Francis Bacon News
Francis Bacon News
By Clare Morgan, Sydney Morning Herald, Friday, January 7, 2005
Things will be quieter but no less intense a few days later for the world premiere of Australian playwright Steven Sewell’s latest work, Three Furies: Scenes From the Life of Francis Bacon, directed by Jim Sharman. The play with songs explores the tempestuous relationship between Bacon and his model, muse and lover, George Dyer, who committed suicide on the eve of the artist’s great Paris retrospective.
Brett Sheehy says he has seen the work evolve from a text-based two-hander when he first spoke to Sewell about it several years ago, "to a hybrid work that is half musical theatre, half lunar cycle".
"I love that Brian Thomson and Jim Sharman are together again after The Rocky Horror Picture Show all those years ago. Both have, in a kind of theatrical way, created a Bacon triptych on stage. What this looks at is the role of the model, the muse and beauty in art."
This is Sheehy’s final festival. Whatever the verdict, he confesses he might shed a tear once it’s over — in private, at least.
"One of the primary roles of a festival is to present something that moves people and touches them and affects them," he says. "The idea that you can deliver a great artistic moment to people for the price of a railway ticket, I kind of love that. To watch people’s faces light up, and see that they’re moved and touched by something, makes my heart sing."
A tale of sound and furies
Arts Performance, Sydney Star Observer, Issue 747, 12 January 2005
The gayest event of the Sydney Festival,
a sensual and hallucinogenic exploration of the
life of painter Francis Bacon, can be seen in previews from this week.
The versatile Simon Burke plays the tortured gay artist, who on the eve of a major Paris exhibition is faced with the suicide of his muse and lover George Dyer.
Three Furies: Scenes From The Life Of Francis Bacon features strong language and nudity, is directed by Jim Sharman and co-stars Socratis Otto as The Model and siren Paula Arundell as Tisiphone.
Take the trip at the Sydney Opera House, Playhouse from 15 to 29 January. Phone 9250 7777 for bookings.
Confessions of an amoralist
SEBASTIAN SMEE | THE AUSTRALIAN |
| THE AUSTRALIAN
|FRIDAY, JANUARY 14, 2005
tongues is not always easy, but artists are generally much more interesting on
the subject of art than critics. No surprise there.
The 19th century produced a bonanza of artists’ writings about art, and books such as Delacroix’s journals and the letters of both Cezanne and Van Gogh have long been recognised as literary masterpieces.
They contain more than their matchless insights into the business of making art; their ostensible frames of reference tend to dissolve as you read, so that you find yourself reading not about art but about life itself.
In the 20th century, there were few records of an artist’s thinking more influential than Francis Bacon’s interviews with the critic David Sylvester. First published in 1975, the book which collected and reprinted these interviews is now in its fifth edition, and has had a huge influence not only on artists, but on novelists, playwrights, poets, musicians and film-makers across the world.
It has also done wonders for Bacon’s posthumous reputation, leaving scholars and curators with an almost endless source of ideas. Just last year, a huge exhibition called Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art was organised by the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland; the pairing of Bacon paintings with works by Titian, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Goya, Van Gogh and Picasso were almost all inspired by what Bacon said about those artists in the interviews.
Bacon the man is the subject of one of the Sydney Festival’s main attractions — Stephen Sewell’s Three Furies: Scenes From the Life of Francis Bacon, a play with songs.
Two films about Bacon are also being screened on Sunday as part of the festival’s film program. One of them is the recording of an encounter between Bacon and the poet William Burroughs in Bacon’s London studio in 1982. The other is an interview with Bacon conducted by Melvyn Bragg for The South Bank Show in 1985.
It has to be said that by 1985 (he died in 1992) Bacon was almost interviewed out. The Sylvester interviews in the book are published in nine parts. They were taped conversations conducted privately or in studios for radio and television. The last ones, conducted in the mid-’80s, are full of tiresome repetitions, mannered formulations and barely veiled self-regard — a lot like Bacon’s late paintings.
But the earlier interviews, like Bacon’s best work, are quite unforgettable. They reflect on his own life ("I live in, you may say, a gilded squalor"); his upbringing in Ireland; his love of gambling; his homosexuality (in one extraordinary dialogue he discusses being sexually attracted to his father); his fascination with photography and film; his distaste for abstract art; the success and failure of his own work (he dismisses outright some of his most famous paintings, including those of the human scream and the series after Velazquez’s Pope Innocent X: "they’re very silly"); and the unique condition of art today.
"You see, all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself ... I think that is the way things have changed, and what is fascinating now is that it’s going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to be any good at all."
Bacon is especially good on other artists. His comments on Degas’s pastels and on Velazquez’s sophisticated recording of the Spanish court ("You feel the shadow of life passing all the time") have stayed with me ever since I first read them as a teenager.
Bacon was adamantly amoral, and along with this came a contempt for all forms of artificial security, including government welfare: "I think that being nursed from the cradle to the grave would bring such a boredom to life ... But people seem to expect that and think it is their right. I think that, if people have that attitude to life, it curtails the creative instinct."
Although he was irreligious, one of Bacon’s prevailing obsessions was the art historical theme of the Crucifixion. He famously likened the figure of Christ in Cimabue’s 13th-century Crucifixion to "a worm crawling down the cross".
After a while you begin to suspect that a lot of what Bacon says is calculated to shock. When he says: "You know in my case, all painting is accident. So I foresee it in my mind and yet I hardly ever carry it out as I foresee it. It transforms itself by the actual paint" — it sounds a brilliant and explosive thing to say.
But examined more closely, it begins to feel jerry-built. To the extent that it is true, isn’t it more or less true for all successful forms of creativity? And then, to the extent that it is false, it is self-evidently so: a good painting, as Bacon himself knew, is hard work, and it usually involves making thousands of decisions, both conscious and instinctive.
Look at Bacon’s own work and one sees instantly that the best of it is highly calculated and beautifully finished. Chance plays a crucial role. But he exaggerates this role for rhetorical purposes.
No matter. As he said: "As existence in a way is so banal, you may as well try and make a kind of grandeur of it rather than be nursed to oblivion."
David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon is published by Thames & Hudson
Bacon Meets Burroughs and Portrait of an Artist: Francis Bacon screen at the Dendy Cinema, Opera Quays, Sydney on Sunday.
Three Furies: Scenes from the Life of Francis Bacon is at the Sydney Opera House, January 15-29.
Lifting the veil on Bacon’s dark world
Jim Sharman is driven by the power to transform, writes Angela Bennie.
ANGELA BENNIE | SYDNEY MORNING HERALD |
| SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
|FRIDAY, JANUARY 14, 2005
Take the facts of the matter: it is the eve of the huge 1971 Paris retrospective exhibition of the artist Francis Bacon’s work, the big splash that would have him declared the greatest figurative artist of the 20th century. The French president Georges Pompidou himself is to open it. Bacon’s muse and lover, George Dyer, alone in their hotel room, dies in his own vomit and excrement sitting on the toilet bowl in his underpants, apparently from an overdose of drugs and feelings of rejection and abandonment.
Bacon goes on to paint a triptych depicting his lover in various stages of his lonely death throes; and the Triptych of May-June 1973 comes to be regarded as one of Bacon’s greatest works.
Tragedy? Soap opera? Pathos? Bathos?
Now take up a scalpel knife. No palette knife will do here. Scrape away these facts from the surface of the matter and smear them instead across a word canvas. Let them flow like runnels of paint across the canvas in contrapuntal or syncopated rhythms of vivid feeling and sloughs of contorted flesh. Sideways with the knife push them hard into the prose of ordinary, everyday speech, or let them burst into verse patterns like those in Eliot’s The Waste Land or Sweeney Agonistes’s lurid descriptions of "Birth, and copulation, and death. That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks".
Now mix in the wrath of the Greek Furies and the raw pain of Bacon’s grief— and you might be close to the performing text of Stephen Sewell’s new play, which opens on Wednesday night at the Opera House, as part of the Sydney Festival.
The work, Three Furies: Scenes from the Life of Francis Bacon, is described as a play with songs, but this is too coy. Its music scheme is operatic and yet vaudevillian; its drama stretches from Euripides to Joe Orton, and across all boundaries into the howling soul of a Francis Bacon painting. It is definitive Sewell, working in top gear.
"I believe he has created a new form," says Jim Sharman, who is directing the new work. From someone who has experimented with just about every form the theatre can offer— and has mastered all of them — this could not be hyperbole. This is a fact, as far as Sharman is concerned. It is clear he is very excited.
Perhaps Sharman’s positive response is coloured by his own great interest in Bacon’s work.
"Like others of my generation, I was greatly influenced by him," he admits. "He showed me another way of looking at the world and of seeing the world. Though I don’t necessarily share his point of view, he gave me a certain insight into the way things were behind appearance. You draw back the curtain, as he did, and the truth is there. Dark it might have been, but true it was."
This vision was generational, Sharman says. Bacon comes out of a postwar period where half of Europe had been destroyed, the atom bomb dropped, the facts of the Holocaust revealed.
"This is a time that produced such artists as Bacon and Beckett, Giacometti, and Patrick White is in there, too," says Sharman. "Bacon describes himself as an optimist about nothing. I sympathise with this. Behind the veil lies the truth, the real. This is what he was after in his painting, the brutality of the fact."
Sharman first encountered Sewell’s work on Bacon when it was sent to him in very early draft form, almost embryonic. Even then, he says, he recognised something about it that made him sit up and take notice.
"I engaged with it straight away," Sharman says. "Apart from the fact that it was about Bacon, it was the quality of the writing that impressed me. It was its musicality. I recognised that this was Stephen aiming at something very ambitious. I responded to that."
Sharman has always responded to the ambitious, you might say, especially to that strain of it in himself. But perhaps he would not call it this. "I am not frightened of the imaginative, no," he says instead, with some irony.
"So we began collaborating together on it, Stephen writing, me in the background helping with the structuring, because some of it was very difficult, finding ways to take the work where he wanted to take it.
"In the early stages of the collaboration, at first we approached each other with mutual caution. But when he realised that I, too, wanted to row the boat out, not bring it back to shore, be safe, that I wanted him to take it into uncharted waters, that the whole collaborative thing took off. I would say, ’Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go out there!" And he would respond with this wonderful writing, this remarkable shifting he is doing between great tragedy and comic vaudeville playing at one and the same time."
Theatre, for both these artists, has never been small happenings in little rooms. It is a great force for change and revelation; and both artists have built careers on finding ways of harnessing that force to push the boundaries as far out from the shore as they dared to go.
"The theatre of the Greeks and the Elizabethans, that is the kind of theatre I like," says Sharman. "And Stephen has written a modern version of an Elizabethan play; it has something of its vitality in its form. The notion that theatre has the power to really transform, through laughter, tears, song, dance, whatever, is at the heart of what I’ve ever done in the theatre.
"I have felt a sense of wrapping up lately. But this is the first thing for a long time where I have felt this feeling of something happening that is completely new.
"I find I rely very much more on instinct now, than thinking things out, as I have in the past.
"Bacon, too, worked very much on the theory of chance, or what he called ordered chaos."
Between them, Sewell and Sharman have delved deep in the realm of ordered chaos, and found a way to lift the veil once more from our eyes, so that we may see a truth, whether the brutality of fact, or its beauty, in the life of Francis Bacon.
"Between life and death," Bacon once said, "it’s always been the same thing. It is what it is. It is the violence of life."
There lies the fact of the matter.
Three Furies: Scenes from the Life of Francis Bacon, a play with songs by Stephen Sewell, is at the Sydney Opera House Playhouse, January 19-29.
Three Furies, The Playhouse
By Stephen Sewell
The Playhouse, Opera
Until January 29
Reviewed by Bryce Hallett, Sydney Morning Herald, 21st January, 2005
Stephen Sewell’s intoxicating cabaret of the great and difficult artist Francis Bacon is exciting, absorbing and brilliantly performed.
At 90 minutes or so the biographical dissection fuses stark, ancient storytelling forms with the conventions of domestic drama and the biting flavour and force of German cabaret. It is audacious, angry, desperate, brutal, loving and mad — a tragicomedy embracing the spirit by which Picasso and Bacon sought to overturn the rules of appearance to fathom hard truths.
"We are born with a scream; we come into life with a scream, and maybe love is a mosquito net between the fear of living and the fear of death," said Bacon. It is this shimmering "scream" that Sewell and director Jim Sharman give potent theatrical representation to as they probe the artist’s cravings, extremities, verbal lacerations and his explosive relationship with his model, "muse" and lover, George Dyer.
Three Furies unleashes the demons as though Bacon’s own rough, expressive, butchered, distorted figures and forms have sprung on to the stage, not in any literal sense, but in the repellent force and beauty of the language, and the beat, growl and ironic tenderness of Basil Hogios’s compositions.
"The men I painted were all in extreme situations, and the scream is a transcription of their pain," explained Bacon. No truer words were uttered given the rage that spews forth from Simon Burke in his outstanding turn as the brutally objective painter, drinker and gambler. It is one of Burke’s most shining performances to date as he sinks deep into the demanding role by keeping a cool head, projecting the essential vanity and communicating an abiding sense of the detached, intense, lonely core where art is made.
Socratis Otto is excellent as the model — easy on the eye, witless, affectionate and no match for his virtuosic creator. Dyer succumbs to excess and rejection, and pathetically rails against being reduced to a carcass on his vivisector’s table. Sewell masterfully tempers sheer nastiness and terror with an underlying sweetness and recognition of human difficulties and flaws. With echoes of Christopher Isherwood’s writings of Berlin and wartime bohemia as well as reminders of Joe Orton and his destructive relationship with his lover Kenneth Halliwell, Three Furies is wildly illuminating, dark and unsentimental. It is, however, strangely moving in places, especially when Dyer, broken and abandoned, commits suicide on the eve of Bacon’s 1971 Paris retrospective. He is found dead on the lavatory of their hotel room while the "ageless" Anglo-Irish artist is anointed the greatest figurative painter of the 20th century.
The paradoxes of mortality and fame, the sexual ambiguities, the tortures, the yearning for liberation and love colour the world of Three Furies — a tale amplified by the commentator/chanteuse, the fury Tisiphone, played with raunchy vigour by Paula Arundell. Her singing and passion add wonders to the show, although some of Hogios’s musical reprises are overdone and strain for effect. I could have done without the "hoity-toity artist" refrain but it’s an effective score on the whole and the lyrics are deft, biting and suggestive.
Three Furies has many of the showman Sharman’s hallmarks for vivid, transformative theatre. Together with designers Brian Thomson (set), Alice Lau (costumes) and Damien Cooper (lighting) he has produced a startlingly inventive, austere vaudeville and drama. Like the best theatre it’s not the least bit dull and persuades the audience to make discoveries of its own. It’s one of the brightest and boldest bio-plays I’ve seen and ultimately a metaphor of life in all its traumatic, monstrous, unknowable glory.
Sydney Festival: Bringing down the house
SYDNEY FESTIVAL WRAPS UP THIS WEEK, WITH TWO AUSTRALIAN PRODUCTIONS
OFFERING BLEAK BUT BEAUTIFUL SPECTACLES.
TIM BENZIE REVIEWS.
TIM BENZIE |
|SYDNEY STAR OBSERVER | THURSDAY 27 JANUARY 2005
tortured older gay artist, a cranky, pretty muse and a truly ugly
Three Furies, Scenes from the Life of Francis Bacon
The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House; 392 Seats; A$51 ($39) Top
SYDNEY — A Sydney Festival presentation in association with Adelaide Festival of the Arts, Perth Intl. Arts Festival,
Griffin Theater Company and Sydney Opera House of a drama with songs in one act by Stephen Sewell.
Directed by Jim Sharman.
The painter - Simon Burke
The Model - Socratis Otto
Tisiphone - Paula Arundell
BY MICHAELA BOLAND |
|VARIETY | FRIDAY 28 JANUARY 2005
Only a few years ago, scribe Stephen Sewell couldn’t get a theatre gig in Australia. The mainstage companies were not taking his calls, he’d outgrown the fringe scene and his next step wasn’t immediately apparent. He dabbled in screenwriting, most notably with The Boys, and dreamed up the idea of exploring the lives of painters onstage.
So followed The Secret Death of Salvador Dali, produced most recently by Griffin Theatre Company in 2004, and now, Three Furies, Scenes From the Life of Francis Bacon a much bigger production backed by three leading Oz arts festivals and harnessing the talents of The Rocky Horror Picture Show helmer Jim Sharman.
Compared with the super-conservative plays finding favour on Australia’s mainstages this year, Three Furies occupies another realm, intentionally so. It is a festival piece – bold, explicit and challenging – and as such should enjoy a fruitful life.
It is a terrifically textured work. Sharman visually references Bacon’s paintings, with the three-doored set conjuring any number of his triptychs. The drama centres on Bacon and his lover and model from 1964-71, the handsome, uneducated petty criminal George Dyer, the inspiration for much of the painter’s work during that period.
Simon Burke and Socratis Otto work well opposite each other. Burke is the short-tempered artist forced to repeatedly quash the whining demands of Otto’s rough, dim-witted model, whose ambitions have grown to dwarf his talent.
Dyer begins to become annoyed that Bacon doesn’t include him in all aspects of his life, such as inviting him to the glamorous opening nights of his exhibitions. He also comes to believe Bacon’s painting of him are him; the artist is forced to argue, in ever plainer terms, that it is his genius on the canvas and Dyer should remember he is but a piece of meat, albeit a pretty one.
Sewell constructs a wonderfully complex Bacon, a man predisposed to haughtiness and exasperated coolness, but not cruel. He is the product of an unstable childhood shuttling between Ireland and England, with a disciplinarian father inclined to horse-whip his offspring. That discipline finds its way into a predilection for sadomasochism in later life.
A chanteuse as Greek chorus, Tisiphone (Paula Arundell) completes the trinity, many of her lines sung in a raspy, Marianne Faithfull-with-less-range style.
The decision to forgo an intermission was wise. The spell of Three Furies, once cast, would suffer from being broken.Sets, Brian Thompson; costumes, Alice Lau; lighting, Damien Cooper; music, Basil Hogios; production stage manager; Tanya Leach. Opened, reviewed Jan. 19, 2005. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.
For Francis Bacon the camera wasn’t a threat to painterly creation but the perfect means to an end.
A fascinating new book reveals how the artist used the ‘significant falsehood’ of photography to expose brutally even those he loved most.
BY JOHN BANVILLE
|THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH | SUNDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2005
All art is touched with the prophetic, and none more darkly so than the art of Francis Bacon. There are two particularly uncanny instances of Bacon’s involuntary ability to foretell the future in his paintings. In Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe (1963), a study based on a series of photographs of Bacon’s friend Henrietta Moraes, the syringe was added only because, the artist said, he wanted the effect of a nailing of the flesh onto the bed’. Years later, however, Moraes, on her own admission, did become addicted to drugs.
A more startling, and for Bacon surely a more harrowing, case of artistic divination occurs in the triptych Three Figures in a room, the left-hand panel of which depicts a broad backed naked man, seen from behind, sitting on a lavatory. The painting was done in 1964, the year that Bacon began an affair with George Dyer, an East Ender who moved on the fringes of the criminal underworld. Dyer, a handsome, stocky, silkily brutal looking man with an exciting edge of danger to him, became a rich source of images for Bacon images which are among the most powerful in the Bacon oeuvre.
The figure in the triptych is most likely Dyer, for it bears a strong resemblance to the subjects of other paintings of male nudes in which Dyer is the named sitter. In October 1971, seven years after Three Figures and barely 36 hours 1971 before one of the high points of Bacon’s career, the opening in Paris of a huge retrospective at the Grand Palais, Dyer committed suicide in the room he and Bacon were sharing at a hotel on the rue des Saints Pères. The dead man was discovered slumped on the lavatory, a scene hauntingly commemorated in the stark but beautiful Triptych May June, 1973.
In the early 1930s, at the very start of Bacon’s career as an artist, there was another, subtler presagement when the collector Sir Michael Sadler, having purchased, by telegram, Bacon’s early Crucifixion (1933) after seeing a photograph of it in an art magazine, went on to commission a portrait from the young artist. He sent an X ray of his own skull as the model. The result was another crucifixion scene, incorporating a representation of the transparent skull; it was an apt image for a depiction of the agony on Golgotha the place of the skull’ a subject to which Bacon returned often in the early years of his career, and traces of which persist throughout his work.
This was the first occasion on which Bacon transferred an image straight from the camera on to the canvas; it was not to be the last. Indeed, from the early 1960s onwards he would paint portraits only from photographs taken by specially commissioned professionals, especially the Vogue photographer John Deakin, whose portrait studies Bacon considered ‘the best since Nadar and Julia Margaret Cameron’. Bacon adopted this method at least partly out of regard for his sitters, whose features he would distort to the point of turning them into grotesques. ‘If I like them,’ he said, ‘I don’t want to practise the injury that I do them in my work before them. I would rather practise the injury in private…’
Bacon’s use of photography, either as a stimulus for inspiration or as a source of subject matter, was not as extensive as that of, for instance, Picasso, among whose effects after his death were discovered several thousand photographs, many taken by the artist himself. But Bacon did leave many photographs strewn about his studio in Reece Mews, Kensington, the contents of which were donated to the city of Dublin by Bacon’s heir, John Edwards; the studio, lovingly recreated in Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery, is a Baconian room within a room, a kind of camera lucida that is viewed from the back through spy holes fitted with lenses.
Amid the dense clutter of painting materials in the studio bristling pots of brushes recall the patch of thorns into which the agonised figure in the right side panel of the 1944 Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is thrusting its hand there are countless smudged and scribbled on photographs, including studies of Bacon himself by John Deakin, Peter Beard, Henri Cartier-Bresson and others. Bacon drew on photographs literally, in many cases as a means of capturing the world and people at moments of physical contingency and stress. He frequently incorporated photographic images directly into his paintings, most famously stills of the nurse’s face in the Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin, and colour reproductions of Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X.
The Velázquez picture was one to which Bacon returned repeatedly, and which he made the basis of what are perhaps his most famous works, the ‘Screaming Popes’ series done at various stages from the 1950s through to the early 1970s. He said of Pope Innocent X, ‘I became obsessed by this painting and I bought photograph after photograph of it. I think really that was my first subject.’
In light of this, it is an indication of his preference for reproductions over originals that during a three month visit to Rome in 1954, after parting from his lover Peter Lacy and when he had time on his hands, he did not bother to go to see the Velazquez portrait, which he could easily have done, since it is housed in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. This omission was not unusual; there are many accounts of Bacon on his travels being urged by the curators of this or that great gallery to come and view their treasures always in vain. (It is surely not incidental to his preference for reproductions over originals that Bacon’s own pictures, even the biggest and most complex of them, retain a remarkable vividness and clarity of composition even when reproduced in quite small photographs, as can clearly be seen in a new study of his work, In Camera, Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, by Martin Harrison.)
A central source of images for Bacon in his early years as a painter was the weekly illustrated news magazine Picture Post. There are some telling working documents in the Bacon archives showing images clipped from Picture Post, notably, for instance, two shots of Goering and Goebbels, both of them haranguing their supporters with mouth agape and an arm uplifted, a pose which is endemic in Bacon’s work.
Bacon also kept by him throughout his working life a small number of key books with photographic illustrations. One was a volume on diseases of the mouth, with hand tinted plates, bought from a Paris bookstall in the 1930s. Another was Positioning in Radiography by KC Clark, published in 1939, showing the correct ways in which to situate patients undergoing X ray investigation. The artist plundered both these books for working material. A further important source of images was the splendidly named Baron Albert von Schrenck Notzing’s Phenomena of Materialisation, published in English in 1920. It is a photograph from this last, of the medium Eva Carrière apparently producing from her head an ectoplasmic image of a woman’s face, which is a direct model for the figure in the left-hand panel of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), the breakthrough work for Bacon and the one he considered his first real painting.
Bacon was nonetheless indifferent to photography as an art form and does not seem to have had any great interest in taking pictures himself, although Triptych March 1974 is directly modelled on a Polaroid self portrait shot in a mirror. The few of his own photographs that survive are surprisingly conventional; the portrait of his cousin Diana Watson taken in the late 1930s, for example, and the pictures of his sister lanthe Knott that he took in the 1960s. Yet in the triptychStudies from the Human Body (1970) the camera itself makes an appearance, a wonderfully bug eyed, minatory monster that is a sort of parody of the human head.
