Francis Bacon News

 

                                                                                                                                                         

                                                                                                                                                 2018–2019

 

 

 

 

A Multi-faceted Look at Francis Bacon’s Psychology

 

 

 

 

The five essays in Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology call us to grapple with an artist whose life and work were anything but simple.

 

 

 

JOSEPH NECHVATAL | BOOKS | HYPERALLERGIC | NOVEMBER 14, 2019

 

In association with Thames & Hudson, the Estate of Francis Bacon has published the first in a series of books intended to elucidate Francis Bacon’s emotional motivations behind his celebrated paintings through the perspective of art, neuroscience and psychology. Though his source imagery was often illustrative photography (examples include Eadweard Muybridge’s naked male wrestlers and a screaming image from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film The Battleship Potempkin), Bacon famously tried to reject all narrative closure concerning his paintings. This book respects that wish and aims to protect Bacon’s work from the crippling crunch of closure.

Comprised of five essays, Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology, is splendid to look at. Printed on lush matte paper stock are a plethora of color reproductions of Bacon’s paintings and a few images that influenced him. Some, like the darkly heated “Head I” (1948) and enigmatic, elegiac “Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer” (1968), gloriously take up a full page. For me this is excellent, in that I cannot abide sustained looking at Bacon’s actual paintings that sit behind the glass that he insisted upon putting over his visceral surfaces. Where the glass kills the unaffected grandeur of the paintings and tames the vividness of his spasmodic curling strokes, the book’s matte paper allows for deep looking at his paintings. Bacon said in 1963 that great art unlocks the valves of intuition and perception about the human situation at a deep level, and the matte allows for that as we dig into the essays.

Contemplating the intensity of Bacon’s images as I leisurely read the book’s first text by artist Christopher Bucklow, who, by tracking an asserted unconscious urge within Bacon’s oeuvre as the scourged white male body, argues that Bacon’s sexual attraction to his father, blurred by booze and memory, shaped the artist’s sensibility for physical lust and his comparable visceral ideas of art. The story goes that his father found the teenaged Bacon wearing his mother’s underwear and brutally beat him in the same Irish horse stable where Francis first enjoyed sex with a stable boy. Thereafter, women’s sexy fishnet stockings became a mainstay of the artist’s wardrobe as a way to ward off his bouts of melancholia.

Next, clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Steven Jaron brings a neuroaesthetic reading to Bacon’s destructive drinking, sexual brutality, and gambling and risk, maintaining that these elements became part of Bacon’s “hard wiring.” Intelligently, Jaron’s psychology-based essay fruitfully turns to the earlier book by Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation which questions the implications of the artist’s habitual compulsive obsessions with “the wound.” Indeed, Deleuze has clearly described how Bacon ascends from actual wounded figurations to virtual sensations through his use of the diagrammatic field of consistency. According to Deleuze, Bacon found through his illustration-type images a way to paint in the non-narrative sweet spot of sensation that oscillates between the actual and the virtual.

I find this argument compelling, but Bacon’s yearning toward sensational ‘wounding’ seems most concisely explained (if one wishes a convincing explanation) by Bacon’s flagrant masochistic ferocity. As Jaron mentions, it is well known that Bacon began in Berlin in 1927 to enjoy the brutality of sadomasochism. He especially enjoyed being beaten up by his great love Peter Lacy, who died of suspicious causes in Tangiers on the cusp of Bacon’s 1962 Tate retrospective. Bacon’s relationship with George Dyer, whom he met in late 1963, was also laced with stormy masochism and ended in tragedy. Just before the opening of Bacon’s 1971 Retrospective at the Grand Palais, Dyer was found dead from an overdose squatting on the toilet in their bathroom at the Hotel des Saint-Pères.

Such brushes with violent sex and death speak directly to the implied risks concerning Bacon’s virtuoso hit-or-miss engagements with oil paint: risks of creative destruction that obviously enriched his matière. Bacon’s flamboyant painterliness, arrived at as if by chance or accident on flat monochrome fields, exemplifies Andre Breton’s Surrealist declaration that “Beauty will be convulsive or cease to be.” Yet Dada-based Surrealist chance operations are scarcely mentioned in the book, perhaps because in his late work Bacon dispensed with flicking brushwork accidents and chance.

