Francis Bacon Archive

 

 

                                                 

 

 

    Survivors

     TIME Monday, Nov. 21, 1949

 

        

 

One of England's most original painters is a baby-faced 39-year-old named Francis Bacon, and one of the most original things about him is that he has destroyed some 700 canvases to date. "The trouble with Francis," a London friend of Bacon's explained last week, "is that if you fail to go into raptures over one of his finished works, he decides it's no good and tears it up. If you become enthusiastic he begins to worry, decides he doesn't trust your judgment anyway, and that your enthusiasm proves it's a bad picture. Into the dustbin it goes, too."

Bacon's first exhibition, which opened in a London gallery last week, represented a minor triumph for his tight, bright little circle of admirers. By dint of carefully mingled rapture and doubt, they had persuaded him to save twelve canvases for the show. Whether his twelve survivors represented a triumph for Bacon was another question. The paintings did not look like the work of a perfectionist. Done in an elaborately sketchy technique, they were remarkable chiefly for horror. Among them were studies of lumpish, long-necked figures squatting on tabletops, a sinister) male nude disappearing through a curtain, and half a man firing half a machine gun.

Horrible or not, said Bacon, his pictures were not supposed to mean a thing. "They are just an attempt to make a certain type of feeling visual . . . Painting is the pattern of one's own nervous system being projected on canvas."

Like most modern artists, Bacon is more concerned with technique than subject matter; textures trouble him particularly. "One of the problems," he mused last week, "is to paint like Velasquez but with the texture of a hippopotamus skin." That problem alone, as even a fool could plainly see, might require the destruction of another 700 canvases.

 

 

    Snapshots from Hell

 

     TIME  Monday, Oct. 19, 1953

 

       

 

NEXT week one of Manhattan's 57th Street galleries will turn itself into a chamber of horrors. The occasion: the first U.S. show of British Painter Francis Bacon,* who is responsible for perhaps the most original and certainly the ghastliest canvases to appear in the past decade. Bacon has brought the finicky satanism of Aubrey Beardsley, Britain's famed Victorian horror dabbler, up to date, but he tops Beardsley as surely as, in literature, Franz Kafka topped Poe.

Stars of Bacon's Manhattan show: five purplish ultramarine cardinals, including those opposite. Painter Bacon says he has nothing against cardinals: "Really I just wanted an excuse to use those colors, and you can't give ordinary clothes that purple colour without getting into a sort of false fauve manner." The fact that cardinals do not wear robes—or faces—that kind of purple troubles him not a whit.

Bland, boyish and 42, Bacon lives in London, vacations in Riviera gambling halls. Among his pet subjects in the past were visceral creatures squatting on table tops, elephants in the veldt, misty male nudes and bloody-fanged dogs, all glazed with horror. Critical reaction to Bacon's art has been a rather alarmed "Splendid!" Wrote London Critic Eric Newton: "Mr. Bacon contrives to be both unforgettable and repellent . . . [This] requires genius —an unhappy, desperate kind of genius."

Bacon approaches his subjects in the grand manner; he isolates each one, gives it lots of room in a big canvas and paints it with virtuoso brilliance and economy. Perhaps his chief distinction is that he captures in painting the quality of disembodied urgency, of pain writhing in a void, that is peculiar to many news pictures of violent death (for source material, Bacon collects old newspaper photographs, preferably of crimes and accidents). Bacon has a trick of veiling faces with a wispy scumble of paint that creates an illusion of motion, like a photograph in which the subject moved his head. This forces the spectator to peer closely at the picture; he becomes involved, drawn into the darkness.

* Who "neither knows nor cares" whether he is descended from the great British philosopher of the same name.

 

 

  "Distort into Reality"

   

    TIME  Friday, Jun. 08, 1962

 

        

 

 

"I'm trying to paint the track left by human beings—like the slime left by snails." Francis Bacon says this evenly, not trying to shock, but not joking either. His canvases seem to many to be ghastly views into torment, half-decomposed portraits of things better left unpictured. But no one denies their power: put up last week in a big show at the Tate Gallery, they hit London like a slap in the face with a hunk of raw meat.

The man who was once dismissed as a refugee from the Grand Guignol is now widely considered to be Britain's most exciting painter. At 52, Bacon deserves his success, for he has resisted every trend and fashion in art to hack out a path all his own. Though shaped by such old masters as Rembrandt, Daumier and Velasquez ("He haunts me so much I can't let him go"), he has been as much influenced by the here and now of the photograph as by anything else. War, terrorism, gory accidents—these fleeting instants of agony fascinate Bacon. His torn and dislocated figures often seem about to vanish or disintegrate. In a Bacon painting, the body is temporary; only the torment remains.

Into the Dustbin. In real life, Bacon is as mysterious as he is on canvas. Keeping one step ahead of the landlord, he has moved about so much that the London art world is never quite sure where he can be found. A compulsive perfectionist, he has always destroyed more of his paintings than he has finished. A few years ago, he would merely dump them into the dustbin, but when he found that light-fingered admirers were rescuing and even selling them (one recently brought $2,800), he began slashing them with a razor. "I usually like a canvas when I finish it," he says. "But the more I look at it, the more dissatisfied I become. If somebody doesn't take it away from me within a few days, I will probably destroy it."

The 90 paintings at the Tate—about half of Bacon's undestroyed output—range from his famous screaming Popes and moldering businessmen to lumpish, bloated creatures that may huddle in the corner of a room, sprawl across a couch, or simply stare dumbly out of some indeterminate space. They are often close to being monsters, and sometimes they become great mounds of viscera. Bacon admits to being obsessed by death. "I look at a chop on a plate, and it means death to me," he says.

Beauty Is Violence. But the subject of his paintings is really life in a world in which beauty and violence are synonymous. He often places his figures in boxlike cages, but this is only to "isolate these figures so you can see them more clearly." The whole purpose is "to distort into reality. I distort to bring the reality of the object violently forward."

Though Bacon uses many of the instinctual techniques of the action painters, he does not like abstract art. "Man gets tired of decoration. Man is obsessed with himself." Few artists have more powerfully expressed on canvas the basic fact about man: that physically, at least, he is always dying, and that this is the great drama of his life. "I would like some day," says Bacon, "to trap a moment of life in its full violence, its full beauty. That would be the ultimate painting."

 

 

    In the New Grand Manner

    TIME  Friday, Nov. 01, 1963

 

     

 

"If I sit and daydream, the images rush by like a succession of coloured slides," says Francis Bacon. Every once in a while, he stops one and puts it down on canvas. Full of atrocity and anguish, they are the most consistently disturbing images in modern art today.

Bacon paints tragedy, and his works are both noble and enervating. Since he does not believe in life after death, he cherishes existence as a singular event: he is a fatalist taking arms against despair. "Life itself is a tragic thing," he says. "We watch ourselves from the cradle, performing into decay. Man now realizes that he is an accident, a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason."

Professional Nomad. Collateral descendant of his courtly Elizabethan namesake, Bacon is a ruddy, puffy Pan whose brown hair is ungreyed at 54. He is a self-taught artist and a loner among modern artists. He lives like a loner—staying barely long enough in any one London flat to litter it and leave. Last week, having just ended a four-month toot, Bacon was back at his easel in a South Kensington mews flat that has been home for a scant fortnight. At the same time, 65 of his oils went on exhibit in Manhattan's Guggenheim Museum. It was the largest one-man show in the U.S. for a living British painter within the century.

Bacon's success is sudden. Not until the age of 40 did he have his first one-man show. Today he is Britain's foremost painter. He hearkens back to the English portrait tradition—the grand manner. This phrase was used by Sir Joshua Reynolds to define the ideal High Renaissance portrayal of the human figure in elevated themes. The theme of Bacon's grand manner is man's eventual, often brutal descent into the grave-but it is nevertheless a way of dealing with the lofty idea of man against tragic destiny, sometimes in austere agony, sometimes in embarrassing abandon.

His subjects are uneasily seated atop a dais, sprawled in frank nakedness on a couch, wrestling through homosexual positions on a podium. In last year's Three Studies for a Crucifixion, a motif he has been studying since 1931, Bacon painted a triptych more than 14 ft. wide with enigmatic figures and bony carcasses looming in red oval rooms. The central panel contains a kneaded corpse lying in bed amidst a welter of congealed gore. There is no more overt Christian symbolism than that every man can find himself martyred meaninglessly. And the source of Bacon's idea is no mystery: two widely publicized sex murders took place in London shortly before he painted it.

 

       

                           PAINTER BACON & HIS IMAGES OF MAN

                        Man taking arms against his tragic destiny.

 

Pretzel Poses. 

Bacon studies man through the man-made images of photography. Barricaded in his flat with blankets across the windows, he uses reproductions from art books and sensational photos from newspapers as his models. He painted a series of gnarled, garishly coloured portraits of his predecessor in agony, Vincent Van Gogh, after reproductions of the Dutch artist's long-lost The Artist on the Road to Tarascon. Most famous of his serial portraits are those of screaming pontiffs modeled after a papal commission by Velásquez (see opposite page). Though he has been through Rome, where Pope Innocent X's portrait hangs in the Palazzo Doria-Pamphili, Bacon has never gone to see it. The gum-baring shriek that gapes out of so many of his portraits is copied from a still from Sergei Eisenstein's film of 1925, The Battleship Potemkin, in which a horrified nurse is shot point-blank through her pince-nez. Why these subjects? "They haunt me," Bacon replies.

The images that haunt Bacon haunt his viewers even more. Great bisected sides of beef are constant and chilly recurring still lifes in his works. "I look at a lamb chop on a plate, and it means death to me," says he. The human figure is contorted into pretzel poses, sodden and stiff as if in rigor mortis. His cubism is boldly uncubical: blurry whorls, bulges, and lumps perform the cubist function of showing one object from all sides in a series of succeeding moments —an idea partly derived from a photo of a chimpanzee in Ozenfant's Foundations of Modern Art.

 

        

                     MAN DRESSED IN RED ON A DAIS (1962) 

encases a half-naked figure within a transparent cage, recalls Bacon's studies after Velasquez' portrait of Pope Innocent X.

 

Ghastly Gallop.

In one of his most recent works, Landscape near Malabata, reminiscent of the outskirts of Tangier where he used to vacation, Bacon dissolves trees, grass and ghostly beasts into a ghastly gallop around the center of his canvas. Faster and faster they seem to run, until the shadows no longer keep up with what is casting them. One brushstroke more could throw it out of step, and Bacon knows it. He destroys more canvases than most artists paint.

He is reaching for one perfect final portrait of man, and his avaricious eye is often bigger than his brush. "I am trying to communicate with myself, and I keep hoping that one day I'll knock myself backward with the impact of what I've done." Until then, the chances are good that Bacon will continue bowling over everybody else.

 

 

    The Coroner's Report

       TIME  Friday, Nov. 18, 1966

 

       

 

In an era when painting mostly runs to stale geometries, pop playthings and optical gimmickry, an artist who tackles the image of man with originality is a rare figure. Such a man is Britain's Francis Bacon, but it is unlikely that his portraits will ever hang in any corporation board room. His paintings attack conventional concepts of beauty, plow the flesh and reap a contorted yet keen vision of mortality.

It is a mark of courage for anyone to consent to a Bacon portrait. In fact, the painter rarely has his subject present, prefers to work from photographs strewn about his London studio. Says he: "Sitters inhibit me; if I like them, I don't want to practice before them the injury that I do to them in my work. In private, I can record the fact of them more clearly."

Bloody Beef. 

Man is a grisly fact to Bacon's eye. With surrealistic swiftness, he slaughters the human form; yet the smithereens seem to scream for recognition. Despite the mayhem he commits with his brushes and his stylistic isolation, he is today considered Britain's greatest living painter. In a recent poll by France's Connaissance des Arts, he ranked fifth among the world's ten favourite living artists. His works are selling for prices up to $17,000.

Bacon achieved this popularity despite his blatantly repellent subject matter: slabs of bloody beef, shrieking popes, and men performing vague erotic gymnastics. In his recent paintings, he has focused on portraiture. In a frenzy since the beginning of the year, he has painted 30, half of which go on view in Paris' Galerie Maeght this week. The rest the artist cut to bits too small to reach the open market via his trash basket.

Excitement & Horror. 

Bacon does not accept commissions, and his subjects are quite naturally his closest friends. Frequently he paints Isobel Rawsthorne, wife of Composer Alan Rawsthorne (see opposite page); or the painter Lucian Freud, the grandson of Sigmund. He does not try to provide insights into their specific characters. Says he, "I am really trying to create formal traps which will suddenly close at the right moment recording this fact of man as accurately as I can."

What fascinates Bacon is the perfect portrait of human tragedy. He resurrects the image of man halfway between life and death like some mad coroner who frames the clotted residue of life. "We exist this short moment between birth and death," he says. "You are more conscious of sunlight when you see the darkness of the shadows. There is life and there is death, like sunlight and shadow. This must heighten the excitement of life. And then it heightens the horror of it."

 

                 FRANCIS BACON'S FRENZIED FACES

 

                   

                                Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne (1966) shows twisted human anguish, 

a theme pervading many of Bacon's canvases. Sitter is artist's good friend and frequent model.

 

Through a One-Way Window.

Some critics have said Bacon only paints his own despair. "I'm a drifter," admits Bacon, who confesses to living in a hazy homosexual underworld. But, he continues, "I have seen the despair of so many people, whether they are young or old, and it doesn't appear to be much different whether they are homosexual or heterosexual. It's possible that loneliness haunts homosexual people more, especially toward old age." If so, Bacon, now 57, bends his despair to the manner of his art.

In Bacon's paintings, the real world is a torture chamber. His figures writhe like angry putty, as if viewed in a psychiatric ward through a one-way window. They tumble and melt into a glue without regard for skeletal formality. Yet a humanism exists in Bacon's work. He may see man as an accident but, as he says, "Somewhere you have to drive the nail home into fact." The pathology of his vision still affirms life. Says he: "I believe that anything that exists is a violent thing. The existence of a rose is a violence." For Bacon, man reveals his existence through his agony. In the portraits, the faces are suddenly seized by some tic douloureux, convulsed into a telltale grimace. To trap that instant is the aim of his swirling brush.

 

 

   Prelude to Butchery

     TIME  Friday, Nov. 29, 1968

 

      

 

The triptych centers on what can only be a dismembered corpse, with blood spattered on the castoff clothing and zippered travel bag. On either side are matching panels, which may — or may not — be the orgiastic prelude to butchery. On the left, two plump nude figures lie exhausted on a curious coffee table covered with mattresses and fitted with a mirror for self-viewing. On the right, two figures are ravenously devouring each other, while the mirror this time picks up the image of an attendant voyeur calmly chatting on the telephone. The work is by Britain's Francis Bacon, 59, currently being shown at Manhattan's Marlborough-Gerson Gallery. The new proud possessor is the multimillion-dollar Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, which already owns seven Bacons and cheerfully parted with an estimated $150,000 to buy this one.

Bacon's show may prove to be the most popular of the season; in the first week, all 19 oils have been either sold or reserved for prices ranging upward from $35,000 for the smallest multiple-image portraits. For nearly 20 years, he has been renowned in inner circles as Britain's finest figurative painter; his works have hung in U.S. museums since the early 1950s. His commercial success is a telling comment on just how open-minded the general public has become, for Bacon's material is, to put it simply, sick.

Most of the canvases he paints depict pulpy male nudes who couple lewdly on beds or sit like withdrawn junkies in cell-like boxes. The current show also includes many grotesquely distorted portraits of his friends, among them George Dyer, his studio assistant, Isabel Rawsthorne, wife of Composer Alan Rawsthorne, and Painter Lucian Freud, Sigmund's grandson. On one canvas, a hypodermic syringe rises from what looks like a well-beaten body, while in a corner of another a bird that has been plucked stark naked screeches desperately on his perch.

Foetus Crouch. Bacon, of course, makes no bones about the fact that the obsessive subject of his paintings is homosexual despair. He argues, however, that the despair he has observed among heterosexuals amounts to more or less the same thing. Certainly the horror and fascination with which some viewers respond to his works seem to support his contention.

To capture the feverish, nightmare quality of the experiences Bacon depicts, he has developed what is essentially a surrealist dream style to near perfection. Every brush stroke bears the mark of absolute conviction, from the fields of poison green and fetid lilac that deck his backdrops to the calculated white ejaculatory splats that he lashes across the legs of his subjects. There is hatred and hostility in Bacon's vision, but of late it seems to be mellowing. Nothing in his current show comes near to matching the insane intensity of his screaming popes of 1949-53. A study of three male bodies, to be sure, shows one crouched like a foetus and another with his leg in a splint, but the third, who dangles apelike from a pole, has an amiable if freakish mien. A woman lounging in a deck chair turns a face wreathed in a hideous grimace—yet, on second glance, it is obviously nothing more than the grin of a well-fed Cheshire cat.

 

 

    Out of the Black Hole

      By Robert Hughes

     TIME Monday, Dec. 13, 1971

 

        

 

Two naked figures, faces obscenely eroded by electric-blue shadows, sprawl on a bed. A man huddles like a baboon on the edge of what might be a swing, a coffee table or a hangman's drop. A Pope howls silently behind glass.

There is little need to say who painted them. At 62, Francis Bacon is one of the most immediately recognizable painters in the world. For the past 25 years, critics have predicted the collapse of his reputation. Yet by now it seems that Bacon is one of the very few living artists whose work can (but does not always) exhibit the mysterious denseness of meaning, the grip on experience, which are the conditions of a masterpiece. "Who ever heard," he once sarcastically asked, "of anyone buying one of my pictures because he liked it?" But the tributes fall heavy, and the latest is a full-dress retrospective of 108 works in Paris, displayed in the Grand Palais, through the auspices of the French government—the first time France has so honoured any living English painter.

Out of Decay. 

Up to a point, Bacon's art, in all its hazard and abiding strangeness, grows out of the terms of his life. Born in Ireland in 1909, a descendant of the great Elizabethan Sir Francis Bacon, he spent a childhood whose ambience was decayed status, country eccentricity and the violence of Irish civil war. When Francis was 17, his father caught him trying on his mother's underwear, and banished him from the house. With no special qualifications or ambition, Bacon drifted his way round Europe—to Berlin and afterward to Paris—and worked as an interior decorator in England in the '30s. Of these formative years, English Critic John Russell, in a new book on Bacon (New York Graphic Society; $16.50), remarks, "Berlin and Paris gave him the notion of a big city as an erotic gymnasium. But there is also, in Bacon's makeup, a paradoxical austerity which he traces directly to his father." It is no accident that so many of Bacon's most compelling images are at root father-figures: the shrieking Pope, the dictator mouthing before the mikes, the worsted-sheathed executive with the expression of a wax shark.

 

     

              FRANCIS BACON     Photo: Alan Clifton

                Through nightmare to discovery.

 

Horror Movie.

Bacon's work is the kind that invites stereotyped reactions. He is seen as a master of crisis, directing a horror movie. The adjective most often given to his work, nightmarish, is not quite true to Bacon's intentions; it does not go far enough. For nightmares, like movies, end. Bacon's images, on the other hand, are thrust at us as the enduring substance of reality. They are not fantasies, but observation slits into a Black Hole of Calcutta, in which man thrashes about, stifled by claustrophobia and frustration, stabbing with penis or knife at the nearest body. This, Bacon insists, is the real world; it defines the suppressed condition of actual life.

Bacon's work is not pessimistic (or optimistic, for that matter), for it lives outside these parentheses on a terrain of amoral candor about the most extreme situations. "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom"—so William Blake, whose mask Bacon once painted. Bacon's career has been a pursuit of this truth, from the transvestite bars of 1920s Berlin to the green baize of Monte Carlo, where he still assuages his passion for gambling. He is the Genet of painting, most particularly in the lavishness with which he uses his own psyche as experimental material.

Bacon's figures, in their blurred, spastic postures, relate to the work of early still photographers like Eadweard Muybridge, or art reproductions, movie stills, news flashes. Personality, existence itself, glints like a fish in dark water and is gone. Bacon is a singular draftsman, but his drawing has practically no descriptive function—it serves, instead, to tally a sum of distortions.

"One of the problems is to paint like Velasquez, but with the texture of hippopotamus skin," he once remarked. And he does. Structure emerges from the tracks of the looping brush as though naturalism were being reinvented. The result is that Bacon's distortions have a unique kind of anatomical conviction. Collectively, they amount to nothing less than a group portrait in which Baconian man—lecherous, wary, perversely heroic—carries on his flesh the cumulative imprint of self-destruction.

 

    Screams in Paint

      By Robert Hughes

     TIME  Monday, Apr. 07, 1975

 

          

 

Francis Bacon's, at 65, bears witness to the preservative effect of doing what you feel like, no matter how extreme, when you feel like it, no matter how late the hour. "I don't really care about my life," says Bacon. "I've led a very hypnotic and curious one — being homosexual I have lived with the most marvelously disastrous people. Of course one suffers. You like somebody and you suffer from it. But that's how life is." Born the son of a horse trainer in Ireland, raised in a thick atmosphere of decayed gentility and Sinn Fein violence, flung out of home at 16 for making love to the grooms, drifting into Berlin and the tackiest pits of Weimar decadence, changing addresses almost as often as shirts, surviving in an utterly provisional manner as unsuccessful interior decorator in Germany, as professional gambler in England, Bacon is a very English figure — in some ways a modern (and untitled) type of the Restoration libertine and wit, Lord Rochester.

"There are two sides to me," Bacon explains in a recently published interview with English Art Critic David Sylvester. "I like very perfect things, for instance. I like perfection on a very grand scale. In a way I would like to live in a very grand place. But as in painting you make such a mess, I prefer to live in the mess with the memories and the damage." In photographs of the artist in his studio, we see the most famous English painter of his generation lurking in his lair. The camera flattens the owl-like eyes and avian nose into the mask of a pudgy child surrounded by a volcanic sludge of rubbish: the walls daubed with paint, the tables and floor buried under a dune of exhausted tubes, boxes, crumpled photographs, muck. These, so to speak, are the lineaments of gratified desire. "I never believed one should have any security and never expect to keep any," says Bacon. "After all, as existence in a way is so banal, you may as well try to make a kind of grandeur of it rather than be nursed to oblivion."

The Metropolitan Museum's current show, Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings 1968-1974, testifies to his success in that haughty project. When Bacon was first talked of in England 25 years ago, his images of ectoplastic businessmen and screaming Popes, based on such then unlikely-sounding sources as pioneer Cameraman Eadweard Muybridge's serial photographs of human and animal motion, a textbook on radiology, stills from Russian Director Sergei Eisenstein's movies, and an exquisitely coloured handbook on diseases of the mouth, were seen as a Guignol of existential dread. Indeed, the scariness of Bacon prevented many people from experiencing his work aesthetically: the scream on the Pope, like the smile on the Cheshire cat, remained while the rest of the picture evaporated. And yet, explains Bacon, "when I made the Pope screaming, I didn't want to do it the way that I did it — I wanted to make the mouth, with the beauty of its color and everything, look like one of the sunsets of Monet."

Oval Loops. In the past two decades, Bacon's work has gained immeasurably in its scope of colour and plasticity of drawing. With the recent triptychs and other paintings, his ambition to reinstate the human figure as a primary subject of art has been to some degree fulfilled. No other living artist can paint flesh at this pitch of intensity, in this extremity of rage, loss and voluptuousness, or with this command over pigment. His typical setting is familiar: an anonymous oval room. It has tubular furniture, somewhere between a Corbusier couch and an operating table. Sometimes a bare bulb hangs down on its cord from the ceiling. It looks both sadistic and as ideal (almost) as Piero della Francesca's suspended egg. The people in the room are also familiar. Sometimes they are anonymous figures, writhing and grappling. The rest are portraits of himself and his friends: George Dyer, Isabel Rawsthorne, the artist Lucian Freud. "Who," Bacon once half-jokingly asked, "can I tear to pieces if not my friends?" Triptych, May-June 1973, with its deliquescent knot of white flesh hunched on a toilet, spewing into a basin and casting a melodramatic bat's shadow on the floor, is an elegy for George Dyer, who committed suicide in a Paris hotel room in 1971.

Paint, in Bacon's hands, acquires a strict and intimidating richness. Working in fast oval loops of the brush, he can give the skin of his nudes a kind of granular density, a thickness of imagined substance, that is quite old-masterly. The flesh is loose, but it is all structure too; and when the form beneath it slides away, obliterated by a wipe of the rag, Bacon can instantly tighten the image back with one detail — an eye, a patch of spiky hair like hedgehog quills. To a degree few other painters can rival, Bacon convinces you that every stroke and drip counts, that they carry a weight of ethical decision, so that representation is not a matter of filling-in but rather a continual reinvention of the motif. "I use everything from the brushes that sweep the floor to rags. I use everything to remake the images. I am not trying at all to illustrate life." Bacon wants — and generally manages to put — the drama in the paint, not in the narrative. In fact, the best triptychs are not narratives in any decipherable sense. "I don't want to avoid telling a story," Bacon remarked to Sylvester, "but I want very, very much ... to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. And the moment the story enters, the boredom comes upon you."

What is happening in a work like Triptych, May-June 19741 What relation does the center panel, with its interior space — a platform with one figure crawling round the rim and another sit ting in a pool of violet shadow at the back — have to the two beach scenes on either side? Whose are the two heads in old-fashioned collars that rise, like oppressive icons of paternal authority, be hind the platform? Unanswerable questions. What remains, nevertheless, is an extraordinary density and layering of sensation — the Grand Manner returned to figurative art, but scraped raw.

 

 

    SINGING WITHIN THE BLOODY WOOD

 

     At the Tate, a second celebration of Francis Bacon

 

     By Robert Hughes

 

      TIME  Monday, Jul. 01, 1985

 

        

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


That ''someone indistinct'' is, of course, a key figure in Bacon. 
The real peculiarity of his figurative style is that it manages to be both precise and ungraspable, for its distortions of face and limb bear little relationship to anything that painters have done to the human body since Cezanne. Forms are governed by slippage: they smear sideways, rotating, not like the succession of displayed facts and transparent planes in cubism, but as though they had endured some terminal rearrangement by massage. Their shape retains an obstinate integrity, the precise result of a sudden movement. And by the early to mid-'60s, the time of the great triptychs, when Bacon decisively abandoned the ''spectral,'' scumbled evocations of the face used in his Popes and caged businessmen, his figures had begun to embody an immense plastic power. Sometimes these creatures, knotted in contrapposto, seem desperately mannered; but there are other moments when the smearing and knotting of flesh, not so much depicted as reconstituted in the fatty whorls and runs of paint, take on a tragic density closer to Michelangelo than to modernism. Among those artists who, in the past century, have tried to represent the inwardness of the body, Bacon holds a high place, along with Schiele, Kokoschka and Giacometti. 