It is Bacon’s revolutionary treatment of the head that is his greatest overall achievement. No one, not even Picasso, had dared to twist and mould the skull and the face as Bacon does, smearing them, scooping great hollows out of them, turning them inside out, and yet always retaining a likeness which, as in the case especially of George Dyer and Henrietta Moraes, becomes more compelling and unmistakable the more violent the distortion. He took his inspiration in this area from a wide variety of sources the scream of the mother in Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents he described as the greatest human cry in art’ and even from antiquity. Consider, for instance, the striking echoes of another of Bacon’s working documents, a photograph of an early Egyptian bust of Pthames, in the Sketch for Portrait of Lisa (1955). Bacon’s picture, bathed in an uncharacteristic stillness, is a profound, post-Freudian study which yet retains the classical poise of the ancient head or at least the reproduction of that ancient head that was in part its inspiration.
Before 1962 Bacon used only trouvailles, the bits and scraps chanced upon in illustrated books, or clipped from magazines, or in the action studies of Eadweard Muybridge, or found in film stills. After 1962 he began to commission photographs of models ‘to conform,’ according to Martin Harrison, ‘with preconceived ideas for a painting.’ Important instances of such commissioning are John Deakin’s pictures of Henrietta Moraes, Muriel Belcher and George Dyer Deakin’s photograph of Dyer with his head turned violently to the left, as if flinching from a blow or from the sight of something terrible, recurs throughout the series of memorial pictures Bacon painted of his dead lover in the 1970s, pictures which are perhaps the pinnacle of Bacon’s art. Bacon always deplored the interpretation of his pictures as testaments of philosophical angst, despite the extremities into which he forces his human subjects. What he was after was the actual, and his people, no matter how physically deformed they may be in his representation of them, are real human beings.
Bacon may be considered to have set out specifically to answer the confrontational question which many painters in the 19th century thought photography to pose: what is the best means of representing quotidian reality? The advent of photography led some artists to despair. The painter Paul Delaroche declared, as early as 1839, From today painting is dead.’ Even an eminence as lofty as Turner observed mournfully: ‘This is the end of Art. lam glad I have had my day.’ They were wrong, of course, as Bacon among others was to prove. True, painting lost to the camera something of its pre eminence, particularly in documentary terms, and it was that something that Bacon was determined to recoup. In that endeavour he utilised the photograph itself, but only, in the critic John Russell’s fine phrase, as a ‘significant falsehood’.
Bacon himself expressed his position with his usual candour and eloquence: ‘I think of myself as a kind of pulverising machine into which everything I look at and feel is fed. I believe that I am different from the mixed media jackdaws who use photographs etc more or less literally or cut them up and rearrange them. The literalness of photographs so used even if they are only fragments will prevent the emergence of real images, because the literalness of the appearance has not been sufficiently digested and transformed. In my case the photographs become a sort of compost out of which images emerge from time to time. Those images may be partly conditioned by the mood of the material which has gone into the pulveriser.’
It was the real that Bacon was after, and he concentrated his quest in a lifelong interrogation of the human form. What is remarkable in Bacon’s work is not the deformities he inflicts upon his subjects or the sense of desperation and violence they express, but the extraordinary sense of human presence that he achieves. These people, twisted, as it might seem, almost out of recognition, are fleshy, palpable not nude but stark naked and graspable in the extreme painterly quality of their appearance. ‘Bacon’s version of realism,’ Harrison writes, ‘depended on live, full pigment. He did not paint simulacra of photographs, but he appropriated their transformative charge to disrupt European cultural traditions, to dissolve past into present.’ That dissolution is a large part of Bacon’s greatness, the alchemical process which makes him one of the quintessential artists of our desolated and blood boltered time.
In Camera, Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting (Thames & Hudson, £35) by Martin Harrison, published on 7 March.An 'Arena' programme on Francis Bacon will be broadcast on 19 March at 9pm on BBC 2
Francis Bacon: lost and found
Martin Harrison analyses the information that has recently come to light
about paintings that Bacon destroyed, mutilated or radically altered.
What do such incidents reveal about Bacon’s attitude to his art?
|APOLLO | MARCH 2005
When Francis Bacon died, in 1992, the floor of his studio in Reece Mews, South Kensington, was left in the state that had already become sedimented in the Bacon mythology, strewn with tattered magazines and books, and creased, torn and paint-spattered photographs (Fig. 1). Painstakingly excavated and transferred in its entirety in 1998 to the Hugh Lane Gallery in the city of Bacon’s birth, Dublin, the studio is now preserved for study, and the cataloguing of its contents is enabling some of the obfuscation surrounding the relationship between Bacon’s source material and his painting procedures to be penetrated.
Elsewhere, further previously unidentified artefacts continue to emerge. Among these documents is a handful of photographs that recorded, sometimes incidentally, paintings that Bacon subsequently either altered or destroyed: these, too, are proving to be invaluable in illuminating certain unresearched aspects of Bacon’s practice.
Six months after Bacon’s death, his paintings were hung together with Picasso’s Crucifixion (1930), and some of the Crucifixion drawings Picasso made in Boisgeloup in 1932, in the exhibition 'The Body on the Cross' at the Muse Picasso, Paris. Intrigued and delighted at the prospect of sharing a space with the artist who, more than sixty years earlier, had inspired him to take up painting, Bacon agreed to be interviewed by Jean Clair for the catalogue of the exhibition. He told Clair of the profound impression made on him in 1971 when Valerie Eliot published her late husband’s The Waste Land alongside the extensive corrections and deletions made by Ezra Pound to the original text. Although Bacon remained staunchly independent of any established literary or artistic circles, next to Picasso the poetry of Aeschylus and of T.S. Eliot inspired more of his paintings than the work of any artist. 'Pound made it ten times better', (1) commented Bacon on the excisions and alterations to Eliot’s poem; he frequently reiterated his regret at not having a comparable guru figure to tell him what to discard, although he admitted that: 'Of course, it’s true there are a very, very few people who could help me by their criticism'. (2)
It is hard to imagine Bacon being even remotely receptive to such trenchant advice, however distinguished its author. On the other hand, he was a ruthless self-editor, at least as hard on his own efforts as on those of his contemporaries. He was as scathing in condemnation of his widely-admired 'Popes', for example, as he was about the paintings of Jackson Pollock ('that dribbling of paint all over the canvas just looked like old lace') or Mark Rothko ('rather dismal variations on colour'); (3) even when praising the masters he most admired – Velazquez, Rembrandt, Seurat – he seldom omitted to qualify his approbation.
Dissatisfaction with his own paintings usually resulted in their destruction. Indeed, he was so ruthless that from the first fifteen years of his career, between 1929 and 1944, only fourteen paintings and drawings survive. Subsequently, as Bacon came under increased pressure from his dealers to fulfil scheduled exhibition dates, it is probable that he jettisoned proportionately less of his work, but even towards the end of his life either he, or more usually a friend, maintained the ritual slashing with a knife-blade of rejected canvases.
Today, notwithstanding these depredations, Bacon’s oeuvre comprises nearly six hundred paintings – sufficient, it might be thought, to represent a great artist. How, then, could the urge be justified to resurrect works that Bacon presumably wished to remain buried? Firstly, Bacon, unlike most artists, did not make preliminary drawings, although, consistent with the stimulation he found in literature, he frequently compiled hand-written lists of ideas for paintings. Apart from his mass-media source imagery and a handful of vigorous but fairly schematic compositional sketches dating from around 1960, (4) there is scant surviving material that might elucidate the evolution of his paintings. Secondly, even Bacon himself regretted having destroyed certain paintings, in particular one of his earliest 'Popes', Study after Velazquez (1950). He had intended to send the painting to the Festival of Britain exhibition '60 Paintings for 51', but withdrew it and – or so he misremembered later – destroyed it. Included in John Rothenstein and Ronald Alley’s 1964 catalogue raisonne of Bacon as a 'destroyed picture', it was in fact removed from its stretcher and stored away at the Chelsea artists' suppliers Bacon used. It was not until 1996 that it was rediscovered.
David Sylvester both confirmed the genuineness of Bacon’s expressions of regret at losing the painting, and gave his own opinion that it was the 'finest "Pope" ever', (5) Bacon’s dealers, Hanover Gallery and Marlborough Fine Art, arranged as a matter of course for his completed paintings to be photographed, but those he abandoned were, understandably, seldom recorded. Study after Velazquez was an exception, no doubt reflecting Bacon’s ambivalence about the painting. But fortunately, a few of the definitely lost works were captured, partly fortuitously, by the camera, and in somewhat different circumstances.
In 1962, the first of two Tate retrospectives held in Bacon’s lifetime substantially raised his public profile. Gregarious as a mainly nocturnal drinker and gambler, by day he was reclusive and solitary as a painter. There was an increasing demand for him to be photographed and filmed in his studio, but he always took the precaution of turning the painted side of his canvases away from the lens. Among his circle of friends, however, were several accomplished photographers, notably his fellow Soho-ites Dan Farson and John Deakin. After 1962 Bacon rarely painted from life. Instead he commissioned John Deakin to document the friends who became the models for many of his portraits during the next two decades – Lucian Freud, George Dyer, Henrietta Moraes and Isabel Rawsthorne. Probably operating under Bacon’s direction, Deakin used a Rolleiflex rollfilm camera attached to a tripod. Other photographers had evolved a modus operandi with hand-held 35mm cameras that was more rapid, informal and relatively non-intrusive: having been photographed by the doyen of this technique, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and photojournalists such as Larry Burrows, Bacon was accustomed to the quick fire of the miniature format camera shutter. The wildlife photographer Peter Beard, whom Bacon met in 1966, became a close friend and the subject of more than twenty of Bacon’s paintings between 1975 and 1980. He provided most of the self-portrait photographs of his head from which Bacon painted his portraits, and he in turn photographed Bacon constantly.
On his frequent visits to London, Beard’s diaristic camera became a natural accompaniment to their socialising, and evidently Bacon was relaxed enough to allow Beard to continue photographing while his paintings remained visible. At least two of the paintings that can be observed in the backgrounds of Beard’s photographs were, it transpired, eventually destroyed by Bacon. Beard’s black and white images are, therefore, the sole visual evidence of two compelling, but in several respects atypical, paintings.
The first of these paintings, George Dyer with camera, is visible in Figure 5. Painted c. 1969, it depicts Dyer, Bacon’s lover and muse, apparently metamorphosing into an organic version of a bulky, primitive, large-format bellows camera which is supported by a rather perfunctory tripod. This early example of Bacon’s referencing of photographic equipment was an overt indication that photography was, by this time, established at the core of his practice; in the right-hand panel of the triptych Studies from the human body (1970), Bacon depicted himself as the voyeuristic operator of elaborate photographic paraphernalia. The attitude of the squatting figure in George Dyer with camera was almost certainly developed from the conflation of two (or more) of John Deakin’s photographs of George Dyer: a profile head-shot taken in Soho (Fig. 3) and a seated, cross-legged semi-nude done in the Reece Mews studio (Fig. 4). A striking variant of this pose can be seen in the left-hand panel of Two figures lying on a bed with attendants (1968), the painting recently acquired by Tate Britain on extended loan from Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Bacon continued to explore this configuration until at least 1988, latterly transposing John Edwards’s head for Dyer’s, with Edwards’s portrait identified as the nominal subject. In most of the paintings in which Dyer’s identity is reliably established he is represented as naked, child-like and vulnerable; yet despite him wearing a collar and tie in George Dyer with camera (a typically Baconic 'reversal' tactic) the treatment was, on this occasion, among the most visceral and animalistic of the series based on this pose, and the paint is applied with a bravura violence and spontaneity in slashing, sweeping brushstrokes.
Since Bacon is unlikely to have been dissatisfied with the dynamic painting of the figure in George Dyer with camera, it could, therefore, be conjectured that there was a formal aspect of the painting that, in his judgment, had failed to coalesce. Given that the painting appears to have been conceived in his standard 78 x 58 inches (198.1 x 142.3 cm) format, and considering the shape and position of the arcing 'board' device on which the figure was supported, it is likely to have been intended as the left-hand panel of a planned triptych; it is comparable with the two outer wings of Triptych in memory of George Dyer (1971), which develops similar imagery and may represent the further development of a related composition, or alternatively Bacon’s resolution of the original idea of 1969.
By comparison, The last man on earth (c. 1974), a painting recorded in several of Peter Beard’s photographs of Bacon moving around the studio (Fig. 6), appears to have been both formally and conceptually completely resolved. The lone figure is loosely based on Eadweard Muybridge’s serial photographs of a man throwing a discus, although Bacon’s quoting of pictorial sources was seldom straightforward and he may also have had in mind a classical discobolus (he would have known the copies in the British Museum and the Terme Museum, Rome) and Rodin’s bronze La grande ombre. Since the man’s pose resembles that of the figure in the centre panel of Triptych March 1974, the painting may be another instance of a panel that was ultimately rejected from a triptych.
Another factor in Bacon’s rejection of The last man on earth may have been that he considered the depiction of existential isolation, of Nietzschean solipsism, too literal in its poignancy. Apparently the painting (was this also an instance of the older pictorial sources having been conflated with a modern image of a cricketer about to field the ball?) evoked for observers either the Apollo space mission’s moon landing, or a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which case it would have approached dangerously closely to what Bacon professed was his greatest aversion, to illustration. He often demeaned paintings that illustrated a passage from a literary text, citing, for example, Fuseli’s scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. Bacon strove to avoid the kind of excessive pictorial data that threatened to impose a linear narrative on his paintings, although the extent to which he achieved the elimination of narrativity has recently become a matter of debate among art historians. (6) Nevertheless, his optical blurring, his strategies of spatial and temporal disjunction, tended to represent an action that was out of time, that had no before and no after.
The painting now known as Portrait of a dwarf (1975, private collection, Australia) is, uniquely, in a narrow upright format, the result of Bacon having eliminated two-thirds of the original canvas (Figs. 7 and 8). Formerly, the dwarf occupied the role of what Bacon called an 'attendant'; these attendants were either voyeuristic, or paradoxically disengaged, witnesses of a horrifying spectacle, or of sexual intercourse. In Portrait of a dwarf, the homunculus stares back implacably at the viewer, returning our gaze while apparently indifferent to the upturned, writhing nude male in a glass cage to his left.
It is interesting to speculate on Bacon’s motives for excising the caged figure. He could have envisaged the achondroplastic man as representing Pygmalion and the convulsive figure as (an albeit distinctively Baconic) Galatea: if so, again he possibly considered the allusion to the Greek myth as too specific, too illustrational. He had notoriously inverted Cimabue’s Crucifixion, and may have been performing a similar rotation in a regendering of the figure of Galatea in Jean-Leon Gerome’s Pygmalion and Galatea (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, c. 1890). The dwarf’s seated, cross-legged pose recalls both Velazquez’s A dwarf sitting on the floor (c. 1645, Prado Museum, Madrid) (Fig. 9) and the ancient Egyptian statue of Seneb, the chief of the palace dwarves, in the National Museum, Cairo; Bacon, who considered Egyptian art to have been mankind’s highest cultural achievement, had visited Cairo in 1951 and is likely to have seen the figure.
Bacon’s cavalier cropping of canvases is evidence of his uninhibited attitude towards the picture field, another aspect of his technique that is paralleled in photography, in the facile enframings associated with the camera and with the darkroom. When questioned about his ubiquitous 'cages', the internal frameworks he placed around many of his figures, Bacon liked to pass them off simply as devices for seeing 'the image' more clearly. Critics have essayed more profound interpretations, but they bear a close resemblance to the Chinagraph markings that photographers employ on their contact prints to indicate the precise area of the negative that requires enlargement. On a visit to Bacon’s studio in 1955, his patrons Robert and Lisa Sainsbury found him about to destroy a 'Pope' painting with which he was dissatisfied: when they remonstrated he produced a razor blade, cut out the central portion of the canvas (evidently he thought the head not unsuccessful), and presented it to them; as Study (Imaginary portrait of Pope Pius XII), 1955, it is now in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.
A neccesarily approximate demarcation can be imposed in Bacon’s oeuvre around 1968, after which date he sought to pare down his paintings, rationalising their spatial organisation and working with a more concise vocabulary of forms. It is probably not coincidental that this transition occurred at a time when Minimalism occupied a central position in art practice and critical theory; the acceptance at face value of Bacon’s protestations of cultural isolation has belatedly come under question, and rightly so, since at no time were his paintings created in an ahistorical vacuum. The broadly applied and thickly impasted paint of his 'Van Gogh' homages in the 1950s invite comparison with the bold painterliness of his friend Karel Appel (and another contemporary, Asger Jorn) as much as that of Chaim Soutine, whose techniques Bacon is known to have revered. Similarly, in the 1970s, the densely absorbent black grounds he adopted for his posthumous tributes to George Dyer may well have been indebted to the looming negative swathes of paint in Robert Motherwell’s Spanish elegies.
When Bacon embarked on a new painting, he generally had a rough idea of its overall structure in mind: his method was to paint the 'image' first — that is, the human form(s) — and the ground afterwards. While the success of the 'image' depended, for him, primarily on chance elements related to the application of paint, the flat backgrounds, ostensibly at least, presented less of a challenge. Bacon’s deprecation of abstract art lends support to this, yet there is abundant evidence that he regarded the symbiosis of image and ground as important, and devoted considerable attention to the problem: he needed his 'chaos' to be 'deeply ordered'. Among the ceaseless modifying and perfecting of these 'abstract' backgrounds, a typical example is the small triptych Three studies of George Dyer (1969, private collection), the grounds of which were yellow in their first state but were altered soon after to dark blue, before Bacon finally rendered them in their present mauve-pink.
Bacon’s elimination of superfluous pictorial elements can be observed in the history of a triptych he painted in 1974, its panoramic sweep and high horizon line inspired by Degas’s Beach scene (?c. 1876, National Gallery, London). In the first version of the centre panel of the triptych, Bacon incorporated an unsettling, confrontational figure that peered back imperiously at the viewer through schematic binoculars. This image again reversed the role of his attendants or witnesses; each of the three panels represents a back view of the naked George Dyer, Bacon’s then recently deceased lover, and the viewer’s gaze was implicated in the act of voyeurism. Whether Bacon regarded the figure with binoculars as triggering an unwanted narrative, or as formally extraneous, after pondering the question for three years he recalled the central panel to his studio and painted out the figure, leaving uninterrupted the 'abstract' foreground across all three panels. Completed as Triptych 1974-77, the painting has remained in this simplified form (Figs. 10 and 11).
The figure eventually painted out from Triptych 1974-77 was probably based on Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs Man falling prone and aiming rifle; considering Bacon’s interest in avifauna, especially birds of prey, an image of a stalking birdwatcher may also have been in play. Manifestly, Bacon’s intervention into the Degas painting transcends its sources, but typically, besides the borrowing from Degas, the triptych also referenced images he had kept in his archive – possibly since the 1930s – from Amedee Ozenfant’s Foundations of Modern Art and Baron von Schrenck Notzings’s Phenomena of Materialization. In Schrenck Notzing’s book, the spectral images of seances that fascinated him are comparable with the vaporous effects present in many of Bacon’s paintings, and of the traces of figures in movement through space and time. In the photographic darkroom, one can imagine he was intrigued (he would have been familiar with this process, if not at first hand then from its popular appropriation in movies) by the gradual revelation of the latent image in the developing tray. In a sense, he brought about a reversal of this process when he trapped the likeness of a 'sitter', only to deface it by smearing off the paint he had applied. Appearances are established then denied: Bacon the atheist was not about to offer either hope or closure.
One way in which Bacon demonstrated his receptiveness to the operation of chance was by his alertness to the way photographs would emerge from the chaotic piles of studio detritus, like organisms with an independent existence. An habitual gambler, no doubt he appreciated the way in which these suggestively accreted documents would reappear, transformed and reordered like a shuffled pack of playing-cards. In the background of the left-hand panel of Three portraits: Posthumous portrait of George Dyer; Self-portrait; Portrait of Lucian Freud (1973) he painted, as though it were pinned to the wall, a tightly cropped black and white photograph of his own head. The source photograph he used (Fig. 12) was only rediscovered recently, complete with pinholes and random flecks of paint, in colours corresponding exactly to the palette of the 1973 triptych. Fifteen years later, in Study from the human body and portrait (1988) (Fig. 13), Bacon reused this photo-portrait of himself, and on this occasion embraced the accidental marks that he had made on the original source photograph. Thus the studio floor is revealed as his personal genizah, an archive of talismanic images that on the one hand he allowed (or encouraged) to become worn and distressed, while on the other he preserved as bearers of the marks of time.
Bacon’s synthesising of 'lens-based' imagery has been public knowledge for more than fifty years. It is important to recognise, however, that throughout the first half of his career (that is, until 1962) the images that suggested ideas for paintings were seldom 'original' photographic prints but almost invariably mechanical reproductions he encountered in books or magazines. Long before photography’s acceptance as an art form, and its penetration of Britain’s museums and art galleries, Bacon acknowledged that photographs (including photographic reproductions of works of art) had informed some of his decisive paintings. He came to regret this openness, however, believing it had caused his aims to be misapprehended. His cautiousness was not without justification: only six years ago, when the Barbican Arts Centre staged 'Picasso and Photography', the survey was greeted by sensational headlines such as 'Picasso Exposed', (7) as though a fraud had been uncovered.
Like Picasso, Bacon sought neither photorealism nor photographic verisimilitude, nor were his paintings merely the sum of their sources. Latterly, therefore, he ensured that a much tighter control was kept over the identity of the stimuli he was prepared to divulge. Since he also disliked appending fanciful titles to his paintings, most were kept deliberately vague and non-specific; a rare exception was Triptych inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poem 'Sweeney Agonistes' (1967, Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC), but despite the fact that the scenes in the outer panels clearly refer to the poem, Bacon insisted that the title was imposed by the Marlborough Gallery and pretended there was no connection with Eliot’s text. He effectively censured, too, the iconological study of his paintings, initially by denying their iconographies. Most critics acquiesced in this denial of content, and those who transgressed risked his non-cooperation regarding reproduction rights; their enforced collaboration in this information clamp-down helped to ensure that Bacon’s paintings, and his procedures, were investigated and understood largely on the terms he dictated, or of which he approved.
Bacon described his paintings of the human body as a balance of order and chaos, of preconception and chance. Yet his unique path through figuration in the twentieth century failed to resonate with the guru of American Abstract Expressionism, Clement Greenberg, who perceived it as embodying 'an affliction of the English ... the Grand Manner'. (8) Greenberg appears to have wilfully misread the interventions onto works by Michelangelo, Caravaggio or Ingres, as though Bacon had slavishly emulated these masters. On the contrary, Bacon’s view of the hopelessness of the human condition precluded the aspiration to anything as uncomplicatedly elevated or ennobling as grandeur. He aimed to subvert as much as to celebrate art-historical traditions, and sought to redefine issues of representation of the human form. Although the specifics of his image sources are ultimately secondary to the syntheses Bacon performed on them, and should not be over-stressed, the essential modernity and rich complexity of his figurative idiom depended to a considerable extent on its mutable dialogue with photography’s engagement with transience, mortality and memory.
(1) Jean Clair, 'Pathos and Death', in G.Regnier et al. (ed.), The Body on the Cross, exh. cat., Musee Picasso, Paris, 1992, p. 136.
(2) David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1997, p. 20.
(3) David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London, 2000, p. 246.
(4) Most of the surviving sketches are in Tate; see: Matthew Gale, Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, London, 1999.
(5) Sylvester, op. cit. in note 3 above, p. 44.
(6) See especially Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, London, 1998.
(7) The Sunday Times: Culture, 7 February 1999 (front cover).
(8) Clement Greenberg, 'Autonomies of Art', in The Edmonton Contemporary Artists Society Newsletter, vol. III, issue 2, 1996.
Martin Harrison is the author of In Camera: Francis Bacon, Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, published by Thames and Hudson this month.
Bacon and Picasso — two parts of the same whole
Two shows about Bacon and Picasso have opened simultaneously
in different parts of the same Paris museum. Why?
NEVER mind The Da Vinci Code, the shenanigans behind the scenes of a new exhibition which makes connections between the work of Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso make Dan Brown’s thriller look as intricate as Enid Blyton.
The Bacon/Picasso show, which opened today at the Picasso Museum in Paris, is radically different from the one which it had planned — because of a dark, unexpected intervention by the Francis Bacon estate in London.
It is not the first time the estate has indulged in fisticuffs with the art world. In 2002 a long-running and acrimonious dispute between the estate and Marlborough Fine Art, Bacon’s dealer for 34 years, was brought to an abrupt end, with Marlborough claiming victory.
This time the dispute is over authenticity of material, and the extent to which any museum has a right to be in charge of the staging and promotion of its own exhibition — if that exhibition happens to include works by Francis Bacon, at any rate.
The saga began last October, when the Picasso Museum was given a suitcase full of miscellaneous images and books from Bacon’s studio at Reece Mews in South Kensington. This was material from the Barry Joule archive, the greater part of which had been donated to the Tate Gallery and the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin.