The psychoanalyst Darian Leader also offers stimulating insights from a Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective, including two key inverted mirrored incidents of great emotional impact for the artist. Peter Lacy and George Dyer both died, assumedly of alcohol and drug poisoning, on the eve of Bacon’s most important art exhibitions, but it is weirder than that. As Leader tells it, Bacon and Lacy broke up when Lacy found Bacon in flagrante delicto with another man in their bed in Tangiers; and Bacon found Dyer with another man in their hotel room in Paris, just before he croaked.

Next, John Onians explores Bacon’s creative destructive instinct in terms of neural plasticity and probes Bacon’s mind through a study of the curved horizontal lines in Bacon’s paintings. Onians postulates that these curved spatial lines come from the modernist tables Bacon made in the late-1920s (one is reproduced here) in the style of Le Corbusier and also points out that these curved thin lines echo the curved rails of the horse racing track where Bacon’s father lived out his career as a horse trainer and breeder. This is followed by a review of Bacon’s more general interest in animal intensity.

Semir Zeki and Tomohiro Ishizu close the book out with a fascinating (if dry) neuroscientific academic paper on the brain science behind Bacon’s method of shocking by way of facial and figure deformation.

Though probably not every extravagant extreme of the artist’s life and work has been addressed here, Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology is a rewarding plunge into his brain that every painter and lover of painting should take, especially those able to visit the current Bacon exhibition at the Pompidou Center entitled Bacon en toutes lettres (Bacon: Books and Painting). That show (with this book in mind) ties Bacon’s paintings to the depths of his sadomasochistic mind as stimulated by the writings of Eschyle, Nietzsche, Bataille, Leiris, Conrad and Eliot. This range of considerations informs the haptic thoughts embedded in Bacon’s memory-fueled paintings, where information acts in unison with imagination

Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology, edited by Martin Harrison with essays by Christopher Bucklow, Steven Jaron, Darian Leader, John Onians and Semir Zeki is now available.

 

 

 

         

                                                                      Detail of  “Portrait of George Dyer Crouching” (1966) Oil on canvas 78 x 58 in. (198 x 147 cm), Private collection

 

 

 

 

 

Sotheby's

 

 

CONTEMPORARY ART EVENING AUCTION

 

 

LOT 23 | 14 NOVEMBER 2019 | 7.00 PM EST | NEW YORK

 

 

 

Francis Bacon

1909 – 1992

 

Pope

 

oil on canvas
77 1/8 by 55 7/8 in. 195.9 by 141.9 cm.
Executed circa 1958

 

Estimate 6,000,000 – 8,000,000 USD

 

LOT SOLD. 6,642,400 USD

 

 

PROVENANCE

 

Nicolas Brusilowski (acquired directly from the artist in 1959)
Galerie Krugier et cie, Geneva
Olga H. Knoepke (acquired from the above in 1967)
Gifted to the present owner by the above in 1981

 

 

EXHIBITED

 

New York, PaineWebber Art Gallery, An Invitation to the Brooklyn Museum of Art: A Subway Ride Away, September - December 1999 
Munich, Haus der Kunst, Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965, October 2016 - March 2017, p. 362, no. 120, illustrated in color

 

 

LITERATURE

 

Martin Harrison, ed., Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume III, 1958-71, pp. 550-51, no. 58-07, illustrated in color

 

 

CATALOGUE NOTE

 

Pope from circa 1958 broadcasts Francis Bacon’s most celebrated and recognizable iconography, which today remains one of the most pertinent, universal, and affecting visions in the history of art. Here, we witness the zenith of Bacon’s greatest subject – a subject that spanned over twenty years and reveals both Bacon’s love affair with Diego Velázquez and his will to expose the fallacy of such images for a world living in the dim light of Nietzche’s declaration of God’s death. Executed during the years of Bacon’s tumultuous romance with Peter Lacy, the present work is one of just six surviving canvases the artist painted in Tangier; of the other five, one work resides in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and the other four belong to esteemed private collectors worldwide. Having remained in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum for nearly forty years, Pope is a rare exemplar of Bacon’s signature style and marks a critical historical moment in his storied career.