He breaks the chain of pessimistic expectation by taking his prototypes beyond themselves into grandeur. In earlier art there was a repertoire of classical emblems of energy and pathos, starting with the Laocoon, that painters could draw on for this operation. Bacon's starting point is less authoritative: photographs of anonymous, hermetic white bodies in Eadweard Muybridge's The Human Figure in Motion, a snap of a Baboon or a footballer in blurred motion, a wicketkeeper whipping the ball across the stumps, the bloodied face of the nursemaid of the Odessa Steps in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, her spectacles awry. These and other images begin as clues, holes in the social fabric, and are then worked up, gradually, into emblems. The elliptical lenses of the nursemaid's spectacles, for example, turn into bigger ellipses, without a face behind them; like punctuation marks commanding one to focus and look, they stud the painting of the '70s. Muybridge's wrestlers become Bacon's signs for sexual battle. But they shed their documentary purpose, and in doing so open the way to another discourse of figures. When impelled by strong emotion - as in the Triptych May - June, 1973, which commemorates the suicide of his friend George Dyer in a Paris hotel two years before - the ''shocking'' images in Bacon are raised to the order of grand lamentation: they take one back to the classical past, but to its sacrifices, not its marbles. 

None of this would be possible without Bacon's mastery of the physical side of painting. Much has been made of his reliance on chance, but it seems to have affected his life (he is an inveterate gambler, an addict of the green baize) more than his art. One could say the ejaculatory blurt of white paint in a painting like Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, 1968, is chancy, but that kind of chance is easily manipulated with practice, and it rhymes suspiciously well with other curves in the painting (like the back of the chair in the picture within a picture to the left). The truth is that the Bacon one sees this time at the Tate has much more in common with old masters than with contemporary painting. The paint acquires a wonderful plenitude in becoming flesh. One thinks of the coruscated light, the Venetian red interstitial drawing, in Tintoretto. This kind of paint surface is part of the work of delivering sensations, not propositions, and it is neither idly sumptuous nor 'ironically' sexy. 

But the one thing it cannot reliably do is fix the extreme disjuncture between Bacon's figures and their backgrounds. The contrast of the two - the intense plasticity of the figures, the flat staginess of the rooms and spaces in which they convulse themselves - is what gives rise to the charge of ''illustration.'' It will not entirely go away, because Bacon only rarely manages to set up the whole field of the canvas as a coherent structure, every part exerting its necessary pressure on the next. One looks at the figures, not the ground. Hence the theatricality of his failures. But, like his successes, these too are the work of an utterly compelling artist who will die without heirs. No one could imitate Bacon without looking stupid. But to ignore him is equally absurd, for no other living painter has set forth with such pitiless clarity the tensions and paradoxes that surround all efforts to see, let alone to paint, the human figure in an age of photography. 

 

 

  An Artful Passing

 

    By Robert Horn is Pattaya

 

    TIME Monday, Mar. 17, 2003

 

   

 

When John Edwards succumbed to lung cancer two weeks ago at the age of 53, his acquaintances in the sleazy Thai beach resort of Pattaya remembered him fondly. "John Edwards was down to earth, genuine and loyal to his friends," says Ian Read, owner of Le Café Royale, a piano bar in a Pattaya strip known as Boyz Town where Edwards was well known.

But what the British art community wants to know is: How loyal was he? Edwards, a barely literate bartender from London's East End, was a longtime companion and muse of Francis Bacon, one of the greatest British artists of the 20th century. When Bacon died in 1992, he bequeathed his celebrated works and $18.05 million estate to Edwards, the subject of more than 30 of the artist's portraits. Stuffy collectors and museum curators were incensed that a common Cockney cocktail-slinger had made off with the crown jewels of modern British art.

With Edwards gone, the media, seeking the next heirs to the Bacon fortune, has descended on Pattaya, where he moved in the mid-1990s. The top candidates: Edwards' 22-year-old gay Thai lover and Philip Mordue, Edwards' roommate after Bacon's death. Mordue could not be reached at his penthouse in Pattaya. But last week, Edwards' boyfriend, who asked to be identified as "Jack," was drinking coffee in a Pattaya bar and pondering his strange fortune. Just 16 when he first met Edwards, Jack says his benefactor left him something (he won't say what) and a last request: don't blow the inheritance by opening a gay bar.

But what of the rest of Bacon's riches, which the British tabloids claim were squandered on a profligate life of drink and young boys? Edwards' London lawyers say his will is to remain a secret indefinitely. His Pattaya friends insist that Edwards protected Bacon's legacy.

The artist's paintings and portraits, noteworthy for their distortions bordering on the macabre, will likely remain under the control of the John Edwards Charitable Foundation, a trust he established several years ago. Meanwhile, Jack is planning to travel and perhaps complete his education. "[Edwards] gave me a future," he says. What are friends for?

 

 

 

Mr. Francis Bacon's New Paintings

 

 The Times, Friday November 13, 1953    

 

Mr. Francis Bacon always paints on the wrong, the unprimed, side of the canvas and perhaps this may be considered typical of his whole approach to his art and of the way in which he always makes difficulties for himself. Difficulties for himself, but not, of course, for those of his admirers, who remain fascinated by the wilfulness of his imagination, the cryptic unpleasantness of his iconography, and his seemingly inexhaustible capacity for discovering yet more perverse and unpromising  themes for large and monumental compositions. For these it would be a bitter disappointment if he turned the canvas round and painted some everyday theme in an ordinary way that would permit one to judge, as it is almost impossible to do from most of his work, the real extent and character of his talent for painting.

In the pictures now exhibited at the Beaux Arts Gallery, Bruton Place, he makes yet more obvious than before his dependence on photography, and no painter, it is safe to say, has ever used photographs in a more extraordinary way. Instead of merely taking them as a guide to construction and drawing, he actually seeks, as is particularly obvious in a triptych of three heads which seem to be taken from American Press photographs showing some politician in the most agitated moments of  a speech, to give the picture the horrible look, and even the disagreeable colour and texture, of a photographic enlargement. When at the same time the third of the series of heads has undergone that mysterious disintegration which is one of Mr. Bacon's favourite methods of making one's flesh creep, the effect becomes almost unbearably unpleasant.

The exhibition also includes one of Mr. Bacon's compositions based upon Velasquez's pope, but with the face contorted by a scream, and a very large painting of the Sphinx against a background which is taken, it is said, from a photograph of the stadium prepared for the Nuremberg rally. The effect of these, as so often with Mr. Bacon's recent work, is to suggest that one is in the cinema but that the film has suddenly stopped being wound; the dramatic tension is at its height, and then suddenly frozen and fixed. this does not leave the mind in a fit state for aesthetic contemplation or judgement, but a small picture of a man chewing a chicken bone, though also taken from a photograph, is sufficiently undramatic and unalarming to make it possible for the spectator to see - but also, perhaps, for the artist to produce - some much more genuinely pictorial qualities. Here there is a real continuity throughout the picture and genuine feeling for both the substance and texture of flesh and cloth; perhaps there might be yet more of these qualities if the artist had worked from a living model.

 

MORTAL CONFLICT

 

   by Eric Newton  

    The Guardian  Miscellany Thursday May 24, 1962

 

   

              Red Pope on a Dais, 1962, by Francis Bacon

 

It would be both unwise and unjust to write briefly about the retrospective exhibition of work by Francis Bacon at the Tate Gallery.  It contains 90 paintings (nearly half of his surviving works: but by no means half of what he has painted during the past 30 years, for he is a ruthless destroyer of his own pictures).  Of course one thought one knew what to expect, and after a few minutes spent hastily surveying the five speciously hung  rooms, ones expectations were confirmed.  The impact is immediately shattering and becomes more so as one follows the roughly chronological sequence from 1944 (when, after a hiatus  of seven years, he resumed painting) to the present day.  The usual adjectives - "nightmarish," "melodramatic," "cruel," "haunting," - are not inappropriate but they are only superficially true and as descriptions of the cumulative effect of the exhibition.  After the first few minutes has been expanded to half an hour, they become inadequate.  Buried under the surface level of these often horrific and sometimes repellent images are deeper levels, equally disturbing but more worth analysing., and not until one can come to grips with them does the exhibition become serious and cease to be merely sensational.

Clearly Bacon has obsessions and clearly he jas discovered a set of effective means (one could almost call them "tricks") for making them visually effective.  The image of a pope's head borrowed from a famous portrait by Velasquez, spotlighted against an impenetrable black void: the tendency of this august figure to open its mouth in a Grand Guinol scream: the frequency with which that same figure finds itself cut off from the world of normality by  seeming to be encased in a transparent glass cage which has the odd effect of making the scream more agonising because inaudible.  These nightmarish devises are now familiar enough.  Bacon's later paintings show that he has grown out of them and in any case the effect of the spectator of such shock-tactics diminishes with familiarity.  The scream in the dark loses its terror with repetition.

But what one eventually discovers is that even though Bacon is not averse to melodramatic tricks they do not contain his essence.

That essence is an uninhibited fearlessness, an unquestioning acceptance of the imagery offered to him by the deepest recesses of his unconscious mind.  Most of us are apt to recoil from such images, having been taught that they are secrets not to be shared with the would and hardly to be admitted to ourselves.   But in Bacon himself there is obviously no such recoil.  His conscious process (and they are, after all, the tools without which he could not be a painter at all) do not exercise any censorship on what comes up from the depths.  There has probably never been an artist so utterly unafraid of himself.   And that fearlessness we must learn to accept and share before we can make sense of what could easily be mistaken for a chamber of horrors.

Bacon is a self-taught painter but that does not prevent him from being a masterly painter.  He is even a masterly illusionist.  The texture of flesh is something that is no more difficult for him to render than it was for Courbet or Rubens. And that is his ultimate secret, for no sooner has he presented us with the convincingly painted illusion, so that we believe in it, optically, then he defaces it, as though he were mocking our belief.  The flesh becomes ambiguous and ghostly; it becomes ectoplasm as we watch it.  Bones become jelly, bodies become alarmingly vulnerable, belief gives way to doubt.

Partly again, this is the result of another trick.  Bacon delights in accepting the camera's account of an undignified moment in time when a face is distorted because it happens to be chewing a sandwich, or limbs become ungraceful because they are collapsing on to a chair.  The snapshot often presents us with these momentary absurdities and we accepts them just because they are momentary.  But remove them from their context in time and make them permanent, as Bacon invariably does, and they become grotesque. They take on new meanings.  A queer misalliance takes place between the seen fact and the subconscious symbol.

This, as far as I know, has never happened in art before.  Occasionally a misericord seat in a Gothic Choir stall hints at it,  but always as a secret assertion that the grotesque is also a part of life.  For Bacon, one might think, it is almost the whole of life.   Once we have lost the shame that turns a fact into a secret, the no holds are barred.  Beauty, to put it bluntly, has been killed by truth.

Yet beauty is there throughout.  A casual, distant glance into any of the five rooms in which these pictures hang, reveals shapes that are noble in themselves and are nobly placed on the canvas, and colour schemes that are, in themselves, enchanting. It is only when we begin to examine them for subject matter, as though they were the products of the mid-nineteenth century, that one begins to experience the frisson that is Bacon's special gift.

 

 Tragedian

   by John Richardson

 

   

  Francis Bacon
   by John Rothenstein, by Ronald Alley

   Viking, 330 pp., $25.00

   The New York Review of Books Volume 4, Number 4 · March 25, 1965 

  

Francis Bacon is the first modern painter of international caliber that the British have produced. Before him British painters formed the rearguard of the modern movement. Their reaction to Impressionism was tepid, to post-Impressionism coy. Despite the sermons of Roger Fry and Clive Bell, they never learned the lesson of Cézanne, and only profited from the example of the Cubists when it was too late. By 1939 notions of artistic propriety and good taste tainted the work of one and all. Artiness, amateurishness, and pastiche had become the hallmarks of British painting.

True, a few of the more meretricious artists—Augustus John, for instance—cultivated a certain braggadocio of style, but this only emphasized the innate hollowness and gentility of their work. True again, a few honorable exceptions were open to revolutionary ideas, but even the most emancipated ones followed trends rather than set them. Matthew Smith, for instance, latched on to Fauvism and Wyndham Lewis to Futurism. Among living artists, Ben Nicholson turned to Mondrian, Henry Moore to Arp, and Pasmore to the Constructivists, while Graham Sutherland brought a "Picturesque" view of nature back into fashion. In their very different ways these men aspired to be international artists, but by 1939 none of them had entirely succeeded in transcending his Englishness, except perhaps Moore. And even Moore reverted to Englishness, when war broke out and he and his colleagues were conscripted as war artists.

One might have thought that the drama and isolation of life in wartime England would have been a challenge to native painters. But no. Either as a result of personal disinclination or governmental policy, none of the so-called "war artists" ever came to grips with their appointed subject. The less imaginative ones churned out documentary records; others tried a more inspirational approach and depicted brawny heroes doing their bit. Even the best of them—Nash, Sutherland, and Moore—tended to avoid the main issue and concentrate on marginal or picturesque aspects; the eerie beauty of an airplane graveyard, of bombed or burning buildings, of shrouded tiers of air-raid shelterers.

The war did not change much: artistically London seemed only a whit less dismal in 1944 than it had in 1939. The neo-Romantics returned to their studios more neo-Romantic than ever. The young were baffled or egg-bound. Apart from the emergence of some promising sculptors, almost the only change was in Graham Sutherland—fugleman of postwar British painting—whose performance had a new zest and edge to it. Sutherland, it emerged, had come under the spell of a virtually unknown painter: Francis Bacon. Although Sutherland subsequently allowed the mantle of Laszlo to fall on his shoulders, his work still occasionally strikes a Baconian note. Alas, Sir John Rothenstein, who introduces the present volume, follows precedent and makes no allusion to this fact, or to the influence which Bacon exerted on other British artists. I do not mean to suggest that they imitated his stylistic quirks or subjects; rather they took new heart from his un-English seriousness about art, his assumption that painting is a matter of life or death.

Bacon disdained picturesque subjects, anecdotal details, and other winning little tricks. And while his work of the period made no specific references to the war or its aftermath, they are some of the only paintings of their time to take account of the public brutality and private despair which had become familiar ingredients of life. For the first time in the twentieth century, England had produced a painter with a powerful and original vision and something new and apposite to say about the plight of human beings, a painter who did not moon on about nature but faced up to the charnel-house—not, I hasten to add, for its own sensational sake. Bacon is not a sensation-monger: he is a tragedian.

Correctly situated in the context of modern British art, Bacon towers over the scene. A pity, then, that Sir John Rothenstein side-steps the issue of placing him. Doubtless his reticence is due to tact, for Sir John was still Director of the Tate Gallery when he wrote the text of this book. Had he accorded Bacon his rightful placement, he might well have found himself treading on the corns of the Establishment. I have another reservation about the Introduction: Sir John confesses that he is foxed by Bacon's "ambiguous art." "At times it seems to me that I have it in focus," he says, "then suddenly the collective image fades and I have to begin again." His modesty does him more credit than it inspires confidence in the reader. Surely Bacon's "collective image," whether one likes it or not, is too fast to run or fade. And in any case, compared with so much modern art, Bacon's work is self-explanatory (the artist prefers the word "straightforward"), at times embarrassingly so. Understanding it is largely a matter of being able to take the implications of some perverse and lurid subject matter—Bacon's private hells. It is no good holding your nose, peeping between your fingers, and then pretending he does not mean all those nasty things.

Maybe we should make allowances for Sir John's Catholic bias. Bacon's out-and-out rejection of Christianity sticks in his throat, as witness this explanation of the artist's "obsession" with the Crucifixion: "[Bacon] himself cannot (or will not) account for this obsession, but perhaps an obsession with the most significant and dramatic event of human history, the great exemplar of human suffering, needs no accounting for." As it happens, Bacon has accounted for it in a statement about the great grisly "Crucifixion" triptych—probably his masterpiece—of 1962. No question of an obsession or religious preoccupation, Bacon says. He was going through a bad period of drinking; he wanted to do a painting about "the way men behave to one another"—what better metaphor than the Crucifixion? Granted, the figure—part side of beef, part worm, part human—which writhes down the right-hand panel was inspired by Cimabue's Crucifixion ("I always think of that as a worm crawling down a cross," says Bacon). But the central panel of some human debris on a blood-soaked mattress can hardly be said to have a sacred provenance, inspired as it is by a nude photograph of an American poet on a folding bed.

We should, however, be grateful to Sir John for providing a useful account of the artist's career and to Mr. Ronald Alley for compiling a catalogue raisonnée of unusual accuracy and good sense. We learn that Bacon was a late starter; he did not become a full-time painter until 1944, when he was thirty-nine. Before this he had spent a feckless childhood on his father's farm near Dublin (Bacon is not Irish: "he is a collateral descendant of his illustrious Elizabethan name-sake"). Then, at the age of seventeen, he took off—here his life parallels Rimbaud's—and wandered over France and Germany in search of adventure and le dérèglement de tous les sens, an abundance of which he found in Berlin. When that palled, he came to London and set up as a designer of modernistic furniture and rugs. He also worked at various odd jobs and even painted sporadically in an eclectic School of Paris idiom. Significantly he never went near an art school.

Although his urge to paint was strong, Bacon evidently had a block about doing it. This, I suspect, accounts for his Dostoyevskyan bouts of gambling in the Thirties and Forties and the fact that he still sometimes disappears to Monte Carlo to play roulette for exceedingly high stakes. Sir John does not examine the obvious link between Bacon's gambling and painting, but I think it is worth noting that the artist's approach to both activities is based on what Bacon calls "premonitions" rather than systems. Thanks to some chance "premonition," Bacon will throw everything on a single number in the same way that he will stake the success of a picture on one last reckless brush-stroke. More often than not he loses; that is why "I have to destroy all my better paintings." As Bacon says, "the artist must really deepen the game to be any good at all, so that he can make life more exciting and return the onlooker to life more violently."

What really turned Bacon into a mature painter was the war. The war enabled him to harness the obsessively violent side of his nature and distill its emanations into art. The first proofs of Bacon's powers are three sketches for the Eumenides (also intended as figures at the base of a Crucifixion) which he painted during the bombing of London. Although they owe something to Picasso's metamorphic work and Grünewald's Mocking of Christ, these phallic busts of grayish flesh, perched on stands in some orange Golgotha, struck an explosive new note in British art. Their eye-splitting, pictorial screams won Bacon instant notoriety, but his output was so small—twelve pictures in five years—that he remained a legend to the public, who did not get a second look at his work until 1949. Even then it was only with some difficulty that a dealer managed to assemble six paintings for Bacon's first proper show. Small though it was, this was a key exhibition: it established Bacon as the one man capable of rehabilitating British painting and also gave the artist's confidence a helpful boost. At last he began to bring off more compositions than he jettisoned.

In the early days of his success Bacon suffered from one major shortcoming, which is passed over in the text of this book though implicit in the plates: the gap between the unnerving power of his conception and the uneven performance of his technique. Being an autodidact is all very well—an artist benefits to the extent that he is not saddled with out-of-date formulae and idées reçues—but there are disadvantages: in Bacon's case the fact that he wanted to achieve subtle yet complicated effects with the utmost economy and spontaneity of means. "What modern man wants," he once said, quoting Valéry, "is the grin without the cat—the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance." Bacon, who is more self-critical and wise to the art of the past than most painters, realized that he would need the accomplishment of a Velasquez or a Manet if he were ever going to pin down the grin. Accordingly he embarked on a series (1949 onwards) of variations after Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, in the course of which he evolved a wonderfully expressive, yet apparently spontaneous way of applying paint to unprimed canvas. In the best of these the paint looks as if it has been breathed on to the black-stained nap of the surface.

This new and highly personal technique stands in the same ambiguous relationship to Velasquez's technique as Bacon's popes do to Velasquez's pope. Velasquez gives us an astonishing characterization of a human being; at the same time he invests this prince of the church with a convincing air of divine and temporal power. Bacon's popes, on the other hand, hold their monkey hands together in a travesty of prayer, scream with laughter, pick their noses, pontificate (but only to themselves), sneer, snarl and howl in agony, like the woman in the Odessa steps sequence from Potemkin (a recurrent reference in Bacon's work). How are we to interpret them? Sir John Rothenstein claims that "the image of the Vicar of Christ continues to obsess [Bacon] as personifying the opposite of everything which he himself stands for; authority as against independence; stability as against flux and uncertainty; the public interest as distinct from the private." Yet surely the point about Bacon's popes is that they have no authority, let alone infallibility. If anything, they are anti-popes. Bacon himself claims that they are "tragic heroes raised on a dais." This makes sense to the extent that his pontiffs have been elected to play a God-like role for which they are tragically miscast. But are they really heroes? I see them as human beings with human failings—businessmen caught up in some nightmare charade. Under purple robes well-pressed striped trousers break correctly over well-shod clay feet.

Bacon does not only derive his images from masterpieces of the past. As Sir John emphasizes, he also uses photographs—blurred ones from newspapers, stills from movies, illustrations from animal books (the authors fail to mention that V. J. Stanek's Introducing Monkeys has provided the artist with numerous subjects), and above all plates from Eadweard Muybridge's. The Human Figure in Motion and Animals in Motion. Indeed, Muybridge's clinical studies of the bodies of man and beast in every conceivable pose have inspired some of Bacon's most disquieting works:

The artist barely alters the pose of Muybridge's prosaic models [the present reviewer once wrote]; he will simply take one of them out of context and set him in a kind of cage, a contraption that one can only imagine in a science fiction brothel. This gives the subject a haunting menance, all the nastier for sexual overtones. At moments like these Bacon's world seems very close to William Burroughs's. Some of these pictures anticipate—could even be illustrations for—The Naked Lunch.

I quote this, because I would like to correct a possible misconception. I do not want to imply that Bacon is an illustrative artist. As he himself has said, "I aim at paint which comes across directly on to the nervous system, not paint which tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain."

As his technical and imaginative control has grown more assured and inventive, Bacon has come to depend less on outside sources—that is to say the art of the past or photographs—for his subjects. Instead he has drawn increasingly on his own experience of humanity, and his work seems correspondingly more deeply felt. Bacon's message is not a cheering one. Life, he implies, amounts to solitary confinement in a cell of our own contrivance. This applies not just to the alcoholics, drug-addicts, and mad people, in whom Bacon has summed up so much of the mal du siècle, but also to the old bags whom he sets spinning on their own axes—like rats in a revolving cage—to his implacable lovers waiting for the next victim, indeed to all of us. The same pessimism is projected in the desperate contortions of Bacon's latest portraits and self-portraits—pictures in which the features spin and squash into one another as if subjected to an excess of gravitational pull. Here at last is the grin without the cat.

 

 

Nicholas Chare

 

Upon the Scents of Paint: Bacon and Synaesthesia

 

Visual Culture in Britain, 09 December, 2009

 

I believe it is very difficult to ascertain exactly what scent is: I have known it alter very often in the same day.1

 

The spoor of an idea

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion: in the left-hand panel a nose; in the central panel a mouth with pared lips, a display of teeth, either a snarl or a smile, a bandage where the eyes should be; in the right-hand panel a maw opened as if howling or screaming, and an ear. The figures in this painting, with their tapering, tenuous limbs, are reduced to torsos and to mutilated heads. Their eyeless visages emphasize those organs of the body associated with the perceptions of smell, sound, and taste. Hybrid grey forms, they stand out against a rust background as chunks of tainted bird and animal flesh, as meat on the turn. They are blindly gathered at the base of a crucifixion. An event they can only hear as cries and moans or sniff as the stench of gore, piss, shit and sweat. This is a painting that encourages the onlooker to cease to see and instead to inhale and listen. The image privileges senses other than the visual through a refusal to depict the organs of sight. In these panels ‘the reek of human blood smiles out at me’.2

The quotation is from Aeschylus. Dawn Ades has written that Bacon was haunted by this line from the Oresteia, one spoken by the leader of the Furies as they track Orestes to Athena’s sanctuary.3 It is a line from a translation of the play by W.B. Stanford. Stanford’s book Aeschylus in his Style was an inspiration for the artist, although, as Martin Hammer has acknowledged, ‘there is no evidence to indicate how or when Bacon first encountered the [text]’.4 In the book, the line is quoted by Stanford as part of an extended discussion of the playwright’s use of synaesthetic imagery. The scholar analyses several images from Aeschylus in which sounds are visualized.5

In the reference to the reeking smile it is the olfactory that becomes something to observe: from out of a wound the stink of cruor smiles. The sense of seeing smell was valued by an artist Bacon greatly admired. In Vincent Van Gogh’s letters, which Bacon had read, the artist suggests that ‘if a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato, steam, fine – that’s not unhealthy’.6 Van Gogh was thinking of The Potato Eaters (1885, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), which he perceived to capture these odours of peasantry. Bacon’s own paintings have also been described in terms of their smell. After seeing Bacon’s display at the Marlborough gallery in 1960, David Hockney is said to have remarked: ‘One of the things I liked about them was that you could smell the balls.’7 It will be argued here that this comment should be taken literally. Bacon’s paintings, like Van Gogh’s, possess synaesthetic qualities.8 His works rouse one sense by way of another.

Synaesthesia is a phenomenon in which the stimulation of one sense causes a perception to occur in another. For a synaesthete hearing a sound can, for example, trigger the perception of a colour. In his book Visible Deeds of Music, Simon Shaw-Miller urges that a distinction be made between cultural and psychological synaesthesia.9 Psychological synaesthesia, which is particularly pronounced, is a neurological condition that is relatively rare. Cultural synaesthesia is a state we all experience, in which a sensory perception triggers associations from one or more other senses. This is a state that Bacon’s works actively encourage in the viewer. His interest in the phenomenon may ultimately be traced back to the influence of Roy de Maistre, ‘who was his first and arguably most formative mentor’.10 De Maistre was fascinated by the way that colours trigger associations with particular sounds.11 It was, perhaps, through conversations with de Maistre that Bacon first hit upon senses other than the visual as hunting grounds for his pictorial imagination.