An examination of these documents by experts at the Paris museum demonstrated once again how obsessed Bacon had been by the person and the work of Picasso. Here were images of Picasso and his works, many torn out of magazines, on which Bacon had drawn, painted and scribbled. The gift also included books owned by him, such as a hardback edition of Brassaï’s Picasso and Company, published by Thames and Hudson. The book is full of Bacon’s feverish tamperings — he cut out and superimposed one image upon another; he modified photographs; he annotated.
The museum’s intention was to embed some of these Picasso-related objects into the show, and to publish a catalogue which would knit together its exhibition of original works by Bacon and Picasso with its own research into the material from the studio.
Then, according to a Picasso Museum spokesman, who asked to remain anonymous, “about two months ago” the Francis Bacon estate forbade them to do so. The Joule material could not be shown alongside Bacon’s paintings because, argued the estate, it had not been properly authenticated by experts from the Tate Gallery in London. Until that happened, it should not be shown at all. Other works by Bacon in the show come from a variety of sources: the Tate, the Pompidou Centre, Marlborough International Fine Art and various private collections. The fact that they were owned by these institutions meant that the estate had no power to prevent their being loaned out to other museums.
The ruling meant that the catalogue could no longer be published in the form that the museum had planned, because it now had to exclude all the research into its own archival material. But after The Times contacted the Bacon estate it relented on two important issues; first it scrapped its insistence that the museum must publish the catalogue only in French — now English is also deemed acceptable — and then it revoked a decision to ban the publication of all Bacon images from the show alongside reviews.
Nonetheless, in what could be a financially damaging move, the museum is forbidden to sell its catalogue anywhere other than in its own bookshop.
Although the estate, for which the sole executor is Professor Brian Clarke, cannot prevent a museum such as the Tate lending its works to another museum, it can intervene when visual representations of those same works is involved, such as in the production of a catalogue.
So the Picasso Museum fought a rearguard action. It went ahead with the official catalogue of the exhibition, but it also produced a second catalogue about its own Barry Joule archive. Instead of abandoning all plans to display the Barry Joule material, it decided to devote a room to it in the basement, a long way from the temporary exhibition devoted to Bacon and Picasso. So two shows about Bacon and Picasso have opened simultaneously in the same museum.
And why has the estate behaved in this way? A spokesman close to the Picasso Museum alleges that it is all, ultimately, down to power and money. If the estate flexes its muscles in this way, lenders will ultimately be intimidated into feeling that all Bacon-related transactions will need to go through the estate in order to obtain some kind of official approval.
Olivier Lorquin, director of the Musée Maillol in Paris, which last year staged an exhibition of Bacon’s works called The Sacred and the Profane, has had similar problems with the estate recently. “The estate made life very difficult for me,” he says. “They refused to let me do a co-edition of the catalogue. They wanted me to print only 2,000 copies — I eventually was able to do 6,000 — and at first they would let me sell it only in my own museum bookshop. They also have the right to dictate in what language the catalogue appears. All this is quite contrary to the wishes of Bacon himself, in my opinion. I had to go to London and be very diplomatic. I guess I was lucky too. It was très douloureux. I do think that it is a question of power and greed ...”
The Bacon estate was first approached for an explanation of its alleged behaviour. Why was there no Barry Joule material in the show at the Picasso Museum? The public had been led to believe — see this month’s Art Newspaper, for example — that it would be a part of the show. An estate spokeswoman had no comment. And why was the catalogue available in French only? Again, no comment.
What else could be at issue here? Close scrutiny of the show, painting by painting, print by print, reveals to what an extraordinary extent Bacon was influenced by Picasso — at times you are more than tempted to describe the work as derivative. Could this be an unspoken reason for all this unwelcome intervention? Would Bacon himself be less bankable if it became more commonly known that he owed quite so much to a greater master than himself?
Francis Bacon: Studying form
FAGGIONATO FINE ARTS
9 - April 15, 2005
Catalogue to be published
Faggionato Fine Arts, 49 Albemarle Street, London W1S 3JR
Monday - Friday 10.00 am - 6.00 pm Saturday 12-4pm
Tel + 44 20 74 09 79 79 Nearest Tube: Green Park Buses: 9 14 19 22 38
Faggionato Fine Arts is pleased to announce their forthcoming exhibition Francis Bacon Studying Form. The exhibition focuses on Bacon’s core concern in art – the representation of the human body. Six works, ranging in date from 1959 to 1988, demonstrate his radical and varied approach to the subject.
The exhibition includes three works
belonging to a series of paintings and sketches of lying and reclining figures
that Bacon completed between 1959 and 1961. Lying Figure 1959
and two works on paper from the Tate collection (Reclining Figure No.1 and Reclining
Figure No.2, c.1961) are shown as representative of a period when Bacon
undertook a fundamental reassessment of ways of staging the figure in space.
These are cited as illustrating a pivotal moment in Bacon’s art in which he
investigates new pictorial formats and paint handling techniques. Here for the
first time he experiments with articulated limb positions, sexually ambiguous
figures, thinned pigments and fluid brushstrokes.
The three remaining works stand as further examples of Bacon’s varied response to painting the human body. Kneeling Figure (c.1982) draws on a theme Bacon investigated between 1979 and 1984: Oedipus and The Sphinx. In these fragmented torsos, painted with a complex blurring of gender distinctions, Bacon incorporated some of his most powerful representations of shifting sexual orientation. In Study for a Portrait of John Edwards (1988) we have a monumental, deceptively simple, yet subtly compelling late work, which demonstrates his ongoing exploration of portraiture. Finally the iconography of Triptych 1987 reveals Bacon’s continuing preoccupation with themes of violence and injury which had been an obsession throughout his career.
The catalogue, published by Faggionato Fine Arts and The Estate of Francis Bacon, will include David Sylvester’s final contribution to Bacon studies Francis Bacon and The Nude, written shortly before his death and delivered at the Dublin Symposium in 2001. These proved to be his last words on an artist who had been his close friend for more than forty years. Mr Sylvester was too unwell to deliver the lecture in person, but both the transcript and the illustrations are printed here for the first time in full.
The catalogue also includes an essay by Martin Harrison whose book In Camera – Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practise of Painting will be published on 7 March 2005.
Published by by Faggionato Fine Art and the Estate of Francis Bacon on the occasion of the exhibition Francis Bacon: Studying Form. Essays by David Sylvester and Martin Harrison. £20+p&p
This is the first study of the painter’s use of photograph
We probably know more now about Francis Bacon (1909¬92) than almost any other 20th century artist. This is ironic, given how carefully Bacon controlled and edited his part, but the painstaking reconstruction of his studio at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin and the meticulous cataloguing of its contents (some 7,500 items) have given us an insight into his subject matter, source material and techniques that he would never have dreamed possible or, perhaps, desirable.
In his lifetime Bacon was notorious for suppressing books and catalogues about his work that he did not like. Quite what he would have made of Martin Harrison’s richly illustrated study of his pictorial sources, much of it based on material in the Hugh Lane archive, we will never know. Dr Hanison (quoting Dennis Parr) tells the tantalising story of Bacon’s reaction to a request from “an archive” (presumably the Tate) to bequeath it his working documents: “he swept up ‘all the photographs and press cuttings that littered the studio floor, bundled them into two plastic sacks, and made a bonfire of them”. Nevertheless, countless photographic images seem to have survived this cull, and in his analysis of their relationship to Bacon’s paintings, Dr Harrison has enhanced our understanding of Bacon’s deeply ambiguous iconography.
Bacon’s use of photographs and film stills was first noticed in the early 1950s, not long after their imprint began to appear in his work. In his conversations with David Sylvester from the 1960s onwards, Bacon readily acknowledged the influence of a small number of crucial sources: Muybridge’s photographs of humans and animals in motion, stills from Eisenstein’s Battleship Poteinkin, and reproductions of Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, a picture he claimed never to have seen in the original. Bacon’s appropriation of the photograph was, in fact, far more indiscriminate and voracious than this respectable shortlist suggests. Dr Harrison uncovers a whole layer of “low art” material which interested Bacon and which his friend, the painter and photographer Peter Rose Pulham, described as “bad press photographs reproduced through a coarse screen on bad paper”.
What particularly intrigued Bacon about the news photograph, apart from its real life subject matter, was its instantaneous and accidental characters qualities he tried to achieve in his own painting. From the 1960s, as his output of portraits increased, he used specially commissioned portrait photographs by John Deakin as a substitute for the actual presence of his subjects invariably lovers and close friends in the studio. In their sharpness and detail, however, Deakin’s photographs are a far cry from the blurred and smudged press images that Bacon liked to tear out of newspapers and magazines. Dr Harrison points out that Bacon only partly relied on Deakin’s photographs. His portraits, and especially the series of slightly under life size heads that Bacon began paintings in 1962 (on canvases 14 × 12 inches, not 24 × 20 as Dr Harrison states) introduce a note of dissolution and flux that is absent from Deakin’s more factual records.
Any assessment of Bacon’s use of photography must take into account the extent to which he assimilated and transformed his sources. One of the most esoteric of these was a publication on spiritualism, Phenomena of materialisation (1920) by a certain Baron von Schrenck Notzing. Bacon never mentioned this book, although a well thumbed and paint spattered copy was found in the studio after his death. Dr Harrison shows first how the head of the biomorphic figure in the left hand panel of Bacon’s seminal Three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion (1944) is an almost literal transcription of a close up detail from one of Schrenck Noming’s faked photographs of a séance. He then relates Bacon’s interest in psychic phenomena to a wider “predilection for photographs that penetrated the skin”, such as X rays and pathological or scientific photographs of raw flesh. (Bacon owned a copy of K.C. Clark’s extensively illustrated Positioning in radiography, as well as a book on diseases of the mouth.) Dr Harrison further speculated that, for Bacon, “Manifestations of ectoplasm were probably.. consonant with the chronophotographs of Etienne Jules Marey”, given Bacon’s fascination with the effects of light on exposed photographs. Since Bacon once described himself as “a medium for accident and chance” and talked about the difficulty of conveying his subject’s “emanation” when painting a portrait, I find it perfectly conceivable that he should have been interested in the irrational.
Dr Harrison’s title, In camera, is, in fact, a wordplay that not only alludes to Bacon’s secretiveness, but also allows him to discuss the photographic influences on Bacon, and also the representation of space in his paintings. Dr Harrison argues that Bacon was profoundly affected by the anonymous rooms he occupied and that these are often reflected in the bleak interiors which his figures inhabit. In camera presumably refers also to the English translation of Sartre’s play Huis clos, in which three people are forever trapped in a room, a “hell” of their own making. Other comparatively neglected themes touched on by Dr Harrison include the impact on Bacon’s painting of his little known stay at St Ives in 1959, and the example of Rodin’s bronze sculptures in encouraging him to achieve greater volume and plasticity in his treatment of the human form.
Such reflections, however illuminating, might seem irrelevant to an analysis of Bacon’s debt to photography, and it is true that they give the book a rather amorphous feel. Nevertheless, In camera is an indispensable work of reference for anyone wishing to follow the protracted dialogue that Bacon conducted with photography and through photography with the art of the past, his own work, and real life.
Sami Azar has been reinstated as director of the Museum
Contemporary Art following protests by artists
“This is the only time in Iran that a cultural manager has been supported by artists like this”
MARK IRVING | IRAN | THE ART NEWSPAPER | SUNDAY 8 MAY 2005
Ali Reza Sami Azar, who resigned from his post as director of the Museum of
Contemporary Art in Tehran in March as reported in this newspaper last month,
has been re-instated in his post. In an exclusive interview with this paper, he
talked about the circumstances behind this dramatic sequence of events.
With the recent swing in Iran’s political climate towards the conservatives who have, according to Dr Azar, “a restrictive attitude to art and culture”, he found himself under pressure from officials in the Ministry of Culture who “wanted to please the conservatives and were afraid of being sacked”. Exhibiting the work of Western artists and working with artists who do not follow a revolutionary or religious line is now regarded with disfavour, he says. Organising exhibitions with foreign institutions or doing shows with artists living abroad is, he says, becoming “impossible”. “We are in a conservative situation. We became conservatives by default”.
This plays havoc with the museum’s exhibition planning. “The problem is that with most of our projects we have to work a long time in advance. But now no one is prepared to support us looking ahead”. Dr Azar has had to cancel a planned Rebecca Horn show coming from Germany and is not able to make any commitments to other foreign shows. But he says his museum’s loan of a Francis Bacon painting to Edinburgh’s Museum of Modern Art later this year “will still happen”.
Cinema, music and theatre are, he says, “in even more jeopardy because of the red lines being drawn. I’ve worked for this community for six years or more and we’ve come a long way since I first started, when galleries had to get permission to do a show. They did not have experience of showing works abroad, there was no exchange of art and ideas with other countries and Iran was working in isolation. Now because people want to hold on to their jobs they’re more prepared to compromise. But I wasn’t prepared to do so, so I resigned”.
His resignation was accepted by the Ministry of Culture, where some officials were sympathetic to his position. “But then artists heard about it, and the next day they wrote letters of protest and demanded that the minister and deputy minister not accept my resignation. I want to say how much I appreciate the support of these artists, who come from all sides of the community. It was the way they united for the first time that persuaded me to take the job back. This is the only time in Iran that a cultural manager has been supported by artists like this”.
“Sami Azar’s international reputation rests not so much on what he’s achieved in terms of collaborations abroad, but on his remarkable track record in making exhibitions and encouraging artists in Iran in ways that the international community had assumed were impossible”, says Stephen Deuchar, director of Tate Britain. “I think his success lies in his willingness to encourage international interest in the Tehran Museum’s collection. He quickly responded positively to my suggestion of lending Tate the Bacon triptych, despite the risk of controversy”. Asked whether other loans between the Tate and Tehran are being discussed, Deuchar says: “we’d like to pursue education-driven initiatives in a small number of Middle East countries, including Iran.”
Post-War and Contemporary Art (Evening Sale)
New York, Rockefeller Plaza Sale Date: 11 May, 2005
Seated Figure Creator: Francis Bacon (1909-1992)
Lot Tile: Seated Figure Lot Number: 41
Estimate: 3,000,000 - 4,000,000 U.S. dollars
Sold: 3,040,000 U.S. dollars
Francis Bacon (1909-1992)
signed, titled and dated 'Seated Figure 1979 Francis Bacon' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
77¾ x 58 1/8 in. (197.5 x 147.6 cm.)
Painted in 1979.
Marlborough Fine Art, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
M. Leiris, Francis
Bacon: Full Face and in Profile, Barcelona, 1983, no. 125 (illustrated in
Francis Bacon, London, 1985, p. 17 (illustrated).
W. Schmied, Francis Bacon, Commitment and Conflict, Munich, 1996, p. 199, no. 51 (illustrated in colour).
D. Sylvester, et al, Francis Bacon, Paris, 1996, p. 47, (illustrated).
New York, Marlborough Gallery, Francis
Bacon: Recent Paintings, April-June 1980, no. 8, pp. 22-23 (illustrated in
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Francis Bacon Paintings, May-July 1985, no. 13, pp. 31, 30 & 43 (illustrated in colour).
Bacon show is summer sizzler
GARETH EDWARDS | NEWS | THE SCOTSMAN | TUESDAY, 14 MAY, 2005
The work by Bacon, considered one of the greatest artists of the latter half of the 20th century, will form the major summer show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
The exhibition features a series of portraits of the painter’s friends and lovers, and is expected to attract more than 30,000 visitors.
It will feature more than 50 works by the artist, including self-portraits and portraits of Bacon’s best-known sitters.
The paintings are on loan from public and private collections throughout the world.
One of the most startling features of the exhibition will be the five portraits of Bacon’s lover Peter Lacy.
For a period in the late-50s, Bacon’s output of portraits was dominated by the image of Lacy, whom he described as the one great love of his life.
Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads features paintings on loan from the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, London’s Tate Gallery and the Thyssen Collection in Madrid.
As well as those, there will be rarely seen loans from private individuals on display.
Bacon, pictured below, was born in Dublin in 1909, and spent most of his life in London.
Creating portraits that reflected the intensity of his personal relationships was one of Bacon’s biggest artistic preoccupations.
The exhibition features small single heads from the late 1940s, which echo the imagery of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion – the painting which effectively launched Bacon’s career in 1945.
The core of the exhibition is a series of small heads of friends from the artistic and social milieu of London’s Soho – Lucian Freud, Henrietta Moraes, Isabel Rawsthorne, and Bacon’s lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer.
The show also contains a number of full-length portraits from the 1960s, their subjects standing or reclining.
Richard Calvocoressi, director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, said: "Francis Bacon was one of the greatest painters of the 20th century. This exhibition of over 50 of his unforgettable portraits is the first major Bacon show in Scotland.
"Museums from all over the world – London, New York, Chicago, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Stockholm – have lent important pictures."
The exhibition follows the huge success of the recent Andy Warhol show, and it is also one of the Icons of the 20th-Century series, sponsored by Lloyds TSB Scotland.
Susan Rice, chief executive of Lloyds TSB Scotland, said: "After the huge success of the Andy Warhol: Self-Portraits exhibition, we’re delighted to continue our sponsorship of the Icons of the 20th-Century series with Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads."
The exhibition will run from June 4 until September 4.
AN English painter of Irish birth, Francis Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909. He came to London in 1925 and began working as a painter in the 1930s. From then to his death in 1992, the human figure remained the dominant subject of his art.
Although he received no formal art training, he created a sensation in 1945 when he exhibited his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, currently on show at the Tate Gallery in London.
Expressionist in style, his work, and in particular his distorted human forms, were unsettling. He developed his personal style during the 1950s, when he achieved an international reputation.
Bacon was also known for his paintings of popes, which were adapted from a portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velázquez.
Gallery ‘approved’ for Bacon
JAMES BYRNE | INDEPENDENT IRELAND | FRIDAY, 20 MAY, 2005
DUBLIN'S Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art will be able to receive three unfinished paintings by Francis Bacon after it was granted “approved body” status yesterday.
Arts Minister John O’Donoghue conferred the status on the Parnell Square gallery in order to facilitate the donation of Bacon’s uncompleted works to it.
By means of the new status, individuals may claim tax relief when donating art-work which is regarded as exceptional to a public collection.
Gallery director Barbara Dawson said she was “very pleased” to accept the paintings and described the donation as “significant for us and significant for Dublin”.
The Hugh Lane gallery already houses the transposed London studio in which Bacon painted most of his famous works.
A portrait of obsession
CLARE HARRIS | THE SCOTSMAN | SATURDAY 28 MAY, 2005
totally obsessed by someone —
like having some dreadful disease. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy." —
Bacon, once dubbed the last
great British painter, was known for his candour as
much as for the strange, distorted, often painful creatures that people his
canvases. But in a new exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern
Art, Portraits and Heads, a more
tender side of the painter can be seen. The side that, as he says, was
vulnerably, hopelessly in love. —
much as for the strange, distorted, often painful creatures that people his
canvases. But in a new exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern
Art, Portraits and Heads, a more
tender side of the painter can be seen. The side that, as he says, was
vulnerably, hopelessly in love. —
Five of the rarely seen works on show are of Peter Lacy, a former RAF test pilot who had flown combat missions in the Battle of Britain and was "really tough, tougher than me". After meeting in 1952 in Soho’s Colony Rooms, one of the artist’s favourite bars, Bacon and Lacy would go on to have a stormy and passionate relationship which lasted until 1962 when, as Bacon was about to open a major retrospective of his work at the Tate, he received a telegram saying that Lacy was dead. Later in his career, almost the same thing would happen when another major love, George Dyer, would be found dead in their hotel toilet the morning of a major opening in Paris. Love, for Bacon, appeared to be a hazardous emotion.
But when Bacon
painted Lacy for the first time, all that was still to come. What sets these
portraits apart from much of his work is their remarkable tranquillity. It
had been the first time in the painter’s career that he had begun to paint,
repeatedly, portraits of someone close to him before
then, says co-curator Philip Long of the National Gallery, his work had been
of unknown figures, and of violence. He’d come to fame less than five years
earlier with the agonising, screaming figures in Three
Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, created in
then, says co-curator Philip Long of the National Gallery, his work had been
of unknown figures, and of violence. He’d come to fame less than five years
earlier with the agonising, screaming figures in Three
Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, created in
"Until the Lacy paintings, the reception to his work had been strongly opinionated," says Long. "It had seemed pretty brutal and horrendous, associated with that nihilistic view of what people had been proved capable of in the war. These works revealed a more sensitive side."
With cool colours - in contrast to the bright palette he’d begun with in the late 1940s, and which he would adopt in the 1960s - he painted works such as Lying Figure, 1958, and Sleeping Figure, 1959, showing Lacy at rest, in some of the most naturalistic poses Bacon would ever employ.
"It’s very much a painting of a human relation," says Long. "Bacon often painted figures lying on beds, but most of the time they were a lot more graphic, and in some ways rather horrifying in terms of distortion."
In one famous painting Bacon went
as far to pin his figure down to the bed with a hypodermic syringe; there is
no such manipulation in these contemplative images of Lacy. In Lying
Figure, Lacy is clothed, his only vulnerability in the relaxed
muscles of his sleeping face. And while in Sleeping
Figure Lacy is
naked, he’s curled up, retaining his modesty you
can imagine the welcome coolness of the grey-walled room, the dark couch, in
the searing heat of a day in Tangiers, where Lacy lived. —
can imagine the welcome coolness of the grey-walled room, the dark couch, in
the searing heat of a day in Tangiers, where Lacy lived. —
"These paintings are more about the mental relationship between the two men," says Long. "They’re not physical, or visceral, as many of his other paintings are. It comes back to the thing that Bacon is often described as: someone with a lust for life — in the way he painted his figures, in his sexual tastes — that would steer people away from the idea that there’s a possibility of sensitivity and even shyness. But it does seem to be the case that he was the kind of person who was vulnerable."
The Lacy paintings also came at a time when Bacon was setting precedents for much of his work to come. The format of 1961’s Head III was influenced by tight cropping used in photography, emphasising the sensitivity, the clarity and directness in Lacy’s gaze. "The dimensions of this picture became an absolute standard for portraits throughout his career," says Long, "and that must be because it worked. It gave a very immediate view of the subject looking out at the painter."
It’s well known that Bacon rarely
worked from life, relying instead on photographs and memory. The
photographer John Deakin had taken many shots of Lacy, which Bacon may have
used for Head III, 1961.
This meant that Bacon could paint portraits of people even after their
he did, with Lacy, in the 1962 triptych Study
for Three Heads. Later, in the 1970s, he would paint a whole series of
ambitious works of George Dyer after his death, but here the sentiment is
already plain to see. Still cool, calm and collected, two versions of Lacy
look in on the central panel which shows Bacon, in turmoil. —
he did, with Lacy, in the 1962 triptych Study
for Three Heads. Later, in the 1970s, he would paint a whole series of
ambitious works of George Dyer after his death, but here the sentiment is
already plain to see. Still cool, calm and collected, two versions of Lacy
look in on the central panel which shows Bacon, in turmoil. —
"Bacon had his first major retrospective just 17 years after his career was launched, and that at a time when galleries were still getting to grips with the work of living artists. It was a major event. The fact that Lacy’s death came at the same time must have been an extremely emotional moment for him," says Long.
"In the triptych, Lacy’s portraits seem to be as reposed as ever, but the one of Bacon is clearly not. His relationship with Lacy was a tormented one, lived out often from a remote distance, and I think it’s quite easy to see that, by placing himself alongside Lacy, it’s to do with coming to terms."
over Bacon diminished as he bowed more and more to the ravages of
alcoholism. Now that both he and Bacon are gone, we are left with a series
of paintings – until
now for the most part hidden away in private collections that
are testament to a painter who loved and lost, and wasn’t afraid to show
that love on canvas. —
are testament to a painter who loved and lost, and wasn’t afraid to show
that love on canvas. —
• Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads is at the Scottish National Gallery for Modern Art, Edinburgh from 4 June until 4 September.
Culture: A face-off with paint
An exhibition of Francis Bacon’s portraits reveals the artist in a fresh and more complex light, writes Paul Bailey
The artist famous for his screaming popes and crucified muscle men reveals another side in an exhibition that arrives in Edinburgh this week.
Meet Francis Bacon in the unlikely guise of scrupulous portraitist.
PAUL BAILEY | SUNDAY TIMES SCOTLAND | SUNDAY 29 MAY 2005
It is a mesmerising show. One or two of the portraits are like superior mug shots, of the kind one would expect to encounter in a rogues’ gallery, the evidence of chicanery or dubiety all too plainly revealed. But all of these works invite Bacon’s admirers and detractors to reassess him, to consider his art as a complex whole. Looking at these heads — even the head of William Blake — one can begin to understand that he wasn’t just a manic obsessive as he is often depicted. Bacon at his greatest is appreciative of the strangeness of being human, of the individual trapped in his or her own skin.