In 1952, having met Peter Lacy in Soho’s Colony Room, Bacon embarked on what was to become “the most exalted and most destructive love affair he was ever to know.” (Michael Peppiatt, Exh. Cat., Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, 2006, pp. 57-58) The artist revealed the tumult of his relationship with the former Battle of Britain pilot, declaring that: “I couldn’t live with him, and I couldn’t live without him.” (Ibid., p. 42) Tough to the point of cruelty, Lacy held Bacon perpetually in an emotional and physical vice, and although Lacy was one of the most significant loves of the artist’s life, this tempestuous affair was ultimately calamitous. Bacon later lamented in conversation with Peppiatt that: “Being in love in that way, being absolutely physically obsessed by someone, is like an illness.” (Ibid., p. 40) Lacy moved to Tangier in the mid-1950s, where he lived on a meager income by playing the piano in a local bar. Although Bacon kept his studio in London, he made frequent and extended trips to Tangier during the summers. The lifestyle of Tangier was perceived as exotic and more tolerant of homosexuality, offering an escapism that was liberating for them both. During these stints in Morocco, Bacon was particularly prolific, writing to his dealer Erica Brausen: “I hope to come back with about 20 or 25 paintings early in October… I feel full of work and believe I may do a few really good paintings now.” (The artist quoted in Michael Peppiatt, Ibid., p. 211) Ultimately, however, the majority of paintings that Bacon created in Tangier were destroyed. Five of the remaining six paintings – including the present work – Bacon gave to his friend Nicolas Brusilowski, hoping that the canvases may be able to be reused by Brusilowski. Perhaps recognizing the significance of these canvases, however, Brusilowski did not paint over them, but instead preserved them. These paintings contribute to a grander legacy of Bacon’s life and work; that they are included and recognized in the artist’s catalogue raisonné further cements their significance at an important moment within the artist’s impressive career. The fortuitous circumstances under which the present work survived add to its illustrious and unique history

Pope illuminates the artist’s famously tortured soul and reveals Bacon wrestling with his most iconic subject matter in a crucial stage of artistic development. Upon a spare geometric dais, vertical brushstrokes of deep green and pale lilac delineate the frame of a throne, whose presence anchors the more fluid and ethereal figure. The dark, velvety background of Pope glows with underlayers of dark teal and navy, bringing a richness and depth to this painting. Against the stark, architectonic structure of this cage, Bacon juxtaposes more rounded passages of paint to build up the main figure, bringing a more organic physicality to the Pope – the solitary figure upon which he casts a spectrum of psychological profundity. In the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, Bacon delved into the existentialist human condition, isolating the central figure in an anonymous dark void. As spare as the Pope’s surroundings seem, his face is clearly articulated with stunning specificity; Bacon pulls swaths of green and ivory across a taut jawline and hollowed eyes, one of which lands upon the viewer and affords an intimate glimpse into the sitter’s psychological state. Strokes of rosy pink and bright white delineate lips, chin, and teeth to form a mouth whose full lips hang loosely agape. The Pope’s torqued anatomy thrusts outward against the strict lines of the chair, and – in turn – pushes up against what Milan Kundera refers to as the “limits of the self”; “Bacon’s portraits are the 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 being still remain a beloved being? For how long does a cherished face growing remote through illness, through madness, through hatred, through death still remain recognizable? Where lies the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?” (Milan Kundera in France Borel, Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, London, 1996, p. 12) Bacon’s handling of paint is on brilliant display in the present work, with the most intense application of pigment reserved for the head of his subject. The sheer intensity, detail, and controlled violence of the Pope’s visage attest to the true mastery of the artist; akin to the greatest portraits the artist produced, the swipes and blows that delineate the Pope’s features are carved with an incredible combination of sensuous delicacy and fierce brutality.