Connecting people

For the arguments that follow concerning the specific sensations Bacon cultivates in his works, it is necessary to begin with a consideration of the fact that none of our five senses ever operates independently of the others. To see an exhibition of paintings, for example, is also to hear it, smell it, touch it, and taste it. Art galleries, like most places, are always multisensory experiences. At the recent Tate Britain Francis Bacon retrospective, for instance, the paintings were accompanied by the tips and taps of designer heels, the scuffs and skates of brogues, scratchy sounds of patent leather scraping the floor, as well as occasional clicks and clinks of change and keys shifting position in people’s pockets, the murmurs of hushed conversations and the occasional stifled sneeze. Every visitor to Tate will have heard these noises but few will have listened to them.

As Adrian Rifkin suggests in Street Noises, ‘to hear, at the point it becomes to listen, is to constitute random combinations of noise . . . as meaning’.12 This echoes a distinction Roland Barthes makes in his essay ‘Listening’. For Barthes, ‘hearing is a physiological phenomenon; listening is a psychological act’.13 To listen is to decode; it is to make sense of a sensory input. The sounds that accompany an art exhibition are not usually supposed to cohere into the specific ones listed above, yet everyone who visits a gallery hears them. They simply do not listen to this acoustic ambience.

These sounds are suppressed yet their presence impinges upon the viewing experience of paintings in ways that are not easily describable or quantifiable but that nevertheless influence their reception. The irritation caused by hearing a mobile phone’s polyphonic ring tone is one example. The shift from hearing to listening that is embodied in the registration of such an annoying sound will have an effect upon the mood of the spectator, as will the calm of relative quiet. The temperament of a specific gallery goer can communicate itself to others in the same space. The serenity or the exasperation of a particular spectator can spread to those around.

In her book The Transmission of Affect, Teresa Brennan suggests that the shared mood of a group of people should not simply be explained as being rooted in their response to particular images or understood merely as their imitation of the expressions that signal another person’s temperament (such as their smile or frown).14 She argues that ‘olfactory and auditory entrainment offer more comprehensive explanations’.15 The phenomenon of entrainment will be explained below. Following Brennan, what is important for now is to recognize how the sounds or smells of other people in an exhibition space can shape our own reception of the works of art on display there. We are always open to, and influenced by, the frame of mind of those around us.

This means that the idea of the self-contained subject, of the individual whose skin - or integument - guarantees their corporeal integrity and separation from others, is an aberration. Bacon’s works clearly challenge this idea or possibility of self-containment. In Two Figures (Figure 1), for instance, or Two Figures in the Grass (1954, Private Collection), or the central panel of Triptych – Studies of the Human Body (1979, Private Collection), pairs of bodies couple, blend together and become as one. The portraits of solitary individuals such as, for example, Head in Grey (1955, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis), Study for Head of George Dyer (1967, Private Collection), and Portrait of Michel Leiris (1976, Musee d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) have blurred, smeared and distorted faces whose structures are caving inwards or toppling outwards. In these visages, the boundary between inside and outside is collapsing. This crumpling signals the flesh’s failure to provide cover for the self, to contain it. Instead, the subject is placed out in the open, exposed in order to confront the beholder with evidence of their own permeability.

The paintings pose a challenge to a culture in denial of the intimacy that binds its inhabitants. In fact, all subjects engage in a constant material exchange between each other. In some societies this exchange is encouraged and readily acknowledged. This is, for example, the case amongst the Andamanese and Sentinelese peoples who, when they have not met someone for some time, greet that person by sitting on their lap, embracing them in silence, and holding them cheek to cheek for some minutes on one side followed by a moment on the other.16 This form of encounter probably encourages the transmission of affect through touch. Affect, or feeling, is then subsequently interpreted. The material exchange between people takes place at the level of pheromones. These are ‘chemical signals with the power to modify biology and behaviour when exchanged between individuals of the same species’.17

This transmission of affect can take two forms. In one, people become alike and develop fellow feeling; and in the other, they take opposing positions in relation to a common affective thread. For neurologists the former occurrence is ‘entrainment’. This involves a process whereby ‘one person’s or one group’s nervous and hormonal systems are brought into alignment with another’s’.18 This means that social interaction has biological effects. These effects do not, however, produce a universal response. A mood may descend upon a crowd, such as those at a busy art exhibition, but a few individuals within that crowd will resist the feeling generated by this common affect. There is the potential for detachment. It is the intersection of the public and the personal that produces a unique response. The personal here refers not to the individual as a self-contained entity but to the self as it has been affectively permeated through time. We are each a distinctive affective palimpsest. Our moods are governed, in part, by layers of past experiences. The phenomenon of the transmission of affects has significant implications for our understanding of how artworks are received in given situations.

Brennan’s ideas about affect, for instance, help to explain why, during my viewing of the Francis Bacon retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the enthusiasm I had for some of the artist’s paintings was significantly greater than when I saw the identical works at Tate Britain’s mounting of the same exhibition. Although when I visited both gallery spaces they were crowded, there were significant variations that could potentially explain my differing reception and perception of particular paintings. The exhibition in New York, for example, was carpeted, which served to muffle the strident footfalls that had accompanied my viewing in London. The New York experience was also an opening – an event often associated with wine-induced bonhomie: the crowd was in a good mood. Also notable was the aroma of expensive perfumes that hung in the air of the gallery. Perfume frequently contains pheromones and can thereby transmit affect. A particular set of affective circumstances therefore potentially explains the shift in viewing experience that occurred in one gallery compared with another.

 

        

                 Figure 1. Francis Bacon, Two Figures, 1953, oil on canvas, 152.5 · 116.5 cm. 

 

The eye is cast

Bacon’s interest in synaesthesia can be detected almost from the start of his career as a painter. Early works draw the viewer’s attention to senses other than the visual. In Head VI (1949, Arts Council, London), for instance, the ears and mouth are plainly visible but the organs of sight, the eyes, are absent. The vile jelly has been cast aside in favour of grey scuffs of paint that signal empty sockets. This head, like that in Painting 1946 (1946, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), cannot see, but, unlike the half-head of Painting, it does possess acoustic organs. It can hear. Other works by Bacon also privilege the auditory apparatus over the visual, such as Head 1 (Figure 2), which again draws attention to the auricle. The ear in Head 1, for instance, is composed of such a thickness of oil paint that it protrudes from the picture plane. It is not an imitation of an ear on a flat surface. The bulging lug has the appearance of collage, of a thing stuck on to the canvas. It is built upwards, outwards, and not so much painted as sculpted. Its careful modelling draws the eye. This ear is rivalled for prominence only by the gaping mouth and attends to that mouth’s animal sound. Many of Bacon’s works depict animals – baboons, chimpanzees, or humans – howling or shrieking.

These paintings, such as Chimpanzee (1955, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart) and Study for a Portrait (Man Screaming) (1952, Private Collection), can be seen as punctuated by cries and yowls. The person who stands in front of such works will often listen to, as much as look at, mute pigment. The idea of a picture that appeals to the ear is not new. In his book Listening and Voice, the philosopher Don Ihde describes his experience of hearing a postcard he had received from Japan. Ihde writes:

It depicts four peasants running from a sudden rainstorm. They hunch under grass hats and mats as they seek shelter from the wet coldness of the rain. And if I look intently at the picture, perhaps mindful of the dictates of a Zen passage read long ago, I detect the adherence of a certain auditory presence to the picture. I ‘hear’ the rain and ‘listen’ to the peasants running and to the rustling of the mats.19

The image reproduced here (Figure 3) is not Ihde’s postcard, but its patter gives a sense of what the philosopher perceived. Ando Hiroshige’s fan print is also noteworthy because it is a functional object designed to stimulate the sense of touch through cooling its user. The beholder of the fan print sees an image of rain falling, angled because of the wind, that will be accompanied by the cool breeze and the slight crumpling sound produced in the act of fanning. Idhe, however, has to turn to his inner experience in order to recreate and appreciate the picture’s acoustic and tactile qualities. This inner experience, such as the tapping of rain and the thud of footfalls, echoes or represents outer experience. The sounds are, however, seemingly private. Those who stand beside one who listens to a work of art in this way cannot share these noises. They are the product of an individual’s unique record collection of memories or fantasies.

The listener who attends to a Bacon painting such as Study of a Baboon (1953, The Museum of Modern Art, New York) might recall a nature documentary or a trip to the zoo or even some of the sound effects that accompany David Hinton’s film of the artist in conversation with Melvyn Bragg, produced to coincide with Bacon’s major Tate Gallery retrospective in 1985. In the documentary, the snarls of wildcats, the screeches of birds and the squeals of pigs go hand in hand with shots of some of the artist’s most famous works. Art documentaries are usually audio-visual experiences that rely upon the human voice to supplement the artwork, to structure its reception for the viewer. In the Hinton film, however, animal noises are used on occasion to accompany details from some of Bacon’s paintings. This could be interpreted as an example of a kind of imaginative listening to the works similar to that experienced by Ihde as he contemplated his postcard. The choice of juxtaposing noises rather than words with the images might also provide a more faithful rendering of what is taking place in and through the paint.20

Ihde’s description of his sensory response to the postcard is, however, not restricted to the acoustic realm. He also draws attention to the ‘wet, coldness of the rain’. Experiences such as damp and temperature are registered through touch – a sense which is, as Elizabeth Grosz explains in Volatile Bodies, ‘one of the most difficult and complex of all the senses to analyze because it is composed of so many interacting dimensions of sensitivity, involving a number of different functions (touch, pressure, texture, frequency, pain, and heat)’.21 Ihde seems to be sensitive to the temperature and texture of his touching encounter with rain, not to its pace or impact, although these dimensions of sensitivity were probably also available to him in the postcard.

 

       

                    Figure 2. Francis Bacon, Head 1, 1947–48, oil and tempera 

 

Bits of rough

Bacon’s works also encourage the beholder to engage the sense of touch. The numerous ways in which he applied and impressed paint gave many of his canvases richly variegated surfaces. Bacon would sometimes place pigment on canvas and then further manipulate it using one of a number of different processes. Margarita Cappock explained that when the artist ‘required a variety of tactile effects, he found cashmere sweaters, ribbed socks, cotton flannels, even towelling dressing gowns all served his purpose’.22 These techniques provide examples of what Alistair O’Neill identifies as the ‘contamination of dress into image’ in Bacon’s work, and this interference with the image acted to obscure whatever was ostensibly being depicted.23 This process is obvious in a number of works, including the right panel of Triptych (1977, Private Collection), Three Studies for Self Portrait (Figure 4), and Portrait of Jacques Dupin (1990, Fonds national d’art contemporain, Paris).

The effect of these techniques on the pigment led to the cultivation of a kind of visual noise, a figural fuzziness, a disturbance. This texturing interrupts viewing, requiring a decision on the part of the spectator either to try to see through these mottled, streaked, trembling surfaces or to focus instead on the cause of their visual malaise, the stuff of the interference itself. Bacon was by no means the first to deliberately disturb the field of vision in this way. Lucas van Valkenborch’s Winter Landscape (1586, Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna), for example, also demands that the viewer make a decision between planes of paint. When confronted by this work, one tries to peer through the depicted snowstorm to glimpse the buildings and figures behind it or one focuses on the snow instead, taking delight in the chilly, white dabs of paint added in the last stages of the composition, which overlie and obscure it. In looking at Bacon’s own works a similar decision must sometimes be made, either to try and see the face or other form behind a carefully fabricated surface or to concentrate instead upon that surface. A third surface, however, also intervenes to compete for the beholder’s attention. It is one that ostensibly works against an appreciation of the artist’s tactility but adds to the nurturing of visual noise in the paintings. This is the glass that intercedes between viewers and viewed.

In Bacon and Sutherland, Martin Hammer argues that glass ‘was traditionally a means to protect pictures, but one senses that, for Bacon, it was intended at once to distance the spectator from an imaginary tactile response to the picture surface, and at the same time perhaps to incorporate his or her own reflection into the viewer’s perceptions of the painted image’.24 This latter occurrence, whether intended or not, is encountered as a matter of fact when looking at Bacon’s works. The paintings are not static. The reflective glass renders them mutable. The exhibition space and its milling visitors appear on top of individual pictures, between beholder and image. The glass screens, it forms a motion picture. The ghostly reflections of spectators, fleeting apparitions, serve to foil vision as the eye chases them across the glass. Shifting presences must be seen through if the viewer is to appreciate the work. They must be filtered out of conscious experience.

The experience of viewing paintings through glass is, of course, common for older works. The shift towards an emphasis on surface that characterized much avant-garde picture-making of the twentieth century, however, meant that the use of glass in framing became a rarity. In this context, Bacon’s insistence upon retaining it, despite employing complex facture in his own works, acts to call attention to it.25 The unusualness of seeing an avant-garde painting mounted behind glass makes the spectator aware of what is a relatively common but usually overlooked visual phenomenon.

The mirroring effect of the framing produces a disturbance in the field of vision. If the required act of filtration is not performed then the spectator must see their reflection in place of the work of art and thereby confront their act of seeing. The glass includes the beholder and the gallery space in the painting as a kind of interference or noise. It works to produce what can be described as a ‘making strange’ both of seeing and of the picture surface. In his essay ‘Art as Technique’, Victor Shklovsky wrote that the ‘technique of art is to make objects ‘‘unfamiliar’’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged’.26 Bacon could be said to cultivate just such an aesthetic, a teasing, perhaps even sadistic, one in which the pleasure of visual comprehension is, at least initially, deferred. The way Bacon’s paintings are framed does not detract from the pictorial surface for beholders but actually draws them to attend to it through the labour of divining what lies behind the darkling glass. The unruly reflections that thwart easy looking also constitute an assault on vision. The spectator is made to think about what it is to lose sight, to reflect on the invisible.27

This loss of visual mastery is accompanied by an increased appreciation of the tactile qualities of the paintings. Hunting for the image beneath the glass’s visual haze, the eye is suddenly ensnared by texture. In some of Bacon’s works there are loci of tactility which contrast with expanses of relatively flat, evenly applied paint. If the painting includes a figure then this locus of texture is frequently the face, as is the case with Study for Head of George Dyer (1967, Private Collection). In this work, the paint is smeared, coiled, flicked and twisted so as to disturb and obscure facial features. It was then impressed with fabric whilst the paint was still wet to enhance the grain. Bacon exploited his intimate understanding of the nature of his materials to the full in order to construct elaborate surfaces. The beholder of a Bacon painting feels crenulations, ridges, dimples of pigment.

One of the synaesthetic qualities that these works foster is therefore that of touch. The pictures benefit from a haptic look – something Gilles Deleuze links with Bacon’s avowed lack of pictorial narrative. In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze states that when a work moves ‘closer to the pure state of a pictorial ‘‘fact’’ which has nothing left to narrate’, it causes ‘the constitution or reconstitution of a haptic function of sight’.28 Deleuze’s understanding here is drawn from the writings of Alo¨ıs Riegl at the beginning of the twentieth-century.

In the context of Bacon, it is noteworthy that Riegl was initially a curator of textiles. In her book Touch, Laura U. Marks imagines ‘how the hours spent inches away from the weave of a carpet might have stimulated the art historian’s ideas about a close-up and tactile way of looking’.29 It is this weave that Bacon frequently incorporates into the surface of his works through pressing fabric into the paint. This encourages the beholder to employ haptic visuality when contemplating the works. In Touch, Marks makes a useful distinction between optic and haptic visuality, suggesting that in the latter ‘the eyes themselves function like organs of touch’.30 In an earlier work, The Skin of Film, she writes that haptic looking is of a kind that ‘tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into illusionistic depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture’.31

Deleuze connects the rich textures of Bacon’s paintings with his interest in sculpture and emphasizes that it is specifically basso-rilievo that appeals to the artist. For Deleuze, basso-rilievo ‘brings about the most rigid link between the eye and the hand because its element is the flat surface, which allows the eye to function like the sense of touch; furthermore, it confers, and indeed imposes, upon the eye a tactile, or rather haptic function’.32 Bacon’s works often lure the beholder into engaging in the kind of haptic vision described by Deleuze and Marks.

Undress to impress

Head 1, as discussed earlier, is particularly plastic and appears to fulfil Bacon’s declared desire, articulated during a discussion of sculpture, to make images that would arise from ‘a river of flesh’.33 For the artist, it seems that paint had something of the quality of flesh. It formed a soft, impressionable pigment-skin kneaded by the artist to clothe the skeletal canvas: a skin that Bacon then subsequently wounded by way of varied interventions and manipulations. That there was a highly erotic component to Bacon’s handling has already been recognized by Michael Peppiatt, who has remarked that when Bacon ‘said that he ‘‘painted to excite himself’’, he surely meant: to re-create certain extreme sexual sensations’, adding that ‘it would be true to say that, at one level or another, much of what he painted is a projection of sadomasochistic practices’.34 In the same context, he has also written elsewhere about ‘the cunningly suggestive texture’ of Bacon’s paint.35

This texture forms part of a wider effort by Bacon to hypostatize pain as paint. The carnal surfaces of his paintings are frequently impressed by fabrics, which, as mentioned earlier, play an important role in the production of Bacon’s ridged and speckled, stippled effects. The results, achieved through using cashmere and cotton, can be read as reminiscent of the skin’s fleeting memory of having a textile pressed hard against it. The paint in works such as Three Studies for Portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1969, Private Collection) and Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne (1966, Private Collection) works to remind the beholder of those red indentations, transient depressions, that form traces of a material’s forceful contact with the body. This is not to say that the pictures should be understood as depicting a violence against women. In terms of the erotic component of these works, the subject matter is of minimal importance. It is the handling which is the key. Bacon identified with the paint.

 The projection recognised by Peppiatt occurs at the level of the medium. Pigment became an allegory for Bacon’s yielding flesh, part of a strategy through which to articulate sexual practices for which no pre-existing visual rhetoric was available.36 In contemporary culture, imagery of sadomasochistic practices has become relatively commonplace, often occurring in mainstream advertising.37 At the time Bacon was painting, however, it was a visual taboo. His works should therefore be considered as particularly brave in that, as will be discussed below, they acknowledge and celebrate consenting to injury in the service of sexual pleasure.

In the context of sex, the way that the clothing used to make these impressions actually came to be in Bacon’s studio in the first place is of interest. Perhaps it was already to hand, in situ, having been removed by the artist in the heat of passion. That the artist’s studio may have doubled as an impromptu place for sexual acts cannot be discounted. Three whips, for example, were found there when the studio was excavated prior to its transport to Dublin. This means that the damage to the books, magazines, and photographs strewn across the studio floor could have been caused not by random footfalls, but by forceful sexual encounters as the artist wrestled with more than paint. The remnants of clothing used to texture some of the artworks were, perhaps, imbued with memories of the context of their removal, impregnating the paintings with textures of remembrance, private meanings available only to the artist and his intimates. These clandestine meanings also extended to the studio space itself, which contained much source material that possessed sexual connotations for Bacon. On one level this may, in fact, be conceived of as a man’s highly personal collection of pornography.

This pornographic aspect manifests itself not just in obvious sources such as the photographs of past lovers and in the physique magazines that were found in the studio – magazines that Simon Ofield suggests the artist was in all likelihood ‘looking at, or walking on’ when he painted Two Figures. 38 Bacon potentially gained a thrill from any image that was damaged in some way or that bore traces of violence. He saw the surface of an image as a metaphor for his own skin. This is why the folds and tears to be found in many images are recreated in some of Bacon’s paintings.39 The frisson to be found in the injuries to these source materials was replicated through their reproduction as paint on canvas.

Bacon’s paintings are, as Peppiatt intimated, suffused with sadomasochistic allusions. This is particularly evident in relation to the thick gobs of paint that the artist threw at some of his works towards the end of their creation, globules of pigment with a particularly marked haptic appeal. Like the ear in Head 1, they literally stand out for the beholder. Triptych (1976, Private Collection), because of its pale green ground, gives a strong sense of the mass, the substantiality, of these blobs. In the left panel, the sheer quantity of paint that Bacon lobbed onto the canvas is evinced by the bleed of oil that forms a halo around each throw of white pigment. These ejaculations should not be viewed as nonrepresentational. They look like the haphazard spatters of come stains on sheets and can be read figuratively as the residue of Bacon’s act of beating his meat.

These fat spats, however, also possess an acoustic potential that gives them another layer of sexual significance. To look at these globs can be to feel the splat, the whump, of a quantity of wet paint striking the canvas. Ihde writes that a ‘thing bespeaks something of its material nature in its sounding’.40 The duet of paint upon paint contains two possible voices of pigment, the hard dried paint upon which the soft paint lands, and the supple state of the thrown substance, its changeable nature. To hear the sound is to hear the state of the material. If that medium is taken to be interchangeable with skin, however, then the sound conjured by the sight of a weal of paint such as that in Study for the Human Body (Man Turning on Light) (Figure 5) is potentially of a different kind. In it the sound of the lash can be heard. Bacon himself described a similar throw of pigment, that which occurs in Triptych May-June 1973 (1973, Private Collection), as a ‘whip of white paint’.41 This description is echoed by Michel Leiris in Francis Bacon, when he writes of the painter’s use of ‘a long trail of white paint suggesting a sudden outflow or whiplash’.42 Through techniques such as these the artist perfected a sadomasochistic facture to give voice to his desires.43

The fact that Bacon’s works are filled with the sounds of S&M may explain why so many spectators find his work difficult. The noises of the bodies in pain, the screaming figures discussed earlier, and of whip-cracks of paint are emotionally evocative. For many attending to the artist’s pictures these acoustic stimuli will register as unpleasant.44 The idea that these noises might equally be associated with pleasure will not occur to a number of people who listen to, and are touched by, the works. The negative responses and the upset Bacon’s paintings cause a spectator may rapidly transmit to others in the viewing space. Brennan’s study, discussed earlier, provides a way of understanding how the synaesthetic potential held by many of Bacon’s pictures can generate negative affects in a spectator that will subsequently spread to others in close proximity. This is despite the fact that the paintings actually encode an experience, pain, that the artist found pleasurable. The enjoyment signalled by the subjects and surfaces of many of Bacon’s works will only hit upon a small group of subcultural synaesthetes.

 

        

                 Figure 5. Francis Bacon, Study for the Human Body, 1973–74

 

Smell the balls

Bacon’s paintings evoke not only the sounds of sexual pleasure but also the feel and smell of it. This is particularly the case for those that depict wrestling. Two Figures, for example, invites memories of motion and pressure for those with a certain familiarity with wrestling, as either sport or foreplay. Ofield describes both the depiction and the handling of paint in this work as exciting in its vigour.45 It can be read as a test of strength by way of both its subject matter and its textured surface. The work stimulates the intimate senses of touch and smell as well as those of hearing and seeing. In Two Figures, Bacon is expressing his sexuality through the acoustic, the olfactory and the tactile, as well as through the visual. The aim of his paintings, to arouse senses beyond sight, is paralleled in contemporary muscle erotica, which frequently celebrates the other senses through images, as in the case of those of a photographer such as Ron Lloyd, or by way of storylines that stress gesture, smell, and touch.46 Two Figures, with its wrestlers engaging in their grunting, sweaty foreplay, is a work that is pungent. It possesses a pre-ejaculate tang. The pigment bears the musk of carnal desire. These are two bodies in the struggle for pleasure, two bodies for which vision has become secondary to the sense of tactility, to the feel of flesh, of another’s meat, and the smell of each other’s sweat. The emphasis on desires that privilege senses other than sight invites a queer reading of Bacon’s practice. As Mark Graham explains, ‘desires that are olfactory, but also aural and tactile, may be less easy to compartmentalize and less amenable to a rigid heteronormative and homonormative categorization of gender and sexuality than a distant disembodied participation through the visual’.47

Smell is a sense Bacon particularly exploits in his work. The stench of blood often adheres to his paintings. This is fitting given the quotation from Aeschylus, mentioned earlier: ‘the reek of human blood smiles out at me’. In her essay ‘Web of Images’, Dawn Ades writes that ‘this line shocks because of the clashing of disgust (‘reek’) and joy (‘smiles’), but more because of the extraordinary synaesthesia of the metaphor: the wound gapes in the flesh like a smile in the face, but the blood is present not just visually but through a sense of smell’.48

Blood does literally smell. It has a ferrous, metallic scent, one which can be detected in a work such as Blood on Pavement (1988, Private Collection). The stink of gore is also placed in the foreground in Bacon’s images of meat such as Carcass of Meat and Bird of Prey (Figure 6) and Figure with Meat (1954, Art Institute of Chicago). The haunches of flesh in these works call upon us to inhale their animal scent. They reek of brute bodies, reminding us of the odours that lie above and beneath our own skin. Meat was a recurring theme in Bacon’s work. Like Carracci in the Butcher’s Shop (c.1580–81, Christ Church, Oxford) before him, he employed coarse brushwork to emphasize ‘the carnal abundance of animal flesh on display’.49 The earlier Baroque painter’s open handling also signalled that there was little as common as meat. Elevated subject matter dictated a more refined, restrained facture, whilst butcher’s cuts were of a low order, earthy. This lowly classing of flesh as opposed to spirit was one subverted by Bacon, who even claimed that his choice of the theme of the Crucifixion for the 1962 triptych was motivated by his interest in meat. Bacon stated:

I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion. There’ve been extraordinary photographs which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death. We don’t know, of course, but it appears by these photographs that they’re so aware of what is going to happen to them, they do everything to attempt to escape.50

 

       

       Figure 6. Francis Bacon, Carcass of Meat and Bird of Prey, 1980.

 

Ades reads these comments as suggestive of a theme of non-discrimination between man and animal existing in Bacon’s works. She argues that the animal’s awareness of its impending fate ‘depends on senses that we may have lost’.51 It is these non-visual senses that we are encouraged to bring into play when contemplating works such as Carcass of Meat and Bird of Prey. Deleuze writes that in Bacon, ‘each time meat is represented, we touch it, smell it, eat it, weigh it’.52 The painting seeks to return to us an appreciation of those senses we usually suppress, that are too often overlooked in the everyday. It encourages us to sniff the air like a hunter from a bygone age on the scent of quarry. Bacon’s art strives to return something of the texture of existence to us, in both pleasant and unpleasant forms, through an encouragement to engage all our senses in the reception of his paintings. His paintings push us into ‘extending knowledge of sensation, following it further along its pathways, [which] means extending consciousness into the body, infusing it with conscious understanding from which it has been split hitherto’.53 The entire body responds to Bacon, not just the eye and mind.