In this show, which features about 50 portraits of friends from the artistic milieu of London’s Soho, visitors can cast aside for a while the tormented images on which Bacon’s reputation rests, and get to know him in a comparatively quiet mood, looking keenly at a face for what it can tell him.
These studies afford the spectator a certain speculative pleasure that only the finest photographers — Cartier-Bresson, Lee Miller, Bill Brandt — can equal. They reflect the intensity of the artist’s personal relationships and his preoccupation with them.
Bacon’s portraits were painted from a combination of photographs and memory and are striking in their immediacy, making the viewer feel as though the sitter is in the room with them. The “x-ray eyes” noticed by Michael Wishart, the painter and memoirist, have been put to persuasive use.
Bacon’s appetite for human folly, like his thirst for champagne, never diminished. He could almost be accused of orchestrating it at times. I picture him in that dismal hell-hole of an afternoon drinking club, the Colony Room in London’s Soho, his day’s work in the studio done, catching the drunken drift of the Colony’s regulars and waiting for an argument to start or a drunken brawl to take place.
For four decades the Colony Room was his principal place of entertainment. The quality of that entertainment was dependent on the cast, of whom photographer John Deakin was one of the stars. He was the official court jester, tolerated by the owner Muriel Belcher, because of Bacon’s fondness for him.
Bacon was admiring of Deakin’s photographs, in which “every blemish and pore” of the human face are “exposed mercilessly”. He once commissioned Deakin to photograph Henrietta Moraes, the self-destructive beauty nicknamed the “Lady Brett of Soho”, whose portrait features in the Edinburgh exhibition.
Bacon had a camp voice, dyed his hair with Kiwi shoe polish, and was a completely passive homosexual, yet he despised obvious queens. His lovers may fall into two categories — those with brains and those without. George Dyer fell in to the latter category. Peter Lacy, a Battle of Britain pilot who owned a house in Barbados, was of the first kind. A “born expatriate”, he was permanently suntanned and of a gentle demeanour.
The exhibition features five portraits of Lacy, with whom Bacon enjoyed a tense and often violent relationship. Two of the most poignant pieces in the exhibition show the subject sleeping.
In his 1962 work, Study for Three Heads, Bacon’s head is flanked by images of Lacy, who had recently died. These small canvases, which were often grouped in threes, allowed Bacon to explore different aspects of the same personality or to contrast images of two or more people. They are surprisingly intimate when compared to the artist’s much more famous large-scale triptychs.
Of all Bacon’s lovers, Dyer, a petty crook from London’s east end who lived in fear of the Kray twins, for whom he had worked on occasions, was arguably the most vulnerable. Dyer, on the surface, seemed the ideal rough trade of Bacon’s imagination, but in reality he was weak and he became an embarrassment to the artist who is said to have tried to pay him off with £20,000.
The portraits of Dyer, who died from an overdose of barbiturates in 1972 on the night of one of Bacon’s most formidable triumphs, the opening of a major exhibition in Paris, invest him with a certain aloof grandeur that few, other than Bacon, would have discerned.
Bacon maintained serious relationships — with Lucian Freud, Michael Andrews, Michael Wishart and David Sylvester — but it is clear that he needed respites from seriousness. He took a cruel delight in watching people make fools of themselves. As they tottered and swayed across the floor of the Colony Room, his belief in the essential absurdity and futility of existence was fortified.
It is possible to see even his grandest work as a grim joke. These men are screaming to get out of the rooms in which they are caged and trapped, but escape is out of the question. Bacon always insisted that his paintings should not be interpreted as if they are telling a story, yet it is difficult to resist doing so. He has been compared to Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus and the Jean-Paul Sartre of Huis Clos (No Exit).
Despite his bleak artistic preoccupations, it should not be forgotten that Bacon lived on into his eighties, still enjoying food, drink and sex
Bacon’s best work has the spontaneity of improvisation, of a chance suddenly seized and explored. It becomes increasingly important now, a decade after his death, to examine his paintings individually, to look at each one with a fresh eye for its flaws and virtues. That’s what I realised when I first saw his small portraits.
They are not on the grand scale. But they give the measure of the man and the artist. The obviously dramatic has been eschewed and only the face, with all that it has to convey of character, remains. And when he distorts the features, he is doing something that Rembrandt did three centuries before him — blurring the subject’s features to convey, as the camera cannot, the confusions beneath the skin. Portrait painting has to be a dialogue between artist and sitter, and the dialogue sustained in these portraits and heads shows Bacon at his most keenly perceptive.
“We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us,” wrote John Keats in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds. I think some of Bacon’s paintings have palpable designs on the spectator — they are calculated to shock and disturb. But not in these portraits, which do not challenge the viewer to be repelled. They might even be deemed celebrations of individuality.
Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, June 4 to Sept 4
Bacon’s studies in friendship
CHARLOTTE CRIPPS | VISUAL ARTS | ARTS PREVIEWS | THE INDEPENDENT | 31 MAY 2005
Many works here are small portraits and heads of Bacon’s friends from his artistic and social circles — Lucian Freud, Henrietta Moraes, Isabel Rawsthorne, and Bacon’s lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer.
Philip Long, the gallery’s senior curator, says: “The first work we unpacked is an important triptych showing Bacon’s friend Lucian Freud, which has come from Taiwan. His job, as one of the curators for the first Bacon exhibition to be held in Scotland, has been difficult. “Bacon’s work is in museums and private collections all over the world and it is always in great demand.”
“His work is often thought of as being rather violent in its imagery. We want to highlight a different side; the paintings that show how important his close friends were in the making of his art,” Long says.
Bacon’s lover Lacy is the subject of five portraits here, including two showing him asleep (one clothes, one naked). For a period in the late Fifties, Bacon’s portraits were dominated by the image of Lacy. In Study for Three Heads (1962), a triptych, Bacon’s own head is flanked by images of Lacy, who had recently died.
Bacon painted his portraits from photographs and memory. He said: “I don’t want to practice before [my subjects] the injury that I do them in my work. I would rather practice the injury in private, by which I think I can record the fact more clearly.”
Long says: “When Lucian Freud went for a sitting, he found that his portrait had nearly been completed. Each time he went back to sit, the painting moved away from from Freud’s own features to a photograph of Kafka that Bacon admired.”
The 54-work exhibition includesHead Six, (1949), the first in the Screaming Pope series. After Edinburgh, the show travels to the Hamburg Kunsthalle in the autumn.
Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Belford Road, Edinburgh (10131-624 6200), 4 June to 4 September
Tête-à-tête: ‘Study for Head of George Dyer’, 1967
Love for sale
Many portraits by Francis Bacon were heartfelt records of his personal relationships.
Now, one of the most celebrated examples could fetch £3.5m at auction.
By Sue Hubbard
SUE HUBBARD | VISUAL ARTS | ARTS PREVIEWS | THE INDEPENDENT | TUESDAY, 17 MAY, 2005
Francis Bacon is arguably the greatest visual exponent of existentialism. He sought to capture, on canvas, the violence, the energy, the futility and the alienation at the heart of human existence. Though he shared something of Nietzsche’s “strong pessimism”, he qualified it by saying, “You can be optimistic and totally without hope. One’s basic nature is totally without hope, and yet one’s nervous system is made out of optimistic stuff.”
Bacon always insisted that all he wanted to do was make images, that people could read into them whatever they chose. “We live, we die, and that is all.” But in his paintings the body became conflated with images of both the Crucifixion and the abattoir. His source material ran from Greek myth to Rembrandt’s celebrated painting of The Slaughtered Ox, from the screaming nanny in the Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, to Velasquez’s popes and Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs from the 1880s of the human figure in motion. And, of course, he painted his lovers: next month, Christie’s is auctioning Francis Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer Staring into a Mirror (1967). It is estimated that it will fetch between £2.5m and £3.5m.
Bacon never made any secret of his homosexuality. He preferred to refer to himself as “queer” rather than “gay”. A young man from a privileged Anglo-Irish background, he ran away from home after his brutal father discovered his overdeveloped interest in his mother’s clothes and the stable grooms. He was always attracted to “rough trade”, to what was butch and masculine.
The meeting between him and George Dyer has become the stuff of art-world legend. Bacon relished telling how they met when Dyer was robbing his flat — though it is much more likely that they actually met in a bar in Soho. Dyer was to become one of Bacon’s most important muses. The large portraits done in the 1960s and 1970s are some of Bacon’s greatest and most visceral works. Portrait of George Dyer Starring into a Mirror, in which he wears a suit in the style favoured by the Krays, shows his unmistakable features reflected from two angles. He sits on a sort of swivel desk-chair, and his disembodied face is split into two halves. One is splashed with semen-like white paint, while the mirroring device serves to heighten a sense of alienation and emphasises the essential loneliness at the heart of all human relationships.
Bacon saw his own life as having been punctuated by violence, whether it was childhood whippings, Republican attacks in Ireland, the Second World War, or his own sado-masochistic sexual predilections. He distorted his images, smearing and battering his figures into submission, as if violence and virility might mirror their opposites — the poignancy and pity of what it means to be alive. Dyer was to commit suicide the night before the opening of Bacon’s major 1971 Paris retrospective at the Grand Palais. He had been unhappy for years, feeling both a failure as a thief and uncomfortable among Bacon’s glittery, witty friends.
Ten years earlier, another lover, Peter Lacy, had died during the opening of Bacon’s Tate retrospective. Bacon had met Lacy, a handsome test-pilot who had flown combat missions during the Battle of Britain, in Tangier in 1952, where Lacy played piano in Dean’s Bar. Their obsessive relationship was a disaster from the start, fuelled by drink, cruelty and infidelity. Bacon’s Three Studies of the Human Head (1953) depict Lacy as a suited figure, his face distorted by anger and pain, and with a wailing open mouth.
The Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards (1984) show the man who was to become Bacon’s companion until the painter’s death in 1992. Bacon first met the barman John Edwards in 1974. Although, like Dyer, Edwards came from the East End, this was to be a very different relationship from the earlier, doomed, romance. Although much younger than Bacon, Edwards stood up to him with directness and honesty.
The triptych shows Edwards seated on a stool, in an empty studio, against a grey-blue ground, and captures something of his straightforward character. There is a lack of the violent distortion that characterises Bacon’s other, more angst-ridden portraits. The triptych borrows something from the language of film-making, with a static subject frozen into a cinematic sequence.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Bacon painted his close friend Isabel Rawthorne, who was also part of Bacon’s “gilded gutter life” of Soho Bohemianism. He once boasted in Paris Match that, “You know I also made love to Isabel Rawsthorne, a very beautiful woman who was Derain’s model and Georges Bataille’s girlfriend.” Given Bacon’s lifelong penchant for men, that seems rather unlikely. But, as she had been the lover of many famous artists, as well as a friend of Epstein, Giacometti and Picasso, he perhaps liked to dramatise their association. The fact that he obviously knew her very well undoubtedly allowed him to express her raw, powerful individuality in the Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne, painted in 1966.
Picasso once said: “My work is like a diary. To understand it, you have to see how it mirrors my life.” The same might be said of Bacon. For him, being “queer” was the essence of who he was. His twisted, tortured bodies speak of both physical and emotional turmoil, of brutal and deep, visceral emotions. But they also reveal, as in the raw cruelty of Greek drama, something profound about what it means to be a living, breathing, sentient human being.
Emotional turmoil:‘Portrait of George Dyer Staring Into a Mirror’ 1967
Iran loaning Bacon painting for UK exhibition
Payvand’s Iran News
IRNA, London, Thursday, June 2, 2005
Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is loaning a painting by Irish artist Francis Bacon to go on display as part of the first exhibition of the painter’s portraits at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.
"I am delighted that the Iranian authorities have agreed to lend to Britain this rarely seen early painting by Bacon," said Andrea Rose, director of visual arts at the British Council.
Rose spotted the painting in 2003 when she was in Tehran, when Iran agreed to lend a Bacon triptych work for a British sculpture exhibition at the Tate Britain Gallery in London last year.
The painting, 'Reclining Man with Sculpture', forms the centerpiece of the exhibition of 'Bacon’s Portraits and Heads' at the Edinburgh gallery, which opens on Saturday and runs until September 4.
It was reported to have been stored in the vaults of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art for nearly 30 years and will be the first time it will be seen in the West since the victory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The painting, which depicts a man lying on a sofa with a sculpted head sitting on a coffee table in front, dates back to 1961 and was sold to the wife of the deposed shah of Iran in the 1970s.
Born in Dublin in 1909, Bacon spent most of his life in London until his death in 1998. Further exhibitions of his work are expected to be held in 2009 to mark the centenary of his birth.
Reclining Man with Sculpture, 1960-61 Francis Bacon
Painting unearthed in Tehran vault
GERARD SEENAN | UK NEWS | THE GUARDIAN | THURSDAY 2 JUNE 2005
A rarely seen painting by Francis Bacon is to go on display in an Edinburgh exhibition after nearly 30 years in storage in an Iranian museum vault.
Forming the centrepiece of Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, the first exhibition devoted to the painter’s portraits, Reclining Man with Sculpture, will go on display at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on Saturday.
The painting was bought by the last Shah of Iran in the mid 70s.
He had intended for it to be displayed in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, which he commissioned in 1977, but following his downfall in the Iranian Islamic revolution it was stored in a vault in the museum.
This is the first time it will have been seen in the west since the fall of the shah.
Andrea Rose, director of visual arts at the British Council, spotted the painting in 2003 when she was in Tehran negotiating a British sculpture exhibition.
The Tehran museum’s director, Ali Reza Sami Azar, helped persuade the Iranian authorities to allow the painting to be brought to Britain.
Ms Rose said: “I am delighted that the Iranian authorities have agreed to lend to Britain this rarely seen early painting by Bacon, having agreed last year to lend a Bacon triptych to Tate Britain, brought out by the British Council.”
Most of Bacon’s portraits were close-up studies of his lovers, friends and fellow artists. But Reclining Man with Sculpture is unusual and depicts a man lying on a sofa with a sculpted head sitting on a coffee table in front.
The man has some resemblance to Peter Lacy, Bacon’s lover when he painted the picture in 1960-61, but the figure is thought to be a composite of many people whom the artist knew, including himself.
Born in Dublin in 1909, Bacon started painting in 1930 and from then until his death in 1992 portrayed the human form in a distinctive, often disturbing style.
As well as the newly rediscovered piece, the exhibition will be focused around a series of small portraits of Bacon’s friends, acquaintances and lovers – Lucian Freud, Henrietta Moraes, Isabel Rawsthorne, George Dyer and Lacy.An eccentric character who disdained and even destroyed much of his work throughout his life, Bacon once commented: “I have left my mark; my work is hung in museums, but maybe one day the Tate Gallery or the other museums will banish me to the cellar ... you never know.”
BY LOUISE JURY | ARTS CORRESPONDENT | THE INDEPENDENT | THURSDAY, 02 JUNE, 2005
For 25 years, it has languished in the vaults of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran. But a striking portrait by Francis Bacon, which is thought never previously to have gone on public display, is being rushed to Britain as a highlight of a new exhibition of the artist’s works.
The deal with Iran was clinched after months of negotiations — although there is still a question mark over whether the work will arrive in time for this weekend’s opening of Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.
The show is the last scheduled to take place for four years after the Bacon estate decided on a moratorium on loans pending the centenary of the artist’s birth in 2009.
Reclining Man with Sculpture, 1960-1961 was owned by the British collector, the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, but was sold to the wife of the late Shah of Iran in the 1970s who founded her own gallery. But many of the Western paintings in her extraordinary collection ended up in storage when the fundamentalists seized power in 1979 and took control of what became known as the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
Andrea Rose, director of visual arts at the British Council, spotted this portrait in the museum’s vaults when she was visiting Iran two years ago.
The portrait is thought to be of Peter Lacy, a former RAF pilot who was Bacon’s lover. They had a tense and violent relationship, although Lacy is often described as the love of Bacon’s life.
Bacon portrait finally to emerge
after 30 years in Iran basement
BY JACK MALVERN | ARTS REPORTER | THE TIMES | THURSDAY JUNE 2 2005
A MULTIMILLION-POUND portrait by Francis Bacon that has lain unseen in a basement in Iran for more than 30 years will return to Britain for the first time this week for an exhibition in Edinburgh.
Reclining Man with Sculpture (1960-1961) was hidden from public view after it was bought by the Shah of Iran in the 1970s and then seized by revolutionaries fighting for the Islamic Republic in 1978.
It was forgotten by western art collectors until it was rediscovered by Andrea Rose, director of visual art at the British Council, who was shown it after a breakthrough in cultural relations last year.
It is part of a collection of significant western works at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, which was commissioned by the Shah in 1977, a year before the revolution began. The museum holds a Jackson Pollock and a collection of 19th-century French Impressionist paintings.“They do have some extraordinary things in store,” Ms Rose said. “I think that Iran is now open to lending its pictures to the west but it is very difficult, in practical terms, to get the pictures out. The exhibition opens on Saturday and it is still touch and go that it’s going to make it.”
The painting, which shows a man resembling Bacon’s lover, Peter Lacy, was first owned by Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, the fifth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, who held it in his private collection in Scotland. It is the first time the painting has returned to Britain since the marquess sold the painting to the Shah.
It will go on display as part of Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, on Saturday.
Bacon is given a grilling
MOIRA JEFFREY | THE HERALD | FRIDAY, JUNE 3, 2005
IN 1998, the late Francis Bacon’s beneficiary, John Edwards, donated the entire contents of the artist’s studio to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. Every item was catalogued and recorded and then transferred to the city for reconstruction. As Bacon’s life has become more public, the examination of his love affairs, his drinking and his messy Soho existence have somehow overtaken his work.
The reconstruction of his studio seems the absolute nadir of this process. It is a depressing, airless place, as though the myth of the artist, the famous debris and detritus that surrounded him while painting, is far more important than the art itself. Even the very dust from his original room was bagged up, labelled "Bacon dust" and sent off.
What the real magic dust, as a new exhibition – Francis Bacon, Portraits and Heads — at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, brilliantly demonstrates is something that is much harder to grasp. Bacon himself called it a number of things: ectoplasm, emanation, an aura. He was referring to the kind of formless something that he believed his sitters gave off and which he tried to capture in their portraits.
Bacon’s portrait, or self-portrait, is not so much a likeness as a kind of vivid seizing of human essence: the human head stripped to the skull beneath the skin or contorted and disfigured into irrationality. The violence of his imagery is only matched by the tenderness of his paint. Between the two extremes, Bacon sought to set the nerves jangling.Portraits and Heads is an important exhibition of paintings gathered together in a remarkably short timescale from private collections and public institutions from New York to Tehran. It presents a different Bacon from the bravura violence of the popes and crucifixions that made him one of the most highly regarded painters of the twentieth century. This is Bacon as psychologically acute, intimate and, at times, loving. Yet, overall, there remains a persuasive atmosphere of melancholy and loss.The show is sympathetically hung on walls of palest brown sand and mushroom that reflect the areas of rough, exposed brown canvas that feature in many of his works, as well as a kind of metaphorical brownness; the post-war dreariness of London in the forties and fifties. Alongside larger set pieces such as his vast portraits of the artists Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, are small domestic paintings of friends and lovers, studies and sketches. They reveal his weaknesses: haste or repetition, and a high drama that can become irritating camp, but they also remind you of his astonishing strength. Few twentieth-century painters were able to, or perhaps cared to, rival the old masters. But the untrained Bacon produced even small paintings of such command and authority that they still take the breath away.
Many of the early works in this exhibition fall into that category. Head VI, from 1949, is the first Bacon painting based on Velasquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X. It is an image of a gaping mouth grafted on to the body, a figure that is screaming in agony or perhaps sexual release. It was a motif he would repeat again and again. Bacon told the art critic David Sylvester in one of their famous interviews that he liked "the glitter and glamour that comes from the mouth and I’ve always hoped, in a sense, to be able to paint the mouth the way that Monet painted a sunset".
Among the most moving images are the Men In Blue: anonymous besuited men in dark, closed-down spaces. The paintings may be of Bacon’s lover, Peter Lacy, a former Battle of Britain pilot, or an unnamed man he met in a hotel in Henley. The men are trapped in the dark, leaning over what might be a bar. You can almost taste flat beer and smell stale smoke. The men drift in and out of focus, their identities briefly coalescing and then seeming to dissolve in extraordinary brush strokes. They capture something important about both conformity and individuality.
Bacon, you sense, painted
portraits to remember and to forget. That is never more clearly demonstrated
than in the triptych he painted on learning of Lacy’s death. Bacon painted
his own portrait, flanked by Lacy, in a mesmerising attempt to conjure up
and then exorcise the dead. The movement of the paint and the subjugation of
his distress into something that would last beyond the lives of both men
tells you more than any pile of papers or bag of carefully labelled dust can
Francis Bacon, Portraits and Heads, is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, from tomorrow until September 4.
He could draw better than Francis Bacon, so why was Graham Sutherland so quickly forgotten?
It’s time he returned to the pantheon, says William Boyd
BY WILLIAM BOYD | ART | THE GUARDIAN | SATURDAY, 4 JUNE, 2005
Around 50 years ago, the most famous living English painter was Graham Sutherland. Not only was he held in high critical esteem, appearing in major international collections, but the market also rated him highly. If you wanted your portrait painted by Graham it would cost you £20,000 — multiply by 10, approximately, to get a sense of today’s values. And now? He is one of the great 20th-century British painters: the beginning of a line of figurative artists that goes on to Bacon, Freud, Auerbach, Andrews and Hockney. There is nothing faddy or avant garde about Sutherland, yet rarely has a deserved and hard-won reputation declined so quickly. Each new Sutherland exhibition hints at a possibility of re-evaluation and reassessment; perhaps the latest, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery this month, will speed his long overdue return to the pantheon.
Sutherland was born in Streatham in 1903; his family and upbringing were redoubtably bourgeois. He was a day boy at Epsom College, which he left early — not deemed intelligent enough to continue education — and was directed towards that dependable middle-class career, engineering. But, though there was no precocious talent on offer, or bohemian role model that made him hanker for life as an artist, he chucked in his apprenticeship to go to art school. He was handsome and polite, with a diffident charm, and he married his first girlfriend, Kathleen, a sustaining and important union that was to last until his death. In superficial terms, there was nothing extraordinary about Sutherland except his vocation.
The life and the work can be seen as a series of unfoldings, of revelations: the apprentice engineer discovers he can draw; the art student masters the technicalities of print-making with great virtuosity; he responds to the vision of Samuel Palmer; this leads him to landscape, where his unique interpretation of the natural world takes over and a new style and new way of seeing is created. Sutherland clearly responded to nature instinctively, as the faintly coy and cosy pastoral of his early etchings demonstrates, but the strong passion behind the Pembrokeshire gouaches and oils he completed in the mid-1930s testify to a deeper liberation. The focus of Sutherland’s landscapes in the 1930s is precise: the entrance to a lane, the stark contortions of a blasted tree, the prickly grip of gorse on a sea wall. This is not a Turneresque visitation of the egotistical sublime, it is an altogether more cautious survey of new possibilities: new geometries, new worlds.
The artistic process reflects this exactly. First comes the raw exposure to the subject matter: in the countryside the roving eye waits to alight on something, anything, that holds it - stone, rock, fissure, fall of water, bole of tree — and the sketch is made on the spot. A series of further sketches may be drawn from different angles. A colour wash is added. Then, back in the studio, a selection is made and squared up for copying and placing in the frame of the finished canvas. There is something dogged about the way the initial serendipitous coup d’oeil is worked up and worked on until it’s considered a suitable subject for a painting. Patience, thoroughness, precision — these are the virtues of the etcher’s craft, and Sutherland transported them to his painting. Keith Vaughan testified to the example Sutherland presented to a younger painter: the sheer number of hours he spent at work, its relentless daily routine. For those artists who rely on a facile or natural talent, or happy accident, a painter such as Sutherland can seem dauntingly intense and an almost shaming rebuke. Everyone else begins to look lazy or amateurish.
Even with portrait painting this process repeats itself. An excellent rather than a naturally brilliant draftsman, Sutherland was reluctant to attempt a likeness, yet after relenting to pressure, he undertook a commission to paint Somerset Maugham in 1949, and produced one of the great portraits of the 20th century. He continued to do so in subsequent commissions — he is one of the great postwar portraitists. In Sutherland’s case, there is no artistic braggadocio, no easy profligacy in the Picasso manner, no bludgeoning personality, saturnine or sensational — simply the work itself, a half century of extraordinary effort.
