg of a muscle-bound Oedipus contemplating a deformed sphinx.
In People in a Street (1983), which is also done against a fiery orange background, tiny fuzzy figures are juxtaposed with a bizarre form enclosed in a glass box. The form has four buttocks, a thigh and a calf. Other major works, which Bacon calls "studies because they capture states of movement," highlight humanity's inherent brutality.
"What emerges from this merciless confrontation . . . is the substance and truth of a body in crisis, at the height of tension and vulnerability," wrote Jacques Dupin in the show's catalogue. Gallery director Francois Bruller reported one sale and several offers. The works will be at the Maeght Lelong until the end of February, when they will go to the Marlborough Gallery in London.
pintor irlandés Francis Bacon falleció ayer a los 82 años en la clínica
Ruber, de Madrid, en donde se encontraba en una de sus habituales estancias, en
las que llevaba una "vida muy privada", según fuentes de su entorno.
Había ingresado hace cuatro días a consecuencia de una pleuresía y murió a
las 8.30 de ayer de una crisis cardiaca. El traslado del cuerpo del artista al
Reino Unido se decidirá hoy dentro de la intimidad que ha exigido el pintor en
su testamento, con deseo expreso de evitar cualquier ceremonia.Las últimas
obras de Bacon, seis cuadros y tres trípticos, formarán la exposición de
apertura de la galería Marlborough en Madrid, el próximo mes de octubre.
Asmático, Francis Bacon
murió del corazón, agitado por una respiración difícil, con sus pulmones
fatalmente deteriorados al final de su vida. Cada vez pintaba menos y cada día
se acentuaba más, al final de su vida, la raíz de su escepticismo. En su
rostro se mostraba a veces ese padecimiento, y además se registraba la terrible
angustia que le convirtió en un testigo airado de este siglo.
De cerca, Francis Bacon era como sus
cuadros, con su rostro mezcla de velocidad y de rabia, como un hombre airado que
estuviera despidiéndose siempre, de la vida y de los otros; con sus ojos
redondos, inquisitivos e insoslayables; con su boca sinuosa y leve, pero mordida,
interior, violenta; con sus pómulos desiguales y enjutos en una cara que
acababa en un pelo rebelde, repeinado y simbólico: una cresta con la que
culminaba una barbilla huidiza como el propio conjunto de su cuerpo.
Tenía 82 años y una leyenda tan exagerada de bebedor
empedernido, protagonista de una bohemia siempre al borde del abismo, que se le
imaginaba físicamente destruido. Al contrario, su rostro era juvenil, terso,
bien cuidado; vestía, además, con una elegancia descuidada y sutil que
combinaba un calzado violeta deportivo con una casaca suave de cuero opaco y una
camisa de rayas a juego con los zapatos. Se hubiera pensado también, atendiendo
a la biografía que se le construyó a base de sobreentendidos, que se sentaría
delante de sus contertulios y lanzaría sobre ellos un desdén absoluto, el desdén
del genio. No era así: extremadamente delicado y sutil, se sometía a la
conversación, incluso en sus aspectos más rutinarios, e intervenía en ella tímido
y nervioso, como si él justamente esperara aquella reacción de los demás.
Y no era así sólo porque fueran a verle periodistas y tuviera
que mejorar una imagen que, además, a él no le importaba nada: la última vez
que le vimos fue a finales del pasado año, en un bar muy conocido de Madrid,
acompañado de un amigo español. Vestía entonces un traje gris cortado para él,
repetía rayas en su camisa, esta vez blanca, y usaba sobre su cuerpo entonces
algo azotado por la noche una corbata de seda que afilaba aún más su
apariencia de gentleman británico
de paso por España. Venía muchas veces, y pasaba aquí temporadas como la que
ha precedido a su muerte: era un enamorado de la cultura atrabiliaria de este país
y un visitante común del Museo del Prado, donde Goya y Velázquez eran sus
fuentes principales de placer y de nostalgia: ya nadie pinta como ellos, decía
aquella tarde que le vimos en Londres.
Cuando le visitamos en la Galería Marlborough de Londres acababa
de terminar su penúltimo cuadro, un tríptico autobiográfico que le tuvo
ocupado muchos meses en un estudio desvencijado -según él: pocas veces permitió
que los demás lo vieran- del norte de Londres, donde vivía. El cuadro le
mostraba a él, con su flequillo invariable, desde una ventana de un cuerpo
ajeno, como si contemplara lo que había sido su relación con los otros y con
la propia velocidad de la vida.
El cuadro estaba allí, expuesto como una despedida, y se lo
dijimos: "Es una despedida. Todos los cuadros son una despedida". Fue
su penúltima obra, y acaso la última, porque inmediatamente comenzó otro
cuadro -otra despedida, la última-, y no llegó a acabarlo porque en el curso
de su proceso le disgustó. Extremadamente exigente con los otros -un día le
dijo en Tánger, al final de una borrachera, a un pintor amigo suyo: "Qué
gran tipo eres, pero qué mal pintas"-, lo era también consigo mismo hasta
niveles crueles, y como si aquélla fuera una metáfora de esa actitud
displicente con la obra acabada, esa tarde en que le vimos apenas miró su obra
cuando entró en la habitación donde estaba expuesta como objeto único, y
luego cuando el fotógrafo Chema Conesa le hizo posar ante el tríptico para una
sesión de fotos en color lo hizo primero a regañadientes y luego dio por
concluida su propia exposición de una manera abrupta, sin paliativos. Mary Cruz
Bilbao, la responsable de la Galería Marlborough en España, que estaba en la
entrevista, definió así esa actitud elusiva de uno de los mejores pintores del
siglo: "Daba la impresión de ser culto y salvaje al mismo tiempo".