All works of art hold the potential to generate a synaesthetic response in the viewer. Bacon’s works, however, are carefully constructed to maximize this potential. It is a potential the artist sometimes puts to the service of expressing an outlawed sexuality, a form of sexual practice that dare not speak its name but will be given voice to through smells, sounds and textures. Whether exploring sadomasochism or not, Bacon’s treatment of subject matter is often one which deliberately emphasizes senses other than the visual through suppressing the organs of sight. This is coupled with techniques that thwart easy looking. In this context a work such as Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, with a description of which this article began, and a work Bacon was to return to for inspiration late in life, can be seen as anti-visual. Its grey forms of rancid, putrefying meat, centred at the base of an unseen crucifixion, assail our nostrils before our eyes.

Acknowledgement I would like to acknowledge the generous support of the Leverhulme Trust for my research on this topic.

Notes

1 Peter Beckford, Thoughts on Hunting (London: Methuen, 1899), 111.

2 W.B. Stanford, Aeschylus in his Style (Dublin: University Press, 1942), 109.

3 Dawn Ades, Francis Bacon (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985), 17.

4 Martin Hammer, Bacon and Sutherland (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 103.

5 See Stanford, Aeschylus in his Style, 107–9.

6 Vincent Van Gogh, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, trans. A. Pomerans (London: Penguin, 1997), 292.

7 Quoted in Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma (London: Constable, 2008), 352.

8 This is something that I begin to gesture towards but do not significantly develop in my article on Bacon’s paintings in relation to the acoustic. See Nicholas Chare, ‘Regarding the Pain: Noise in the Art of Francis Bacon’, Angelaki 10, no. 3 (2005): 133–44.

9 Simon Shaw-Miller, Visible Deeds of Music: Art and Music from Wagner to Cage (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 54.

10 Andrew Brighton, Francis Bacon (London: Tate Publishing, 2002), 22.

11 For an examination of this, see Heather Johnson, Roy de Maistre: The Australian years 1894–1930 (Roseville: Craftsman House, 1988), 29–39; and Heather Johnson, Roy de Maistre: The English Years 1930– 1968 (Roseville, Craftsman House, 1995), 84–102. I am grateful to Amanda Harrison for bringing these references to my attention.

12 Adrian Rifkin, Street Noises: Parisian Pleasure 1900–40 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 88.

13 Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 245.

14 Theresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).

15 Ibid., 68.

16 Madhursee Mukerjee, The Land of Naked People (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 128.

17 Richard H. Stamelman, ‘The Eros – and Thanatos – of Scents’, in The Smell Culture Reader, ed. Jim Drobnick (Oxford: Berg, 2006), 262–76 (262).

18 Brennan, Transmission of Affect, 9.

19 Don Ihde, Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound (New York: State University of New York Press, 2007), 111.

20 Bacon’s use of random combinations of Letraset letters in many paintings, his creation of a crafted linguistic gibberish, can be seen as signalling his desire to articulate experiences before or behind language. For a discussion of this technique, see Nicholas Chare, ‘Passages to Paint: Francis Bacon’s Studio Practice’, parallax 12, no. 4 (2006): 83–98 (92–93).

21 Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 98.

22 Margarita Cappock, Francis Bacon’s Studio (London: Merrell, 2005), 208.

23 Alistair O’Neill, London – after a Fashion (London: Reaktion, 2007), 110.

24 Hammer, Bacon and Sutherland, 139. Indeed, Bacon once suggested spectators gained from the experience of seeing their reflections. See Robert Alley and John Rothenstein, Francis Bacon (London: Thames and Hudson, 1964), 19.

25 I explore Bacon’s relationship with contemporaneous avant-garde painting practices in the United States elsewhere; see Nicholas Chare, ‘Sexing the Canvas: Calling on the Medium’, Art History 32, no. 4 (2009): 664–89 (683–6).

26 Victor Shklovsky, ‘Art as Technique’, trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, ed. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 3–24 (12).

27 Gilles Deleuze points out that the figures within Bacon’s paintings, screened from view as they frequently are, are reduced to screaming ‘before the invisible’. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith, (London: Continuum, 2003), 38.

28 Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 134.

29 Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 4.

30 Ibid., 2.

31 Laura U. Marks, The Skin of Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 162.

32 Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 122.

33 David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon (London: Thames & Hudson, 1993), 83.

34 Peppiatt, Francis Bacon, Anatomy of an Enigma, 71–2.

35 Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Three Studies for a Portrait (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 108.

36 In this sense Bacon’s handling can be compared to that of Jasper Johns as it is described by Fred Orton in one of the few examples of queer art history to work outwards from the physical manipulation of art materials to a consideration of their relationship to an artist’s sexuality rather than merely restricting its analysis to a consideration of subject matter. See Fred Orton, Figuring Jasper Johns (London: Reaktion, 1994) 119–24.

37 For a discussion of the recent upsurge of representation of sadomasochism in popular culture, see Eleanor Wilkinson, ‘Perverting Visual Pleasure: Representing Sadomasochism’, Sexualities 12, no. 2 (2009): 181–98.

38 Although, in fact, Bacon lacked a regular studio at that time, having vacated 7 Cromwell Place in 1951. Simon Ofield, ‘Wrestling with Francis Bacon’, Oxford Art Journal 24, no. 1 (2001): 113–30 (125). Nicholas Chare 269 Downloaded by [Australian National University] at 14:45 17 February 2015

39 This occurrence is analysed more than once in Martin Harrison’s In Camera: Francis Bacon, Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting (London: Thames & Hudson, 2005). It is also referred to in Cappock, Francis Bacon’s Studio, 28–83.

40 Ihde, Listening and Voice, 190. 41 Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 94. 42 Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, trans. John Weightman (London: Thames & Hudson, 1988), 15.

43 I am indebted to Angela Mortimer, Adrian Rifkin, and Gary Tinterow for various conversations about gender and sexuality in relation to Bacon’s handling compared with that of other avant-garde artists.

44 For a discussion of emotional responses to sound, see Margaret M. Bradley, John J. Curtin, Peter J. Lang, Christopher J. Patrick and Edelyn Verona, ‘Psychopathy and Physiological Response to Emotionally Evocative Sounds’, Journal of Abnormal Psychology 113, no. 1 (2004): 99–108.

45 Simon Ofield, ‘Cecil Beaton: Designs on Francis Bacon’, Visual Culture in Britain 7, no. 1 (2006): 21–37 (32).

46 The subtitle of Ron Lloyd’s photo-essay Built! More (Berlin: Bruno Gmunder Verlag Gmbh, 2005) is ¨ ‘Men that Smell of Muscles, Strength and Sex’. Eric Summers’ collection of muscle erotica stories, Muscle Worshippers (Herndon: STARbooks Press, 2006), carries the tagline ‘For men who like the feel of a real man’. It seems evident that the visual is of secondary importance in this kind of pornography.

47 Mark Graham, ‘Queer Smells’, in The Smell Culture Reader, ed. Jim Drobnick (Oxford: Berg, 2006), 305–319 (318). 48 Ades, Francis Bacon, 17.

49 Clare Robertson, The Invention of Annibale Carracci (Rome: Studi della Bibliotheca Hertziana, 2008), 30.

50 Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 23.

51 Ades, Francis Bacon, 19.

52 Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 42.

53 Brennan, Transmission of Affect, 154. 270 

 

 

ORDOVAS

 

Irrational Marks
Bacon and Rembrandt

07 October – 16 December 2011

Gallery Hours:
Tue-Fri: 10:00-18:00
Sat: 11:00-15:00

 

   

 

Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt is Ordovas’ inaugural exhibition and the first to be devoted to exploring the connections and influences of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits on Francis Bacon’s own self-portraits. Bacon considered Rembrandt’s self- portraits the artist’s greatest works. He spoke in depth about Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Beret in the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence, which he often visited, yet his creative dialogue with Rembrandt’s art has been, until now, largely overlooked.

 Bacon kept a number of documents and source images relating to Rembrandt’s work in his studio. They were clearly working documents and no doubt provided him with inspiration. Some of them will be shown here, covered in paint and in many cases folded. It was one of these images, Irving Penn’s 1962 photograph of Francis Bacon in his studio with a pinned-up, paint-spattered image of the Rembrandt he most admired in the background, that planted the seed for this exhibition.

 In 2006, Pilar Ordovas handled the estate of Valerie Beston, the owner of that photograph and the person who looked after Francis Bacon at Marlborough Gallery most of his working life. It was then that Ordovas envisioned this exhibition, which will be the first in her own gallery. Today, thanks to the support of the Musée Granet, the Dublin City Gallery, the Hugh Lane, the Estate of Francis Bacon, many private collectors, and the encouragement and expertise of Martin Harrison, one of the most eminent Bacon scholars and editor of the forthcoming Francis Bacon catalogue raisonné, and of Taco Dibbits, Director of the Rijksmuseum Collections, that dream has become a reality.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Martin Harrison and Taco Dibbits. As well as Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Beret, from circa 1659, the exhibition includes rarely seen Francis Bacon self-portraits from private collections, Irving Penn’s Francis Bacon from 1962, and all the material relating to Rembrandt from Bacon’s studio in South Kensington. “Well, if you think of the great Rembrandt self-portrait in Aix-en-Provence, for instance, and if you analyse it, you will see that there are hardly any sockets to the eyes, that it is almost completely anti-illustrational. I think that the mystery of fact is conveyed by an image being made out of non-rational marks.” (Francis Bacon quoted in David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1975, p 58)

 

 

Self-portraits shine spotlight on Bacon's debt to Rembrandt


A new exhibition explores the connection and influences of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits on Francis Bacon’s work

 

Ben Hoyle | Arts Correspondent | THE TIMES | Saturday October 1 2011

 

                       

         Francis Bacon's self-portrait from 1972 is to be show alongside Rembrandt's  late Self-Portrait with a Beret

 

Born 300 years apart and sharing a self-destructive streak, Rembrandt van Rijn and Francis Bacon took self-portraiture to the brink, painting their own raddled, ageing faces with unflinching fascination and technical daring.

 

But, perhaps because Bacon never quoted obviously from Rembrandt’s work as he did from both Velázquez and Van Gogh, the debt that he owed to the Dutch master has never been properly appreciated — until now.

A new private art gallery opens in London next week with a free show that aims to redress that curiosity.

 

Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt, which is at Ordovas, in Savile Row, from Friday, is the first exhibition devoted to exploring the connection and influences of Rembrandt's late self-portraits on Bacon's work.

 

it is a small show but will have cost a fortune o insure:  the star attractions are six Bacon paintings and the late Rembrandt self-portrait that he apparently loved above all others: Self-Portrait with Beret from Aix-en-Provence. It will also include all the material relating to Rembrandt from Bacon's studio in South Kensington including a paint-splattered photograph of the Rembrandt self-portrait.

 

Bacon consciously measured himself against the greats of the past and once said that his pictures "were to deserve either the National gallery or the dustbin, with nothing in between".

While other artists fascinated him for specific periods, Rembrandt exerted a powerful grip on bacon's approach to painting throughout his career. Pilar Ordovas, the gallery's founder, said "He was as absolutely important to him as Velázquez and Van Gogh, there's no doubt of that," she added.

 

Bacon considered Rembrandt's looser late self-portraits to be the artist's greatest works. In London he often crossed Soho to view the late Rembrandts at the National Gallery and also made regular pilgrimages to Kenwood House, on Hampstead Heath, to see the self-portrait that Rembrandt made during his final years.

 

But it was with the Musée Granet self-portrait that he developed a particular "obsession", according to Ms Ordovas. he spoke about it to the critic David Sylvester, telling him that he loved the painting because of the way Rembrandt had composed "a very great image" from a "coagulation of  non-rational marks", creating a representational painting from apparently abstract blobs of paint.

 

"Abstract Expressionism has all been done in Rembrandt's marks," he said. "But in Rembrandt it has been done with the added thing that is was an attempt to record a fact and to me therefore must be much more exciting and much more profound."

 

Ms Ordovas said that one of the Bacon paintings in the show, a self-portrait from 1972, shows this influence very clearly. Just as in the Rembrandt there are, in Bacon's words, "hardly any sockets to the eyes, it is almost completely anti-illustrational".

 

Ms Ordovas had the idea for the exhibition in 2006 when she was head of the Contemporary Art for Christie's in London and helped to sell the estate of Valerie Beston, Bacon's gallerist.

 

 

          

               Bacon pictured in his studio, said that his painting bore technical similarities to the Rembrandt

 

 

 

Bacon and Rembrandt

  Dark moments of self-appraisal

 

     The Economist, October 11, 2011

 

      

 

IN 1962 Irving Penn, an American photographer, went to visit Francis Bacon at his studio in London to make a portrait of him. The photograph he took shows Bacon clasping the front of his dark shirt and gazing up and away. Hanging on the wall behind his right shoulder, bent and creased and covered in paint, is a reproduction of a sombre, unfinished painting by Rembrandt, Self-portrait with Beret (pictured), from about 1659. 

Bacon's debt to Rembrandt's self-portraits is the subject of "Irrational Marks", the first show at Ordovas, a new gallery on Savile Row in London. Pilar Ordovás, the gallery's owner is something of an art-world wunderkind, responsible for the sale of Lucian Freud's “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” for £21m in 2008. She has also managed Gagosian in London, and handled the estate of Valerie Beeston, who worked with Francis Bacon at the Marlborough Gallery. This exhibition shows intent: to put on contemplative considered exhibitions, as well as to be an art boutique with commercial clout. 

The exhibition is tiny and tightly focused. On the ground floor there are just six works by Bacon, including two triptychs, along with the Rembrandt painting he liked so much and Penn's photograph. Downstairs in the basement are three working documents from Bacon's studio—all reproductions of Rembrandt self-portraits—and a short excerpt from Sunday Night Francis Bacon, a film from 1966 in which the painter speaks to David Sylvester, an art critic. 

Bacon revered Self-portrait with Beret. It is an exercise in shadow and texture. The rough ruddiness of Rembrandt's ageing cheek is no more than a patch of vertical lines scratched into the paint; his coarsened and wrinkled forehead crafted from layers of thick impasto in pale yellow and mottled red. Sections are left unpainted, allowing the ground colour to contrast with the brown pigments in a play of light and dark. But it was the eyes that fascinated Bacon. In the interview with Sylvester he says "If you analyse it, you will see that there are hardly any sockets to the eyes, that it is almost completely anti-illustrational." 
    
Rembrandt made more than 90 pictures of himself during his life, from the early etchings of the 1630s, which show him gurning with laughter, anger and surprise, to the last self-portrait of 1669, the year he died. It is telling that Bacon fixated on an unfinished picture so spare in detail but so rich in character. What Bacon loved about Rembrandt's self-portraits was what he called the "tightrope walk" between the abstract and figurative. The paint remains paint. It doesn't disappear into what it depicts. Nevertheless, there is Rembrandt staring out implacably, sceptically. The feeling one has standing in front of the painting is that it is full of self-appraisal. This is a dialogue of a great painter with himself. If it could speak it would never use a long word, but each short one would go to the heart. 
    
Bacon was a slicer and a dicer. The portraits and self-portraits on show here are eruptions of violence and damage. In Study for Self-Portrait from 1964, the face is a mangle of red, white and black with dabs of green and yellow, thick swirls of impasto and striations made by pressing corduroy into the wet surface. On one side, the face has been carved away entirely. By the time he painted the triptych "Three Studies for Self-Portrait" in 1975, Bacon was depicting himself with great incisions in his cheeks and jaw, and with circular holes bored into his throat. These darkly beautiful paintings are dramas of flayed flesh and the frayed psyche, but he walks the same high-wire as Rembrandt, pushing appearance as far as it will go in pursuit of the inner life, but never beyond recognisability. 

The paintings by Bacon are all from private collections. The Rembrandt hangs in the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence in France—it was last seen in Britain 12 years ago at the National Gallery. This exhibition is a rare chance to see these paintings, all shockingly compulsive and rich in psychological flare. In fact, they are so good you're left wanting more. It is a frustratingly narrow show, representing a 13-year slice of Bacon's work as a portraitist. In Study for Self-Portrait from 1973, a watch face in the bottom left-hand corner reads 7.20. Both Bacon and Rembrandt were fascinated by ageing and mortality. This exhibition would have been bolstered by earlier and later work showing the span of Bacon's changing conception of himself. 
    
But despite its limitations, this show is wonderfully suggestive of Bacon's cannibalism as a painter. As Ms Ordovás says in her catalogue introduction, Bacon was a "magpie", pillaging from an astonishing array of sources. The most playful piece in the show is a document from Bacon's studio, where he has pinned together a fragment of Rembrandt's Self-Portrait at the Easel from 1660 which he'd torn from a book, with part of a photograph of "Papa" Jimmy Yancey, a jazz pianist. In the short film Bacon shows off a number of paint-spattered images-of Marilyn Monroe, of Hitler, of the gestures of chimpanzees and, lastly, of "Self-portrait with Beret". Every object in his studio was there to be used, and every image there to be digested. Rembrandt may have been Bacon's companion, but he had to elbow for room among many others. 

 

 

Violence, loathing, beauty, pain: How Rembrandt influenced Francis Bacon

 

He brutally mutilated the old master's self-portraits - then endlessly echoed them. But just how influenced was Francis Bacon by Rembrandt?

Charles Darwent explores a new exhibition that attempts to paint a clearer picture

 

By Charles Darwent, The Independent, Sunday 23 October 2011

 

     

 

In June 1962, the American photographer Irving Penn shot a series of portraits of Francis Bacon at the latter's studio in Reece Mews, London. One (previous page) sticks particularly in the mind. It is of Bacon standing in front of a wall which he has covered, typically, with pages torn from books and magazines. Peering down over the artist's shoulder is one of these, the crumpled image of an old man. It is Rembrandt, painted by himself, in the famous Self-Portrait with Beret now at the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence.

Us looking at Penn looking at Bacon looking at Rembrandt. Penn's portrait is full of questions, prime among them the one of who chose its mise-en-scène. Did Bacon ask to be photographed in front of a dead Old Master, or was it Penn who saw a connection between the two men, and if so of what kind? Bacon was 52 when Penn's picture was taken, although, with his cherub cheeks and boot-polish-blacked hair, he looks 20 years younger. Rembrandt was 51 when he painted the Aix self-portrait and seems 20 years older. Like Bacon, he had lived beyond his means; unlike Bacon, his luck had run out. In 1660, the year of the self-portrait, Rembrandt had been forced to sell his house and printing press and to go to work for his son, Titus. Etched into his face is the pauper's grave that would wait for him a decade later. Did Penn see, in Bacon's sybaritic life, a similar end? Or did Bacon choose to have Rembrandt look over his right shoulder – the angel's side – as a token of admiration, or self-admiration?

Nothing in Bacon's life or art is ever easy, his take on Rembrandt least of all. What we do know is that there was a take – that Bacon, a tireless gatherer of scraps, admired Rembrandt above all other artists. Again and again in his quarter-of-a-century of interviews with the critic David Sylvester, Bacon returns to the Dutchman, worrying away at him as if picking at a scab, or at Rembrandt's scabrous paint. It is hard to believe that so deep a relationship between two such great artists had never been the subject of an exhibition – Bacon has been paired off with everyone from Van Gogh to Eadweard Muybridge – but this is the case. Which makes Irrational Marks, the opening show of the new Ordovas gallery in London, which looks at the work of two men side-by-side, both welcome and revealing.

Maybe acts of homage are always tinged with loathing; certainly, Bacon's seems that way. Rembrandt painted or etched nearly 100 self-portraits over 40 years. Many – the Mauritshuis gallery's Self-portrait with Gorget, say – show him as young and strong, high on the hog's back. Bacon's fascination, though, is with the man laid low, stripped bare. There are half-a-dozen of his torn-out pages in this show, all of them taken from Reece Mews and bearing reproductions of Rembrandt self-portraits post-1655, when the artist was in his fifties, widowed and broke. To the violence of the Dutchman's own life, Bacon has added another: the pages are creased and spattered with paint. The housekeeping at Reece Mews was known to be slovenly, but the treatment to which the pages have been subjected seems harsh even so, less a lack of care than an outright attack. In one plate, torn from Claude Roger Marx's monograph on Rembrandt, the old man's throat has apparently been cut. His upper lip has been gouged out.

It may, of course, have been a kind of empathy. If you saw the film Love is the Devil, you'll know Bacon's taste for the lash. Pain was beauty for him; pain was truth. In a story he told, often and in several variants, Bacon's fox-hunting father had had his 14-year-old son horsewhipped when he was caught being buggered by a stable-boy. The punishment had backfired: from then on, the artist-to-be added masochism to his repertoire of happily delinquent sexuality. To enjoy Rembrandt's pain was to pay him an accolade, to enrol him in a club: not for nothing did Bacon refer to the Dutchman's clotted brushwork as a "coagulation". But, as with his father's horsewhipping, to feel Rembrandt's pain was to turn the Oedipal tables.

If there is hate in Bacon's love of Rembrandt, then it may have something to do with their differing views of age. The master of Reece Mews once disingenuously remarked to David Sylvester that he painted self-portraits, although he "loathed [his] own face", because he hadn't "got anyone else to do". By absolute contrast, Rembrandt loves his own face, not because it is his but because it is a face.

In a sense, all of the Dutch Master's self-portraits are double portraits. They depict a man who is getting older, but they also show an artist who is growing more mature. Every vicissitude that life can throw at Rembrandt – each pouch and jowl, every newly acquired line – calls for an artistic answer. There is a blessed equity to his self-depiction. It takes experience to paint an experienced face: Rembrandt had to be 51 to paint himself at 51. Old age, suffering, become cartes de visite, advertisements of his skill. The Aix self-portrait is like a fugue in which one voice is worn down by time, the other triumphant over it.

Talking to Sylvester about the Aix image, Bacon praised Rembrandt's abstraction, his capacity to make the "irrational marks" from which this show takes its title. The Aix self-portrait, he says, is "almost completely anti-illustrational". That both is and is not true – Rembrandt, like any 17th-century painter, would have viewed the lack of resemblance as a failure – but it is certainly revealing about Bacon's own view of himself. The point of a double portrait is to understand both sitters by reference to the other. This exhibition of the two men's work does just that. Where Rembrandt's images of himself are revealed as inescapably optimistic, Bacon's are endlessly pessimistic.

Only when you see him next to Rembrandt do you realise that Bacon is all about self-effacement. In one study for a self-portrait, made in 1973 (above left), Bacon's own face is eclipsed by another, the face of a watch. You sense an 11th hour: the artist, now 64, is reduced to two forms, a double-chin and the skull-like socket of an eye. There is no redemption in his self-image, none of Rembrandt's saving virtuosity: there is only age, and time ticking away. With its grey brushwork and hazy surface, the watch-portrait feels like a picture torn from a newspaper or magazine. Its monochrome palette seems to echo the brown-on-brown self-portraits of the ageing Rembrandt, at least as shown in black-and-white reproduction. The watch-portrait is Rembrandt rubbed out and then rubbed out again, faded and re-faded. It is a self-portrait of Bacon as someone else, someone he wanted to be.

Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt is at Ordovas, 25 Savile Row, London W1 (020 7287 5013, until 16 December

 

 

 

LONDON CALLING: RAW BACON

 

LAURENCE FULLER | SQUARE SPACE | OCTOBER 18, 2016

 

Why do we find sexuality a taboo subject in our culture? It is what creates life and yet can be a destructive force for many, a primordial unity for others and for all there is an element of sacrifice. The French call it La Petite Mort (The Little Death), Marcelle Hanselaar's series of etchings by this name have been were an early influence on me. I feel much of life comes down to this tiny demise, figurative painting by the London School in particular Bacon and Freud capture this so well. 

Each relationship is structured differently and for conventional morality to get in the way of others happiness is ludicrous. For instance, it’s hard to believe not so long ago Homosexuality was not allowed, in fact it was illegal, as Francis Bacon’s work vividly demonstrates, during the creation of Reclining Woman 1961 (on display in this exhibition) the figure was suppose to be male, presumably his lover at the time, and in order to not be found out for his crimes he painted over the penis to make the figure appear female. This was the case with a number of his portraits up until the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967 allowed homosexual relationships in private. These works offer some exposure, revealing some things that are strange and difficult in our nature, yet I believe 

Bacon is so present in all his paintings, the canvas and the subject are reflections of himself, there is no distance between himself and the painting. The same could be said of his lovers, his willingness to express a violent space even in the most casual ways is not an intimidation, but an invitation. He wanted to  instigate the other, his way of seduction.

Though since Sigmund Freud the revelation that a person's sexuality informs so much about their behaviour, the sexuality of Freud and Bacon standing in parallel opposition to each other, respectively extreme cases of both, Freud having potentially fathered 54 children (though only 14 of them confirmed publicly). Says something very fundamental about the way they see their subjects. For Freud he is like the observer, with a penetrating eye wishing to see his subject at their most vulnerable, to deeply understand them for the individuals they are. For Bacon he wishes to inspire his subjects for them to fight back at him, Freud wishing to subdue his subject.

"It's true to say when you paint anything you are also painting not only the subject but you are also painting yourself as well as the object that your trying to record" - Francis Bacon

There is, I feel, in my father Peter Fuller's perception of Bacon a fear of the humiliation of his gaze, and to meet Bacon would in itself be a violent act without any physical manifestations taking place. The mutilation that would occur in the mind alone would be enough to warrant a skepticism of his work. My father saw a threat in Bacon's pictures, that he thought only a concern with the grotesque could entertain. And he walked with this weight, the underlying value that their cannot be dignity in roughness. I don't believe roughness should be shied away from, but wholly embraced in order to fully live.