And at the root of his work is that evocative Sutherland line: idiosyncratic, unflowing, full of pauses and changes of angle, supplemented by little dashes, dots, squiggles, overlays and hatchings. Who can tell what it is about an artist’s style that engages? With Sutherland I would say it is this contrast of fiddly penmanship — of the black, the ink or the paint - with the smoother mass of the colour field. The worrying, jaggy, suggestive line sits against empty calmer surfaces of colour, the tension of the one counterposed by the translucency or the opacity of the other. This trope is there in the 1930s landscapes, in the thorn trees and thorn heads half a decade later, in the Standing Forms of the 1950s and the insects and corn cobs of the 1960s and 1970s. Any sketch, any gouache reveals that this tension, this contrast, is what his eye and his imagination respond to.
The power of Sutherland’s work to move, disturb or enchant is a tribute to his particular talent and occasional genius. As with any artist’s work, it fluctuates: there are great pictures and interesting ones, some enduringly powerful and some tired and slipshod (the Standing Form obsession of the 1950s and 1960s). But, surveying the past decades of British painting, two figures, I believe, will emerge as dominant influences, major artists whose work gives modern British art its true weight and significance in the international arena. One is Francis Bacon; the other should be Graham Sutherland.
In many respects the two men were complete opposites, not only in terms of their personality but also in many aspects of their art. They represent twin poles of artistic endeavour, twin touchstones of taste and evaluation. They seem to have met in the mid-1930s. Sutherland’s star was in the ascendant, but he admired Bacon’s talent and did a great deal to advance his career during the war. By the mid-1940s they were seeing a lot of each other socially. In 1946 Bacon based himself in Monte Carlo and suggested that Sutherland (and his wife) join him there. This was Sutherland’s introduction to the Mediterranean littoral and to pleasures of the roulette table, both of which were to be lasting obsessions.
During the next few years the two men were at their closest, and it was inevitable that a certain amount of cross-fertilisation would emerge. On the vexed question of who influenced whom, Bacon is commonly granted the upper hand: however, while Baconian elements appear in some of Sutherland’s works, there are elements of Sutherland in some of Bacon’s canvasses, too. Indeed, one could argue that major Sutherland paintings, such as Gorse on Sea Wall (1939) or Green Tree Form (1940), prefigure the classic Baconian composition: a twisted, tortured, organic shape set more-or-less centrally against bold opaque panels of colour.
But more revealing than the similarities between the two artists is the list of oppositions: Sutherland charming and well mannered, Bacon the extrovert roué; Sutherland the devoted husband, Bacon the promiscuous homosexual. The paramount place of line in Sutherland’s work; with Bacon the plasticity of the painted surface. Sutherland making study after study, laboriously squaring up and striving for perfection; Bacon relying on the adventitious moment, destroying everything that hadn’t worked. Sutherland working face-to-face with nature; Bacon confined to interiors. Sutherland the master etcher, the portrait painter, technically accomplished; Bacon claiming: "I know nothing about technique." And so on.
One is reminded here of Archilochus’s ancient and somewhat baffling adage: "The fox knows many things — the hedgehog knows one big thing." If Bacon is the hedgehog of 20th-century British painting — and any survey of his oeuvre will illustrate the "one big thing" he knew, the one furrow he ploughed almost without deviation from the 1944 Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion — then Graham Sutherland is the fox. For those who judge that all great painting springs from a mastery of line, then Sutherland, the "Fox", will claim their adherence. For those who prefer their emotions raw and unadulterated then the "Hedgehog" Bacon wins the day.
Bacon liked to sneer at Picasso and Matisse — the great modern masters of the line — and their talent for "decoration" as he put it. So, too, did he dismiss Sutherland as their friendship cooled in the 1950s and the 1960s and as Bacon’s stature grew. He likened Sutherland’s great portraits to "Time magazine covers", a mean-spirited slur, but one that might have had more weight if there were any evidence that Bacon could come close to Sutherland’s ability to draw. Bacon’s steady denigration of those artists who possessed this immense graphic gift is revealing. Sutherland, who was blessed in this way, was more generous-spirited towards his former friend and kept his own counsel. But then foxes can always afford to be kind to hedgehogs.
Graham Sutherland is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21, from June 15 until September 25. Details: 020-8693 5254.
Raw power of small faces
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
Iain Gale, Scotland on Sunday, Scotsman, Sunday 5th June, 2005
EVERYONE has an opinion about Francis Bacon. On his death in 1992 he was hailed by the chattering classes as 'probably the greatest British painter since Turner'.
Yet for others, Bacon’s art was, and is, anathema — a terrifying excursion to a ghastly dystopia devoid of salvation, inhabited by obscene monsters with slavering mouths and blinded eyes, where paint drips in runnels and death stalks, unforgiving.
He’s also one of the most easily visualised of all painters. That screaming Pope; those crucifixions; all those slightly sexy, suspiciously repugnant lumps of fleshy humanity, writhing on the floor. Yes, everyone knows Bacon. Or do we? A new exhibition in Edinburgh suggests there is a quite different side to his art.
Generally, with Bacon, we think of scale. The wee man was a big artist, producing some huge works including a triptych around two metres high. Most now grace the world’s great museums. But as with everything about Bacon, they’re not the whole story. Think smaller. Much smaller.
This is the first show in a museum context to bring together a significant number of the artist’s paintings of heads and portraits. They are, for the most part, disarmingly tiny, and seen here together in this unmissable show, they offer the best chance you will probably ever have to really understand Francis Bacon.
The first thing that hits you is the power of the paint. It oozes from the walls, straight from the tube, and flows across the rough canvas. Bacon has a natural facility with paint, it’s intuitive. He knows just when to make that definitive spurt of colour and when to stop.
Like the old masters — Titian and Tintoretto — Bacon would often smear on the paint with his fingers, or for that matter anything else that came to hand in his messy studio — a piece of cardboard or a scrap of corduroy. Occasionally he would incorporate into the mixture handfuls of dust from his floor — left uncleaned for this reason.
Bacon put himself into many of these works. His love affair with paint lies in its ability to transform. His faces and portraits are images of change.
Finding his inspiration in such diverse sources as a book on diseases of the face, movie stills and trick photography of psychic phenomena, Bacon uses paint as an agent of metamorphosis. The effect is perhaps most memorably encapsulated in After the life mask of William Blake: a life perpetuated, yet at the same time implicitly denied, which also embodies another common characteristic of Bacon’s heads. They are imprisoned.
In the early works, most famously his Head VI of 1949, they seem to sit behind a glass box. Later, as in the Blake, they are held captive by space alone. The mature head studies, in extreme close-up — ostensibly by being based on close-cropped photographs — seem similarly stifled. One explanation advanced for this sense of claustrophobia is that Bacon was asthmatic. That is certainly true, but what really matters is the effect on the viewer.
While they exist within a structure, or at least behind a veil, Bacon’s heads communicate through raw emotion. He does not dress them up with narrative; there is no story, just a jangle of exposed nerve endings. Their violent, tortured imagery is not intended to terrify us, nor excite our pity.
Rather, they are meant, perhaps, to give us back a sense of human dignity. Bacon’s style matured in the early 1950s at a time when, for a post-war generation so scarred by atrocity, portraiture — the celebration of the individual — no longer seemed valid.
One of Bacon’s most obvious achievements was to remake the idea of figurative painting as a true self-image of a human race acutely conscious of its own flaws. Often his portraits do not mimic the physical contours of the sitter’s face. But they are, nevertheless, intrinsically recognisable.
Compare them to original photographs, also on show here, on loan from Bacon’s recreated studio at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, and it soon becomes clear that, in the subtlest of ways, these are portraits of individuals. It is possible in Bacon for such tenderness to exist alongside violence and brutalism.
His intention, he stated, was to capture what he termed the sitter’s 'emanation'. Ultimately with Bacon, in the most sympathetic of ways, the face becomes the mirror of the soul.
In what feels like a big show — and one which certainly rewards time spent in it — some 50 works are hung with sufficient space to allow each its individual voice.
The show spans Bacon’s entire career, from the early 1930s to his death, and contains some real treasures. It is a particular coup for the curators to have been able to hang together three paintings of heads from Bacon’s first London exhibition of 1949.
These are followed by a similar reunion for four canvases from the eerie 1954 series of Men in Blue, whose apparently anonymous 'sitters' are in fact composite portraits of memories of Bacon’s ex-lover and a man met by chance in a Berkshire hotel.
Here, in this slightly sordid juxtaposition, lies the key to a show whose heart is a series of portraits of Bacon’s lovers. These are strange, compelling images, made with an obsessiveness still evident in their every stroke. It is almost as if, by perpetuating their essence on canvas, Bacon believes he can imbue them with the same sense of immortality which governed what his friend, the late Dan Farson, memorably christened his own "gilded, gutter life".
This applies as equally to his estrangement from Peter Lacy in the 1950s as to George Dyer’s 1962 suicide. Whether through death, infidelity or mere ennui, Bacon refuses to be robbed of his lovers. By capturing them on canvas he forever locates them, with covetous jealousy, within his private, contained artistic universe. Yet at the same time, these portraits are testaments of real love.
THIS DICHOTOMY mirrors Bacon’s own consistently contradictory character. He was a supreme control freak. His executors might have concluded that, hopelessly naive, he had for years been manipulated by his dealers. But as far as Bacon was concerned it was he who was the arch manipulator; he who so carefully controlled his output and his image; he who decided just how much he would give away about his art.
But while, in one respect, he might have enjoyed — or believed that he enjoyed — complete control, in another Bacon was utterly powerless. He was intoxicated by the idea of chance. An addict, enslaved as much to gambling as he was to the heady dangers of casual sex, excessive drink and drugs; anything that kept him on the edge, in a heightened state of emotion.
But the most dangerous buzz of all was that which he got from love. Was it surprising that he died of a heart attack? The real revelation of these pictures is Bacon’s extreme vulnerability.
Perhaps his own sense of this constant peril explains the cloistered environment he built for himself, and his ultimately hermetic existence in London’s Soho and South Kensington.
Counterbalancing the intensity of his images of Lacy and Dyer, the show exudes a real whiff of the Colony Room and Kettners, with Bacon’s portraits of his friend Lucian Freud and such low-life anti-heroes as Isabel Rawsthorne and Henrietta Moraes. But the unmissable central figure remains Bacon himself.
It is significant that on hearing of the death of Lacy, Bacon should have painted a triptych portrait of the dead man from memory.
More significant still, though, is that he chose to place his own head in the centre. Moreover, while Lacy’s face, perversely, seems vibrant and alive, Bacon’s appears to be vanishing into the background — diminished by the memory of his lover.
Clearly, this is not a memorial to Lacy but a comment on the effect of his passing on Bacon. He, not Lacy, is the subject. Thinking on this it becomes clear that whoever Bacon paints, his art is ultimately about no one but himself.
The real irony of Bacon lies in the fact that such an essentially selfish art as his is able to speak to us so powerfully in the language of the universal. And that simple ability is, surely, what makes any artist truly great.
Until September 4
Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads
Until September 4; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald,
Sunday, 5 June, 2005
The paint is streaked and scumbled, spattered and splashed, gritty and gashed. Whole swathes of canvas are exposed like raw wounds. Colours writhe in whispered cacophonies, inside rippling, sinewy curves, and escaping them.
Faces scream, dissolve and implode. They squirm like maggot-eaten corpses and twist like stolen sideways glances. Their eye sockets, dead and empty, offer no window on the soul, and their tautened throats are exits for screams that can’t get out.
For Francis Bacon, everyone was meat on a slab. We are all fleshy dramas in constant flux, our blood and muscle and slime holding us together while that inexplicable thing – our consciousness, or soul – battles to survive. Amongst the chaos of carnal life, Bacon finds beauty, and it is horror’s twin.
Dublin-born and London-based, Bacon’s life spanned most of the 20th century. Forging a path quite different from his contemporaries, Bacon took the baton directly from Velazquez, Rembrandt and Picasso, carving monumental figures, almost living, breathing, spitting and cursing, out of oil paint.
Bacon is best known for his large-scale triptychs of human suffering, often relating to the crucifixion. Half-human, half-carcass figures wrestle with each other, and while the specifics of their anatomies and their actions are unclear, the general air of violence is unmistakeable. Perhaps more horrifying, however, is the large proportion of Bacon’s work which emphasizes the isolation of the human being.
This exhibition, concentrating for the first time entirely on Bacon’s portraits and heads, is full of such isolation. In not one of the 54 paintings does any figure interact with any other. People’s own reflections look away from them. Every figure is absolutely, and irrevocably, alone.
The first room is a perfect example. It has five heads, four of them screaming. Alongside the crucifixion triptychs, Bacon is famous for his screaming popes, and his first ever is included here, along with two companion pieces shown in the artist’s first solo show, 56 years ago.
Based on Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, Bacon’s pope loses the domineering glare of the Spanish original, and is reduced to the state of vulnerable animal: screaming, trapped and disintegrating. Here, in a series of dry, rasping brush strokes, the pope is screaming himself out of existence. Or perhaps he is gasping for air – Bacon suffered badly from asthma.
The pope is trapped inside a box, typical of Bacon’s environments. A few thin lines suggest architectural space and the rest is left to the imagination. Here, the transparent box might be glass, a suggestion which is reinforced by the gallery’s decision to hang the glazed picture opposite a bright window. The light reflects on the actual glass, isolating the trapped figure even more in his own silent agony.
Although obsessed with Velazquez’s painting, Bacon took great care never to visit the original, perhaps fearing that it wouldn’t live up to his expectations. This is a hard fact to grasp, when standing among Bacon’s own work, because reproductions are nothing compared with the real thing.
When Warhol’s self-portraits
were hanging on these same walls a month ago, they revelled in their own
flatness. Mass-reproduction was the point for Warhol, who wanted to spread
his images as widely and as mechanically as possible. Not so for Bacon,
whose images exude a physical presence which can’t be translated onto the
The paint does something different on every canvas. Here, it’s a chalky patchwork of tones; there, it’s an intense, tarry snarl. And it really does seem to be an active player, not just a passive medium. The streaky paint snakes into one nostril and out of another. It loops into an eye socket and out, performing so many pirouettes that finally its gloopy trail has caressed the surface of a whole remembered head.
The paint is not the whole subject in the same way as it would have been for Jackson Pollock. Here, the paint is glorious indeed, but it engages with a long figurative tradition. At the same time it is so much more than an illustration of a person’s outer appearance. Bacon’s work walks that tightrope, tread by centuries of old masters, between inner and outer realities.
“I’m always hoping to deform people into appearance”, Bacon once said. “I can’t paint them literally.” So when the Tate’s portrait of his artist friend, Isabel Rawsthorne, has a splurge of white paint thrusting out from her jaw, it’s not spit or sweat or an unfortunate beard. Intuition tells us that it implies a certain stubborn determination, dynamic and sure. And while Rawsthorne’s right eye is intact, her left eyeball is blank, suggesting deep inward thought.
That’s not to say that one eye open, other eye shut always means the same thing in some handy pocket Bacon lexicon. The artist wasn’t aiming to appeal to the intellect, and he didn’t paint from it either. While operating somewhere below the level of the conscious, he wasn’t indulging in Surrealist symbolism. His aim was to fire straight for the central nervous system “so that form could pass directly from the eye to the stomach without going through the brain.”
Having said that, after pouring for years over the contents of Bacon’s studio, academics know much more about the well-thumbed sources which recur obliquely in his work. One image in particular seems to run through every head the artist ever painted, and that is the face of the screaming nanny in Eisenstein’s Soviet film classic, The Battleship Potemkin. Her mouth is stretched open like the screaming popes’, and with one eye bleeding, her spectacles tilt, half-shattered, from her nose.
So the arc of shattered glasses looms large in Bacon’s portraiture. Sometimes it’s apparent only in the enlarged arches streaking through a forehead, sometimes it’s hidden in the black void of a cheek. Sometimes, as in this 1966 portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, it creeps in through the blankness of an eye. As a single forceful image it is deeply embedded in Bacon’s vision of the world, investing every face with a vestige of numbing shock. In that sense, at least, we are not alone. In that sense, every figure in this exhibition has been subject to attack.
Another of Bacon’s favourite sources was the collection of sequential photographs taken by 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Before the invention of film, Muybridge devised a way of photographing motion in tiny increments, and simultaneously from different angles. He applied these techniques to naked figures and animals, building up a library of movement which is still used by many today.
The scientific phenomenon called persistence of vision means that if we watch Muybridge’s photos in sequence, our mind fills in the gaps and sees, for example, a galloping horse. The Futurists and the Cubists soon picked up on this new technology, layering all the angles, and all the moves, on top of each other to create a single image. These concerns are echoed in Bacon’s work, for instance in the impressively claustrophobic series of Men In Blue.
The men, looming out of their static linear surroundings, look double-exposed in places. An ear shifts back while the eye slips down, and a ghost of a mouth sits behind the original. While the collar and tie – those anchors of male, western civilisation – are immaculately presented, the face seems to have the jitters, unable to play dead.
As Bacon’s painting developed, he left the layered images behind and instead explored the gaps between them. His later portraits don’t suggest multiple exposures, but the blurred memory in between. He could only paint people he knew well – friends and lovers, mostly – and he preferred to do it in their absence so he could work freely from his memory of the person’s “emanation”.
These heads, small and intensely focussed, look bruised and battered, maimed and swollen – “as though they had endured some terminal rearrangement by massage”, as Robert Hughes once said. But according to all who knew the subjects, they were wonderfully representative of the characters. For Bacon they were a synthesis not only of the different angles and movements of a person, but of their actions, and of his memories and experiences of them.
Think of someone close to you; it’s not exactly their complete physical form that you are picturing, is it? It’s a fluid image, some features looming large while others skulk in the background, the body imbued with attributes which are more about personality than physical fact. It’s that elusive vision which Bacon tried to nail on canvas, a project which places him firmly in the pantheon of great historical portrait painters.
And it is an old master show. That might seem odd, for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. But the walls are various shades of dirty buff, the frames are big and gold, the pictures are behind glass, and there is a thick air of reverence. It is wholly deserved. Each one of Bacon’s canvasses demands attention, and resists explanation. They are interesting in print, but compelling in the flesh. And flesh is in plentiful supply
Power of humanity abides in Bacon’s portraits
PORTRAITS AND HEADS
SCOTTISH NATIONAL GALLERY OF MODERN ART, EDINBURGH
DUNCAN MACMILLAN ON VISUAL ART
The Scotsman, Tuesday 7th June, 2005
"MOST fortunately it happens that, since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium... I dine, I converse, and am merry with my friends and when after three or four hours amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold and strained and ridiculous that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further."
David Hume looks into the abyss of loneliness and uncertainty that his sceptical philosophy had opened up — for us as much as it had for him — but turns away to find comfort and security in the society of his friends. The abyss did not close, however. It was there to stay. Its presence is familiar in art as romantic angst, but the safety net of sociability was in place for a long time.
In the 20th century that all changed. The horrors of the First World War had not faded when Europe was plunged into the Second World War. Its horrors were less immediate, but that was deceptive. They had a slow fuse and finally exploded in the unspeakable revelations of Auschwitz and the cataclysms of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Faced with that record, how could one put faith in humanity ever again? How could the Humanism of the Enlightenment that Hume personified possibly survive the witness of such things? And throughout those post-war decades, the world also lived in constant expectation of imminent nuclear holocaust.
It is hardly surprising that in art the human image became problematic. Oscar Kokoshcka summed it up at the time: "There will be no portrait of modern man because he is turning back towards the jungle."
If an artist did tackle the human image, the result was tortured and alienated. Of all such images, those painted by Francis Bacon in the late 1940s and early 50s are the most memorable. His screaming popes and tortured figures — mouths agape in agony, terrified and unforgiven — surely cry to us from the abyss from which Hume had turned with such relief two centuries before.
That quote from Kokoshcka is in an essay by Richard Calvocoressi in the catalogue of the new exhibition of Bacon’s work at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Reflecting Kokoschka’s pessimistic vision, there is a group of Bacon’s familiar, fearsome images on show. Head I, painted in 1948, is monstrous and eyeless, just a twisted mouth with vampire teeth. By taking it further and focusing closely on Bacon’s treatment of the human head from that time forward — on the portrait, in fact — the exhibition also reveals that Bacon’s art was not shaped by the acute, existential angst of the mid-20th century alone. These are often tragic images, certainly, and they speak of the inescapable suffering of the human existence, too, but Bacon also goes far further in dialogue with Hume than you might expect.
These are not simply expressionist pictures, shouts of anguish that push at the boundaries of coherence. If the reassurance Hume found in the fact of common humanity was no longer available, the questions he asked had not gone away. However distorted Bacon’s images sometimes seem, they are still trying to deal with just those questions, trying to make sense of the world.
In spite of everything, they are affirming — in these pictures the reassuring human presence is elusive, perhaps, and difficult to grasp, suffering certainly, but there nevertheless.
There are some 50 works in the show. Some are large paintings. Particularly telling among these is a group of four 6ft canvasses from the series Man in Blue. Painted in 1954, these are classic studies of alienation. An anonymous man, barely defined in a gloomy bar or hotel lobby, is framed in each of them by the rudimentary perspective construction that Bacon used so often, one that we read as a cage — indeed in these pictures it even seems to be fitted with bars — though Bacon himself saw its function as simply pictorial.
Many of the pictures are small however, just 14 inches by 12, a standard size that Bacon adopted in the late 1950s. Frequently, to extraordinary effect, these small portraits are grouped into triptychs, either three studies of the same head, or, as in the first of the series, Study for Three Heads, 1962, they are composite. This is a double portrait of Peter Lacy with Bacon himself between. The whole composition, one full face and two three-quarter views, left and right, is in the manner of Van Dyck’s triple portrait of Charles I. On other occasions, three individuals are brought together like saints in an altarpiece, as in Three Studies for Portraits: Isabel Rawsthorne, Lucian Freud and JH, 1966.
In all these small heads, because you can see them close up, you can appreciate how exquisitely — and fastidiously — Bacon painted. The colour is often intense, though scarcely naturalistic. Flesh tints predominate perhaps, but are often shot through with blue or green, and occasionally spattered with spots of vivid red. As Bacon always painted on the unprimed back of the canvas, the paint also seems strangely dry. Its natural liquidity is arrested. A sweeping brush stroke becomes a gesture that has been freeze-dried, barely complete. The effect seems somehow at once extemporised and deliberate. The surface is an extraordinary and complex pattern of interlocking curves, but is always coherent. The marks are about movement, transience, the impermanence of any image against time’s flux, yet the paintings also have a finished quality and a powerful physical presence. Stand back, even 20 yards, and they still make sense. You feel hand and eye reaching out, determined to find order in the world even though nothing in it will ever stand still.
A key work in all this, it seems to me, is Head III, painted in 1949. It is an early work (Bacon had been painting for nearly 20 years by then, but did not find his way until the 1940s) and is recognisably a portrait of a man in spectacles. His features are distinctly drawn, but the background consists of long strokes of light and dark grey dragged over unprimed canvas and against this, in impasted white paint, they seem to have solidified only momentarily — like the face of the Cheshire cat, they will imminently dissolve once more. Indeed, most of the man’s head has already dissolved. We only see the salient part of his face.
Everything is transitory, yet we can still feel permanence. It is not a matter of seeing and knowing (the conventional summary of cognition) but of feeling and half-knowing. "Neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, where past and future are gathered," wrote TS Eliot, and he might have been writing about Bacon, about what we see in a picture such as this: how time can stand still for us, yet somehow we also feel how it remains inescapably dynamic.
Rembrandt had already explored such things and his inspiration is present in the impasto in that latter picture; Cézanne painted these things too. This is the company in which Bacon saw himself, and perhaps that was not just deluded self-importance. His technique is impeccable; he meant his paintings to survive; he framed them with great care, too. They really can hang alongside the old masters and that is not just because of the frames, it is because there is a real common purpose.
Take the last self-portrait here, painted in 1987. Though it is a recognisable likeness it is sad, shadowy and grey. Even as it drifts on the edge of dissolution, it is made tangibly present to us by a scattering of vivid red paint. Such a picture really could hold its own in dialogue with Hume or with Rembrandt.
• Portraits and Heads runs until 4 September.
Past master or just past it?
Francis Bacon’s posthumous reputation outstrips that of
Graham Sutherland, writes Tom Lubbock.
No wonder, on the evidence of two major new shows
TOM LUBBOCK | CULTURE | THE INDEPENDENT | MONDAY, 20 JUNE, 2005
What is the point of posterity? Why do we set such store by the judgement of time, by things lasting? Why do we appeal and defer to the views of our great-grandchildren? They will be a pretty weird lot anyway, with assumptions and priorities very distant from our own. If they happen to agree with us about some bit of art, or it they don’t, who cares?
But it doesn’t feel quite like that. We’re conscious of posterity working in ourselves. Just by sticking around, we see the shine of novelty rubbing away from things, and revealing either something more interesting or nothing much at all. And we think we have learned something. (It takes a stern relativist to insist that there is no learning, merely changing times and changing minds.) Posterity is a long-term, collective version of this learning process.