Perhaps more than any other theme associated with his canon, the threat of mortality inhabits every facet of Bacon’s art. Danger, violence, and death constantly linger in the recesses of his canvases, acting like a continual incantation of his deft maxim: “Consciousness of mortality sharpens one’s sense of existing.” (The artist in conversation with Hugh M. Davies in 1973, in Martin Harrison, ed., Francis Bacon: New Studies, Göttingen, 2009, p. 96) Many of Bacon’s later works became directly associated with the sudden and brutal deaths of both Lacy and later George Dyer, but in fact, the risk of impending fatality imbued his existence and artistic practice from its most formative stage. Michael Peppiatt has suggested that the trauma of Bacon’s early life and his exile from home had a part to play in the sadomasochistic reiteration of violent persecution redolent in his various crucifixion themed works, as well as informing his undoing of dominant masculinity through the image of the Pope. Similarly, in painting the ultimate figure of patriarchy, the Pope, Bacon can be seen to confront the tyrannical father as epitomized by his own disciplinarian father. A retired army captain and racehorse trainer with a militant puritanical streak, Bacon’s father tyrannized the entire household, and in particular a son with whom he was at odds. Allergic to his father’s horses, asthmatic, and unashamedly effeminate, Bacon was expelled from the family home after being caught admiring himself in the mirror wearing his mother’s underwear. That the Pope, the Holy Father, was to be Bacon’s most revered subject when he reached artistic maturity, is perhaps in part owing to his coming to terms with his own trauma.

The archetype Bacon appropriated as a starting point for his Pope series was Diego Velázquez’s extraordinary Portrait of Pope Innocent X from 1650, held in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome, a painting about which Bacon felt “…haunted and obsessed by the image…its perfection.” (The artist in conversation with Hugh Davies, June 1973, in Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, New York, 1986, p. 23) It has previously been noted that Bacon had not at this stage in his career seen the Velázquez painting in Rome firsthand, and instead more likely that the artist was familiar with another version of Velázquez’s painting, one that has resided in Apsley House, the seat of the Duke of Wellington in London, since the beginning of the nineteenth century. That Apsley House sits at Hyde Park Corner, roughly fifteen minutes’ walk from the Royal College of Art where Bacon had his studio in the early 1950s, readily invites the hypothesis that he was able to view this highly accomplished work in person, the study of which informed the present work.

Within the grand theater of Bacon’s oeuvre, the Pope paintings occupy an enormous and highly significant position. Indeed, Michael Peppiatt notes: “Bacon’s Popes are not only the centerpiece of all his paintings in the 1950s, but a centerpiece of the whole of twentieth-century art.” (Michael Peppiatt, Exh. Cat., Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (and travelling), Francis Bacon in the 1950s, 2006, p. 28) The present work proffers an intimate profile loaded with physicality, the Pope’s presence emerging with each loaded stroke of paint, unraveling the sitter’s psychological and emotional essence, and capturing the post-war zeitgeist that forever shifted the history of art in the twentieth century.

 

 

 

      

                                          Francis Bacon  Pope  oil on canvas 77 1/8 by 55 7/8 in. 195.9 by 141.9 cm.  Executed circa 1958

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHRISTIES

 

 

Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

 

 

LOT 17B | SALE 17649 | NEW YORK | 13 NOVEMBER 2019

 

 

 

From a Private European Collection

 

 

Francis Bacon (1909-1992)

Study for Self-Portrait

 

 

Estimate USD 8000,000— USD 12,000,000

 

 

 

 

 

Francis Bacon (1909-1992)


Study for Self-Portrait
signed, titled and dated 'Study for Self Portrait 1979 Francis Bacon' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
14 x 12 in. (35.3 x 31 cm.)
Painted in 1979.

 

 

Provenance

Marlborough International Fine Art, Vaduz, acquired from the artist, 1980
Marlborough Fine Art Ltd, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1980

 

Literature

Francis Bacon 1909-1992: Small Portrait Studies, exh. cat., London, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., 1993, n.p. (illustrated).
M. Kundera and F. Borel, Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, London and New York, 1996, pp. 145 and 214 (illustrated in color).
M. Harrison, ed., Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume IV, 1971-92, London, 2016, pp. 1192-1193, no. 79-11 (illustrated in color).