Here is where me and my father differ, on painters like Bacon, roughness, adrenaline, immediacy are all vital parts to an actors craft. An actor has only their humanity to bear, it's all they have to offer, even in the flesh, skin deep, blood flowing moment the actor finds their true self and that is what they bring to the world. Immediacy and sponteity are key aspects to Bacon's work. In acting there is a necessary ugliness, not in order to shock but in order to reveal, the best actors are emotionally naked, they've put themselves bare faced onto the world's stage, their ideas, their feelings and their unique individual song and if they've stayed the course they've been subject to all the ridicule the Western world has to offer in its competitive nature and still they stand in front of the camera lens, brave and naked. Daniel Day-Lewis said that it is "very hard to have any dignity as an actor" though he has tried for both, and in contradiction has revealed his soul through the life of another. There's this idea that actors are like meat puppets or narcissists, and all that they say is in order to sell themselves, and yes indeed the profession does attract many people like this, but the truly great actors know that there is not enough of their own humanity to bear to fill the void of the swelling mob as they seek love in another, and humility in the face of this is their only option, a constant, unending sacrifice of dignity, all the while struggling to pick it back up. I feel this same dichotomy is present in Bacon's pictures and in our relationship to sexuality.

Bacon said that he would to have liked to make some films towards the end of his life, painting solely from photographs and raw emotions, his subjects are reimagined first through a lens and then with the brush. American films are far more accepting of portrayals of violence, than they are depictions of sexuality, the naked human form is judged far more harshly by the censors than that same form being blown to bits by a machine gun. I believe that this is a mistake in our culture.

In the famous interview between David Sylvester and Francis Bacon, Sylvester suggests that Hockney is the antithesis of Bacon. And if as I have suggested in the past London based expressionist artist Marcelle Hanselaar is in line with Bacon, certainly one that that they share is this sense of theatricality in their work. I remember talking to Marcelle Hanselaar in this interview about the comparisons between theatre and painting. When I asked Marcelle 'Do you think shocking images will captivate people more?' she responded "I think because an image is artificial what you do on a canvas, you try to grab a whole life or a whole situation really on a square or rectangular piece. So of course it's like theatre you have to dramatize it, it has to be intensified, because otherwise people for the same money will just look at the wall and think 'nice wallpaper'". We discussed how in the mise-en-scène, the situation which we find her characters there is quite often a social dynamic whether its a lone figure caught in the act of something or multiple figures and they are caught, Marcelle told me that this sense of theatricality comes from a need to create an immediacy in her work, something Bacon was continually concerned with. 

Yet there is a decided difference between what Bacon and Hanselaar call immediacy and theatricality, and the kind that Hockney puts to use in his work. It's much the same subjective approached from completely different corners.

An actor friend told me recently that I maintain a kind of stoic position to life in spite of it all, I feel in full consideration of the moment of death it becomes very difficult not to value the preciousness of life. "It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live” - Marcus Aurelius. Bacon had much the same outlook when he suggested to David Sylvester that life life is so much sweeter to this who walk in the shadow of death because it can be taken away at any moment.

My father, who defended the preciousness of life, would constantly tell his friends that he was going to die young and would go about his work leaving the legacy that he did by the age of 42, with a kind of franticness, which is now recited back to me by those same friends as an ironic part of his story. I believe this stoic awareness of death was a vital aspect to his point of view on art. Though in the case of Bacon he defended the dignity of the image by bearing his own demons on paper and allowing the images to speak to the most vulnerable parts of ourselves, therefore he had a difficult relationship to Bacon's paintings:

 

 

RAW BACON

 

by Peter Fuller

 

Their heads are eyeless and tiny. Their mouths, huge. Two of them are baring their teeth. All have long, stalk-like necks. The one on the left, hunched on a table, has the sacked torso of a mutilated woman; the body of the centre creature is more like an inflated abdomen propped up on flamingo legs behind an empty pedestal; the third could be a cross between a lion and an ox: its single front leg disappears into a patch of scrawny grass.

They exude a sense of nature’s errors; errors caused by some unspeakable genetic pollution, embroidered with physical wounding. One has a white bandage where its eyes might have been. All are an ominous grey, tinted with fleshly pinks: they are set off against backgrounds of garish orange containing suggestions of unspecified architectural spaces.

Francis Bacon painted this triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base o f a Crucifixion, now in the Tate Gallery, in 1944. It was first exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery the following April, where it hung alongside works by Moore, Sutherland and others who had sought to redeem the horrors of war through the consolations of art. Although Bacon referred to traditional religious iconography, he did not wish to console anyone about anything. Indeed, he seemed to want to rub the nose of the dog of history in its own excrement.

When the Three Studies was first shown, the war was ending and it was spring. Bacon was out of tune with the mood of his times. Certainly, as far as the fashionable movements in art were concerned, he was to remain so. And yet his star steadily ascended. By the late 1950s he was one of an elite handful of ‘distinguished British artists’. Today his stature among contemporary painters seems unassailable. And yet Bacon - who recently held an exhibition of new work at Marlborough Fine Art to mark the publication by Phaidon of a major monograph, Francis Bacon, by Michel Leiris - must be the most difficult of all living painters to evaluate justly. His work is so extreme it seems to demand an equally extreme response.

Bacon has always denied that he set out to emphasise horror or violence. In a chilling series of interviews conducted by David Sylvester, he qualified this by saying, ‘I’ve always hoped to put over things as directly and rawly as I possibly can, and perhaps, if a thing comes across directly, people feel that that is horrific.’ He explained that people ‘tend to be offended by facts, or what used to be called truth.’ He has repeatedly said that his work has no message, meaning or statement to make beyond the revelation of that naked truth.

Bacon’s serious critics have largely gone along with his own view of his painting. Michel Leiris, a personal friend of the painter’s, is no exception; Leiris argues that Bacon presents us with a radically demystified art, ‘cleansed both of its religious halo and its moral dimension’. Again and again, Leiris calls Bacon a ‘realist’, who strips down the thing he is looking at in a way which retains ‘only its naked reality’. He echoes Bacon himself in arguing that his pictures have no hidden depths and call for no interpretation ‘other than the apprehension of what is immediately visible’.

No doubt the ‘horror’ has been overdone in popular and journalistic responses to Bacon. But it is just as naive to think Bacon is simply recording visual facts, let alone transcribing ‘truth’. Creatures like those depicted in Three Studies can no more be observed slouching around London streets than haloes can be seen above the heads of good men, or angels in our skies. Of course Bacon’s violent imagination distorts what he sees.

But the clash between Bacon’s supporters and the populists cannot be dismissed as easily as that. The point remains whether Bacon’s distortions are indeed revelatory of a significant truth about men and women beyond the facts of their appearances; or whether they are simply a horrible assault upon our image of ourselves and each other, pursued for sensationalist effects. And this, whether Bacon and his friends like it or not, involves us in questions of interpretation, value and meaning.

The stature of Bacon’s achievement from the most unpropitious beginnings is not to be denied. Although his father named his only son after their ancestor, the Elizabethan philosopher of sweet reason, he was himself an unreasonable and tyrannical man, a racehorse trainer by profession. Nonetheless, Francis, a sickly and asthmatic child, felt sexually attracted to him. Francis received no conventional schooling and left home at sixteen, following an incident in which he was discovered trying on his mother’s clothes.

He worked in menial jobs before briefly visiting Berlin and Paris in the late 1920s; soon after, he began painting and drawing, at first without real commitment, direction or success. In the early 1930s, he was better known as a derivative designer of modern rugs and furniture, although an early Crucifixion, in oils, was reproduced by Herbert Read in Art Now. Bacon subsequently destroyed almost all his early work; his public career thus effectively began only with the exhibition of Three Studies in 1944.

Bacon then began to produce the paintings for which he has become famous: at first there were some figures in a landscape; but soon he moved definitively indoors. He displayed splayed bodies, surrounded by tubular furniture of the kind he had once designed, in silent interiors. A fascination with the crucifix and triptych format continued; but he painted the naked, human body - usually male - in all sorts of situations of struggle, suffering and embuggerment. A picture of two naked figures wrestling on a bed of 1953 is surely among his best. But a series of variations on Velazquez’s Portrait o f Pope Innocent X - which he now regrets - became among his most celebrated. By the 1960s, the echoes of religious iconography and the Grand Tradition of painting had become more muted. Bacon could never be accused of ‘intimism’ : ‘homeliness’ is one of the qualities he hates most. The large, bloody, set-piece interiors continued; but the forms of their figures became less energetic, more statuesque. Bacon seemed increasingly preoccupied with portraits, usually in a triptych format, of his friends and associates: Isabel Rawsthorne, Henrietta Moraes, Lucian Freud, George Dyer (his lover), Muriel Belcher, the owner of a drinking club in Soho he frequented, and himself.

Bacon has repeatedly said that he is not an ‘expressionist’; it is easy to show what he means by this by contrasting his work with that of the currently fashionable, but lesser, painter George Baselitz (at the Whitechapel Gallery) - who is. Baselitz deals with a similar subject matter; but he invariably handles paint in an ‘abstract expressionist’ manner; i.e. in a way which refers not so much to his subjects as to his own activity and sentiments as an artist. Anatomy, physiognomy, gesture and the composition of an architectural illusion of space mean nothing to him: to Bacon, they are everything. Or rather almost everything.

For if he has sought to work in continuity with the High Art of the past, Bacon recognises that the painter, today, is in fact in a very different position. He has regretted the absence of a ‘valid myth’ within which to work: ‘When you’re outside tradition, as every artist is today, one can only want to record one’s own feelings about certain situations as closely to one’s nervous system as one possibly can.’

He stresses that the echoes of religion in his pictures are intended to evoke no residue of spiritual values; Bacon is a man for whom Cimabue’s great Crucifixion is no more than an image of ‘a worm crawling down the cross’. He is interested in the crucifix for the same reason he is fascinated by meat and slaughterhouses; and also for its compositional possibilities: ‘The central figure of Christ is raised into a very pronounced and isolated position, which gives it, from a formal point of view, greater possibilities than having all the different figures placed on the same level. The alteration of level is, from my point of view, very important.’ But, for Bacon, the myths of vicarious sacrifice, incarnation, redemption, resurrection, salvation and victory over death mean nothing - even as consoling illusions.

The appeal to a meaningful religious iconography is, in effect, replaced in his work by an appeal to photography; similarly, in his pictures, as in his life, the myth of a jealous and omnipotent god has been replaced by the arbitrary operations of chance.

Bacon’s fascination with Muybridge’s sequential photographs of men, women and animals in motion is well-known. References to specific Muybridge images are often discernible in his pictures; even his triptych format seems to relate more to them than to traditional altarpieces. He seems to believe that Muybridge exposed the illusions of art, and freed it from the need to construct such illusions in the future. Unlike many who reached similar conclusions, they did not, of course, lead Bacon to narrow aestheticism or abstraction. Rather, he sometimes insists that the artist should become even more ‘realist’ than the photographer, by getting yet closer to the object; and, at others, that as a result of photography’s annexation of appearance, good art today has become just a game.

But this insistence on ‘realism’, and reduction of art to its ludic and aleatory aspects, are not, in Bacon’s philosophy, necessarily opposed. Accident and chance play a central role in his pursuit of ‘realistic’ images of men; they enter into his painting technique through his reliance on throwing and splattering. In fact, of course, Bacon exercises a consummate control over the effects chance gives him; but, as he once said, ‘I want a very ordered image, but I want it to come about by chance.’ He fantasizes about the creation of a masterpiece by means of accident. The religious artists of the High Tradition attributed their ‘inspiration’ to impersonal agencies, like the muses or gods; and Bacon, too, is possessed of an overwhelming need to locate the origins of his own imaginative activity outside of himself.

The role of photography and chance in his creative process relate immediately to the view of man he is seeking to realise. ‘Man,’ he has said, ‘now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason.’ Thus, in reducing itself to ‘a game by which man distracts himself’ (rather than a purveyor of moral or spiritual values) art more accurately reflects the human situation even than photography . . . The human situation, that is, as seen by Bacon.

Bacon then has achieved something quite extraordinary. He has used the shell of the High Tradition of European painting to express, in form as much as in content, a view of man which is utterly at odds with everything that tradition proclaims and affirms. Moreover, it must be admitted that he has done so to compelling effect. It is perfectly possible to fault Bacon, technically and formally: he has a tendency to ‘fill-in’ his backgrounds with bland expanses of colour; recently, he has not always proved able to escape the trap of self-parody, leading to mannerism and stereotyping of some of his forms. But these are quibbles. Bacon, in interviews, has good reason constantly to refer back to the formal aspects of his work; he is indeed the master of them.

But this cannot be the end of the matter in our evaluation of him. Leiris maintains his ‘realism’ lies in his image of ‘man dispossessed of any durable paradise . . . able to contemplate himself clear-sightedly’. But is it ‘realistic’ to have a Baconian vision of man closer to that of a side of streaky pig’s meat, skewered at random, than to anything envisaged by his rational ancestor?

Nor can we evade the fact that Bacon’s view of man is consonant with the way he lives his life. He emerges from his many interviews as a man with no religious beliefs, no secular ethical values, no faith in human relationships, and no meaningful social or political values either. ‘All life,’ he says, ‘is completely artificial, but I think that what is called social justice makes it more pointlessly artificial . . . Who remembers or cares about a happy society?’ One may sympathise with Bacon because death wiped out so many of his significant relationships; but his life seems to have been dedicated to futility and chance. It has been said that, for him, the inner city is a ‘sexual gymnasium’. He is obsessed with roulette, and the milieu of Soho drinking clubs. He wants to live in ‘gilded squalor’ in a state of ‘exhilarated despair’. He is not so much honest as appallingly frank about his overwhelming ‘greed’.

And it is, of course, just such a view of man which Bacon made so powerfully real through his painterly skills. Because he refuses the ‘expressionist’ option, he also relinquishes that ‘redemption through form’ which characterises Soutine’s carcasses of beef, or Rouault’s prostitutes. But it may, nonetheless, be that there is something more to life than the spasmodic activities of perverse hunks of meat in closed rooms. And perhaps, even if the gods are dead, there are secular values more profound and worthwhile than the random decisions of the roulette wheel.

I believe there are; and so I cannot accept Bacon as the great realist of our time. He is a good painter: he is arguably the nearest to a great one to have emerged in Britain since the last war. (Though I believe Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff are better.) Nonetheless, in the end, I find the vision of man he uses his undeniable painterly talents to express quite odious. We are not mere victims of chance; we possess imagination - or the capacity to conceive of the world other than the way it is. We also have powers of moral choice, and relatively effective action, whether or not we believe in God. And so I turn away from Bacon’s work with a sense of disgust, and relief: relief that it gives us neither the ‘facts’ nor the necessary ‘truth’ about our condition.

1983

 

 

FRANCIS BACON'S GENDER TROUBLE

 

MACUSHLA ROBINSON  CURATOR + WRITER

 

I want to break humanity in two

And live in the empty middle I

No woman no man 

Heiner Müller

 

                            

                                                                Lying figure 1969  Francis Bacon

 

Against the tide of art history, Francis Bacon predominantly painted men. As theorist Ernst van Alphen points out ‘There are few painters in the modern period of Western art who have so dedicated themselves to representing the male body.’ (van Alphen, 1992: 168) Bacon's paintings are known for their distortions and fragmentations of the body. They often depict men wrestling, struggling and grappling with one another. Bacon transmuted these wrestling figures into coupling men and painted the male body with tactile sumptuousness that arguably has an erotic dimension. The homoerotic themes in Bacon’s work have been widely discussed in recent scholarship. However his focus on the male figure has largely eclipsed the gender politics of his much rarer paintings of nude women. 

Yet Bacon had close friendships with a number of fascinating and unconventional women who became the subject of a number of portraits. Among these subjects Henrietta Moraes was a friend whom he painted nude on several occasions. His images of her naked body may be read as erotic. To me they raise fascinating questions about how Bacon, a homosexual man, engaged with and represented the body of a woman who was clearly not the object of his own sexual desire.

While they are a small part of his work overall, I believe that these few paintings of Henrietta Moraes embody a greater truth about gender and sexuality in Bacon’s work, namely that gender is not clear-cut. In a way, Bacon’s paintings of this nude woman give us great insight into how he understood gender, sexuality and homosexuality.

In this paper I will explore Bacon’s treatment of gender through the prism of two paintings: Lying figure 1969 and Studies from the human body 1975. The first shows Henrietta Moraes lying on a bed with a single lightbulb suspended above her, while the second is a more complex multi-figure composition, with a similar lying figure at its centre. I will examine the ways in which gender is subtly confused in each work. Drawing in feminist discussions of the male gaze in art history and applying it to these images, I’ll analyse the ‘crossing’ of genders in Bacon’s work. Far more than Bacon ever admitted, these paintings unsettle the binaries of feminine/masculine and queer/straight.

On the question of what Bacon would or would not have admitted to, I want to briefly comment on using his biography to interpret his paintings. Bacon resisted the tendency to read his work through his life. Yet we cannot ignore certain aspects of his life and sexual practices, beginning with the story of his father kicking him out of home after catching him wearing his mother’s underwear. These biographical anecdotes inevitably hover in the background and support a cross-gender reading of his work. At the same time we have to be careful: Bacon’s understanding of this territory is difficult to analyse.  While flagrantly homosexual, he rarely discussed this in interviews and avoided the activist politics that emerged during his lifetime, though it came to dominate the art world in the latter part of the 20th century.

David Sylvester said that in Bacon's works 'the female bodies tend to be paradigmatically female: curvaceous and well fleshed… Bacon's lack of personal erotic interest in naked females did nothing to prevent these paintings from being as passionate as those of the male bodies that obsessed him.' (Sylvester, 2000: 224). In turn curator Chris Stephens said that some of Bacon's images of Moraes acknowledge the sitter's 'raw sexuality' (Stephens, 2008: 181) and show her as 'sexually alluring but dangerously open. Though not exactly violated there is, nonetheless, something pathetic in her apparent sexual abandon.' (Stephens, 2008: 182) He speculated that this came partly from the photographs that informed the paintings (Stephens, 2008: 181-182) These photographs were commissioned by Bacon, but taken by his friend John Deakin. They show Moraes adopting revealing, even pornographic, poses.

But they are not the only influence on Bacon’s paintings, which have often been linked to art-historical images from the odalisques of French neo-classicist Ingres to Degas’ After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself c.1890–5 and Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon 1907. We can’t talk about these paintings from art history without talking about the history of the female nude, and the argument that many art historical paintings put women on display for the benefit of male viewers. John Berger famously asserts that in visual culture women have learned to see themselves from the outside, as objects for erotic possession. In the tradition of the nude, the subject’s ‘…own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.’ (Berger, 1972: 46)

In her book Vision and Difference Griselda Pollock argues ‘Femininity is not the natural condition of female persons. It is a historically variable ideological construction of meanings for a sign W*O*M*A*N which is produced by and for another social group which derives its identity and imagined superiority by manufacturing the spectre of this fantastic Other.’ (Pollock, 1988:71) Our understanding of femininity has been constructed by and perpetuated through representations of the female nude.

I am asking how, given Bacon's relationship to some key paintings from art history, we should interpret his paintings of nude women. Ernst van Alphen suggests one possible answer to this, taking up the feminist critique of female nudes when writing about masculinity in Bacon’s paintings. Like Griselda Pollock he suggests that male painters have understood their own gender through their representation of women. Following John Berger, van Alphen describes the female nude in art history as ‘completely subjugated to the male gaze by the erasure of any threatening sign of the woman's desiring subjectivity.’ (van Alphen, 1992: 169) Bacon's paintings of the female nude, he suggests, avoid this subjugation by presenting the woman as absorbed in her own sexual being (van Alphen, 1992: 172). Van Alphen holds that such images turn the tables on the relationship of viewer and object: ‘The viewer’s only function here is to be voyeuristic object.’ (van Alphen, 1992: 174)  

Yet I do not believe that it is as simple as that. As he also says, ‘one cannot simply break away from existing discourses’. (van Alphen, 1992: 169) Bacon’s paintings, which are full of traces of art history, cinema and popular culture, both perpetuate and trouble such discourses.

The painting Lying figure 1969 shows Moraes’ naked foreshortened body sprawled on a stripy mattress in a bare and squalid room. Though distorted, this figure is clearly female: her legs are apart, and her voluptuous flesh is painted in yellow and two-toned pink that gives the appearance of blushing skin. Her upside-down body is a tumble of curves exposed on the circular bed.

The single light bulb, surrounded by an orb of yellow light, directs our gaze to her open legs. A hypodermic syringe pierces her arm and there are cigarette butts stubbed out on the floor. Yet Bacon denied that this image had anything to do with addiction, saying that he used the syringe as a way of ‘nailing the image more strongly into reality or appearance’. (Stephens, 2008: 181)

The syringe could also be read as a medical implement – since Bacon frequently drew on medical images as a source for his paintings. With its harsh light and bare surrounds, this painting has a clinical quality that may derive from the medical textbooks that he accumulated in his studio.

The figure’s eyes are closed and her face is distorted and stylized. Arcs of thick white paint trace her nose and cheek, dividing her face in half and lending it a mask-like quality (which recalls Picasso’s distortions in Demoiselles d’Avignon among other influences). Simply by showing a nude woman lying on a bed, Lying figure evokes the tradition of the female nude that Picasso’s painting is a part of. In many paintings throughout history, the nude woman has been cast as a possession of the viewer. In Bacon’s painting Moraes lies on a bed that doubles as a stage. With her arms above her head above her unfolding breasts, belly and thighs, she could easily be read as a subject of the viewer’s voyeuristic enjoyment.

But like all of Bacon's paintings, Lying figure is ambiguous and resists conclusive readings. We cannot rely solely on references to art history here. While it inherits much from its art historical precedents – perhaps more so than many other paintings of the time – Lying Figure is an also exception to the art historical norm. It is a painting of a specific person rather than a merely titillating image. Bacon painted many portraits of his close friends and lovers and although Lying figure does not name Henrietta Moraes in its title, this painting is surely informed by Bacon’s personal knowledge of her.

It is distorted rather than naturalistic, yet it conveys something profoundly personal about its subject: a full and frank sense of embodiment. Moraes inhabits her body unselfconsciously in this painting and this is one of the ways in which it diverges from many paintings of nude women throughout history. Moraes’ upside-down position – with her head towards the viewer and her foreshortened body tapering away – is quite different from the usual format of the reclining nude. We see her face at the front of the painting. While her legs are tantalisingly open, her body faces away from us. This posture does not necessarily cast her as an object of sexual desire: by positioning the figure in this way, Bacon cuts off the implicit invitation to the viewer that paintings of the female nude have often presupposed. The painting depicts Moraes as a sexual being; the image is not sexless, but neither does it suggest that we might possess her.

The posture is not incidental. Bacon commissioned John Deakin to take the series of photographs upon which this painting was modelled (though as with all Bacon’s work, other influences have been folded in). According to Moraes, when Deakin first shot them he adopted the opposite angle, showing her lying with her feet towards the camera. Far more sexually explicit, this vantage point allowed Deakin to focus his lens on Henrietta’s parted legs. Bacon had Deakin reshoot these photographs as originally specified, and made several paintings showing this unorthodox posture. (Cappock, 2005: 47) This colourful anecdote shows that Bacon’s selection of this pose was deliberate (though he would subsequently exploit the incident and base other paintings on the first series of images).

It is not only what this painting depicts but also the way in which it is painted that differentiates Lying figure from conventional images of the female nude. Moraes is painted with slashes of white breaking up the unity of her body, particularly in her head and arms. The sweeping flicks and curves give a sense of turbulence and fracture. Van Alphen has said that the physical distortion of the figure in Bacon’s paintings disrupts the wholeness of the female body. They remain active and resist becoming a commodity. (van Alphen, 1992: 174) Though lying down, Moraes is not passive as the nudes of art history often are.

In After Francis Bacon: synaesthesia and sex in paint scholar Nicholas Chare suggests that Bacon’s application of paint blends together two different types of mark-making. He assigns the qualities of masculine and feminine to these types of marks; Bacon’s portraits of women ‘include expanses of fierce brushwork. This brushwork is, however, offset by expanses of more tender paint application …’ (Nicholas Chare, 2012: 83) Chare suggests that in Bacon’s paintings ‘there seem to be two different registers of handling at work. The touches that involve the use of fabric can be gendered as feminine. The impasto, however, denotes masculinity.’ (Nicholas Chare, 2012: 83) Whether this gendering is inherent or enculterated is a matter for debate.

Bacon used a yellow base for the body in Lying Figure 1969, which he painted over in fleshy pink. These two layers were painted rapidly with a broad brush. They form the overall shape of the body and bleed into the turbulence of the figure’s head and arms. In the final layer Bacon has pressed fabric loaded with vermillion red paint down the centre of the figure’s body. To me this registers as a deep blush – a rush of blood to prickling skin. It implies a sense that the figure is self-conscious – aware of being looked at. It also concentrates our eye on the figure, packing all the energy of the painting into its fleshy surface.

Amid the brush marks and splatters of paint that make up this painting there is something that complicates our understanding of Henrietta’s gender: she seems to have a penis. When I first looked at this work I found myself putting this aspect of it into the ‘too hard basket’. I wrote about the subjectivity of the figure and her sense of embodiment, yet I couldn’t make sense of this ambiguous gesture. After all it occupies a liminal position in the painting and is not as resolved or as solid as much of the rest of the image. There are many marks on this canvas that serve a formal purpose and are not meant to read as anything in particular. This mark could likewise be taken for the splashes and swipes of paint that accrued through Bacon’s painting process.

But Bacon’s claim that his works came into being through accident and chance was always a little overstated: as Anthony Bond has pointed out in his catalogue essay for Francis Bacon: five decades it is arguable that Bacon knew exactly what he was doing, and that ‘a good drunk, like a cat, knows exactly how to land.’ (Bond, 2012: 18) Bacon may have utilised chance as a strategy, but we cannot dismiss the marks comprising his paintings as simply formalist and unsignifying. This mark in particular is just too provocatively placed to be read as incidental.

While this painting seems at first glance to show a naked woman, it really shows a figure that has both male and female aspects.  More than anything else, this is how Bacon subverts, while still drawing upon, the lexicon of the art historical female nude – by introducing an element that completely unsettles our understanding of her as the very embodiment of femininity. This raises questions about how Bacon saw the division between genders, and whether indeed he saw himself, to some extent, in the female nude.

In a later painting, Studies from the human body 1975, this confusion of genders happens in reverse. Bacon has painted a body that appears to be male, but which is based on a photograph of a woman. In this painting the male figure lying on the left of the image adopts the same pose at Henrietta Moraes does in Lying Figure 1969. Since Bacon’s painting of Moraes antedates Studies from the human body, and was itself based on photographs commissioned by Bacon, this male figure likely derives from a photograph of a nude woman. 