Take Graham Sutherland, for example. He was born in 1903 and died in 1980, and for almost half of that span he was a top British painter — just as Henry Moore, his very close contemporary, was top British sculptor. In fact, Moore and Sutherland traded on much of the same artistic premises: deep nature, English romanticism meets European modernism, Second World War, humanity, universal symbol. Sutherland’s work was more anguished and menacing.
Since his death, Moore has managed to stay in the general consciousness, largely because all those awful blobs have stayed where they were put in such profusion, in our public parks and plazas. Sutherland has not.
There are his quasi-Christian altarpieces in the bombed and rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which was an important emblem of national recovery for a while. There was his portrait of Winston Churchill, which Churchill’s wife turned out to have destroyed, and the news caused a stir. But it’s fair to say that almost nobody thinks about Sutherland’s work now.
Graham Sutherland: Landscapes, War Scenes, Portraits 1925 — 1950, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, is trying to do something about that, putting what it sees as the best case for the artist, his work from the 1930s and 40s. The landscapes are the most distinctive things.They are not really landscapes. A typical image has a central figure or motif, a tight and strenuous knot of natural energy. Green Tree Form, Association of Oaks, Hollow Tree Trunk, Green Lane, Horned Forms: these pictures present a cast of half-abstract shape-critters, derived from roots and rocks and branches and thorns and hollows. The forms are hunched, coiled, twisted, spiky, and they play a kind of peek-a-boo with three-dimensionality. There are points where you think you can grasp a weird but solid object, and then it eludes you, and goes flat or fades away or blends into itself or retreats suddenly into darkness. There is a good deal of green and yellow
These veggie-critters have a feeling of growth, but it is always an ingrowing, not a blooming. Their energies are defensive, introverted, tormented, self-thwarting. The show quotes Dylan Thomas — “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower ” — and you can see why. But it’s not quite right, because there is no outward drive or flowering in these images. Nor is it a cosy, self-infolding cuddle of natural forms, such as you get in Samuel Palmer (though Sutherland is obviously thinking about Palmer0. If you want an electrical metaphor, it is nature as short-circuit.
OK, I’m trying to empathise. I’m too young to remember what it was like to be excited by Sutherland. I’m too young to have once admired and then gone off him. Sutherland’s work seems to have died before I saw any of it. So I’m trying to imagine what the hit might have been. It’s a slightly pointless exercise, simply because I wasn’t there at the relevant moment. We can never really know what an art was like first time, when it seemed strange and original. So all I’m really saying is that the pictures have something going for them. You can imagine pictures with the same kind of ideas that were good. But still, in fact Sutherland’s pictures are no good at all.
He has no nerve. Hwe bottles out into fudge and fidget. He takes on the game of strong and characterful shape-making, and flunks it. His inspirations are William Blake and Picasso, two masters of this art, but if you hold their work in mind while looking at Sutherland, you can see how his shapes always fail to clinch an identity. Their lines and edges never make a definite statement. They are scared of any particular emphasis. They are tricked out with all sorts of fussy details, which aren’t one thing or another. Even their elusiveness is evasive.
The show helpfully includes a painting by Paul Nash, Landscape with Megaliths. He was another influence, and doing a similar kind of thing, but the difference is too clear. Nash can make his non-specific shapes very confidently How tough even those little background tree-clumps are. Then you turn to Sutherland’s Brimham Rock, next to it, and the forms are all weakness and indecision. There are other contemporaries, not included, he could also be compared with, tellingly and always to his disadvantages— Wyndham Lewis in his Creation Myth pictures, for example, or, of course, Francis Bacon.
Bacon knew Sutherland in the 1940s, and Sutherland had some input to his work. It seems an odd connection: Sutherland, sober and rural; Bacon, wild and metropolitan. But it’s there. Bacon’s carnal catastrophes clearly descend from the spiky, half-blurred organic entities in a picture such as Horned Forms. Influence is nothing, though; performance is all. And if you want to check out how Bacon (1909-92) is doing posterity-wise, you can do that too. Francis Bacon; Portraits and Heads is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.
He’s coming along quite nicely, I think. The overt shock and horror of these images, the blood-and-guts deformity that was so much part of their initial impact, seems to be falling away. I can remember this. I can remember this time. I can remember hardly being able to look, and then the eye crept back, fascinated. But now the old talk about a vision of violence and despair feels off the point. What comes through is the marvellous virtuosity of his facial variations, the way the image brinks between resolving and dissolving, and the forms slice apart and flow together and take off in all directions, the superb shape-making.
I always like these small close-up head images best. Even in the big pictures, the face is the central, holding feature. Here it’s the whole picture, and gets into very dynamic relationships with its framing, and with one another (they’re often presented in threesomes). But more than that, these pictures are portraits. That is now perfectly visible. What Bacon always claimed to be doing, making a likeness in as vivid a way as possible, turns out, oddly enough, to be true.
Admittedly, it makes the work seem slightly more straight than it did. You look at, say, Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne (1966), and they are basically character studies, a head in three postures, three expressions. You can’t quite say what these expressions are, but you nearly can. You get a feeling of “wondering and troubled” from the left one, and grounded and possibly contented from the right one; the middle — a wilder guess — could be sympathetically sad. But at any rate, you have a sense of being in a known genre. You can half-imagine the pictures “un-Baconed”, turned back into more conventional portraits.
And I agree that it would be an unfortunate thing if you could imagine it too easily. It would make all the extreme variations into just an added liveliness and vagueness, a souping-up of this familiar artistic treat. Perhaps our perception pf Bacon’s art will move even farther in that direction as time passes. Perhaps the pictures will turn back into the kind of “illustration” that Bacon always declared he wanted at all costs to avoid. But for the time being, the sheer zest of its surface activity saves it. There is a real swing and dance and flourish to it. Strange to say, about these archetypes of ghastliness, they’re really jolly.
Graham Sutherland: Landscapes, War Scenes, Portraits 1925 — 1950, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, SW21 To 25 September.
Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh to 4 September
Bacon and Sutherland
Martin Hammer Yale University Press
BY RICHARD CORK | CULTURE | THE NEW STATESMAN | MONDAY, 20 JUNE, 2005
During the Second World War, Graham Sutherland became a widely acclaimed artist, supported by Kenneth Clark and sought after by collectors. Francis Bacon, by contrast, was still unknown outside his immediate circle and restlessly destroyed most of the pictures he produced. But the great merit of Martin Hammer’s fascinating book lies in the author’s ability to make us understand why these two men managed, at least for a while, to forge a close friendship.
Hammer’s book displays much evidence of wide reading and hard looking. All the letters written by Bacon to Sutherland are reproduced in an appendix, and they show just how dissatisfied the artist felt about his early work. “I am sick to death of everything I’ve ever done in the past,” he wrote to Sutherland from a Monte Carlo hotel in 1946, “but continue to think like a child or a fool that I’m on the edge of doing a good painting.”
These men were brought together by the struggle against Hitler’s abomi-nations. Bacon wrote his earliest extant letter to Sutherland in 1943, telling him “how much I like some of your paintings in the National Gallery”. The show in question concentrated on recent work by the official war artists. Until this point, Sutherland’s success as a landscape painter had far outshone Bacon’s painfully protracted struggle to define his ambitions as a figure painter.
That Bacon exhibited nothing between 1937 and spring 1945, when his first nightmarish triptych was displayed at the Lefevre Gallery, must have made Hammer’s task extremely difficult. Yet the author succeeds in establishing links between the two artists, both on a technical level and in terms of their mutual search for “a metamorphic art encapsulating the pathos of wartime life”.
He points to their shared fascination with Marius Maxwell’s photographs of animals in equatorial Africa, and suggests that the new boldness of colour in Sutherland’s 1944 work might have been given impetus by Bacon. He, in turn, was helped by Sutherland to reacquire his sense of artistic identity. Hammer is especially searching in his discussion of Sutherland’s Crucifixion altarpiece, and how it may have been affected by Bacon’s great 1946 painting of a crucified meat carcass slung behind a man grinning under an umbrella. He also shows how Sutherland introduced Bacon to influential collectors, and how the two artists developed an obsession with gambling in Riviera casinos.
Only in the 1950s did their relation- ship become unbalanced, by which point Bacon was pursuing a powerfully single-minded course, while Sutherland was becoming increasingly erratic. By the mid-1960s they had stopped seeing each other altogether. Yet Hammer, who has also curated the new exhibition of Sutherland’s art at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, is right to claim that they played a shaping part in the development of each other’s work during the war, and that this was instrumental in the making of both Bacon and Sutherland as artists.
Four paperbacks of Richard Cork’s writings on modern artists, including Bacon, are published by Yale
A fresh side of Bacon
A new exhibition of portraits fascinatingly reveals Francis Bacon’s technique as well as the affection and hatred he felt for his sitters,
while a small show of work by Graham Sutherland celebrates his passion for landscape. By Richard Dorment
RICHARD DORMENT | ARTS | THE DAILY TELEGRAPH | WEDNESDAY 22 JUNE 2005
A corking show of Francis Bacon’s portraits and heads at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, organised in association with the British Council, reveals a side of Bacon’s work we’ve never seen before.
Instead of the histrionics of the large triptychs and the screaming popes, it focuses on Bacon’s most intimate work — his studies of his lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer, of friends Muriel Belcher and Isabel Rawsthorne, and of fellow painters Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud.
This is Bacon the private and complex man, capable of surprising tenderness and affection as well as of cruelty and spiked wit. Above all, the narrow focus of the exhibition allows us to concentrate on the way Bacon actually lays paint on the canvas, and not, as is so often the case when looking at his work, on the existential subject matter.
Whether or not he painted directly from the model, Bacon normally based his portraits on photographs. In display cases placed along the corridor linking the galleries, photos of his sitters reveal that no matter how he distorts a face, Bacon was usually able to capture a remarkable likeness.
But, instead of covering his faces with an epidermis of flesh, he excavates parts of them, using concave sweeps of brilliant colour to define the planes of cheekbones and forehead, while filling in other parts with a single stroke of the brush for a nose or a chin. In some of the heads, his technique is almost like that of a cubist, in others he reminded me of a sculptor working soft clay with his thumbs.
And what a range of emotion Bacon can achieve within a limited format! When he paints George Dyer, the face comes out bruised and swollen, like a prizefighter after a match, as though, for Bacon, the act of painting were a substitute for what he would otherwise do with his fists.
But in a portrait of Peter Lacy sleeping there is a sweetness and protectiveness that you don’t find elsewhere in Bacon’s work. In general, the more handsome the man, the more viciously Bacon treats him. In a double portrait of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, the poor artists come out looking like the masked women in the Demoiselles d’Avignon.
What is Bacon doing in these portraits? One answer is that he is searching for the essence of the person, that elusive and constantly changing element that is an individual’s identity. But it is more complicated than that. The way paint is dragged in striations across the faces in certain portraits could also be a way of suggesting physical movement, or it might evoke the idea of a doubly-exposed photograph.
And for every brushstroke that builds up form, another seems to shatter it, as though the portrait were the arena in which Bacon can work out his conflicting feelings of affection and hatred for the person he is painting.
These heads are painted directly on the canvas without preliminary drawing, so that the image and the technique are inseparable. In Bacon’s own words, "the brushstroke creates the form and does not merely fill it in".
In his portrait Miss Muriel Belcher he applies paint with a loaded brush to create a surface as richly impastoed as in a Rubens sketch, dipping his brush in more than one colour, then dragging it in short, striated strokes of green mixed with pink. He then stains the background with two tones of thinned green paint to suggest the space in which Belcher exists.
In these small-scale works, Bacon had no difficulty sustaining the interest of the painted surface from edge to edge as I feel is often the case in the large-scale subject pictures. This show reveals a Bacon that I, for one, didn’t know at all. See it if you possibly can.
The Bacon show coincides with a small exhibition of the work of his friend Graham Sutherland at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
After his death in 1980, the reputation of a man once considered one of this country’s pre-eminent painters sank like a stone. There were two reasons for this, and both were unfair: we tended to judge him by his later work, and also to compare him with contemporaries who worked in the international modernist style — with Bacon, of course, but also with Picasso and Giacometti.
I, too, sneered at Sutherland until I saw an exhibition at the Barbican in 1987 that placed him in another context — that of Neo-Romanticism in Britain. Suddenly, he came into his own. Once you stop to look at his work from the viewpoint of Paris or New York, you see that it belongs in a uniquely British tradition of painting characterised by a visionary love of the English landscape and a profound symbolist orientation.
For me, Sutherland is at his best working on a small scale, and on paper. He never really transcended his origins as a graphic artist, nor was he a natural or beautiful painter in the way that Bacon is.
'Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads' is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (0131 624 6200) until Sept 4.
Head master: works in the Bacon show include this Study of the Human Head 1953
FRANCIS BACON AT THE SCOTTISH NATIONAL GALLERY OF MODERN ART
BY ISLA LEAVER-YEP | EXHIBITIONS | 24 HOUR MUSEUM | CULTURE 24 | WEDNESDAY 22 JUNE 2005
Isla Leaver-Yap took in Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, on show until September 4 2005.
“I’m always hoping to deform people into appearance; I can’t paint them literally,” Francis Bacon once said. And, over two decades on from his death, the artist has achieved his wish in this latest exhibition.
This show is the first to focus exclusively on a series of portraits, produced by Bacon from the 1940s right up until his death in 1992, of his closest lovers and friends.
Including triptychs, full-length portraits, photographs recovered from his studio and scrapbooks, the images retain their fresh menace and the unsurpassed skill of an artist who, in hindsight, is emerging as one of the most important in living memory.
But this is not merely a retrospective. The gallery enthusiastically frames Bacon as an artist who is impressive not merely because of his technical skill or his ability to create images that impinge upon our sense of understandable, safe art. Here, he is shown as a pioneer who both annihilated and rebuilt the vocabulary of what constitutes a modern portrait.
His works, when put alongside the photographs, do not resemble his sitters in any conventional sense – they refuse to simply convey likeness. Instead, Bacon lays on his paint thick and muddy, orchestrating a sense of the character of each of his subjects, a kind of ‘essence’.
Bacon often worked from found photos or specially commissioned portraits by his friend and photographer John Deakin. Some of Deakin’s photographs on display at the exhibition document and pin down their subjects as if the images were a guarantor of their existence in a specific place or context: Henrietta Moraes was standing on a street corner in Soho, Lucian Freud did visit Bacon’s studio.
But the Bacon paintings that quite deliberately lift from Deakin’s images work against these very certainties; his re-representations mercilessly tear his figures away from the safety of their surroundings.
He isolates his friends’ features against oppressive block colours of vibrant red or pink or else he lets them melt away into deep blues and hollow blacks.
At their best, it is possible to see a kind of finesse and sophistication maturing in his work – the articulation of paint becomes finer and more deliberate as you progress chronologically from room to room.
While at its most disturbing, this sophistication articulates fantastical and frightening figures that rise up from the canvas like Frankenstein’s monstrous creations. Each exquisite corpse is imbued with a presence that threatens to emerge twitching from the caked, dry paint.
The exhibition labels talk of ‘tenderness’ in a few of Bacon’s images. Yet this is hard to fathom. Perhaps some seem less violent or disturbing than others, but this is the tenderness of an artist who manipulates paint, who stretches and mutilates the canvas – someone who has excelled in dealing with distortion.
However, the later portraits have a luminous beauty that seems new to Bacon’s work. Gone are the blown-off faces, the post-apocalyptic cynicism, the hybrid humans. He replaces them instead with traces of absence – ghosts of younger lives juxtaposed with his own self-portraits.
This departure brings a sense of finish to each work. But this, however daring, was to be something short-lived at the end of Bacon’s long alcohol addiction.
Bacon’s astute understanding of the human form is unrivalled, even in retrospect and, as he spoke of painting: “It lives on its own… so that the artist may be able to unlock the values of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.”
Certainly, violence may be one of the most menacing themes in his work, but it is his ability to ‘unlock’ that is something both inspiring and entirely unique.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art , Belford Road, Edinburgh, EH4 3DR, Lothian, Scotland
Study for Portrait 1969 Francis Bacon Self-Portrait 1969 Francis Bacon
POST WAR & CONTEMPORARY Evening Sale
Sale No: 7061 Lot No. 24 June 23, 2005, London, King Street
Creator: Francis Bacon (1909-1992)
Lot Title: Portrait of George Dyer Staring into a Mirror
titled and dated 'Portrait of George Dyer Staring into a Mirror 1967' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas 78 x 58in. (198 x 147.3cm.) Painted in 1967
Estimate: 2,500,000 - 3,500,000 British pounds
Sold: 4,936,000 British pounds
Special Notice: VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price plus buyer’s premium
Marlborough Fine Art Ltd.,
Property of an Estate, New York.
Their sale, Christie’s New York, 7 November 1990, lot 28A.
Private collection, Europe.
Anon. sale, Sotheby’s New York, 15 November 1995, lot 28.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
J. Russell, Francis
Bacon, London 1985, p. 135.
W. Schmied, Francis Bacon, Commitment and Conflict, Germany 1996, p. 114 (illustrated in colour, pl. 24).
London, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., Francis Bacon Recent Paintings, November-December 1968, no. 6, pp. 11, 35 (illustrated in colour). Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Francis Bacon, October 1971-May 1972, no. 73 (illustrated in colour, p. 80).
This exhibition later travelled to Düsseldorf, Kunsthalle, March-May 1972.
The meeting between
Francis Bacon and George Dyer has become the stuff of art legend. Bacon liked to
claim that they met one night when Bacon rumbled Dyer in the process of robbing
his flat. He also told a less glamourous tale of Dyer merely approaching Bacon
and his friends in a bar in Soho because they looked like they were having such
good drunken fun. Whichever the case, within a short time of meeting, an intense
friendship had sprung up between the two very different men and Dyer was to
become Bacon’s constant companion throughout much of the 1960s and early ’70s,
as well as his most important model if not Muse.
It was the strange combination of masculinity, fragility and criminality that manifested itself in Dyer that had attracted Bacon. An introverted and evidently deeply troubled character there was a constant tension surrounding Dyer, a quality that Bacon soon found to be inherently suited to his art and his large-scale portraits of Dyer from the 1960s and early 1970s are clearly among his greatest artistic achievements. Portrait of George Dyer Staring into a Mirror is a large-scale painting from 1967 that incorporates within itself a double-portrait of Dyer in a way that reflects the tormented and deeply divided nature of the sitter. Staring into a canvas-like mirror, the unmistakable features of a suited Dyer (his sense of style was reputedly inspired by the notorious Kray Twins) are shown from two angles, each anxiously inspecting the other. Bacon used this double motif in several of his pictures of Dyer to create a jarring sense of duplicity and a double-portrayal rather than a mere reflection. With the mirror acting as a second canvas, Bacon explores a multiple image in a way similar to those in his triptych portraits. At the same time, the immense open and empty space of the right of the picture, its almost abstract simplicity, heightens both the concentration of biological and biographical matter compressed into the left-hand side of the picture. Sitting with his hands anxiously clasped together and twisted around himself on a stool in the midst of this empty modern office-like interior, a profound existential sense of isolation, such as Dyer may often have felt, is here persuasively expressed. Forming a bizarre conglomeration of Saville Row tailoring and of tense contorted flesh, Dyer’s impressive physique seems both small and crushed by the emptiness of the space all around him. His contemplation of his own self image in the canvas/mirror on the wall, reflects the anxious self-questioning nature of Dyer and his position as Bacon’s lover and muse. The deliberate ambiguity between the canvas and the mirror that Bacon has established by giving it a pinned canvas-like border suggests that this picture may show Dyer inspecting his own painted image rather than his mirrored reflection. Staring at himself, questioning not only his own inner nature but also the expressive but dispassionate and even distanced way in which he has been portrayed by his lover strikes at an area of deep personal insecurity in Dyer’s life that ultimately led to his suicide in 1971. Dyer was never comfortable with life in Bacon’s shadow and was constantly worried about the validity and purpose of his existence feeling himself completely out of place and inadequate in the company of both Bacon and his friends. Bacon’s decision to depict Dyer in the way that he does in this portrait – alone, tormented and surrounded by the emptiness of a alienating modern environment – shows that although powerless to change anything he was not insensitive to this feature of Dyer’s life. The painting, like all of Bacon’s best art is direct, refreshingly simple and existentially disturbing in the brutality of its honesty.
The incorporation of a double portrait into this work and the differing angles and perspectives that it offers was a device that Bacon often used as it was one that allowed him to explore his subject matter both more accurately and with more detachment. It was Bacon’s aim to capture in his portraits a fundamental quality – the deep and underlying energy at the heart of life. Adopting a dispassionate almost scientific detachment from his subject matter and working from photographs rather than live models, Bacon consciously disrupted the recognisability of his images, smearing and battering the figures that he committed to canvas into a distorted image – one more real, he hoped, than any illustrative representation. 'What I want is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance,' Bacon explained. 'I think that the methods by which this is done are so artificial that the model before you, in my case, inhibits the artificiality by which this thing can be bought back. [Sitting models] inhibit me. They inhibit me because, if I like them, I don’t want to practice before them the injury that I do to them in my work. I would rather practice the injury in private by which I think I can record the fact of them more clearly. (Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York 1990, pp. 38 and 40).
The adding of chance
elements into his painting, thrown splashes of paint, smearings and random
distortions – was
another way in which to capture the essence of life all the more truly and
allowed his painting to develop organically in reaction to his own violence to
the canvas and the image. 'I just wipe it all over with a rag' he said, 'or use
a brush or rub it with something or anything or throw turpentine and paint and
everything else onto the thing to try to break the willed articulation of the
image, so that the image will grow, as it were, spontaneously and within its own
structure, and not my structure' (Ibid., p. 160). Through exposure to the
elements of chance Bacon hoped to somehow capture the emanating pulse of life
that runs through all animate matter and incorporate his paint, to some extent,
into the real world.
This violence of representation, the distortion of a loved one’s image in order to capture life, was all the more successful in Bacon’s portraits of Dyer, who brought a genuine criminality, intensity and virility to the pictures. The violence of Bacon’s style was now also reflected in the subject himself, allowing Bacon to harness a life force that was more raw. Bacon considered his own life to have been punctuated by violence, be it through childhood whippings, Republican attacks in Ireland, the Second World War, or his own personal predilections. Bacon’s artistic philosophy and his opinions about the nature of existence were founded on these experiences: 'this violence of my life, the violence which I’ve lived amongst, I think it’s different to the violence in painting. When talking about the violence of paint, it’s nothing to do with the violence of war. It’s to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality itself' (Bacon, quoted in Sylvester, Ibid., p. 81).
Bacon was extremely conscious of the violence that he enacted upon his subjects in his paintings as he defaced them with turpentine and splatterings and smearings of paint. It was one of the reasons why he preferred to work from photography and source materials rather than from life. One of the smeared and distorted faces in Portrait of George Dyer Staring into a Mirror is particularly reminiscent of a photograph of his model that Bacon was known to use as a source image. In the same way that Bacon distanced himself from a literal representation of his sitter in order to capture life more accurately, he also distanced himself from the sitters themselves. Close as he was to Dyer, even with him Bacon worked from pictures (usually taken by John Deakin). Sylvester has pointed out that in the so-called 'nude' portraits of Dyer, Dyer is shown wearing underpants, a reflection of Dyer’s unwillingness to pose naked not for Bacon but for the photographer. In works such as this painting these images have been distorted, mangled and wrought into a powerful likeness that is both a portrait of the inner psychology of the man, his outward appearance and a much wider investigation of the existential nature of life itself.
The violence that punctuated Bacon’s life flared at two of the highpoints of his career. His former partner Peter Lacy had died during the opening of Bacon’s Tate retrospective, while Dyer committed suicide the night before the opening of Bacon’s momentous 1971 Paris exhibition, in which amongst other works, Portrait of George Dyer Staring into a Mirror was shown. Dyer had been miserable for many of their years together, feeling both inadequate in the glittering and witty company that Bacon kept and conscious of his mediocrity as a thief. Bacon was immensely tortured by his death, and portraits of Dyer continued to posthumously haunt his output for some years. 'His stealing at least gave him a raison d’être, even though he wasn’t very successful at it and was always in and out of prison' reflected Bacon. 'It gave him something to think about... I thought I was helping him when I took him out of that life. I knew the next time he was caught he’d get a heavy sentence. And I thought, well, life’s too short to spend half of it in prison. But I was wrong, of course. He’d have been in and out of prison, but at least he’d have been alive' (Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 135). Already, four years earlier, this tension is apparent in the anxious and contemplative figure in Portrait of George Dyer Staring into a Mirror, and Bacon has taken it and concentrated it into a wider portrayal of the intensity and the loneliness of man’s existence.