 

Lot Essay

Enveloped in darkness, the harried face of Francis Bacon stares out from the surface of the canvas. Half mired in shadow, and half bathed in strong raking light, this exceptionally rendered self-portrait reveals with striking detail the artist’s strong features. Painted in 1979, Study for Self-Portrait has been in the same private collection for nearly four decades and is one of the last small-scale single canvas self-portraits that Bacon completed, the result is a psychologically complex painting which provides an astute reading of both the artist and his art. Striking in its use of color, and in the dissemination of light and shadow, it stands apart as a striking example of his late oeuvre. Similar in composition to his 1979 triptych Three Studies for a Self-Portrait, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, this jewel-like painting captures the complexity of Bacon’s art as he journeys into the deep recesses of his own minds.

When Bacon painted Study for Self-Portrait he was nearly 70 years old, and his seven decades of experience can be seen etched across his face. From the deep creases that traverse his forehead, to his sunken eyes, this is the portrait of a man who has lived, seen, and experienced firsthand a life characterized by demons and traumas. His eyes appear haunted, or at least raw from a prolonged emotional outpouring, and staring off into the middle distance—with his eyes cast slightly downwards—he appears engrossed in his own memory. While the strong use of raking light blanches out the subtleties of the complexion of Bacon’s high cheekbones, bright bursts of crimson, ruby red, and purple open up the depths and recesses of the folds and furrows of his skin, together with his slightly pursed lips, revealing the hollow darkness of his mouth. This dramatic use of light also causes the (proper) right side of his face to fall into darkness, with features dissolving before disappearing into the blackness. Filling the picture plane, the extremes of Bacon’s life are clear, and with his expressive face pushed forward, it is there for all to see.

The artist gained his reputation as one of the 20th-century’s most innovative painters by producing dramatic canvases that featured people drawn from his own life. Friends, acquaintances, lovers and the various characters he came across as he spent his evenings in the pubs and clubs of Soho populate his early oeuvre. Building on Picasso’s earlier generation of Cubist figures, Bacon’s investigations into the ‘self’ take the form of images which he then dismantles in order to build up a deeply psychological portrait of the subject. In many ways writes Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “Bacon’s portraits are the 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 still remain a beloved being? For how long does a cherished face growing remote through illness, through madness, through hatred, through death still become recognizable. Where lies the border beyond which a ‘self’ ceases to be a ‘self’” (M. Kundera, “The Painter’s Brutal Gesture,” in F. Borel, Bacon Portraits and Self-Portraits, 1996, London and New York, p. 12)

But as he grew older, Bacon began painting more and more self-portraits. Speaking in 1975, he commented that “I’ve done a lot of self-portraits [recently], really because people have been dying around me like flies and I’ve had nobody else left to paint but myself” (F. Bacon, quoted by D. Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 2016, p. 150). As he advanced towards old-age, and his circle of friends diminished, Bacon’s own feeling of mortality resurfaced, feelings that had haunted him for much of his life. He remembers recalling at the age of 17 that life was limited, and that you only have a brief time on earth before you disappear forever. “One of the nicest things that Cocteau said,” Bacon once recalled to David Sylvester, was “’Each day in the mirror I watch death’” (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, p. 152)

In considering his own mortality, Bacon joined a distinguished group of artists who exorcised their own emotions by committing their anxieties to canvas. In the last decade of his life, having survived his wife, all four of their children, and personal bankruptcy, Rembrandt produced what are widely regarded to be some of the great self-portraits ever painted. “…the final decades—between 1652 and his death in 1669,” writes curator Marjorie Wiesman, curator of Dutch and Flemish Painting at the National Gallery in London, “show Rembrandt focusing on more internally motivated concerns: achieving a realistic and sympathetic rendering of old age, now extending its merciless reach across his own face and body, and reflecting upon his own profession and his own place within it” (M. Wiesman, ‘The Late Self Portraits,’ in J. Bikker & G. J. M. Weber (eds.), Rembrandt: The Late Works, exh. cat., National Gallery, London, 2014, p. 37).