In fact this slippage of gender occurs in many of Bacon’s paintings and this is not the only instance where a woman’s body becomes the basis of a man’s body. In paintings such as Triptych 1970 the two flanking figures in the left and right panels of the image have been adapted from a series of photographs, taken by Eadweard Muybridge, showing a naked woman getting into a hammock. As with all of Bacon’s paintings, this figure is not precisely modelled on the photograph that it derives from. These are are evolutions from, rather than replicas of, other images.

Studies from the human body 1975 shows three figures. While the figure on the left is barely a shadow – an indistinct reflection of someone with his or her back turned, the figure on the right is shown in profile facing towards a central, lying figure. In my reading of Lying Figure1969 I interpreted Henrietta’s body as at once offered up to the viewer and inaccessible. In Studies from the human body 1975 the implications of the figure’s posture change because its gender has changed. Like Lying figure 1969 its upside-down face is thrust toward the viewer. As with the earlier painting of Henrietta, this body is not passive but turbulent and distorted. I have suggested that in Lying Figure 1969 Henrietta Moraes has a phantom penis. In this painting the penis is an undeniable, though not overstated, part of the body: it is not a shadow, or a gestalt, or an afterthought. But while legible as a male, this figure is not an idealised masculine form. He does not have the Michelangelo-inspired muscularity of many of Bacon’s other male figures.

Neither does he have the sexual allure of paintings such as Study from the human body 1949 in which the man passing through a curtain into a darkened space is painted with soft caressing brushstrokes. This figure is more ethereal and translucent. His face is the most heavily worked part of the body, and is dominated by a set of snarling or grimacing teeth, with only the hint of an eye under layers of paint. The characteristic coif of hair that often appears in Bacon’s self-portraits falls from the top of the figure’s head, resting on a crumpled heap of newspaper made using Letraset.

Striations of white and orange paint overlay the face. Bacon created these marks by pressing corduroy or some other fabric into wet paint and then onto the canvas. This is the same process that he used in painting Henrietta Moraes, but with a different kind of fabric. The stripes over the eye almost give the impression of an animal looking through the bars of a cage at us. It is difficult to read the figure’s mood from its face. With Bacon’s typical ambiguity it could be laughing maniacally, or wincing in pain. In line with Bacon’s sadomasochistic tendencies, the boundaries between pleasure and pain have been blurred. The corduroy impressions are not limited to the face: they extend across the figure’s arm and upper thigh, and are particularly apparent on the penis. This layering of orange not only gives the painting texture and density, but also the subtle colouration of skin. While the use of darker blue tones hint at bruised flesh, this part of the body is layered with warm colour.

While faintly painted, an area of dark grey shadow underlines the penis, which in effect calls attention to it and gives it weight. In addition to the shadow, there is also a series of white dots emanating from the organ in a line that might be read as sperm. Many scholars have drawn analogies between paint and sperm in Bacon’s work, most often in relation to the flick of white paint that he would sometimes hurl at a canvas once it was completed, introducing an element of chance that risked destroying the finished painting. But here this white mark is more controlled.

Arguably, though not obviously, the adjacent body in the composition also enacts a kind of gender crossing. With its exposed breasts, this figure initially appears to be a woman standing adjacent to a reclining male nude. Apart from the eerie reflection in the far left of the canvas, these two figures seem to fit a fairly hetero-normative structure of male and female bodies set in relation to one another.

However, closer inspection reveals that the figure’s head, enclosed in a circle of blue and white with only a protruding ear, has a distinctly masculine quality. This is heightened by a mark across the throat that may be read as a shirt collar. This was not the only time that Bacon portrayed a naked body with a collar – in Three figures and a portrait 1975 his lover George Dyer’s near skinless torso is capped with a shirt collar and his head is likewise enclosed in a circle.

Bacon’s lover in the previous decade, Dyer was the subject of memorial paintings throughout the 1970s and many of Bacon’s paintings contain an echo of one particular photograph of Dyer. This painting is no exception. While there is no smoking gun to suggest that Bacon intentionally painted this alarmingly pointy-breasted body as a portrait of his deceased lover, the likeness between the profile of this figure and George Dyer comes back to haunt me.

Whether Bacon intended this to be a provocatively gender-bending portrait or not, the shadow of George throws the gender of Bacon’s bodies into doubt. A body that seems female has a male head; a body that is male is based on a female model. This implies the possibility of crossing socially enforced boundaries between male and female bodies. It raises the inevitable question – which has underpinned this whole paper – of whether Bacon identified with the feminine.

It is tempting to read the transformation of Henrietta’s body in Studies from the human body 1975 as evidence of identification – a kind of gender colonisation where the male seeks to inhabit the position of the female body. But such a reading would not account for the differences between Bacon’s renditions of these two bodies. Neither painting can be seen as simply a projection of the male onto the female or vice versa, because both present figures in flux – a space between genders, a shift from one to the other that is arrested in paint and made permanently incomplete. Each has an identifiable gender, yet each is also infused with doubt – with something that cuts against a straightforward reading of the body’s gender, whether it is a phantom penis or a masculine jawline resting atop a female torso.

I want to carefully distinguish the ‘gender crossings’ that occurs in Bacon’s work, from gender swapping. Bacon’s bodies are between genders. This in-between-ness is important because, as Judith Butler phrased it 20 years ago, there are ‘tacit cruelties that sustain coherent identity […] the abasement through which coherence is fictively produced and sustained. Something on this order is at work most obviously in the production of coherent heterosexuality, but also in the production of coherent lesbian identity, coherent gay identity, and within those worlds, the coherent butch, the coherent femme.’ (Judith Butler, 1993: 77) These two paintings by Bacon slip across this division and avoid becoming entrenched in such coherent identities. Rather, they enact an exchange that goes in both directions. This is never complete: it does not end with a man becoming a woman, or a woman becoming a man. The gender of these bodies is undecidable.

While Bacon would never have considered himself a queer artist, and resisted politicising his homosexuality, his work fulfils a certain unconscious politics. He unravels the neat division between genders, and in so doing, thoroughly undermines the art historical tradition of the female nude. Bacon’s paintings manifest an incoherence of sexual identity. As Butler has suggested, we need to move away from simplistic binaries of gender, and instead embrace ‘complex crossings of identification and desire which might exceed and contest the binary frame…’ (Judith Butler, 1993: 67) Perhaps without intending it, that is precisely what Bacon’s paintings do.

Bibliography

Berger, John Ways of Seeing, London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin books, 1972

Bond, Anthony Francis Bacon: five decades, Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales and London: Thames and Hudson, 2012

Butler, Judith Bodies that matter New York: Routledge 1993

Cappock, Margarita Francis Bacon's Studio, London: Merrel Publishers Limited, 2005 

Chare, Nicholas After Francis Bacon: synaesthesia and sex in paint, Surrey England: Ashgate 2012

Daniels, Rebecca ‘Francis Bacon and Walter Sickert: “images which unlock other images”’ in Centenary Essays, ed. Martin Harrison, 57 – 86, Gottingen: Steidl 2009

Müller, Heiner Despoiled shore Medea-material Landscape with Argonauts, trans. Dennis Redmond 2002

Pollock, Griselda Vision and difference: femininity, feminism and the histories of art, London: Routledge, 1988

Stephens, Chris 'Portrait' in Francis Bacon ed Gale and Stephens, London: Tate, 2008

Sylvester, David Looking back at Francis Bacon London: Thames and Hudson, 2000

van Alphen, Ernst Francis Bacon and the loss of self, London: Reaktion Books Limited, 1992

 

 

The “Visual Shock” of Francis Bacon: an essay in neuroesthetics

 

Semir Zeki and Tomohiro Ishizu, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10 December 2013

 

In this paper we discuss the work of Francis Bacon in the context of his declared aim of giving a “visual shock.”We explore what this means in terms of brain activity and what insights into the brain's visual perceptive system his work gives. We do so especially with reference to the representation of faces and bodies in the human visual brain. We discuss the evidence that shows that both these categories of stimuli have a very privileged status in visual perception, compared to the perception of other stimuli, including man-made artifacts such as houses, chairs, and cars. We show that viewing stimuli that depart significantly from a normal representation of faces and bodies entails a significant difference in the pattern of brain activation. We argue that Bacon succeeded in delivering his “visual shock” because he subverted the normal neural representation of faces and bodies, without at the same time subverting the representation of man-made artifacts.

Introduction

Neuroesthetics seeks inspiration and insight from works of art and from debates in the humanities to try to gain some insights, however small, into the workings of the brain. The present article, on the work of the British painter Francis Bacon, is written in the pursuit of that aim. The article does not delve into the artistic merits of Bacon's works, which lies more in the province of art criticism; it does not discuss the artistic influences that shaped Bacon's art, which belongs more properly to art history; nor does it consider, except in a marginal sense, the influence of Bacon's up-bringing and sexual orientation on his art, which would trespass into psycho-analytic studies. Instead, concentrating above all on his artistic output as well as on statements about his work from him and others, we try to ask how what his declared aim, of trying to give “a visual shock,” amounts to in neural terms and what insights into brain organization the resultant work gives.

A visual shock

Bacon, whose first US exhibition was described in Time (October 19, 1953) as a “chamber of horrors” filled with paintings that are “snapshots from hell,” told Melvyn Bragg (1985) on the South Bank Show that he wanted to give a “shock… not a shock that you could get from the story [but] a visual shock.” He apparently succeeded in doing so, not only when he first began to produce his work but even today. In the late 1940s, when he first began to exhibit, a critic wrote in The Observer that Bacon's paintings “… horrifying though they” are also technically superb, making one “… regret the more that the artist should have been brought to subjects so esoteric” (quoted in Peppiatt, 1996, p 156), while the correspondent of The Times thought the subject of his pictures to be “so extremely repellent” as to make his paintings “as vivid and as meaningless as a nightmare,” lamenting that Bacon should have used his considerable powers of imagination and pictorial skill to produce something “which it is impossible not to think worse than nonsense, as Head II, which appears to be a mutilated corpse, most certainly is” (Peppiatt, 1996, p 156). Nor are such comments restricted to the early phase of Bacon's output; they persist until the 1990s, well after he had acquired world-wide fame. This suggests that the passage of time did not diminish the intensity of the visual shock that he intended to produce, either in the average viewer or among those more knowledgeable about art. The reaction of the average viewer is perhaps best summed up by Margaret Thatcher (19920, who described him as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures.” This view is not too distant from those expressed in even more powerful adjectives by more learned critics, Margaret Walters (Cork, 1985) describing his work as, “daemonic, hysterical, monstrous” and Peter Fuller describing him as an “evil genius” whose images were “odious” (Brighton, 2001). As recently as 2012 he was described in The Guardian as creating “a monstrous, surreal imaginative world of enclosed rooms and private hells” (Jones, 2012). Such adjectives leave little doubt that he had succeeded in producing an enduring shock, even in the same viewer.

The conceptual framework within which Bacon worked is relatively easy to establish and of importance to our argument. It is significant that, like many other great artists, he destroyed many of his paintings, claiming that he had usually destroyed the better ones (Sylvester, 1963). He was always trying, he said, to paint the one perfect image which, he claimed, he had never succeeded in achieving. Thus, by his own account, all these paintings were a journey toward the representation, in a single perfect image that was never achieved, of a concept in his mind. He claimed to have had a concept in mind before starting work on a painting but that, once he started, the painting changed unpredictably and by accidents, but accidents “out of which [the artist] chooses the marks which he wants to leave” (Jebb, 1965) (that is, those marks that correspond best to his concept), which for him were “forms that relate to the human image but are a complete distortion of it” for only then could one get “to the reality behind the image” (Sylvester, 1963). From those “accidents” he thus chose what came closest to representing his concept.

Bacon's Overall Concept

What was the overall concept in his mind? It is useful to begin by making a distinction between inherited and acquired brain concepts (Zeki, 2008). One of the primordial functions of the brain is to acquire knowledge, and it does so through inherited and acquired concepts. Faces and bodies are examples of the former and there is reasonable evidence to suggest that the recognition of faces and bodies, though not of their identity, is at least facilitated through inherited concepts that are present at birth (Zeki, 2008) (see section The Privileged Status of Faces and Bodies in Visual Perception). Inherited concepts are robust, stable and do not change with time or do so insignificantly; crucially, they are common to all humans, except in relatively rare pathological conditions, of which acquired prosopagnosia is especially noteworthy in this context (see section Prosopagnosia or Facial Imperception). Certain configurations and relationships are critical for recognition of faces and bodies as normal ones. By contrast, acquired concepts to which that of houses, cars and other human artifacts and situations belong, are malleable and change with time and acquired experience and are culture dependent. At any given moment, therefore, they are the synthesis of all previous experiences of the same category of object or situation. (Zeki, 2008).

Bacon said that he tried to represent “concentrations of reality” (Bragg, 1985). We may surmise from his work that one such “concentration of reality” (which we equate with acquired concepts) behind the images that he produced was that of alienation, a situation in which he commonly found himself and apparently saw in others. The sense of alienation may have been the result of his own tastes which, during much of his lifetime, were regarded by Church, state and society as an evil which should carry a deep sense of guilt. According to Andrew Brighton (2001), Bacon found inspiration in the writings of Count Joseph de Maistre, an 18th century French philosopher who had emphasized universal guilt derived from Original Sin and the Fall. Thus, the lonely, alienated, figures in Bacon's paintings (and most of his paintings contain single figures, some two, rarely more) were part of mankind, bearing a guilt common to all even if differing in detail and traceable to different sources, allowing Bacon to believe that he was depicting a universal message, that of pain. For Bacon, “nearly all reality is pain” and he thought that, when we look at his paintings, we are looking at the real world: “What could I make,” he asked, “to compete with what goes on every single day… except that I may have tried to make images of it; I have tried to re-create it and make, not the horror, but… images of realism” (Bragg, 1985).

The means that Bacon employed to project his acquired concept in his paintings was to subvert the brain's inherited concepts of what bodies and faces should look like. Thus, in addition to the lonely figures, he made use of mutilated and savaged faces and bodies, often in combination. This enabled him, in his own words, to hit “the nervous system more violently and poignantly” and thus get to the reality behind the image (Sylvester, 1963). He was looking, it seems, for something primitive and instantaneous, divorced as much as possible from the cognitive element and presumably from cultural context as well, for by concentrating on deformed faces and bodies he was working outside any social and cultural context and within one that most, irrespective of race or culture, would respond to, even if only negatively. Faces and bodies occupy a very privileged position in visual perception, and indeed their recognition may be due to inherited brain concepts. Objects do not share that same privileged position and hence their distortions would not produce the same visual shock or, if they do, they become rapidly adapted to, unlike distorted faces and bodies (Chen and Zeki, 2011). Bacon, on whom Picasso was a leading influence, thus violated and subverted deliberately the brain template for registering faces and bodies, leading to an almost universal experience of his portraits and bodies as disturbing. By contrast, Picasso's Cubist work is not as disturbing, partly because many of his portraits do not disfigure or mutiliate faces or distort the relationship between their components as violently as Bacon; disfigurations are minimal and maintain significant parts of the relationships between components intact, even when presenting, or attempting to present, different views on the same canvas. The adjectives describing Bacon's work, which are peppered throughout this article, testify that few, if any, have qualified these works as beautiful, even if they consider them to have considerable artistic merit; almost all find them disturbing. These disfigured and mutilated faces and bodies are usually set against neutral backgrounds or anonymous spaces containing few objects—chairs, tables, light bulbs, cars—which, by contrast, are not in any way deformed. He seems to have had a marked preference for faces even in other artists' work; for example, he preferred the portraits of both Picasso and Giacometti to their other work (Archimbaud, 1992).

That Bacon should have concentrated almost exclusively on distorted human bodies and faces to produce an immediate emotional impact on the nervous system, before things got “spelled out” in the brain (Peppiatt, 1996), invites enquiry into what is so special about the neural representation of faces and bodies, which they do not share with other everyday objects. One question we therefore address is whether there is any neurological basis for this violent, primitive and instantaneous assault, an assault that lies beyond reasoning. It was always Bacon's intent not to appeal to reason or even to thinking. The paintings, stripped of any associations, contained the message and his concept, but otherwise had no story to tell for, as he said, “once an image could be explained… it was worthless,” adding that, “After all, if you could explain it, why would you go to the trouble of painting it” (Peppiatt, 1996, p. 117); in his paintings, he was presenting, he said, “nothing except what people wanted to read into it” (Bragg, 1985)). The central argument in this essay, which we develop below, is therefore that Bacon was trying, in his work, to project his acquired concept of pain and alienation and horror by subverting, as far as is possible, the brain's inherited concepts of face and body; that, in other words, he was trying to use an inherited brain concept to project his own acquired concept.

To achieve his overall concept in paintings, that of depicting realism by subverting the brain's inherited concepts, Bacon worked from memory and from photographs but frequented establishments such as the Colony Club in London, where people, as he told Melvyn Bragg, 1985, were completely dis-inhibited and not on their guard, so that he could study them in the raw, as it were. As well, he was fascinated with movement, especially as portrayed in Edweard Muybridge's chronophotography of the movement of deformed animals as well as in the “Extraordinary photographs of animals taken out just before they were slaughtered” (Sylvester, 1963). This obsession with deformity and violence extended to his literary tastes. One of his favourite literary sources was the Oresteia by Aeschylus. It was, he said, “the most blood-bathed tragedy that exists, with almost nothing but blood from beginning to end” and yet, “The reek of human blood smiles out at me” was a favourite passage of his from the play Peppiatt, 1996, p 111). The preoccupation with deformity, violence and violent distortions, indeed with representing violence (for almost all his paintings suggest that a violence has been done to the subject) may have been the result of several factors: the violence he received from his father, to whom he was sexually attracted, the “neurosis” of the century in which he lived and his experiences as an orderly during the Second World War, his own taste for violence even in sex, which he considered to be a violent act. Whatever the cause, he was partial to portraying the human condition by representing violence, for he considered the whole of life—from birth to death—to be violent.

We first address the question of whether faces and bodies occupy a privileged position in visual perception because of inherited brain concepts regulating their recognition, one not shared by objects and, next, whether distortion of faces and bodies influences the neural response more than distortion of objects and man-made artifacts. The relevance of discussing this in the context of this article is our belief that inherited brain concepts, such as configurations that qualify a stimulus as a face or body, are much more susceptible to the effects of distortion than acquired ones, to which houses, cars and man-made objects in general belong (Zeki, 2008; Chen and Zeki, 2011), and that Bacon consistently achieved his effects by distorting inherited brain concepts of face and body and sparing the objects, which are more resistant to distortion.

Faces and Bodies

Faces in general occupy a very privileged position in visual perception, as do bodies. This is not surprising, given their importance in obtaining knowledge about an individual, their emotional status at any given moment and their identity. The literature on the topic of face perception is now quite voluminous, and the one on body perception tending in that direction. We do not provide an exhaustive review here but distil from it those points that are especially relevant for discussing Bacon's “visual shock” and its enduring effect, in terms of that privileged position.

The Privileged Status of Faces and Bodies in Visual Perception

Reflecting their significance for acquiring knowledge, special areas of the brain appear to be critical for the recognition of faces and bodies, although whether these areas are uniquely specialized for faces or bodies has been debated (Haxby et al., 2001) as has the question of whether there is an inherited neural template for facial recognition, some considering that it is more a matter of expertise derived from intimate contact and experience (Gauthier and Nelson, 2001; Bilalic et al., 2011). Whichever view turns out to be correct, there is common agreement that the areas enumerated below are strongly activated by faces. Among these are (i) an area located in the fusiform gyrus and known as the fusiform face area (FFA) (Sergent et al., 1992; Kanwisher et al., 1997; Kanwisher and Yovel, 2006) (Figure 1B), damage to which leads to the syndrome of prosopagnosia or an incapacity to recognize familiar faces (Damasio et al., 1982, for a review). We note in passing that the FFA is also activated by faces viewed from different angles (e.g., Pourtois et al., 2005) and by animal faces (Maguire et al., 2001), both common in Bacon's work. (ii) an area located in the inferior lateral occipital gyrus and known as the occipital face area (OFA) (Peelen and Downing, 2007; Pitcher et al., 2011) and (iii) a third area, located in the superior temporal sulcus, which appears to be involved in the recognition of changing facial features and expressions (Haxby et al., 2000; Kanwisher and Yovel, 2006),thus emphasizing the importance of the face as a means of obtaining knowledge about a person's emotional status. These areas respond better to faces and give weaker or no responses when the faces are scrambled so as to contain all the elements but arranged in a way that is different and does not lead to recognition of a face Kanwisher et al., 1997). This in itself, at a very elementary level, implies that there must be certain configurations of a stimulus if it is to lead to activity in areas critical for the recognition of faces. The privileged status of face perception is further emphasized by the very rapid activation of OFA, at 60–100 ms after stimulus onset (Pitcher et al., 2007).  

That there is a privileged mechanism that favours the early recognition of faces and bodies is further supported by evidence which shows that the face and body recognition systems are not only very robust but also very exigent in their demands for activation. For example, the negative EEG potential at 170 ms (which refers to a negative deflection, N170, of occipito-temporal origin, occurring at about 170 ms after presentation of the stimulus, and is larger in amplitude to faces and bodies than to objects) is demanding as to the correct configuration of the face since mis-aligning the two halves of a face delays and increases it specifically for upright faces, much less so for inverted ones (Ishizu et al., 2008). Here it is interesting to note that many, if not most, of Bacon's portraits can arguably be said to be misaligned in one way or another (see Figure 2). One may surmise from this that a stimulus such as that of Figure 2 would equally delay and increase the 170 ms deflection, in other words signal an abnormal configuration by leading to a modified pattern of neural responses.

The N170 component is also enhanced and delayed when the stimuli are those of inverted bodies (Stekelenburg and de Gelder, 2004; Minnebusch et al., 2008), thus suggesting an interaction between separate representation of faces and bodies, since images of human bodies themselves elicit a negative peak at 190 ms which differs in spatial distribution (Thierry et al., 2006; Ishizu et al., 2010); how a mutilated head sitting on a mutilated body, as is common in Bacon's work, would affect neural responses is not known, the effects of distortion having been studied in relation to a face or a body but not the two together. All of this speaks in favor of an essential configuration for faces, which may be due to an inherited or rapidly acquired template for facial recognition.

That even severe distortion of faces (and bodies) such as Bacon regularly practiced has little effect, beyond a delay, on the recognition of a stimulus as a face or a body testifies to the robustness of the representation, even if distorted faces result in a pattern of activity in the brain that is different from that obtained with neutral faces (see section A Fast Route for the Recognition of Facial and Body Stimuli). Hence the face recognition system is robust on the one hand and susceptible to disfiguration on the other, since disfiguration leads to a different pattern of neuronal activity.

The brain also appears to devote special cortical areas to the representation of human bodies, even headless ones (Schwarzlose et al., 2005). One of these is the fusiform body area (FBA), located in the fusiform gyrus in close proximity to the FFA, and the other is the extrastriate body area (EBA) located in the infero-posterior part of the temporal cortex, neighboring area OFA (Peelen and Downing, 2007 for a review) (see Figure IB). Hence, there is also an essential configuration that is critical for eliciting activity from these specialized areas. But here again, Bacon, though maintaining the relationship between the constituents that constitute a body, distorted them severely and added a subversive emotional envelope (see section The Effect of Distortions of Face and Body on Cortical Activity). The areas critical for body recognition lie in close proximity to those for facial recognition (the OFA and the FFA); the brain thus appears to devote separate systems to the recognition of bodies and of faces but ones that are intimately connected since exposure of subjects to pictures of fearful body expressions activates the FFA (Hadjikhani and de Gelder, 2003), implying an intimate anatomical and functional connection between them. We note in passing that, his portraits apart, Bacon commonly disfigured both faces and bodies in single compositions (see Figure 3).

The areas enumerated here may not be the only ones that are important in the recognition of faces and bodies, and their emotional status; some have argued that the recognition of faces engages a much more distributed system (Ishai et al., 2005), but there is common agreement that they are critically important. Hence, viewing of Bacon's portraits is strongly dependent upon the functioning of these areas, an interesting if by now obvious fact. It has, however, also been argued that, even within the region of the fusiform gyrus occupied by the FFA, cells responsive to common objects may be found (Haxby et al., 2001). This is interesting, both in the context of Bacon's work and in relation to the neurobiology of visual representation in the brain. Given the resistance of objects, and the susceptibility of faces and bodies, to inversion and to distortion (see below), it becomes interesting to enquire whether cells representing faces and bodies on the one hand and objects on the other, are regulated differently, even if they co-occur in the same area(s) and whether it is because of this differential susceptibility that Bacon concentrated on deforming faces and bodies and sparing objects.

Prosopagnosia or Facial Imperception

Prosopagnosia or an incapacity to recognize an individual through the face, and especially inherited prosopagnosia (McConachie, 1976; Ariel and Sadeh, 1996), also supports the view that there is an inherited or a rapidly acquired template for face representation that is not shared by objects. When acquired, the syndrome is usually the result of damage to the fusiform gyrus that includes the FFA. Prosopagnosia may result in an incapacity limited to the recognition of familiar faces but there have been examples of patients simply not able to recognize faces. The imperceptions may extend to an inability, or impaired ability, to recognize the faces of animals (Assal et al., 1984), which have a basic significant facial configuration not unlike humans, and we note here that Bacon depicted both human and animal faces and bodies, sometimes in combination. Not even knowledge that a prosopagnosic patient is actually looking at a face (for example at his own in a mirror) can restore the normal perception of a face (Pallis,1955).  

For our purposes here, we may summarize this section by saying that, regardless of disagreements over important details, there is now general agreement that the face and body recognition systems are neurologically robust and that several cortical areas are critical for their recognition. The relevance of a robust system is that its properties are much less plastic and therefore much less modifiable with experience, a point that seems to us of importance in understanding how Bacon was able to produce a visual shock.