Llegó a la entrevista con un levísimo ataque de asma, la
enfermedad que ahora ha desatado la crisis cardiaca. Su mirada helaba. Era
alternativamente la del cuadro y otra más feroz, aquella que no se permitía
ningún desliz hacia la trivialidad. Cortante, seco y educado, fue desgranando
el mundo de sus obsesiones: no era irlandés ni de ningún sitio, y tampoco se
veía como compañero estético o cultural de James Joyce o de Samuel Beckett,
que eran sus coterráneos más famosos. La vida era un accidente, una marca,
algo que nos sucede y sobre lo que nosotros no podemos hacer nada. La pintura es
como respirar, pero respirar es más importante. De este siglo quedará un color
oscuro o color de sangre. La pintura quedaría obsoleta si el cine cumpliera con
sus funciones, pero la industria del dinero lo ha estancado. ¿Algunos genios
del siglo? No hay genios, eso son tonterías. ¿Picasso? Quizá, pero pintó
Durante la entrevista no dejó de mirar, pero jamás miró al
periodista, como si éste fuera un testigo opaco de sus palabras difíciles y
aceradas, así que se fijaba, siempre que tenía ideas placenteras que le
permitieran sonreír, en Mary Cruz Bilbao, la directora española de la
Marlborough, presente en la entrevista, o en el fotógrafo, cuyo deambular le
inquietaba muchísimo: Cuando le vimos más feliz, si esto se puede medir en un
hombre tan intenso, fue cuando nos enseñó reproducciones suyas de viejos
cuadros y cuando explicó con todos los detalles posibles para su parquedad cómo
hizo su Inocencio X a partir de una postal de la famosa obra de Velázquez, y cómo
siguió utilizando postales, imágenes inmovilizadas pero violentas, llenas de
vida, para hacer toda su obra. Pero no quería hablar de su obra. ¿Para qué?
Ésa era la pregunta principal de todo su discurso.
Cuando dio por concluida la sesión fotográfica y la entrevista
volvió a recoger del suelo su bolsa de cuero, se subió levemente la cremallera
de su casaca y ofreció su mano tensa: en su mirada había el desencanto feroz
de un testigo que tenía detrás de la mirada la rabia de un siglo.
Ha muerto en Madrid Francis Bacon. El pintor que, junto a Picasso y Giacometti, tiene la mirada más lúcida de nuestra época. Le vi sólo una vez en Londres el año 1973, en la inauguración de una exposición de artistas españoles. Nunca he querido forzar el conocimiento de estos grandes personajes, pero surgió de una manera natural. De pronto, apareció Bacon y la verdad es que me gustó "verle". Lo conocía a través de fotografías, pero tenerle delante era otra cosa. En esta exposición yo tenía unos trabajos y me hubiera gustado preguntarle su opinión, pero me pareció una impertinencia.Lo que me gustaba era verle y estar cerca de un pintor que me parecía tan interesante. Físicamente era fascinante, con una piel como la de un niño, rosada y transparente, y una mirada tan inteligente y humana. Me dijo que estaba bebido, pero no importaba. Tenía la dignidad de quien se manifiesta tal como es sin arrogancia y sin temor. Yo pensaba: este hombre ha descendido a lo más infernal y lo tengo aquí delante. Tenía un sentido del humor y una vulnerabilidad desarmantes. Nadie en este siglo ha pintado el horror, la fascinación y la miseria de la carne con tanta intensidad, desprecio por el convencionalismo y crudeza. Se comprende su admiración por Van Gogh. Los dos han trabajado en esa zona, arriesgada hasta la autodestrucción, tan fuera de toda protección y con la misma generosidad.Es un placer y un ejemplo como Bacon materializa a través de la pintura el tumulto de los sentimientos. Solemne como en los mejores momentos del arte, Bacon sitúa al personaje sólo viviendo en ese espacio opresivo, elemental y que sintetiza prodigiosamente toda la diversidad de escenarios en que nos movemos. Su falta de respeto por lo que suele considerarse buena pintura es total y por su aparente despojamiento tiene relación con cierta pintura marginal, con lo que puede hacer un loco o un niño. Como ellos no tiene temor y como ellos no puede equivocarse porque no tiene ningún interés en conquistamos.
Antonio López es pintor.
Mike McKenzie, Thea Porter, Jeffrey Bernard, Michael Wojas, Francis
Bacon, Ian Board, John Edwards,
Mike McKenzie, Thea Porter, Jeffrey Bernard, Michael Wojas, Francis Bacon, Ian Board, John Edwards,
Tom Baker, Bruce Bernard, Liz McKenzie, Michael Clark, Allan Hall, John McEwan, and David Edwards