Similarly, back in the 20th century, Andy Warhol’s last great series of self-portraits act as a memento mori of sorts. The so-called “Fright Wig” self-portraits that he painted in 1986 are often considered the artist’s most successful. Despite his own often-debilitating shyness, throughout Warhol’s career he chronicled and charted his own appearance in a range of self-portraits, culminating in this final defining series of works. His fame was now so extensive and his features so instantly recognizable in their own right, that he had easily attained the status within the Pop firmament that merited his own inclusion in his pictures. These paintings captured not only a sense of Warhol’s celebrity, but also a sense of his fragility. The stark tonality and fleeting nature of photography belies the intense preparation that went into creating the source image, from purchasing the wig to taking and selecting a photographic template for the silkscreen. Warhol’s gaunt appearance, heightened by the contrast between light and dark, adds a strange, searing anxiety to these paintings. This picture appears to be a self-examination as well as a self-presentation—Warhol, like Bacon only a few years before, was looking into the mirror and confronting what he sees there

The psychological tension that is inherent in Study for Self-Portrait is enhanced by Bacon’s dramatic use of lighting. Although pictured front on, the features on the right of Bacon’s face dissolve into the darkness. His high cheekbones, strong jawline and deep eye sockets all fall away. Whereas on the left side of his face, the strong raking light exposes and exaggerates the artist’s features, on the right side, the impenetrable darkness shrouds him in mystery. This effect can also be seen, to a lesser extent, in his Three Studies for Self-Portrait painted earlier in 1979. The origins of this effect can be traced to Bacon’s interest in photography, and having seen in early modern photographs that were strongly lit. It could have been promoted in particular by the photographs of Helmar Lerski, who had taken a series of photographs of the artist after spotting the young Bacon on the street in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Bacon’s interest in photography continued throughout his life and became a central part of his painting practice, and he always maintained that he preferred to paint his subjects from photographs, rather than from real life, and it allowed him to truly deconstruct their facial features.

Francis Bacon’s paintings are among the most powerful works in the modern art historical canon. Visually arresting and psychologically penetrating, they represent the contemporary human condition. One of only a handful of self-portraits which he undertook in the last decade of his life, Study for Self-Portrait is one of the most striking from the later part of his career. Here, the artist breaks down his own image in order to build up a perceptive picture of himself. “Whether the distortions which I think sometimes bring the image over more violently are damage is a very questionable idea,” Bacon said. “I don’t think it is damage. You may say it’s damaging if you take it on the level of illustration. But not if you take it on the level of what I think of as art. One brings the sensation and feeling of life over the only way one can” (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, p. 43). The result is remarkably personal portrait that shows the complexity of the artist at first hand, and a remarkable new direction for the future of portraiture, as critic John Russell concluded. “…the image is nowhere fixed, finite, descriptive; and yet it tells us more fully and more truthfully than any conventional portrait what it is like to be a human being. It suggests to us that earlier images have been unwarrantedly bland in their presentation of human nature; and it also suggests that this particular new kind of presentation is something that only painting can do. Painting here reclaims its rights” (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London, 1971, p. 132).

 

 

         

 

 

A French exhibition of Francis Bacon turns him into that pseudointellectual dude from college

 

 

 

BY PHILIP KENNICOTT | ART & ARCHITECTURE CRITIC | MUSEUMS | REVIEW | THE WASHINGTON POST | OCTOBER 31, 2019

 

PARIS — There is something odd about the Francis Bacon exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, though it takes a while to discern exactly what that something is.

“Bacon: Books and Painting” displays the Irish-born artist’s late works (made from 1971 until shortly before his death in 1992) along with the books he cited as important influences on his emotional and intellectual life. It is the display of the books that is odd.

There they are, small tomes, some of them cheap paperbacks, carefully fitted into transparent, wall-mounted cases, like sacred relics or votives. Aeschylus’s “Oresteia,” the foundational trilogy of Western drama, is represented by the black-bound Penguin Classics version, clearly well-used and more than little dog-eared, and a hard-bound volume of Nietzsche, published by the British press George Allen and Unwin, looks like something picked up in a secondhand shop. Six books, including poetry by T.S. Eliot, and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” are the centerpieces of six small listening rooms, where visitors can hear excerpts read aloud in both French and English.

This wouldn’t happen in the United States.