Form Representation in the Brain

The form system in the brain is commonly thought to be derived from the orientation selective cells of V1 (Hubel and Wiesel, 1977) (Figure 1A) and consists of a single hierarchical pathway which uses the orientation selective cells to build up more complex forms, and eventually complex objects that an area such as the lateral occipital complex (LOC) responds to (Grill-Spector et al., 2001). This view is almost certainly far too simplistic and there is evidence that the form system itself may consist of parallel sub-systems. We do not review this here but point to clinical evidence which shows that (a) agnosias for complex shapes and objects need not be accompanied by an agnosia for simple line representation of the same shapes (Humphreys and Riddoch, 1987) and, conversely, that agnosia for simple line drawings of complex shapes need not be accompanied by an agnosia for the complex shapes themselves (Hiraoka at al., 2009) and (b) that an agnosia for static forms does not extend to the same forms when in motion (Botez and Sebrănescu,1967), consistent with the suggestion that there may be a separate dynamic form system in the brain (Grossberg, 1991). Our interest in mentioning the brain areas critical for form is (a) that regardless of whether the brain areas critical for face perception also respond to objects, other, distinct, cortical areas have been reported to be involved in object representation and, so far, these have not been implicated in face or body perception; (b) that the areas critical for face recognition should also be responsive to objects complicates the picture somewhat on the one hand while emphasizing a critical feature on the other, namely that the brain reaction to distorted faces and bodies is different from its reaction to distorted objects (see section Consequences of Violating the Essential Configuration of Faces).

Inherited Templates for Facial and Body Recognition

Evidence that we are born with a capacity to recognize and register essential configurations that qualify stimuli as a face are present at birth or very soon (within hours) thereafter is shown by the fact that children react very early on—within a matter of hours—to faces, in that they orient more readily toward simple face-like patterns (Goren et al., 1975; Johnson et al., 1991). But what exactly they are reacting to is not universally agreed on. One view is that we are born with some kind of inherited “template” that approximates a face and another is that it has more to do with asymmetries in what appears in the upper and lower field of view, the reasoning being that new-borns prefer patterns in which more elements appear in the upper field of view (eyes) than in the lower (mouth) (Simion et al., 2002; Cassia et al., 2008). A third view may be that the intimate contact between infant and parent privileges the face through a rapid plastic process that facilitates the recognition of faces (Johnson, 2005).These arguments, though of substantial interest in the context of the neural determinants of facial perception, are of little interest for our present purposes because, whichever of the hypotheses turns out to be valid, the net result, perceptually, is that new-borns orient preferentially to faces or face-like stimuli, thus suggesting that there is something robust, or becomes rapidly robust, about configurations that are face-like. Whether due to an inherited concept (Zeki, 2008) for faces or face-like configurations or a privileged plasticity that favours the recognition of face-like stimuli, it is clear that there is a very early recognition of, and preference for, face-like stimuli. Hence, Bacon was subverting something very privileged in visual perception.

The perception of bodies has not been studied as extensively, but there are reasons to suppose that there are also essential configurations that qualify stimuli as being that of bodies. The evidence comes principally from electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings from the brains of 3–4 month old infants, who appear to be able to recognize bodies (de Gelder, 2006).  

By contrast, there is no similar essential configuration to qualify an object, and where there is one through exposure and training, it can adapt rapidly to a new configuration that is radically different. One need only refer to the example of planes, from simple twin-engined turboprop planes, to drones, to jumbo jets, to variable swing-wing aircraft, to realize that there are many configurations that can fit the (acquired) concept of a plane (for before there were planes there was no acquired concept of them). Nor does there appear to be a distinct and privileged mechanism for early and rapid acquisition of a template for objects. Here it is interesting to note that, even in adult life, monkeys can be trained to learn new configurations of objects and discriminate them as a category even if they had not seen the particular example before (Logothetis et al., 1995). Whether rapidly acquired through a privileged plasticity or not, the templates for faces and bodies are not modifiable, in the sense that those for objects can be modified (see section Consequences of Violating the Essential Configuration of Faces).

The Holistic Representation of Face and Body

While painting disfigured and mutilated bodies and faces, Bacon nevertheless maintained a generally holistic representation that makes it easy to discriminate his paintings as being of faces or bodies. It is commonly accepted that face representation is holistic. Evidence for this comes partly from studies of the so-called “inversion effect,” by which is meant the relative difficulty of recognizing faces when they are inverted, although Bacon himself rarely painted inverted faces and bodies, Figure 4 being a somewhat rare exception and Figure 5 (Reclining Woman, 1961) a more extreme version, in the total inversion and disfiguration of the human face and body. The inversion effect has been proposed as demonstrating the importance of configural, relational, information in facial recognition. It is not actually limited to faces, since objects in general become more difficult to recognize when inverted (Haxby et al., 1999); but inversion has a disproportionately large effect on facial recognition compared to the recognition of objects (de Gelder and Rouw, 2000). Many prosopagnosia studies also attest to the fact that the deficit is holistic, in the sense that it leads to an incapacity to recognize a face while sparing the ability to recognize its constituents, such as the eyes or the nose (Kimichi et al., 2012), that the whole is other than the sum of the parts, in Gestalt language. It is, in short, the relationship of the constituent parts that is critical, and constitutes the essential configuration. It is interesting to note here that a patient suffering from object agnosia but not prosopagnosia was capable of perceiving a face made up of objects (the Arcimboldo Effect), without being able to recognize what the constituent objects were (Moscovitch et al., 1997), implying that a given essential configuration or arrangement, no matter what the constituents that make up that configuration might be and no matter how distorted the constituents are, provided they bear the essential relationship to one another to constitute a face, are sufficient to qualify a face as a face.

The neural consequences of inversion are controversial, in line with the controversy as to whether there are “face modules” in the brain or whether there are extended brain regions in which objects are represented, of which faces constitute one category. There is general agreement that face inversion diminishes the response to faces in the FFA and the temporal face regions, and has a selective and dramatic effect on the responses to faces in regions which are responsive to houses (Haxby et al., 2000). This raises an interesting question: if knowledge of faces and objects are both acquired through expertise, as has been argued (Gauthier and Nelson, 2001 for a review), the larger perceptual susceptibility of faces and bodies to inversion implies that different mechanisms are at work, or perhaps that the neural mechanisms underlying one kind of representation are more labile than those underlying the other. Bacon appears to have opted instinctively for the less labile representation to deliver his visual shock.

Inversion of faces, as of bodies, also results in slower reaction times and higher error rates for identification (Reed et al., 2003) and it is inversion of the whole rather than of components that produces these results (see also the “Thatcher Illusion,” Thompson, 1980). Indeed, even distorted faces (ones in which the eyes are positioned asymmetrically) are processed holistically (de Heering et al., 2012).  Crucially, inverted faces lead to a pattern of cortical activation that is distinct from that produced by upright faces and resembles more closely the activation pattern produced by viewing objects (Haxby et al., 1999), as if an inverted face becomes coded as yet another object. This implies again a difference in the neural mechanisms regulating the representation of the two. Inversion has a disproportionately large effect on the recognition of body postures (Reed et al., 2003).  Distorted bodies also have a significant effect on brain-evoked potentials (Gliga and Dehaene-Lambertz, 2005), suggesting that the perception of bodies may also be facilitated by some inherited neural template, which may however also be facilitated through expertise.

The mutilation and disfiguration of faces and bodies in Bacon's work is largely restricted to the constituents but does not affect the relationship of these constituents to one another, hence maintaining their holistic aspect and allowing them to be recognized easily as faces or bodies. Only rarely is the relationship of the constituents altered, as in his Self Portrait (Figure 6), which violates somewhat the norms of a face in the absence of one eye, and the depiction of a severely distorted jaw with an abnormal relationship to mouth and nose. Otherwise, his distortions are of constituents which, though bearing a correct relationship to one another, may be unequal in size or severely asymmetric. The portrait in Figure 7 has an essential configuration that is recognizable instantly as a face, but it is a highly abnormal one, with one side being out of proportion with the other. Hence, in terms of our definition given above, the pictures contain not only the essential configuration necessary to result in activity—though apparently an abnormal one—in the areas critical for face perception, but in addition arouse strong negative emotions and also almost certainly entail activity in the amygdala and insula (see below section A Fast Route for the Recognition of Facial and Body Stimuli).

The Effect of Distortions of Face and Body on Cortical Activity

The distortion of faces and bodies is more severe in some of Bacon's paintings than in others but very few can be said to render faces and bodies normally. Distortions in general, even those that are much less severe than the ones crafted by Bacon, lead to a pattern of cortical activity that is somewhat different from the one produced when humans view normal faces and bodies, although it should be emphasized that images of “distorted” bodies and faces used in the experiments described below were nowhere as extreme or as distorted as the ones depicted by Bacon in his paintings. In particular, the amplitudes of the responses evoked by viewing faces and bodies are reduced by viewing distorted versions of both (Gliga and Dehaene-Lambertz, 2005). It is, again, noteworthy that object inversion and distortion, which Bacon generally avoided, does not produce similar results (Boutsen et al., 2006).

One of the most famous portraits of Bacon is inspired by Diego Velazquez's painting of Pope Innocent X, a painting which Bacon never really saw but worked from photographs of it alone. Bacon may have wanted to depict the human cage in which even someone so special, as he said, as the Pope is confined but the Pope is not the only figure to be so confined in Bacon's similar drawings. It has been suggested that the paintings are a reaction to his relationship with his father and that they were influenced by a scene from Eisenstein film Battleship Potemkin or by Nicholas Poussin's The Massacre of the Innocents, where a mother is crying in agony at the murder of her child, or perhaps both. Whatever their psychological and artistic origin, the Pope drawings nevertheless show an unaccustomed picture, of someone screaming, even if the face of the Pope is not as mangled as those in many of his other portraits. In Head VI (Figure 8), barely half the face of a screaming pope is visible, suggesting a profound abnormality characteristic of his other depictions of popes and cardinals. They thus also constitute a departure from a sort of distortion of what qualifies a face as a face. On the rare occasions when he portrayed, in similar conditions, a much more normally appearing face [Figure 9 (Study for Portrait II, 1952)], the impact is much less severe and the painting correspondingly much less arresting.

The list of distortions is hardly worth describing in detail; about the only general but accurate statement that can be made of all his paintings is that they are agonized, mutilated and savaged portraits. Cecil Beaton, the English photographer, recounts in his autobiography his shock at seeing Bacon's portrait of himself where, “The face was hardly recognizable as a face for it was disintegrating before your eyes, suffering from a severe case of elephantiasis; a swollen mass of raw meat and fatty tissues. The nose spreads in many directions like a polyp but sagged finally over one cheek. The mouth looked like a painful boil about to burst… ” (Peppiatt, 1996, p 226). Bacon himself preferred to work from photographs rather than have models in his studio, especially in his later years, “to avoid, as he said, inflicting on them in their presence the injury which he did to them in paint” (Peppiatt, 1996 , p 204). Indeed, it is said that when Lucien Freud came to Bacon's studio to pose for a portrait, he found that it was almost finished, with Bacon insisting that he only needed to work on the feet!

It is interesting to note here that human-animal complexes—as in Egyptian art and in particular the sphinx—which Bacon greatly admired and which could be regarded as “distorted” representations of both humans and animals, are not nearly as unsettling or disturbing as the disfigured paintings of Bacon, either those of faces alone, or those of bodies, or of the two together. We suppose that this is because, although the two are combined in a departure from what humans usually experience, nevertheless the two neurally separately represented entities—bodies and faces—are normal and neither would constitute an “assault” on the nervous system. By contrast, when Bacon used the sphinx as a template for his paintings, both the body and the face were distorted (see Francis Bacon, Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres).

No less deformed in Bacon's paintings are the bodies; indeed few of his paintings, if any, can be said to escape that savage disfigurement. There is no particular part of the body that is privileged in this regard but what is interesting is that, even when a segment, for example the torso or the legs, is spared, the general impression gained by the viewer is a total disfigurement, suggesting a holistic representation of the body. His Study for a Portrait (1971)  is a typical example of a mangled body, which has one or two “normal” features, in this case the foot, which nevertheless is in a somewhat abnormal position. Study from the Human Body: Man Turning on the Light (Reynolds, 2007) (Figure 10) has a more or less normal appearance in one half and a much distorted one in the other which, if bodies are processed configurally, would amount to distortion. Such examples may be multiplied, but it is interesting to note that, especially with his depictions of the human body, the ordinary objects incorporated into the paintings are virtually always undistorted.

The perceptual classification of a face or body as happy or threatening or sad or fearful also depends upon given specific configurations. It is common knowledge that upturned corners of the mouth are one element signifying a happy face while downturned ones signify the opposite. Here, another innovation in Bacon's works intrudes—his faces are neither happy nor sad, neither threatening nor comforting, neither fearful nor welcoming. Instead, they are all mutilated and usually savagely so; they are, in Peppiatt's words, “unusual” and “sinisterly unpleasant.” Hence, what Bacon has achieved is to trample over such configurations that allow the rapid classification of the emotional envelope on a face or a body into the above categories.

A Fast Route for the Recognition of Facial and Body Stimuli

In his book, Peppiatt states that Bacon's intent was to produce work such “that the nerves are immediately alerted to something unusual, something sinisterly unpleasant, before the image has spelled itself out in the brain” (Peppiatt, 1996). Most of his paintings alert one to something unusual, even his relatively normal ones of the Screaming Pope. There is evidence that the emotionally disturbing rendering of faces and bodies engages a fast neural system, but whether this occurs before the image has “spelled itself out in the brain” is not certain. It is to be noted that objects can also be distorted but do not have nearly the same emotional impact as distorted faces and bodies and, moreover, that Bacon himself rarely distorted objects and when he did so, it was very mild and produces no emotional impact at all.

When the faces viewed have a “sinister” and therefore strong emotional component (both common in Bacon's paintings), there is activation of the amygdala (Morris at al., 1996); Hadjukhani and de Gelder, 2003; Sato et al., 2011) as well as of the insula (Krolak-Salmon et al., 2003), although neither has been shown to be engaged when neutral faces are viewed. It has been suggested that viewing a fearful face leads to fast, short-latency activation (at about 100 ms after exposure) of the amygdala before spreading to the cortex (Krolak-Salmon et al., 2004). More recent evidence shows that the latency of response from the sub-cortical centers involved is not very different from latencies in areas such as the OFA when subjects view neutral faces. Fearful faces activate the amygdala rapidly (in the 50–150 ms time frame), while a transcranial magnetic stimulation study suggests the earliest activity in the OFA occurs at 60–100 ms for neutral faces (Pitcher et al., 2007), with a later component at 150 ms (Hung et al., 2010).

The facial recognition route which registers rapidly extreme expressions on a face or a body such as fear or disgust, is more “primitive” in the sense that it is activated by low spatial frequencies (coarse visual information) and is independent of the precise identity of the person viewed (Vuilleumier et al., 2003; Maratos et al., 2009). The sub-cortical routes seemingly influence strongly face perception but can act autonomously, since subjects can recognize the valence on a face when faces are viewed without conscious awareness of the face itself (de Gelder et al., 2005), even if the sub-cortical route relays signals to the corresponding cortical zones and modulates activity in them (Johnson, 2005). This suggests that the emotional component—fear, disgust, (as is so common when viewing Bacon's paintings)-is recorded as rapidly as the face itself. Hence, the sub-cortical system may be instrumental in alerting the brain, with very brief latencies, that a stimulus recognized as a face has something unusual about it.

It is likely that the sub-cortical system is used in the demonstrated newborn preference for faces (Johnson, 2005). This route may in fact not only modulate cortical responses but also be indicative of a system involved with facial recognition that acts in parallel with the high frequency system, which identifies details on the face as well as facial identity. Thus, while the recognition of a stimulus as containing the “primitives” of a face might depend upon a sub-cortical system and on low spatial frequencies, the process appears to become more “corticalized” as refinements due to experience are added and recognition is not only of a face as such but the identity of the face (Johnson, 2005). 

To our knowledge no parallel studies have been performed to learn whether there is a sub-cortical or cortical system that reacts to bodies presented in low spatial frequencies. Nor has any fast, sub-cortical route for object recognition been reported.

Unconscious Emotional Impact of Disfigured Bodies and Faces

Bacon often emphasized that his work came from the “unconscious.” “I've made images that the intellect can never make,” he told Melvyn Bragg emphatically (Bacon, interviewed by Bragg, 1985). He also often stated that he produced some of his most prized works, such as Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) (Tate, 2013a) [of which there is also a second version (Tate, 2013b)], when in an inebriated state and not capable of clear thinking, thus perhaps emphasizing the predominance of what he supposed is the “unconscious” element. Bacon reputedly was inspired by a number of sources for this painting, including Greek mythology as well as the work of Pablo Picasso. Taken together with his avowed aim of attacking the nervous system before things get spelled out in the brain, he is perhaps emphasizing that his paintings are originating from the “unconscious” and are destined for the “unconscious.” Of course, what Bacon means by the “unconscious” is never spelled out clearly or defined. The meaning we would like to attach to it is more specific; we mean by it a severe mutilation and distortion of what constitutes a normal face that is registered in the brain even when the subject is not consciously aware of having viewed such a face. Violations of essential configurations are experienced consciously and have, as a consequence, an emotional dimension that is also experienced consciously. But there appears to be also an unconscious dimension that mediates the experience; subjects can discriminate the emotional valence on a face even when not consciously aware of the face, especially if the expression is fearful (Bertini et al., 2013). Here it is important to notice, once again, that the “fearful” faces used in such experiments are not nearly as unusual as those depicted by Bacon. The rapid activation of amygdala and insula by emotional stimuli which can be registered “unconsciously,” implies that, for the ordinary viewer, a Bacon painting is registered through the two parallel systems, cortical and sub-cortical, with a dominant sub-cortical emotional registration occurring through structures such as the amygdala and insula. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the sub-cortical system is the emotionally more dominant one, since it is capable of responding even in the absence of an acknowledged “awareness” of the stimulus. The adjectives used to describe Bacon's work—“repellent,” “mutilated,” “hell”–serve to describe well the strong emotional component in his work, a component which seemingly would activate the emotional branch of the face-recognition system powerfully. Disregarding the religious connotation in the title of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, it is evidently a painting of some horrifically deformed animal(s), so deformed that it is hard to tell the species or indeed whether it is an animal at all. Yet, we emphasize again, there is nothing extraordinary about the geometric configurations against which the animals are set. Especially in the second version of the Three Studies, the geometric lines are normal and the tables are easily recognizable as tables though the central one could easily be conceived of as the somewhat bizarre creation of a modern artist.

It is to be noted, however, that the emotional valence on some of his portraits or bodies are hard to classify as fearful or shocking or threatening; they are departures even from the norms that we associate with such emotions. How, for example, is one to categorize, in terms of emotions, the triptych portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, whom Bacon considered to be “a very beautiful woman” (Bragg, 1985), shown in Figure 11? Severely mutilated may be a more appropriate term, especially for the central portrait; what is not in doubt is that all three represent significant departures from normal faces and normal emotions, be they emotions of fear or happiness. To that extent they are subversions of the brain's normal, expected, experience of faces and hence constitute and represent a threat. It would be interesting to learn how such distortions, which can be qualified only as unusual but not necessarily as ugly or threatening, affect the pattern of activity in both the cortical and sub-cortical systems that are important for facial recognition.

Human Artefacts in Bacon's Paintings

We have alluded repeatedly above to the difference in Bacon's paintings between faces and bodies on the one hand and objects on the other, the former being severely distorted and mutilated while the latter escaped such violence from one who thought that the whole of life is violent. We give a few more examples below, to emphasize the point: The chair on which the man of Figure 12 sits is fairly normal as is the window or door behind. Equally, there is nothing unusual in the lines that constitute a sort of cage in which the person portrayed in Figure 14 sits. Bacon claimed that he used these lines only as a kind of frame for what he was painting. In Figure 13, the cage could be in a bi-stable state and somewhat unusual in shape but other than that there is nothing about it that is shocking, even in spite of its somewhat unusual shape. Equally, the furnishings of Figure 14 are all fairly normal, while the face of the sitter is severely deformed. Such examples may be multiplied and attest to one difference between his rendering of bodies and faces on the one hand and objects on the other: he deformed and mutilated the former but left the latter largely intact.

Consequences of Violating the Essential Configuration of Faces

Superficially, any unusual visual input may be considered to be a visual shock but most of these are momentary and quickly adapted to. A very unusual artifact, one which departs from the general class of artifacts to which it belongs (say of planes or cars), may at first sight constitute a visual shock in the sense that it is an unaccustomed departure from the norm. With repeated viewing and time, however, it ceases to be a shock but comes to be accepted as commonplace; but this does not seem to be true of visual stimuli for which we have an ingrained or possibly inherited predisposition (Chen and Zeki, 2011).  

In further evidence of the robustness of the neural templates—whether inherited or rapidly acquired after birth—for essential configurations that qualify a visual stimulus as a face, are experiments inspired by Bacon's work, which have aimed to chart the differences that underlie the perception of violated faces and violated human artifacts such as cars or planes. Violated faces, unlike normal faces and violated human artifacts, result in activation of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and parietal cortex. This activation is resistant to prolonged viewing of violated faces (up to one month), in that viewing abnormal faces for that period does not decrease activity in that cortex but actually enhances it. This is interesting because the DLPFC gives a strong reaction to unpredictable stimuli or to departures from what is considered normal. For example, although the DLPFC does not appear to be active when objects are dressed in colors with which they are normally associated, it is active when humans view objects dressed in un-natural colors, that is to say colors with which they are not usually associated (Zeki and Marini, 1998). The strength of activity in the DLPFC appears to decrease with prolonged exposure to such unpredictable stimuli (Raichle et al., 1994; Rainer and Miller, 2000; Fletcher et al., 2001). That the activity in the DLPFC should have increased when viewing violated faces even after prolonged exposure to such stimuli implies (a) that we do not adapt easily to the concept of violated faces and (b) that the significant configuration that qualifies a stimulus as a face is much more robust than the configurations that characterize the recognition of artifacts acquired through experience, and hence any departures from it are strongly registered. It is interesting to note in passing that violation of spatial relations (which Bacon did not indulge in) are also resistant to adaptation over a similar period (Chen and Zeki, 2011).

Whether the brain has specialized “face modules” or whether faces constitute one category processed in a large cortical zone which also processes other categories, that violation of faces should lead to strong and enduring activity within parietal cortex and the DLPFC while violations of human artifacts should not, leads naturally to the supposition that the neural mechanisms regulating the two categories (and probably bodies as well) differ significantly, although what this difference is must remain conjectural for the present.

What we are suggesting is that Bacon, unknowingly, used a robust system based on an inherited concept and violated it to produce his shock. That we do not become readily adapted to such violations, although we become adapted to violations of human artifacts, perhaps accounts for the enduring shock effect that Bacon's work, almost all of which violates faces and bodies, has.

There are of course many other aspects of Bacon's work that we could discuss, but this would enter too much into a world of speculation. While it is clear that different categories of animals elicit a reaction from the visual brain, the effect of deformation of animal faces and bodies on brain activity has not been studied in any detail. But it is probably safe to assume that deformation of animals has a similar effect—though possibly a less pronounced one—than deformation of human faces and bodies. Bacon commonly painted animals and in some of his paintings he combined a human body with an animal face, or vice versa, or incorporated some elements of an animal into the depiction of a human.

Conclusion

What then are the insights of neurobiological and neuroesthetics interest that Bacon's paintings provide, as material for future experiments?

We have based much of our argument on essential configurations that allow us to classify a stimulus as that of a face or a body, a theoretical construct that may yet lead to important experiments and insights. We have used previous results to show that distortions of that essential configuration results in a pattern of activation that is consistently different from the one obtained when viewing configurations that satisfy the template of what constitutes face or a body. We have argued that such departures can have consequences. One of these, which Bacon exploited, is that viewing configurations that depart from the essential configurations has, as a correlate, a strong activation of sub-cortical structures such as the amygdala and the insula, an effect that can be produced even when subjects are “unaware” of the stimulus; moreover, departures are resistant to adaptation, in that continual exposure does not diminish the response obtained from the DLPFC and parietal cortex, as repeated exposure to unusual human artifacts apparently does.

This raises a host of interesting questions. The first among them is related to the representation of faces, bodies and objects in the brain. Whether they are represented in discrete groupings within a larger cortical area or whether each of these categories is separately represented, Bacon's paintings raise the question of a separate and privileged access to the brain's emotional systems from the representation of faces and bodies compared to ordinary man-made objects. If so, it is likely that groupings or modules representing faces and bodies have different connections with the brain's emotional system, through routes that remain to be determined. Equally interesting in this context is that the representation of faces and bodies appears to be much more robust, which implies that there is less room for experience to modify that representation in the way that representation of human artifacts can be modified, a suggestion supported by the experiments of Chen and Zeki, (2011). This implies that the connections of the latter are much more plastic than those of the former, making it interesting to uncover the different mechanisms that regulate plasticity in these different representations. This is also likely to be reflected in the mechanisms regulating the formation of concepts for different attributes. The enduring shock element in Bacon's paintings, even after repeated viewing, speaks in favor of a pronounced resistance to modifying the concept of a face or a body; by contrast, concepts of human artifacts are much more modifiable and less resistant to change. Hence, it follows that the determinants of concept formation are much less plastic for faces and bodies, the brain apparently not tolerating departures from a primitive significant configuration for them.

Next comes the question of routing of visual signals to and from a given area of the brain. It is important to realize that faces and bodies, whether ugly, neutral or beautiful, are processed through common structures—the OFA, the FFA and other areas detailed above. At some point in these pathways, a neural decision must be taken to forward the results of the processing to one part of the emotional brain or another. This raises the question “at what level, in the face and body processing pathways, is the routing of signals to one of the destinations made?” a question that applies equally to beautiful and ugly faces. It is also interesting to learn when and how signals are not routed to the emotional centers or routed to them without eliciting a strong and detectable response, as happens with neutral faces. This of course amounts to a neurobiological question of general interest, for all cortical areas have multiple inputs and outputs and whether all the outputs from an area are active when the area undertakes an operation or whether they are active only when the area undertakes a particular operation is an important question to address (Zeki, 1993). In our context, this can be more precisely formulated by asking whether departures in significant configuration in one direction activate certain outputs from the area while departures in the other direction activate other pathways.

This also raises the question of what constitutes, in terms of responses from a given area, say the FFA, a departure from an essential configuration, i.e., does it lead to an increase or decrease in firing of cells in the area or does it lead to a different pattern of active cells. In theory at least, it should be possible to study this by using imaging techniques that can determine whether the pattern of activity in a given area differs according to departures from the essential configuration.