Portrait of George Dyer Staring into a Mirror 1967
World record for Bacon painting
NEWS UK | THE TIMES | FRIDAY, JUNE 24, 2005
A portrait by Francis Bacon of his lover George Dyer fetched £4.9 million ($8.9 million) at Christie’s in London last night — a world record auction price for a work by the artist.
The price eclipses the previous record of $6.7 million, achieved in New York in 2002 for his portrait of Henrietta Moraes.
The 198cm (78in) by 147cm (58in) 1967 Portrait of George Dyer Staring into a Mirror displays a suited Dyer shown from two angles, reflected in a mirror.
BY HARVEY McGAVIN | NEWS UK | THE INDEPENDENT | FRIDAY 24 JUNE, 2005
A portrait by Francis Bacon of his one-time lover has been sold for £4.9m at auction, a record price for a painting by the artist.
Bacon’s 1967 work, Portrait of George Dyer Staring Into A Mirror, fetched £500,000 more than the previous most expensive Bacon – a portrait of Henrietta Moraes sold in New York three years ago.
It also fetched considerably more than its advance estimate of £2.5m-£3.5m.
The successful, unnamed bidder on Lot 24 in the Post War and Contemporary Art Sale at Christie’s in London, has bought what many critics believe to be among Bacon’s best works, and which documents of one of his most tempestuous relationships.
The meeting between Bacon and Dyer in 1964 has passed into art folklore. The Dublin-born artist liked to say he first encountered the small-time criminal as he caught him red-handed in the act of burgling his studio. Bacon reputedly said "Take all your clothes off and get into bed with me. Then you can have all you want." Another, more prosaic, version has it that Dyer approached Bacon and his friends during a night of drunken revelry in Soho.
Their meeting marked the beginning of an intense friendship, during which Dyer became Bacon’s lover and muse through much of the 1960s.
Portrait of George Dyer Staring Into Mirror shows him sitting cross-legged, dressed in a boxy suit of the kind favoured by the Krays, glancing sidelong into a mirror. Like many of Bacon’s portraits – especially those of his lovers – the sitter’s features are distorted and smeared. It was one of many paintings Bacon made of Dyer during the late 1960s.
Dyer, a drifter with a speech impediment who had spent time in prison before he met Bacon, was unhappy for much of their time together and felt inadequate among Bacon’s erudite social circle, committed suicide in 1971. After his death Bacon painted two triptychs in his memory.
"His stealing at least gave him a raison d’être, even though he wasn’t very successful at it and was always in and out of prison" Bacon once said. "It gave him something to think about ... I thought I was helping him when I took him out of that life. I knew the next time he was caught he’d get a heavy sentence.
"And I thought, well, life’s too short to spend half of it in prison. But I was wrong, of course. He’d have been in and out of prison, but at least he’d have been alive."
Record set for Bacon in London
By SOUREN MELIKIAN | INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE | SATURDAY, JUNE 25, 2005
LONDON: In a sale of postwar art and more recent contemporary works, several world records were set at Christie’s on Thursday
Francis Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer Staring into a Mirror, painted in 1967, topped the list as it climbed to £4.93 million, or about $8.98 million.
In nominal terms, if not in constant currency, this exceeded the previous Bacon record established with Studies of the Human Body, at Sotheby’s New York in May 2001, of $8.58 million.
Record £4.9m for Bacon’s portrait of lover
BY NIGEL REYNOLDS | ARTS CORRESPONDENT | THE DAILY TELEGRAPH | WEDNESDAY, 25 JUNE, 2005
A portrait by the late Francis Bacon of one of his homosexual lovers has set a world record auction price for the artist.
An anonymous buyer paid £4.9 million at Christie’s for Portrait of George Dyer Staring Into a Mirror, painted in 1967. The price beats the previous high of £4.4 million paid three years ago for a portrait of Henrietta Moraes.
Bacon used to boast that he first encountered Dyer when he caught the small-time criminal burgling his London studio in 1964.
Bacon is reported to have said: "Take all your clothes off and get into bed with me. Then you can have all you want."
An intense relationship followed and gave Dyer, a drifter with a speech impediment who had been in and out of jail before he met Bacon, stability in his life.
Something of the Marlborough’s actual working method was exposed in the early 1970s by the scandal over the painter Mark Rothko. A court case found that Marlborough AG, the gallery’s Liechtenstein subsidiary, had acquired 600 pictures from the artist’s estate at knock-down prices and re-sold them at a huge profit, cheating Rothko’s widow and children. The gallery’s New York business was heavily fined and barred from the American Art Dealers Association, while Lloyd was convicted of tampering with evidence.
.Dyer did not, however, fit in easily with Bacon’s intellectual Soho friends and committed suicide in 1971. Bacon painted two triptyches in his memory.
The artist appeared to feel strong guilt about changing Dyer’s life. He once said: "His stealing at least gave him a raison d’etre, even though he wasn’t very successful at it and was always in and out of prison. I thought I was helping him. I knew the next time he was caught he’d get a heavy sentence.
And I thought, well, life’s too short to spend half of it in prison. But I was wrong, of course. He’d have been in and out of prison but at least he’d have been alive."
Portrait of George Dyer Staring Into a Mirror 1967
Obituary: Valerie Beston
Francis Bacon’s loyal ‘Miss B’
CHARLES DARWENT | NEWS | OBITUARIES | THE INDEPENDENT | TUESDAY, 28 JUNE, 2005
As friends often find, discretion can be mistaken for secrecy, loyalty for control. Such was the case with Valerie Beston, whose long career as dealer and friend to Francis Bacon ended under a cloud that was almost certainly undeserved.
Miss Beston, as she was invariably known during her 50 years at the Marlborough Gallery in London, was the model of order in a world not noted for its clarity. Starting as a typist when the Marlborough opened its doors in 1946, she grew to be liked and, above all, trusted by that generation of British artists the gallery helped bring to fame: Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and, most notably, Francis Bacon.
Beston was bright and cultured and had a good eye for a picture; educated at a Belgian convent, she read Proust in French. Unlike other Mayfair art folk, she wasn’t high-handed. Her preferred way of meeting artists was over a cup of tea in her office, and she shunned the private views for which the Marlborough was famous. Her meticulousness was legendary, her notes and records of museum standard. Anthony d’Offay, then an aspiring young gallerist, once dragged a new assistant into the Marlborough in the early 1970s, pointed at Miss Beston and said, 'That’s what I want you to be.'
But Beston was also private, fastidious in a British way that now seems vaguely comic: a Miss Moneypenny to the M of Frank Lloyd, the gallery’s less scrupulous founder. It was Lloyd, a Viennese dealer who fled to Britain at the beginning of the Second World War, who introduced the tough mores of market economics to the London art world. His famous dictum " 'I don’t collect paintings, I collect money' " summed up the Marlborough’s credo, although this fact was hidden by Lloyd’s carefully chosen blue-blooded board of directors.
For more than 30 years, the painter’s life was organised by the woman he referred to as 'Miss B' or, although not to her face, as 'Valerie from the Gallery'. Beston countersigned his cheques, paid off his Harrods account, organised his rent; she also kept an envelope of money in her office for Bacon to gamble in casinos. Aware of the artist’s habit of destroying his work in fits of drunken self-doubt, she arranged for pictures to be taken straight from his studio to the gallery by Dave, the Marlborough’s driver, 'as soon as the paint was dry'.
This last phrase was spoken by Geoffrey Vos QC, hired by the Estate of Francis Bacon to prepare a pounds 100m lawsuit against Marlborough Fine Art (London) Ltd in 1999, seven years after the painter’s death. According to the estate, the gallery had conned Bacon royally for more than three decades, paying him on a scale agreed before he was famous and relying on his shambolic grasp of figures to squirrel away pictures in Liechtenstein for which he wasn’t paid at all. As with Rothko’s widow, there were suggestions that Bacon’s last companion and sole heir, John Edwards, was being cheated of his inheritance; worse, that Bacon had been blackmailed into staying with the Marlborough by threats of exposure to the Inland Revenue over sums paid into his Swiss bank account.
Although the estate finally dropped these claims in February 2002, two weeks before a High Court case was due to begin, the distress they caused an already grieving Beston was incalculable. Suffering from Alzheier’s, she couldn’t understand how 30 years of loyalty " perhaps of love " could be so cruelly rewarded. At one point, she produced a £1,000 cheque Bacon had given her as a Christmas present in 1991 and which she had left uncashed: 'People werealways taking his money,' she said. 'I couldn’t.
'Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends' had been Bacon’s toast at the Colony Room, his favourite Soho watering hole. There’s no doubt that Beston had been his real friend, nor that the pain she came to feel for him was real.
Valerie Fay Beston, art dealer: born West Bromwich, Staffordshire 26 May 1922; died London 9 June 2005
In the Flesh
The room at Tate Britain that stopped the film-maker in his tracks
Artist and film-maker Mike Figgis finds that a visit to Tate Britain is "like walking through
a collective unconscious that gives a sense of intimacy that is unique".
Then he discovers "incredible beauty" in the work of Francis Bacon. . .
BY MIKE FIGISS | TATE ETC | ISSUE 4 | SUMMER | 1 MAY 2005
I like galleries. I’ve spent much of my life on the road and have always regarded them as places where I can slow down and think and be quietly inspired. I’ve never really minded if the art was considered good or bad. In fact, some of my favourite galleries have been quite provincial with provincial art on display – landscapes and portraits from the third division of the art world. I move freely in these spaces, observing the people observing the art. I love this relationship between the art objects and the people watching them. I marvel at how well behaved and reverential the people are. How quietly everyone speaks and how slowly they move, everything having a dream-like quality. Everyone walking through a collective unconscious that gives a sense of intimacy that is unique, different from being in a theatre or a cinema because one can still be an individual in motion, not a collective. I look at the art as well as the people, but for the most part I don’t get so involved. The frames and the formality of it all create a distance that is useful for my own thought patterns.
Tate Britain in January was cool and neutral. But in some of the rooms I was aware of a contradiction in temperature. Warm air was gushing out of floor vents, while cooler air was being dispensed from portable machines in the same space. It reminded me of those department stores where you have to pass through very hot air to get in or out and I always take a deep breath. I mention this because the temperature of a gallery is a key factor – it has to be cool.
I enter Tate Britain with a brief: I’m looking for a single work that can inspire me to write an article for this magazine, so for once I am trying to focus not on the people, but on the objects. It’s difficult. I become fascinated by one of the security guards; by the angle of his body and the way he is sitting and the fact that his shoes are very large. I do a quick sketch of him and then realise that he knows I’m sketching him, so I pretend to be sketching a painting
And then I enter the Francis Bacon room and everything changes. I stay in the room for a while. In fact, I have no desire to leave at all, but I decide to go somewhere else so I can come back again. I want to see what effect there will be entering a second time. I visit the Turners, but become impatient and begin walking faster. I get to the Bacon room and wait for a moment before going in. It is good to be back with them. I feel a connection that for me is unique. It is impossible to keep the images at a safe distance. I also feel very happy looking at them. There is much talk of the violence in Bacon’s work, but for myself I see incredible beauty and a unique understanding of movement. They seem so modern; so much so that it is hard to imagine what could be more modern than Francis Bacon. What could be more modern than Beethoven’s late quartets, or Eric Dolphy’s 1964 album Out to Lunch? I particularly like Study of a Dog (1952) and I return several times to this. I am reminded of a film I saw as a teenager, Herostratus, by Don Levy. As far as I can find out Levy was an Australian who died some years ago and made two films. In Herostratus, as I recall, there are some Bacon-inspired images, some distortions of faces. I resolve to track down the film and check this out. Maybe Tate should screen it (maybe it already did).
Finally, I leave the room and go directly to the book-store to buy some “research material”. I spend £200 on Bacon books and exit the gallery.
A display of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Reg Butler is at Tate Britain and is part of BP British Art Displays
Mike Figgis is an artist and film-maker based in London.
Study of Dog (1952) Francis Bacon
Face to face with Bacon
Francis Bacon and Henri Cartier-Bresson both have new exhibitions in Edinburgh, but
it is the former who understood the possibilities of photography best, says Gaby Wood
Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads
GABY WOOD | REVIEW | THE OBSERVER | SUNDAY 7 AUGUST 2005 ||
'I want to do very specific things, like portraits,' Francis Bacon told his friend David Sylvester in the early 1960s, 'and they will be portraits of the people, but, when you come to analyse them, you just won't know – or it would be very hard to see – how the image is made up at all'
The exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is the first to focus specifically on Bacon’s portraits, and offers in turn a portrait of Bacon – a genuinely thrilling impression of a mind at work. Arranged chronologically and in rooms, broadly speaking, according to the sitter – Bacon’s lovers, Peter Lacy and George Dyer; his friends, Lucian Freud, Henrietta Moraes and Isabel Rawsthorne; himself – the 50 or so works show faces disintegrating and asserting themselves simultaneously, progressing from a shadowy Modigliani-indebted pastel of 1931 to a faintly blood-spattered self-portrait in 1987.
This is what you see up close: the tussle between the art of deconstructing and that of decomposing, one a purely aesthetic challenge, the other an inevitable human decline. How does it begin? In one, Man in Blue V, the right side of the face is a ghostly blur from afar, but almost eaten up when seen in detail: a worm-like mark burrows into the nose, faint blots resemble mould. Step back again and the face recedes, smeared, in motion. You can’t tell if what’s shown is a way of seeing or a way of being – whose state of mind is portrayed?
'I’m always hoping to deform people into appearance,' Bacon told Sylvester, 'I can’t paint them literally.' Here is his masterly Study for Portrait II, based on the death mask of William Blake; both solid and spectral, it floats in black as if mutilated into being, strokes of bloodless paint slashing or sealing up the eyes and mouth. There is a Head of Man (1959), swishing back and sideways, as if slapped in slow motion. A triptych of heads, all of Dyer (1963), is a celebration of what he called 'this great beauty of the colour of meat'. Bacon saw that 'we are potential carcasses', and once said: 'If I go into a butcher’s shop, I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal.'
If Bacon brought his subjects to ravaged life, it was because he was able to articulate within it their death. Dissolution might be a better word than disintegration – his subjects, and his gaze, are both dissolving and dissolute. Though he questioned whether 'the distortions which I think sometimes bring the image over more violently are damage', he spoke of 'the injury that I do to them [his subjects] in my work'. It was because of this that he felt inhibited by the subject’s physical presence in the room and preferred to work from photographs.
Perhaps the most intriguing Bacon-related objects – second only to the paintings themselves – are the photographic materials found on his studio floor, crumpled, trampled, torn and painted over. There has already been a book devoted to the photos taken for him by his friend John Deakin, and Martin Harrison’s sumptuous In Camera, published this year, shows sheaves torn from books on Velázquez and Hitler, films stills, X-ray manuals and the locomotion experiments of Eadweard Muybridge.its in his Y-fronts in the middle of Bacon’s famously chaotic studio, doubly exposed: both sitting still and crossing one leg, cocking his head to smile.
The double exposure renders everything unstable – the paints, papers, brushes, canvases leaning against the wall: everything seems to be falling, about to submerge Dyer in its disorder.
Then there is a strangely emotional Baconian intervention. As if traced around a tin can, a swish of black ink cradles the ghostlier of Dyer’s two faces – it is on its way to being a painting, and also almost a caress.
Because of the way Bacon worked, this exhibition arguably shows not only the possibilities of paint, but also those of photography. Bacon told Sylvester: 'Ninety-nine per cent of the time I find that photographs are very much more interesting than abstract or figurative painting. I’ve always been haunted by them.' You might say, in fact, that Bacon understood photography’s potential in a way Henri Cartier-Bresson never did.
One of the founders of Magnum, and, as Paris-Match said, 'the most celebrated image-chaser of our time', Cartier-Bresson is considered such a god it’s virtual sacrilege to suggest that his photographs were anything less than the best ever taken. But now that they are shown at the Dean Gallery, directly opposite the Bacon exhibition, the first thing that strikes you is how dull they are.
To an extent, this is Cartier-Bresson’s great achievement – to have written, almost single-handedly, the language of cliché: to have trained our eyes so that the prostitutes in Mexico, the man jumping over his own reflection in a puddle behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, the couple lying back on the banks of the Seine are images embedded in the unconscious of anyone who has ever bought a postcard.
Cartier-Bresson was not, generally speaking, doing anything particularly inventive within any one frame (his drawings and paintings, also on show here, are exceptionally conservative). He was a gentle portraitist and brilliant photo-journalist. His pictures of Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp chuckling over chess, of Matisse painting a voluptuous model, of Alberto Giacometti dashing around his studio like one of his own sculptures in flight, are arrestingly warm. His reportage offers an exhilarating glimpse of a moment in history, not just a snapshot in time, so that what he has seen – the Ivory Coast in 1931, the coronation of George VI, the death of Gandhi, the beginnings of the Berlin wall – is perhaps more impressive than how he has seen it.
The curators cannot be faulted: each image they have chosen to magnify is one of Cartier-Bresson’s best. Yet, if we accorded his photographs respect as documents, without singling them out or aiming to elevate them, they would fare better. His scrapbooks are infinitely more interesting than these hallowed frames; his contact sheets no doubt would be too. Each time a sequence has been shown here, and then one of them enlarged, the individual frame pales in comparison.
One of the most energetic portraits is a photograph of Francis Bacon. He leans forward, mid-speech, hand brushing away his hair, a genteel cup of tea on a table before him. Inspired by the idea of this meeting, of two men born a year apart, one wonders what this show would have been like had Bacon curated it. More scrambled, less reverential: the 20th century’s most iconic images as seen by its greatest iconoclast.
Francis Bacon, Head of Man (1959)
The beast within
Francis Bacon may have fallen from favour, but his art
tells the brutal truth about mankind’s bloodiest century.
Jonathan Jones reports
JONATHAN JONES | THE GUARDIAN | TUESDAY, AUGUST 9, 2005
The pictorial history of the first world war sat on a shelf and sometimes, bored with Action Man, I would take a look inside. Suddenly you turned a page and there was a face photographed in profile with an empty space where the nose and mouth had been before they were blown away. I am looking once more at that face, the same profile, with the terrible maim. The flesh that remains is smeared whitish pink; the hair stands sharply backward in shock. Crushed right down in the ruin of a jaw are fat lips, halfway down the poor bastard’s throat. His one visible eye is right against the wound.
This is the face of Francis Bacon, as he depicted it in the third panel of his 1967 triptych Three Studies for a Self-Portrait. The renowned artist was not, of course, deformed in this or any other way. His face is probably more familiar in photographs now than his paintings are – that hand grenade of a phiz, photographed in ruddy old age over his shiny leather jacket or portrayed in pensive prime by his friend Lucian Freud.
Since his death in 1992, Bacon has gone through all the vicissitudes of a modern master – the disputes over galleries and suspect drawings, the ghastly biopic, and, in a muted sort of way, the critical reaction. It’s not exactly that anyone has come out and said Bacon was a load of crap. But there hasn’t been a big London show of his work in years, apart from a Hayward exhibition curated by his critical champion David Sylvester. Now that Sylvester himself has gone, along with Bruce Bernard and the rest of Bacon’s postwar Soho milieu, I think that curators and museum directors feel an inexplicable weight lifted: at last we don’t have to laud those depressing old paintings with the mutilated bodies in them.
Scotland, though, is uncool about art, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has a big, generous and yet precise exhibition, Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, as if he were still where it’s at. I’m not sure that’s true and my suspicion is confirmed when I hear a couple of students wonder who this puzzling artist is.
I used to really dislike him. When I were a lad, in the 1980s, Bacon was feted not only by museums but at the highest levels of state. Making the pilgrimage to see the show that confirmed Bacon’s masterly status was oppressive. It is oppressive, when you’re young, to be told what to admire. More than that, if you believe in a socialist utopia, or any similar faith, as we did when we were students, Bacon’s forsaken forms are as welcome as an accurate account of Stalin’s purges or Saddam Hussein’s attacks on his own people.
Bacon is the painter who delivered the worst news about the modern world. His was a terrible century. Fascists killed millions but revolution killed millions more. Intellectual honesty was almost impossible in a world where it seemed necessary to take sides. In the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, a drawing by Picasso for one of his Weeping Women is a profound tribute to the suffering of Spain in the civil war - but Picasso compromised himself by joining the Communist party, after Stalinists had systematically betrayed Spain. The left is good at self-delusion.
Bacon was an apolitical, good-for-nothing gambler with no principles to blind him to reality. And that is why it fell to him to acknowledge the real meaning of the atrocities whose photographic evidence appeared all over the world with the defeat of Germany. At the time he painted Head I, in 1948,"responsible" people were busy separating the depravities of Auschwitz from accounts of mass murder inside the USSR. Humanism was still the watchword of the left. So here, in Bacon’s appalling painting, is what he thought of humanism: a disintegrated face fused with the baying head of a baboon.
There is little point in wallowing in the brilliance of Bacon if you don’t recognise him as a moralist first and last. The way Head I is painted brings me out in goosebumps: the pleasure of this horror is immense. A matted blackness, a congealed, cloacal texture of extruded pigments, creates the picture’s claustrophobia. The thin transparent veil of purple flesh that hangs in this darkness seems caught at the moment of explosion, in the instant it evaporates. Turner and Gainsborough are in Bacon – but he turns their light to darkness, and Turner’s gold to vomit.
Not only a great colourist, Bacon has a sculptor’s imagination. As you walk through the rooms digesting all his gross abuses of the human face you realise with mystified shock that not once does he repeat himself. None of the disfigurements are ever used twice.
Bacon is a master, and this exhibition establishes that all the more effectively by seeing him from a modest and prosaic point of view – Bacon the portraitist and student of the human head. It is a shame he doesn’t have a painting in the National Gallery, so close to his Soho nightworld. Bacon is a passionate student of painting. He is a theorist of art. Seen in this light his purpose is to discover what painting can do in the photographic age and – which is not unrelated – whether it can survive the death of God. Bacon was a very overt atheist. Maybe this seems irrelevant, but you only have to visit an Old Master painting collection – such as the Doria Pamphilj palace in Rome where the Velázquez portrait of Pope Innocent X that obsessed Bacon can be found – to see that oil painting and religion are intimates. All those Madonnas, all those popes. Bacon took the spiritual heart of high culture and stuck a knife right through it.
Why is it a pope who screams in a glass booth, the top of his head missing to leave a purple howling mouth in white scar tissue in his 1949 painting Head VI? The Vatican had a less than exemplary record of standing up to the Nazis. Even so, it is extreme to have portrayed a pope as a war criminal in a protective vitrine. Bacon puts religion itself in the dock. He was Irish, after all. All that prayer, confession, the fear of Hell – does it make humanity any less of a beast? It just sanctifies cruelties – Bacon’s homosexuality damned him – and in Head VI the Pope knows there is nothing, nothing there.
Nothing but us lumps of meat. This is an exhibition of "heads" and portraits. What is the difference? There is a tradition in high art – the kind Bacon made – of studying, or fantasising, the head itself, mapping the extremes of expression and physiognomy. The 17th-century Dutch called such paintings "tronies" and they probably derive ultimately from Leonardo da Vinci’s godless, mutant "caricature" drawings. Bacon’s facial fantasias echo that tradition. His oil squirts out monsters in pictures such as Portrait of a Man With Glasses, whose round, blind spectacles make you think of James Joyce.
Bacon’s paintings of the 1940s and 1950s are essays in nihilism and atheism. God is dead, and so is Marx. But this exhibition also contains portraits – and a portrait is never pure philosophy. It is anecdote – it is a souvenir of someone. Bacon, for all his butchery, found faces worth painting, and repainting; people worth knowing, and, it seems, worth loving.
One of them is Lucian Freud. The greatest living figurative painter’s models have been known to complain about what Freud does to them. But nothing he has painted is as eviscerating as the portraits his friend Francis made of him. I never knew there were so many; Bacon painted Freud obsessively, like a lover. In a painting from 1965 Freud’s face has sucked itself in, with features all over the shop; like a Picasso portrait beaten up by gangsters.
The most poignant room contains four canvases from a series called Man in Blue, from 1954. The model was a man Bacon met at a hotel in Henley-on-Thames, but the paintings are haunted by Bacon’s lover Peter Lacy and his patron Robert Sainsbury.
It is so theatrical. And this has to be said about an exhibition in Edinburgh at festival time. All the theatre fans heading for the city should see Bacon’s tragicomic art. These paintings are the equivalent in visual art of Bacon’s great postwar drama contemporaries – he is the Beckett, Ionesco or Pinter of art.
Especially, in the Man in Blue series, of Pinter. The man even looks like Pinter and the blue, stylish, hollow world he inhabits is a Pinteresque No Man’s Land. And this brings us back to politics.