Printed books aren’t just passe, they have been unfairly associated with ideas about elitism and the life of mind, which terrify museum professionals on this side of the Atlantic. The whole curatorial premise of the Pompidou show — that books were, in some complex way, essential inspirations for Bacon’s work — would be a hard sell in the Anglophone world, which has enshrined anti-intellectualism as the governing ethos of public space. Writers such as Eliot and Nietzsche are presumed to be a turnoff for most audiences, so audiences are protected from them.

But dig a little deeper into the Pompidou exhibition, and it’s clear that the French willingness to fetishize certain authors isn’t necessarily about ideas, either. Rather, it’s a collective bonding experience, enticing crowds to nod in recognition of authors who are represented by their most familiar, most basic, most commonly available thoughts. The excerpt from Nietzsche rehashes the fundamental aesthetic distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian art, which came together in the unity of Greek tragedy. The citation from Eliot is from “The Waste Land,” including these well-trod lines: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing” and the passage taken from Conrad ends with four of the most famous words in English literature, “The horror! The horror!”

This is undergraduate stuff, all worthy references but functioning in the context of the exhibit a bit like posters of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Picasso’s “Don Quixote” do on the walls of young people just discovering art. The curator of the Pompidou exhibition, Didier Ottinger, has situated the paintings of Bacon in the context of a Reader’s Digest assortment of texts, a general-interest, user-friendly survey of Big Thoughts 101, circa 1985.

And, sad to say, that seems to be just about what Bacon’s late work deserves. The exhibition takes up Bacon’s career at a critical moment in 1971, when he was given a major show at another major Paris institution, the Grand Palais. That show helped secure his reputation as one of the essential artists of the 20th century, earned him international recognition and further enhanced his reputation in France, where he was embraced as a latter-day reincarnation of the bohemian, bad-boy “genius.” It was also the same year that his lover, George Dyer, died of an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol, a suicide either intentional or the accumulated result of years of abuse. Dyer’s death came only two days before the Grand Palais exhibition opened, and Bacon was forced to soldier through the festivities as best he could.

Some critics see the aftermath of Dyer’s death as a time of deepening in Bacon’s art. The painter referenced his loss in multiple works, including several in this exhibition. Sometimes the reference is explicit in portraits of Dyer, and sometimes more elliptical, as in the harrowing “Triptych May-June 1973,” which shows Dyer’s familiar, swarthy, muscular form slumped on a toilet in one panel, vomiting in another and in profile against the void of a dark doorway in a third canvas, head in hand, eyes closed, lost to despair.

Neither the layout of the exhibition, nor the content of paintings and texts cited, make any specific connection between the books Bacon read and the paintings he made during these years, though Bacon sometimes cited books in the titles he gave to his work. Throughout his life, Bacon ostentatiously avoided talking about the content of his paintings, resisted most efforts to connect his work to that of other artists and maintained a studied evasiveness about things like inspiration and source material. This exhibition honors his resistance to interpretation by resisting any interpretive links between the “books and painting” cited in the show’s subtitle. The organizing principle is mere juxtaposition, not argument or analysis.

The result, in the end, is frustration, which carries over to the paintings themselves. There is a thinness to them, a repetition of means and ideas, and a clamoring for effects that all too often falls flat. In many cases, the paint is spread so thinly over the canvas that the painting seems to itch with dryness, and that itch conveys a sense of irritability to the viewer who remembers (perhaps from undergraduate years) the powerful impact of Bacon’s earlier work, in which he seemed to encapsulate the alienation and misery of 20th- century despair and anomie.

In the 1950s, Bacon made paintings that still raise the hairs on the back of your neck, of screaming figures, bodies trapped in hellish spaces, isolated and untethered from the world. He aligned himself with the dismantling of old ideologies, religion and philosophical systems among them, a dismantling that wasn’t limited to entrenched hypocrisies and hierarchies, but became a scorched-earth rejection of values, a volatile mix of hedonism and nihilism. The paintings seemed to encapsulate that, functioning as ready-made symbols for thoughts most people have at some point, before they begin to sort through the wreckage and salvage some sense of purpose.

The late work, by contrast, feels simply tired, which is no surprise. What Bacon began to do in the 1940s wasn’t sustainable, but he didn’t seem to have any other options, no new insights, no avenues to replenishing wellsprings. It’s possible to read Eliot’s “The Waste Land” when all of life is before you, and think there is some mystical space in its vagaries, that there is a kind of existence to be explored in the lines “I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing/Looking into the heart of light, the silence.” And it also possible to read that line decades later and recognize merely a trope for a certain dullness of thought spirit that gathers over time if we make no serious efforts to refurbish our minds.

One unwanted effect of juxtaposing Bacon’s books and his paintings is to suggest how shopworn they both were by the last decades of his life. He began as a rebel and ended a roue, spent and spinning his wheels. That conclusion is simplistic and reductionist, of course, but no more so than the ideas foregrounded in the exhibition.

For a foreign visitor, the show accidentally confirms nagging thoughts about Bacon: that he was well-versed in the rudiments of some once fashionable ideas, just as he was highly skilled at conveying a small subset of human emotions, again and again. It’s hard to say which is better, an American-style exhibition that would suggest he had no thoughts at all, or the French style, which suggests he was merely conversant rather than genuinely engaged with ideas.

“Bacon: Books and Paintings” is on view at the Centre Pompidou in Paris through Jan. 20.


 

 

     

                      Installation shot of Bacon: Books and Painting at the Centre Pomidou  (Philippe Migeat/Centre Pompidou)

 


 

 

 

The philosophy books that inspired Francis Bacon’s art

 

 

 

On his 110th birthday week, we’ve chosen five philosophy and psychoanalysis books that inspired the transgressive painter

 

 

GUNSELI YALCINKAYA | ART & PHOTOGRAPHY | FEATURE | DAZED | 29 OCTOBER 2019 

 

Francis Bacon read books just like he painted: deep, dark, and complex. The Irish figurative painter was said to have had an enormous amount of books sprawled across his London studio, from modernist giants like T.S.Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and Marcel Proust, to Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze, Sigmund Freud, and Jacques Lacan, reflecting the artist’s explicit interest in philosophy and psychoanalysis. In a 1966 interview with British art critic David Sylvester, he claimed to know some of these books “by heart”.

“I call it my imagination material,” he told French photographer Francis Giacobetti in 1991, during what would become his final interview before his death the following year. “I need to visualise things that lead me to other forms or subjects, details, images that influence my nervous system and transform the basic idea.” Like Bacon’s own artwork, which could be described as spectacles of horror – visceral, distorted images of crucifixions, mutilations, and monsters – his chosen literature was equally transgressive, often opposing existing philosophical and political ideas of their time.

On what would be the 110th anniversary of his birth, we’ve chosen five of Bacon’s favourite philosophy and psychoanalysis books.

 

 

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE’S BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL

 

In this seminal text, German existentialist Nietzsche begins by critiquing philosophers who ground their ideas on principles such as self-consciousness, free will, and either/or, instead identifying imagination, danger, originality, and the “creation of values” as the key qualities of a philosopher.

With 296 aphorisms, ranging from a few lines to a few pages, Nietzsche grounds his philosophy from the perspective of “beyond good and evil”, or beyond a universal moral code. The driving force in all humans, Nietzsche believes, is a “will to power”, and while this is not given a strict definition, can roughly be defined as a thirst for life, or the drive to transcend the self through the exercise of creative power. This thirst for life can be seen across Bacon’s artscape. Paintings like “Head IV” and “Study for a Portrait”, for example, present their solitary subjects as tormented, isolated creatures, held in a perpetual screams.

 

 

MARCEL PROUST’S IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME 

 

 

A fictional autobiography made up of seven volumes, In Search of Lost Time traces Proust’s life from the perspective of the narrator as a child and as an old man looking back on his youth

Striking semblance to Bacon’s deformed, blurred subjects, Proust’s book examines the corroding effect of time, which he initially believes makes human experiences and feelings fade to nothing: historical events are forgotten or confused; social values change; as individuals, we forget the details of our own past. It’s only in the book’s final pages that he realises his past emotions and experiences are eternally present in his unconscious, and can survive in works of art.

 

 

JACQUES LACAN’S ECRITS