Objections such as I once held to Bacon’s pessimism resemble the radical theatre critic Kenneth Tynan’s views on Beckett and the theatre of the absurd, supposedly apolitical and bourgeois in its despair, and therefore inferior to Brecht, who died a state hack in east Berlin. Today, Pinter has been so browbeaten by such criticism that the greatest modern writer of English prose has reinvented himself as "political" and publishes doggerel criticising Tony Blair. Now that’s tragicomic.
Bacon never betrayed himself in that way. What he did do was learn to love the hideous ape. His portraits of Dyer and Freud are brutally exposing of the fragility of flesh – and insist that flesh is all we are. And yet this insistence is compassionate and enlightened. We must learn to love the mortal monkey. What is the alternative? You wake up to discover people have been reduced to fragments in the name of the god of the cruel and stupid.
· Francis Bacon, Portraits and Heads, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until September 4. Details: 0131-624 6558
Francis Bacon and Henri Cartier Bresson
Cartier-Bresson might have been the master of the decisive moment,
but it is Francis Bacon’s small, intimate portraits that reward a long,
hard look. Frank Whitford finds he can’t stop staring
BY FRANK WHITFORD | REVIEW | THE SUNDAY TIMES | SUNDAY 14 AUGUST 2005
When you’re looking at a portrait by Francis Bacon, something extraordinary will happen. In a flash you’ll realise who the sitter is. A violently contorted face will suddenly and sharply come into focus, turning into Bacon himself or one of his friends. This almost magical flash of recognition occurs repeatedly in the exhibition of mostly small portraits and heads currently on show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
How does this extraordinary effect happen? In Study for Head of George Dyer (1967), for instance, it has something to do with the paint that is speedily applied and varies from creamy impasto to thin smears and scrapings. Dyer’s head seems to be in motion, as though struck by a powerful blow. The result is a blurring of the nose, mouth and chin so as to show them simultaneously from several viewpoints. Perhaps this is what Bacon meant when he said he was “always hoping to deform people into appearance”. The paint and its application convey ambiguous, contradictory or insufficient information. But they are evocative enough to help you supply the rest.
This portrait of Dyer, and the other, mostly intimate and obviously personal paintings here, are more approachable than Bacon’s bigger, more theatrical compositions. Those can intimidate and overwhelm. They can also seem gratuitously grand, or, when they include cricket pads and swastikas, simply ridiculous. But the portraits and heads can make you think that you’re finally seeing the point of Bacon, and that you’re now on more intimate terms with him.
This impression has something to do with the scale. Quite a few of the works are on canvases of the same, modest format (14in x 12in). Most of them are a little less than life-size and observed in close-up. Bacon was certainly on close terms with the sitters, and sometimes you’re made aware of the strong feelings they provoked in him. These aren’t commissioned portraits, of course, but paintings of people with whom the artist was intimately involved, sexually or otherwise. Fellow artists Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach put in a variety of appearances, while the much-married Isabel Rawsthorne and Henrietta Moraes, heroic drinkers as well as models, are among the friends most often painted. Bruce Bernard, sometime picture editor of The Sunday Times Magazine, is seen just once.
Bacon’s lovers include the fighter pilot Peter Lacy, the burglar George Dyer and an anonymous man in a blue suit picked up in a hotel in Henley-on-Thames. Bacon repeatedly paints himself, too, becoming increasingly wraith-like as he approaches death. (In life, he never seemed to age, thanks in part to the shoe polish with which he blackened his hair.) Since Bacon’s heads and portraits betray a great deal about his fluctuating emotions, it’s surprising that there’s never been an exhibition quite like this in Britain before. It starts with a pastel done in 1931 (one of the rare survivors of Bacon’s iconoclastic rage in 1944, when he destroyed as much of his work he could lay his hands on). It finishes with a 1989 study for a portrait of John Edwards, the illiterate barman from Stepney to whom Bacon left everything after his death in 1992, in Madrid, visiting another lover.
In all there are some 50 paintings, grouped according to subject, judiciously selected and skilfully hung. Many of the pictures are unfamiliar because they are borrowed from private collections, or, in one noteworthy case — the virtually unknown Reclining Man with Sculpture (1960-1) — from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran. They may give us an intimate glimpse of Bacon, but they don’t make his art any easier to like. Human beings endure unidentifiable horrors even on this small scale. The head of Miss Muriel Belcher (1959) looks as though it’s been beaten to a bloody pulp. (Its subject is, of course, the foul-mouthed lesbian owner of the cramped and seedy Colony Room, the notorious Soho club where Bacon regularly whetted the edge of his razor-sharp tongue.) In one of the few large canvases here, Isabel Rawsthorne is depicted as walking wounded in Soho, the survivor of an accident caused, perhaps, by the unseen driver of the sinister car in the background.
Squeamish though I am, I nevertheless find it difficult to get Bacon’s paintings out of my head. They have an urgency that commands attention whenever you look at them. The reason they sustain repeated attention is probably in part due to his desire to put “everything into a single picture that makes all other pictures unnecessary”. The goal is unattainable. But the aim is enough to make paintings like these reward repeated scrutiny — unlike even the greatest photographs.You will find great photographs across the road in the Dean Gallery, where there is the biggest exhibition ever in Britain of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s works. Many of the images are very familiar, perhaps excessively so. Most depict what Cartier-Bresson called “decisive moments”. Most add something to our vision of the world. Most also fit his own definition of what makes a great photograph – “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of forms which gives that event its proper expression”.
You already know many of these pictures. There’s the overweight working-class family, seen from the back, picnicking on a steep bank above the Marne. There’s the shadowy silhouette of a man who appears to levitate as he leaps across a huge puddle outside the Gare Saint-Lazare. Once seen, never forgotten, it’s true, but it’s also no great loss if you never see them again. Take the picture of a street divided by the Berlin Wall. A border guard holding a machinegun walks away from us. Passing him from the opposite direction is a one-legged man, obviously a war victim, with two walking sticks. It’s a remarkable photograph and it makes a powerful point. But it has more staying power in the mind than on the wall or page.
This photograph demonstrates Cartier-Bresson’s matchless gifts as a photojournalist, and countless other pictures do the same. But there are portraits, too, and these also show his rare ability to notice and preserve something tellingly characteristic. Here, appropriately enough, is Francis Bacon in 1971, scratching his forehead while gazing out of the picture looking both nervous and haunted. The portrait of a Giacometti arranging his own sculptures in an exhibition is even better because the figure of the artist, blurred but recognisable, has the force of a metaphor. The series of pictures, taken in 1944, of the old, infirm Matisse at his home in Venice is fascinating because it allows us to observe and draw conclusions from the private and domestic while watching him at work.
The question of whether these photographs are art is irrelevant. But it is surely significant that Cartier-Bresson eventually gave up taking them. During the last years of life — he died a year ago — he preferred to draw, a much slower activity that demands a more intense engagement with the subject. This is made clear by the small selection of his drawings, many of which come close to having a concentration and strength worthy of Giacometti.
The photographer swapped his camera for a pencil and pen. The painter relied heavily on photographs as source material. In the end it was the painter who produced the more powerful images. These impressive exhibitions help you understand why.
Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until Sept 4; Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dean Gallery, Edinburgh, until Oct 23
It’s all right to be unmoved by art
THOMAS SUTCLIFFE | VOICES | THE INDEPENDENT | FRIDAY, 26 AUGUST, 2005
How often do we feel about art what we’re supposed to feel? I can only answer for myself and I would guess that it’s something like two times out of a 100, which may sound a rather depressing strike rate but seems to me a quite bearable ratio – or, at least, a realistic one. I can easily imagine that I might boost the hit rate a little in conversation, so as not to sound quite so numb and unresponsive, but if I’m honest with myself, low single figures are closer to the truth.
And I don’t mean by this that the other 98 encounters are worthless, because they’re not. They can be full of interest or diversion, or even confirm a long-held prejudice, which is always satisfying. What I mean is that they don’t result in that compulsive swoon of pleasure that a lot of writing about art suggests is the natural state of affairs when we get it on with an artwork, and that a lot of enthusiasts for culture like to imply they’re getting on a regular basis. It’s possible, of course, that I’m just culturally anorgasmic, but I don’t think so. I think people quite often fake it, noisily pretending to a climax that they haven’t actually felt.
Still, it’s very reassuring when it happens. You know that the organs of appreciation are still operational, and the very rarity of the event gives it an added thrill. It happened to me last week while walking round the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s exhibition of Francis Bacon portraits. This was prime territory, it seemed to me, for the faked orgasm. Bacon is (still) in vogue, and now getting to that stage where it’s clear that vogueishness has nothing to do with his reputation. So, you expect to encounter words such as "wonderful" and "dazzling" and "breathtaking" – with their familiar accompanying anxiety that your breath won’t be taken and you won’t be dazzled. And for one or two rooms, that’s how it was. It’s a fascinating show, thoughtfully laid out and full of arresting paintings, but it wasn’t until I came to Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror that I felt that the art was doing the lifting rather than me.
It’s not an entirely typical Bacon portrait, this one – isolating his lover in what looks like a circle of light and revealing his profile to one side, in a strangely angular mirror. But what caught my eye was a single long arcing brushstroke that Bacon has put above the figure. In spatial terms, it’s ambiguous. Is it a glint of light on a curving transparent screen in front of the figure? Or does it mark the top edge of the concave curve behind him? Or is it simply there to balance the composition (which it does very effectively)? What’s most thrilling about the line, though, is not its teasing indeterminacy (it may not even reproduce in a newspaper picture) but the way that it has been marked out in one swift sweep of the brush – a swing of the arm from one side of the canvas to the other. It was done with such briskness that the paint couldn’t keep up. It has broken and thinned at various points, returning sharply at the edges of the mark – perhaps as Bacon rolled the brush in his hand and squeezed the paint to the edge of the bristles.
There is another striking paint mark on this canvas – an ejaculated gob of white paint that splats across the lower part of the figure, and seems to offer a rather literal example of Bacon’s ambition that his paintings should leave "a trail of the human presence... as the snail leaves its slime". But, perhaps because of its slightly callow suggestiveness, it isn’t a patch on the controlled curve above it, which is a real human trace, not a simulated one. There was something about it that was very exciting, and, for me at least, it suddenly clarified the rest of the exhibition, as if everything had popped into focus.
The distinct feeling in many Bacon portraits that the image of the person lies somewhere behind the paint – that a resemblance has been worked over (sometimes as a boxer will work over an opponent) – makes more sense if you think of the brushstrokes as physical gestures. They aren’t just the record of a visual impression, or an attempt to replicate it on canvas. They’re a record of Bacon imaginatively touching that face – sometimes tenderly and sometimes aggressively. What fantastic strokes they are, too – sometimes like a whiplash across a cheekbone, sometimes a gentle brush, as of fingertips smoothing out an eyebrow. And if you’re in the mood, as I was, they are genuinely thrilling – an overworked word that, every now and then, is the only one that will do justice to a reaction that’s not just about the brain.
Sutherland and Bacon, a story of friends disuniting
MARTIN HARRISON | BOOKS | THE ART NEWSPAPER | WEDNESDAY 31 AUGUST 2005
Although strikingly different in temperament, as artists and friends Graham Sutherland (1903-80) and Francis Bacon (1909-92) were very close in the 1940s. Initially, Bacon stood to gain much from this staunch ally, but relations cooled thereafter, and latterly the scorn of the younger—and by then more acclaimed—artist bewildered Sutherland. I would suggest their divergence was probably inevitable. It was foreshadowed in a letter Sutherland wrote to a patron in 1944, regretting there were “so many competitors to stop one thinking—speed, the cinema, the Press, to mention a few”. Ironically, Sutherland’s anathemas were at the core of Bacon’s more subversive agenda.
In Bacon and Sutherland Martin Hammer follows the trend for binary oppositions—the Sylvester/Berger “battles”, “sacred and profane”, “Bacon and Picasso”—and this set the tone for predictably partisan reviews. He is scrupulously even-handed in his treatment of these two major British artists, yet the forced dialectic tends to marginalise contemporaries of equal relevance; Moore and Piper, for instance, are seldom in evidence here, although visual comparisons with Sutherland’s paintings, especially, would have been useful. On the other hand, of Bacon in the 1930s and 1940s—unlike Sutherland—we know virtually nothing. Dr Hammer is aware of this, and his wide-ranging and meticulous contextual research go a long way towards fulfilling his wish to enlarge and clarify the scant existing documentation: a valuable appendix transcribes the complete Bacon–Sutherland correspondence.
Conspicuously less prolific than Sutherland, the period between 1937 and 1947 in Bacon’s career is represented today by a mere 10 paintings. Since none of them has been adequately interpreted, Dr Hammer’s close scrutiny is rewarding. His trawl of published sources led him to heed (as I did not) John Russell’s reference to the significance of photographs of wild animals in Bacon’s formulation of the imagery in his pivotal Three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion (1944). Moreover, Dr Hammer sees affinities here with Sutherland, who, he suggests, may even have introduced Bacon to Marius Maxwell’s book of photographs of African big game: if some of the specific comparisons with lumbering hippopotami and rhinoceroses appear rather tenuous (Bacon’s “sources” are invariably complicated by their multiplicity), his incontrovertible identification of the relationship between Maxwell’s fuzzy photograph of an African buffalo and Bacon’s Figure in a landscape (1945) is both fascinating and important.
Bacon and Sutherland contains many such insights. The author is right to lay stress on Sutherland’s insistence that his roots in Blake and Palmer did not preclude inspiration from Picasso, Masson or Fautrier, while, at the opposite end of the spectrum, he quotes a seminal and revealing letter Bacon wrote to Sonia Orwell in 1954, concerning a proposal for a book, illustrated by photographs, that would “see underneath…the events of the last 40 years”. Dr Hammer’s text is arranged in three long, dense sections, titled “Interactions”, “Devastation”, “Influences”, in which he writes thoroughly and compellingly about cultural contexts (for example, London Existentialism).
I would, however, take issue with him on at least one fundamental point: that “threat and anxiety” manifested in Bacon’s paintings were “a pictorial expression of the sense of fear induced by the Blitz”. Was Bacon “prompted by current events” (the inclusion of Lee Miller’s photographs of concentration camp victims is misleading, for it is chronologically irrelevant), or did such base manifestations of human cruelty and conflict only serve to confirm his already well-developed sense of tragedy, his nihilism and his personal psychology? In spite of Bacon’s proposals to Sonia Orwell, and given that all art is tied, to some extent, to the culture that produced it, I would argue that the imagery of Three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion (the biomorphic forms, the snarling mouths) was present in Bacon’s work well before the outbreak of World War II. Perhaps we can look forward to Dr Hammer’s theories re-opening debate on Bacon’s “horror-fretted” canvases.
Graham Sutherland: landscapes, war scenes, portraits, 1924-50 accompanies an impressive exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery (until 25 September), and Bacon and Sutherland coincided with the exemplary British Council exhibition, “Francis Bacon: portraits and heads” at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (until 5 September). Dr Hammer also contributed an essay, “Clearing away the screens”, to the catalogue of the latter, but if your funds are limited opt for his comprehensive exegesis in Bacon and Sutherland, which more than covers the ground of the others. Among the editorial slips that could have been avoided, in both publications Dr Hammer persistently refers to Sutherland’s Crucifixion at St Matthew’s, Northampton, as an “altarpiece”: crucially, it was always intended to stand alone in the south transept of the church, in relation not to any altar but to Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child.
According to the Dulwich catalogue blurb, Sutherland’s milieu is “a somewhat neglected generation”, yet the exhibition’s cut-off date of 1950 is further evidence of the return to critical favour of neo-Romanticism, of which David Mellor’s A Paradise Lost (1987) was an early marker. It is probably true, though, that Sutherland’s reputation was in decline before his posthumous Tate retrospective in 1982, and it is to be hoped that the intriguing selection of 85 paintings and drawings at Dulwich will, together with the catalogue, inspire a reassessment of his whole career.
Bacon, meanwhile is ubiquitous, but his legendary secrecy has ensured that, for the foreseeable future, scholars will continue to try to decode his oeuvre: Martin Hammer has skilfully penetrated some of the layers of obfuscation.
Author of In camera—Francis Bacon: photography, film and the practice of painting (Thames & Hudson, 2005)
Martin Hammer, Bacon and Sutherland (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2005), 224 pp, 100 b/w ills, 20 col. ills, £25 (hb) ISBN 030010796X
Martin Hammer, Graham Sutherland: landscapes, war scenes, portraits, 1924-50 (Scala, London, 2005), 125 pp, 125 col. ills, £19.95 (pb) ISBN 1857594045
Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
JANET MCKENZIE | STUDIO INTERNATIONAL | THURSDAY 22 SEPTEMBER 2005
The loss of faith in humanity in the late 1940s was such that the human image in art became increasingly difficult to portray. The existential despair expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre in Nausea (1938),1 found a visual counterpart in the images of despair and alienation of Francis Bacon, the expressionism of Oskar Kokoschka and the apocalyptic visions of Arthur Boyd. For the most part, abstraction in the visual arts dominated because, after the horrors of Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, artists found images of humanity impossible to create.
Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, in Edinburgh during summer 2005 to coincide with the Edinburgh International Festival, leaves one in no doubt as to the importance of the potent nihilism of one of Britain’s most important artists. John Berger, formerly a harsh critic of Bacon, recently described him as the 'prophet of a pitiless world':
He repeatedly painted the human body, or parts of the body, in discomfort or agony or want. Sometimes the pain involved looks as if it has been inflicted; more often it seems to originate from within, from the guts of the body itself, from the misfortune of being physical.2Images of the abyss, of loneliness and the inescapable suffering of human existence dominate the exhibition, and yet, the 50 paintings at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art stress the dialogue that existed between Bacon and his subjects, and the wider world. In establishing the dialogue, it is possible to experience these images beyond the hideous, expressionistic despair. This is partly because, since the artist died in 1992, sufficient time has passed to make a revision of the significance of his work. In spite of the bewilderment that most of Bacon’s portraits express, there is an unexpected affirmation in the choice of formal language and the precision and care applied to the act of painting: the placement of each head, each brush stroke, every subtle hue, the manner in which the figure inhabits the space, the form within the picture plane. There is a common purpose for human existence established in the tradition of portraiture, the primal act of painting that links him in formal terms to the Old Masters, and to the history of art itself. A quiet authority is established by the artist amid the shrieking pain; the curators have echoed this in the elegant hanging of the works and the subtle interconnection of the works within the whole exhibition.
The critic, John Russell, described 'Bacon’s Heads' from an
existential standpoint as 'a knowing inversion' of what we usually
understand by portraiture:
Looking at them, we realise that although European painting includes a great many portraits of individuals in rooms, they are never about what it feels like to be alone in a room: the painter always makes two ... The garbage of the psyche has been put out at the back door; all buttons are done up ... What painting had never shown before is the disintegration of the social being, which takes place when one is alone in a room which has no looking glass. We may feel at such times that the accepted hierarchy of our features is collapsing, and that we are by turns all teeth, all ear, all nose.3Francis Bacon was born in Dublin, in 1909. He spent most of his life in London, working as a painter from the 1930s. The human figure was central to his work throughout a long and productive career. He died in 1992. No other painter delivered as potent a message of nihilistic despair as Francis Bacon in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s. Viewing Bacon was a mandatory but oppressive experience. His work was truly shocking:
Bacon was a very overt atheist. Maybe this seems irrelevant, but you only have to visit an Old Master painting collection – such as the Doria Pamphilj palace, in Rome, where the Velázquez portrait of Pope Innocent X that obsessed Bacon can be found – to see that oil painting and religion are intimates. All the Madonnas, all those popes. Bacon took the spiritual heart of high culture and stuck a knife right through it.4The Vatican never openly condemned Nazism. Yet, to place the Pope in a glass booth with a howling face and the top of his head missing was more than just a departure from tradition – it was a Judgement Day with a personal vendetta. Hieronymus Bosch made apocalyptic images where humanity en masse was condemned, but Bacon takes the traditionally edifying form of portraiture and slashes it. His disturbing image is like the burning of a very lifelike effigy, leaving one feeling physical revulsion.
The Edinburgh exhibition (it will travel to the Hamburger Kunsthalle this autumn) begins with small single heads from the late 1940s. In these works, the act of painting is immediately felt: the beautifully balanced shapes, the simultaneously interlocking and falling away of forms. The movement and the silence evoked so allude to individual character and to ephemeral emotional states as to be disconcerting. In the small heads, the apparent despair gives way to intimacy and even trust. These are moments caught by impeccable painterly techniques. A likeness to the sitter or individual (for they were often based on photographs, not sittings) is captured in spite of the obvious distortion of features. Bacon exposed the fragility of the individual (especially his friends and lovers), transient moments, and the weakness of flesh. He exposed mortality itself.
There follows a group of large single portraits; some are full length. The core of the exhibition comprises small heads of friends from the artistic and social milieu of London’s Soho – Lucian Freud, Henrietta Moraes, Isabel Rawsthorne, and Bacon’s lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer. From 1961-62 the portraits are often in triptych format, which enabled Bacon to reveal three aspects of the one individual. 'Bacon compared his small triptychs to 'police records' in which the suspect is photographed in three contrasting positions – right profile, full-face and three-quarter view (left side)'.5 Peter Lacy, with whom Bacon had an often dramatic relationship, dominated the portraits of the late 1950s. Five portraits of Lacy are included in this exhibition. Self-Portraits, which date from the 1950s, reveal a range of images of self. In 1975, Bacon told David Sylvester, 'I loathe my own face, but I go on painting it because I haven’t got any other people to do'.6
The Edinburgh exhibition includes important loans from many public and private collections. It was selected by Andrea Rose, Director of Visual Arts at the British Council; Richard Calvocoressi, Director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; and Christoph Heinrich, Chief Curator of Contemporary Art at the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Richard Calvocoressi’s searching essay, Bacon: Public and Private, examines recent scholarship since Bacon’s death in 1992. It has revealed the sources of his imagery and examined his work in the context of 'European high culture'. Calvocoressi lists Michelangelo, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Ingres, Degas, Van Gogh and Picasso as the artists Bacon appropriated and assimilated. 'The motifs and subjects that obsessed him were: papal imagery; curtains and veils; the open mouth; the cage; circular forms, spaces and structures; the male human body; portraiture; mirrors and reflections; the shadow; the Crucifixion; meat and flesh'.7 Bacon also used 'low art' sources: photographs, magazine cuttings, newspapers. He used the sequential photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, The Human Figure in Motion (1887).8 The moment, the chance pose or fluid movement interested Bacon and led him to develop portraits of a fleeting glance or nuance of expression.
David Sylvester, who championed Bacon’s work and carried out a series of revealing interviews with the artist, argued that he often chose to work from photographs rather than life because, 'It is easier to make a flat image ... based on the observation of an existing flat image than it is to make a flat image based on the observation of something in the round'.
'In other words', Calvocoressi observes, 'Bacon, who lacked the
traditional art-school training of painting or drawing from a living
model, found that photographs had already done some of the work of
translating three-dimensional form into two-dimensional form for
photographs of friends became aides-memoires. He felt less inhibited
when he wanted to distort their faces when they were not present.
Sylvester’s highly esteemed Interviews with Francis Bacon (1975)
became a key source to understanding the complex artist. Sylvester
more recently revealed that contrary to the impression given by the
artist himself, Bacon did, in fact, do preliminary studies. In one
of the later interviews Bacon revealed his aims in painting:
The living quality is what you have to get. In painting a portrait, the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person ... Most people go to the most academic painters when they want to have their portraits made because for some reason they prefer a kind of coloured photograph of themselves instead of having themselves really trapped and caught. The sitter is someone of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their emanation.10The theatrical nature of Bacon’s work is accentuated by formal devices such as his use of the triptych and linear transparent enclosures around figures. 'These paintings are the equivalent in visual art of Bacon’s great post-war drama contemporaries – he is the Beckett, Ionesco or Pinter of art'.11 The spotlight in Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror (1968), places him firmly on a stage, a theatre of the absurd. The mirror resembles a painting or even a television screen – art as performance, communication in various forms. Bacon considered that those who found his portraits shocking or offensive, were themselves, cocooned in fantasy, in a world unable to confront uncomfortable truths. He expanded this point:
When I look at you across the table, I don’t see you but I see a whole emanation, which has to do with personality and everything else. And to put that over in a painting, as I would like to be able to in a portrait, means that it would appear violent in paint. 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.12Time has played a part in the recognition of Bacon’s complex work, as extended by recent world events, where the confrontation of terrorism has questioned of our faith in humanity anew. Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads is a major exhibition and with the excellent catalogue, succeeds in establishing a heightened awareness into the work of a true prophet.
Dr Janet McKenzie