Hence, Bacon's work raises a host of interesting and important problems, not only in the somewhat specific domain of the neural mechanisms regulating face and body perception but the more general neurobiological problem of what it is that determines the routing of signals to one destination or another, given that each area has multiple outputs.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

 

 

Francis Bacon’s Tangled Web

 

Eight years after his death, Francis Bacon, perhaps England’s most acclaimed painter since Turner, is at the center of a major scandal. John Edwards, a former pub manager who is the painter’s heir, has sued Bacon’s longtime dealer, Marlborough Fine Art. Examining charges that the gallery cheated both the artist and Edwards, its chicanery shielded by a token Liechtenstein branch, Michael Shnayerson finds that all the parties in this scandal may have had hidden motives, including Bacon himself.

 

Michael Shnayerson, VANITY FAIR, August 2000

 

Francis Bacon has come to stay in an old stone building in Dublin. The widely declared “greatest British painter since Turner,” once condemned by Margaret Thatcher as “that awful artist who paints those horrible pictures,” died in April 1992. But his spirit is here, in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, to which his humble London studio has been brought, bit by carefully recorded bit. A team of eight archaeologists disassembled the site, noting the placement of every crumpled photograph and paint-smudged book in a three-dimensional grid. Now four curators are logging each of the studio’s roughly 10,000 items into a computer database. This is a first: no artist’s studio has ever been enshrined in quite this way before.

The visual links are fascinating, if inscrutable. A torn-out magazine photograph of monkeys with open mouths may have helped inspire Bacon’s “screaming pope” series. An old radiography text has drawings encompassed by frames and set off with arrows—both signature icons of many Bacon paintings. A large cutout picture of the head of one of Bacon’s lovers, George Dyer, appears to have served as a stencil for portraits of the “rough trade” thug. In November, Bacon’s studio will emerge from the boxes and folders, complete with walls and door, as a permanent installation, like one of those dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. It will be re-created just the way it was: dirty and messy.

These, as it happens, are also apt words to describe the lawsuit filed by Bacon’s estate against the artist’s longtime dealer, Marlborough Fine Art.

The lawsuit’s charges suggest the sort of art-world scandal not seen since ... well, since the last time Marlborough was accused of such chicanery, by the estate of painter Mark Rothko, in 1971. Indeed, the superficial similarities between the two cases, and the fact that Marlborough stands accused of cheating Bacon during the same period it grossly underpaid Rothko’s estate and was fined by a New York Surrogate Court judge more than $9 million for doing so, suggest to many observers in the art world a likelihood of guilt on the gallery’s part—though such guilt would be no less shocking for that.

To some, the Bacon case seems, if anything, more egregious, because the painter appeared so trusting of the gallery during his more than three decades of representation by it, and because the younger male friend who inherited Bacon’s estate—estimated to be worth between $50 and $100 million—is a shy, uneducated Cockney whose work experience, before meeting the painter, consisted of helping his older brothers run a string of pubs in London’s East End. But the picture that has emerged in the press—of big bad Marlborough hornswoggling the hapless illiterate—may be almost as distorted as one of Bacon’s portraits, given the gallery’s own, surprisingly persuasive, version of events. Imagine, instead, a real-life version of the board game Clue, in which a crime may have been committed in the drawing room and every character in the house has a motive. Including the deceased.

m outside, 7 Reece Mews appears just as it did when Bacon worked there. It’s hard to locate, which is one of its charms: you take a tiny street off London’s Old Brompton Road, then look for the arrow that points to a cobblestoned court of brick-walled former stables. Though plain, the mews is a lovely sanctuary in South Kensington. Inside No. 7, obviously, nothing remains as it was. Now that the archaeological excavation is done, a work crew is sheetrocking the walls, finishing the transformation of Bacon’s studio into a sleek apartment where Bacon’s heir, 50-year-old John Edwards, will stay when he comes to London from his large country farmhouse in Suffolk, or from his home in Thailand.

By the time Bacon moved to this address in 1961, his critical reputation was established, though he remained, at age 51, a painter of modest means. That was fine by him: all his life he had a disregard for money that verged, literally, on the criminal. As a young man he moved from one small apartment to another, often without paying the rent due. As his paintings started selling, he loved having a wad of bills in his pocket to blow on gambling in private dens, or champagne at the Colony Room, a seedy Soho bar where he held court almost every day (the gleefully profane manager there, Muriel Belcher, had been shrewd enough, when she first saw how charismatic he was, to pay him £10 a week just to show up), or oysters at Wheeler’s fish restaurant, where he invariably picked up the check for a group that often included painters Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach. After he bid his artist friends good night, he liked to spend money on young men who indulged his desire to be beaten, whipped, and sodomized—a lifelong acting out, it was sometimes said, of the physical abuse he’d received from his quick-tempered fool of a father, a military man who bred horses in Ireland.

Otherwise, Bacon spent little money on himself, and the studio reflected that. A steep wooden staircase with a rope banister led up to a bare kitchen and tiny bed-sitting-room with lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling. The adjacent studio was as chaotic as the apartment was stark. Its door was a palette of paint smears—as close, Bacon liked to joke, as he ever got to abstract art. Within lay piles of what appeared to be garbage: torn newspaper and magazine pictures, creased photographs of the friends he liked to paint, and hundreds of unwashed, discarded paintbrushes in buttered-beans and orange-juice cans. On his easel would be the next of his startling yet strangely beautiful portraits, the features of his subject stretched to the grotesque and rendered all the more striking by the streaks and gobs of excess paint that Bacon flung onto the canvas with inspired daring.

Three years before his move to Reece Mews, Bacon had left his first dealer, a mannishly dressed lesbian named Erica Brausen, to sign with London’s hottest gallery for contemporary artists, Marlborough Fine Art. It was a move made less to burnish his career than to settle a £5,000 gambling debt that Bacon felt Brausen would be unable to pay off for him. In return for his signing a 10-year contract, Marlborough advanced him the money against current and future paintings, with the price of each to be determined by its size. A painting measuring 20 inches by 24 inches was valued at £165 ($462), while one of 65 inches by 78 inches was valued at £420 ($ 1,176); these were two sizes that Bacon favored. According to the contract, the painter would try to supply the gallery with £3,500 ($9,800) worth of pictures each year, and would be represented exclusively by Marlborough, which would also handle all his finances—acting, in effect, as his manager.

Four decades later, Bacon’s estate would start asking pointed questions about that arrangement. Why, its complaint asks, was an artist so cavalier about money allowed to sign a binding contract without independent legal representation? Why was the pay scale for an artist of Bacon’s stature based on measurement, and why did it not include a provision for paying Bacon a higher percentage of the retail price of his paintings if their market value increased over that 10-year period? Why, though Marlborough was required by the agreement to give Bacon an accounting of the paintings sold, did it appear never to do so? And why, the estate began to wonder, were Bacon’s paintings not sold in London, but through Marlborough’s notorious Liechtenstein branch, Marlborough AG?

At the outset, Bacon had no cause to complain. New York dealer Richard Feigen had staged a show of Bacon paintings in Chicago. “I was getting $1,300 for the most expensive paintings,” Feigen recalls ruefully. “The others were priced between $900 and $ 1,200.” No one was necessarily buying them. The Marlborough deal gave Bacon his market price for 8 or 10 paintings a year—guaranteed. It also put him in the hands of Frank Lloyd, the most brilliant English art marketer of the postwar period.

Lloyd, born Franz Kurt Levai near Vienna in 1911, had started Marlborough after World War II with a fellow Austrian refugee, Harry Fischer, naming it for the Duke of Marlborough to lend it an air of grandeur. The “old uncles,” as Bacon would come to call them, chose to deal in top-tier modern art, much of it acquired discreetly from highborn British families brought low by the war. For entrée, they relied on a junior partner, David Somerset, the future 11th Duke of Beaufort.

By the time he signed Bacon, Lloyd had fashioned Marlborough into a powerhouse that had virtually cornered the market on undervalued European painters of the early 20th century—such as Klimt and Schiele—while cosseting and promoting contemporary artists as no other gallery did. As efficient as an investment bank, Marlborough gave artists advances, staggered payments, and handled all their finances for them. Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Oskar Kokoschka, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland, and Lucian Freud—all were excited and proud to be Marlborough artists. Many gave their art to the gallery on consignment, receiving nothing until a painting was sold. But Bacon wanted ready cash, so the gallery bought his paintings outright.

Lloyd’s shrewdest stratagem was to establish the branch in Liechtenstein. It was little more than a mail drop, but Lloyd and Fischer bought and sold much of the art they handled through Marlborough AG; that way, both they and their clients could exploit loopholes in English tax laws. “The legal avoidance of taxes was an integral part of the growth of Marlborough,” explains one longtime London dealer. “Lloyd’s real purpose in operating the gallery,” says another, “was to move currency around. It was much more efficient, he found, to move currency around by paintings than any other way—and they made money on the paintings, too!”

Why did other galleries not follow Marlborough’s lead? The first dealer laughs. “Laziness . . . and social responsibility. I think one should pay taxes.” By the mid-1970s, Bacon’s paintings were sold exclusively through Marlborough AG.

The paintings would be picked up in groups every few months by a Marlborough factotum named Valerie Beston, who soon came to play as large a role in Bacon’s life as he played in hers. Not only did “Miss B,” as Bacon fondly called her, log the new paintings into a record book and arrange for their sale by Marlborough AG, she also handled his mail, paid his bills, even dealt with his laundry. “Valerie was very, very attached to him—a kind of love,” says Michael Peppiatt, whose 1996 biography of Bacon, Anatomy of an Enigma, is, to date, the definitive one. “It was a major thing in her life, it was her raison d’être. It was like a shrine to Bacon in her office—photos and mementos.” For legal matters, Miss B steered Bacon to Marlborough’s solicitors. According to the estate, the solicitors, in turn, recommended the accountant Bacon used to prepare his tax returns.

At some point, Bacon established a Swiss bank account—almost certainly with help from Marlborough AG, though how much remains unclear. Into this account the gallery began to make partial payments for paintings it bought from the artist. For the Liechtenstein branch, this was a legal maneuver. For Bacon, as an English resident, establishing the account broke no law, either. But failing to declare Marlborough’s payments to the English Inland Revenue as taxable income did.

Midway through his 10-year agreement, Bacon chose to exercise an escape clause. Yet he stayed on as a Marlborough artist without a contract for the rest of his life. To those who side with the gallery in the Bacon case, this is the point that undercuts the estate’s legal action. Bacon, they argue, was pleased with how he was treated by Marlborough; if he hadn’t been, he would have left. Anyway, they say, he should have been pleased. In addition to paying him up front for his work, Marlborough was organizing major shows for him and meting out paintings in a carefully controlled way at steadily rising prices to establish him as a major artist.

“He did mention to me,” says one old friend, “when that contract was up, ‘I just can’t be bothered to go anywhere else. I can’t be bothered. I’ll stay with them.’”

“Francis once said to me, ‘I’d rather be in the hands of a competent crook than in the hands of an incompetent honest man,’” recalls art critic Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard. “What he said, and this shows the shrewdness of Francis, is that he preferred a third of a million pounds rather than half of half a million pounds. And what he said is that the prices were constantly being pushed up by Marlborough in a way that they would never be pushed up by anyone else. And so however little he got in broad percentage terms, it was still more than he’d have got if he went with anyone else.”

“He implied they’d been so good for him and put him where he was that he was grateful for that, and didn’t want to change,” says art historian Sam Hunter, recalling a conversation with Bacon about Marlborough. “And he was very loyal by character.”

There is, however, another interpretation for why Bacon never left Marlborough. Perhaps he feared that no other gallery would funnel money into a Swiss account as Marlborough did, enabling him to shelter a sizable chunk of his income from English taxes. Perhaps, too, the account put the painter in a vulnerable position. “He was perhaps less happy than he seemed,” suggests one old friend of Bacon’s who occupies a high enough position in the art world to be a sort of Deep Throat for the Bacon saga. Is that to say Bacon did feel trapped? “Yes, that’s the nub of it,” says this source, “but I can’t say any more.”

Lending credence to this theory are mentions, in a 1978 book, The Legacy of Mark Rothko, by Lee Seldes, of Swiss accounts established by Marlborough for another of its artists at roughly the same time. Like Bacon, Rothko had a Swiss account for partial payments from the gallery, in his case to avoid U.S. taxes. Seldes suggests he may have been haunted by the gallery’s knowledge of his illegal act. “Those who know about such things in the art world say that Marlborough often offered collectors as well as artists kickbacks deposited in numbered Swiss bank accounts,” Seldes writes. “If so, these arrangements might have made severing one’s ties with Marlborough . . . quite difficult.”

The Rothko case is mentioned only in passing in the Bacon complaint, but it hardly needs to be stressed, so striking are the parallels it depicts. To some in the art world, the only mystery is why Marlborough hasn’t already settled out of court with the Bacon estate: perhaps, goes the reasoning, Frank Lloyd pulled the same tricks with Bacon that he did with Rothko’s estate.

Those tricks, as prosecutors proved in 1975, included influencing the estate’s executors with blatant perks, to nudge them into selling some 100 of Rothko’s paintings to the gallery for a low lump sum of $1.8 million, then reselling them for windfall profits. When a U.S. judge called a halt to the sales, Marlborough ignored him, making numerous sales covertly. When the judge returned a $9.2 million penalty against it, the gallery tried to smuggle a trove of Rothko paintings out of U.S. jurisdiction, first shipping them from New York to a Canadian warehouse, then trying a dead-of-night maneuver to fly them to Liechtenstein. But prosecutors, alerted by an anonymous tip, foiled the plan.

Lloyd, charming and evasive throughout the Rothko trial, became a fugitive from U.S. justice. Humiliated into resigning his chairmanship in London, he lived his last years in the Bahamas with a new young wife and family, until his death in 1998 at the age of 86. Starting in 1983, day-to-day management of the gallery fell to the two children from his first marriage, Gilbert and Barbara, and a nephew, Pierre Levai. The Duke of Beaufort remained, apparently unruffled by Lloyd’s various crimes. Most Marlborough artists, including Bacon, remained, too, and the gallery, scandalized but solvent, soldiered on.

Whatever his feelings about the Rothko trial, Bacon was almost certainly less interested in it at the time than he was in a handsome 23-year-old pub manager from the East End, who confronted him rather belligerently one day in 1974 in the Colony Room. More than once, the young man explained, his older brother, who managed a pub called the Swan, had been tipped off that Bacon was coming, and stocked champagne for the occasion. But Bacon hadn’t showed, and now the brother was stuck with the stuff, because no one in the East End drank it. “I said to him, ‘Why don’t you turn up when you are supposed to turn up for this fucking champagne?’” John Edwards related later to a British journalist. “He found that very amusing, and he took a shine to me. He invited me to have lunch at Wheeler’s, but it’s a fish restaurant and I don’t like fish, so he bought me some caviar.”

Edwards became Bacon’s closest pal, though apparently not a lover-rather, a surrogate son. Unlike George Dyer, the petty criminal who was with Bacon for eight years and committed suicide in 1971, and a previous lover of Bacon’s named Peter Lacy, who played piano in bars, Edwards was neither self-destructive nor a drunk. He had shrewd judgment, which Bacon came to rely on, especially in weeding out some of the hangers-on in the painter’s entourage. Bacon’s friends had no choice but to accept Edwards, though some did so reluctantly. “He’s a nice guy,” says one close family friend of Bacon’s. “Up to a point.”

With Marlborough’s guidance, Bacon became world-famous over the next decade and, in 1989, the most expensive living artist when one of his triptychs sold at Sotheby’s for over $6 million. Yet he kept Reece Mews as his home and studio. People would see him at the South Kensington subway station—but only after 9:30 A.M., when Bacon could travel at the reduced senior-citizen rate. With friends, however, he was an easy touch, often pulling a mass of crumpled bills from his pocket and handing them over. Peppiatt recalls a late night when Bacon invited him to go gambling. “But I have no money,” protested Peppiatt, who was a student at the time. Bacon pulled cash from various cans around the studio and spotted him £50. At the private gambling den, Bacon quickly lost his own stake, while Peppiatt, to his own astonishment, won. When Bacon asked for a loan, Peppiatt, naturally, obliged. Bacon proceeded to lose that money, too. The next day, over lunch, Bacon insisted on repaying the money he’d “borrowed.”

As he grew closer to Bacon, Edwards adopted a more extravagant lifestyle, installing himself with friends and family in a Suffolk cottage called the Croft, which Bacon owned. According to Andrew Sinclair, whose book Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times appeared in 1993, the Edwards clan then acquired a nearby Georgian mansion with converted stables, and Dale’s Farm, a house with outbuildings. For transportation, they had a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley, one with the license plate BOY 1.

“One banker, who went to dinner with the Edwards brothers, found himself seated with eight men and two women at the table,” Sinclair reported in The Sunday Times soon after Bacon’s death. “Four of the men boasted of their prison sentences for burglary and demanding money with menaces; but the food and the wine were excellent. The rooms of the house were superbly decorated, but the banker was told that the old furniture and the pictures were changed every three months. The constant factor was the numerous paintings by Francis Bacon, which were even hung in the lavatories.”

Bacon, who often mused on the finality of death and remained an atheist all his life, appeared calm, almost cheerful, as he asked his family doctor and longtime friend Paul Brass to be one of the three executors of his will. “Don’t worry,” Bacon told him. “It’s such a simple will, it’ll all be over in a few weeks. Everything will go to John.”

Seemingly unconcerned about possible conflicts of interest, Bacon appointed as his other two executors Gilbert de Botton, a wealthy financier who had once been a director of the Marlborough gallery and who still served as Bacon’s financial adviser, and his own adored Valerie Beston. Death came quickly, of a heart attack in April 1992 while he was on a trip to Madrid to try to rekindle a romance with a much younger lover. On his easel back in Reece Mews, Bacon left an unfinished self-portrait.

Though probate took some years to establish, Edwards was given money by the executors, whenever he needed it, from his initial inheritance of cash, real estate, and a handful of paintings, valued in sum at $18 million. But the gallery held on to a dozen or so Bacon paintings—the bulk of the estate—taken by Valerie Beston from the painter’s studio soon after his death. “They kept telling him the market was flat; it was a bad time to sell,” says one source. And when Edwards asked Marlborough for a complete list of Bacon’s paintings sold over the years, and for how much, he thought the gallery’s answers seemed insufficient.

Unfortunately, the estate’s executors could be of no help. Gilbert de Botton resigned upon Bacon’s death, citing other obligations. Edwards believed that Valerie Beston could hardly be counted on for impartial counsel about Marlborough. And Dr. Paul Brass, though well-meaning, could get nothing more out of Marlborough than Edwards had: Beston told him that she was very busy, but was supplying Edwards with all the information he needed. Beston thought that everything was proceeding properly, and that her relations with Edwards were, as she reportedly put it, “very good.” But Edwards’s frustration was growing, especially since Marlborough, as a stipulation of Bacon’s will, was empowered to handle the paintings owned by the estate. “John was overwhelmed by having to carry on the Francis Bacon mantle, and wasn’t happy with how Marlborough was doing it, because they were running the show completely,” a person close to the situation recalls. Early on, this person says, Edwards had been contacted by an artist friend named Brian Clarke, volunteering to help with the estate. Now Edwards took him up on the offer, giving him power of attorney and asking him to scout around. “That,” says another close observer, “is when the niggles began.”

When Marlborough at last opened its warehouse, about a dozen full-size paintings, not all of them finished, lay within. Among them was a stunning crucifixion triptych done a year before Bacon died, in magenta and mauve. The Inland Revenue hired an expert from Christie’s to appraise the works, and after much back-and-forth a settlement was worked out: the government would take the triptych in lieu of transfer taxes for the whole estate. But Edwards, wary of the process and fond of the triptych, said no.

Not long after, at an old framer’s shop that Bacon had favored years ago, about 20 rolled-up canvases were found. These were mostly finished paintings, including two “screaming popes” from Bacon’s golden days in the 1950s, but some had been declared “abandoned” by the artist in his catalogue raisonné. Nevertheless, they were said to be signed on the front and back—an indication that Bacon approved them at the time. Now the estate was worth considerably more, perhaps five times more. A new settlement was agreed upon by the Inland Revenue and Bacon’s executors, but again, Edwards refused to accept it.

Then, four years into the process of settling the estate, the bombshell was revealed that Bacon had had a Swiss account, containing millions of dollars. Moreover, Valerie Beston had been a co-signatory on it, but apparently had failed to mention it to Edwards or anyone else involved with the estate in all this time.

Why? One Bacon friend observes that Beston had started as a secretary, as well as a nanny for Frank Lloyd’s children, and worked her way up to be a director of the gallery with an elegant home on Harley Street in London filled with art. Later, to the press, Brian Clarke exculpated Dr. Paul Brass from any wrongdoing, but pointedly failed to mention Beston. Yet a close associate of Beston’s recalls the day when Miss B showed her a check for £1,000 from Bacon, intended as a gift. Beston had never cashed it. “I didn’t want my relationship with Francis to be tainted by that,” she told the associate.

“She wanted to protect Bacon,” says another source close to the situation. “She lived to protect him.” Also, says another source, “she was old, and . . . had definitely gotten confused.” So conceivably Beston had somehow forgotten about the account. In any event, says the participant, “after the Swiss account turned up, Valerie Beston was exposed. So she had to leave.”

The estate moved to have Beston removed as an executor, and in December 1998 an English judge complied. Dr. Brass was also removed, much to his relief: the new money had meant new taxes to be paid to the Inland Revenue, but Edwards, now a resident of Thailand, had been able to acquire the whole Swiss account without having to pay any English taxes on it; theoretically, Brass was warned, he, as an executor, might have been obligated to pay them. Beston moved to France to tend a dying sister. Soon after, her lawyers reported that she was no longer mentally competent to answer queries about the account or anything else. (She is, in fact, not named in the estate’s complaint.) Since no executors remained, Edwards was allowed to name Brian Clarke to the post.

Also at the hearing, Marlborough was severed from the estate. As a result, Clarke and Edwards were able to choose new dealers to handle the Bacon paintings now owned by the estate: Gerard Faggionato in London, and Tony Shafrazi in New York.

Those appointments sent up red flags on both sides of the Atlantic. Faggionato was relatively unknown; Shafrazi was all too well known, as the dealer who made his name by spray-painting the words “Kill Lies All” on Picasso’s Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and who later represented Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, among other hot 80s artists. Neither Faggionato nor Shafrazi was remotely in Marlborough’s league, but both were old pals of Clarke and Edwards’s.

Both, as it happens, have exhibited the stained-glass art of Brian Clarke.

By now the estate had a high-powered art-world lawyer in John Eastman, 60, of New York. Eastman, who is the brother of Linda McCartney, had represented many artists—one of his largest clients is the estate of Willem de Kooning—and on at least one occasion he had gone up against Marlborough, successfully representing the estate of the sculptor Naum Gabo in the early 80s. When Clarke described how Bacon’s paintings had been handled by Marlborough AG, Eastman perked up, remembering the role that the Liechtenstein branch had played in the Rothko case.

At Clarke’s urging, Eastman undertook to determine if Marlborough was hiding anything from the estate, and if Bacon had been underpaid systematically over the years. But every time he requested information from Marlborough, he felt the gallery failed to make a full disclosure. By last spring he was fed up, one observer says, and so was the estate.

The estate’s complaint, lodged in England, seems to make an impressive case. Much of it portrays Bacon as a naïf about money, easily duped by the gallery. At the start, the suit alleges, Marlborough let him sign the 10-year contract without independent representation. It paid him a pittance on the measurement scale when he should have earned much more. By way of example, the estate lists more than 40 paintings and studies Bacon created in 1965 and 1966, for which he was paid a total of £41,678 ($116,698) when their “fair market value,” based on sales at the time, was £101,226 ($283,432). Instead of granting Bacon full market value for his work, the complaint declares, the gallery paid him less than 50 percent of that, and appears never to have told Bacon what his paintings fetched when sold through Marlborough AG.

Moreover, says the estate, the gallery was acting not just as Bacon’s dealer but as his manager. As such, it had a “punctilio of honor,” as the legal phrase has it, to get Bacon the highest possible price for his paintings, and to give him the highest possible share of those sales. Yet in many cases, the estate says, Bacon received as little as 26 percent of the sale price of a painting. As one estate lawyer observes, the Rothko case established a definition of prima facie fraud on the gallery’s part for paying an artist 25 percent of a painting’s retail price.

The most shocking documents in the suit concern six paintings bought from Bacon by Marlborough AG in the last years of his life. Soon after Bacon’s death, his accountant received a receipt from Valerie Beston showing that Marlborough had deposited £1.6 million ($2,832,000) for the paintings into Bacon’s U.K. bank account in January 1992. But the complaint produced another document from Marlborough AG purporting to show that the Liechtenstein branch had paid Bacon £4.2 million ($7,434,000) for those same paintings. Worse yet, the estate claims, the £1.6 million was taken from Bacon’s own Swiss account. Not only was Bacon cheated out of half of what he was owed, the complaint suggests, he was paid with his own money!

When Eastman examined the list of Bacon paintings sold over the years, eventually surrendered by the gallery, 27 known paintings failed to appear on it. Some of those are visible in photographs taken of Bacon in his studio, yet Marlborough had no record of them. In an average year, John Edwards recalled, Valerie Beston picked up between 10 and 25 paintings. Marlborough’s list, however, showed only two or three paintings in some of those years. Was it possible that Bacon, lost in his creative world, had never been paid for those paintings at all?

Lawyers for the estate demanded the formal record book that Valerie Beston had kept of Bacon purchases, but Marlborough U.K. failed to produce it—then allegedly sent it out of jurisdiction to Marlborough AG. They asked for photographs, books, and documents removed by Beston from Bacon’s studio immediately after his death, but were given nothing. Instead, they learned that seven boxes of documents pertaining to Bacon’s estate had been spirited off to Marlborough AG. The attorneys went to the agency which had taken photographs of all of Bacon’s paintings, and ordered a full set of copies, only to learn that the copies and negatives were, according to the lawsuit, “collected in person shortly thereafter by Gilbert Lloyd.”

As the charges were filed, they were reported both in the London papers and on the front page of The New York Times, without any point-by-point response from Marlborough, whose English lawyers forbade Gilbert Lloyd or anyone else to make any comment other than that the charges would be “robustly” contested.

Since then, Marlborough’s side of the story has come clearer, pieced together from a number of sources.

It’s surprisingly credible.

In the first place, says a Marlborough source, Bacon was represented by two different law firms at the time he signed his 10-year agreement with Marlborough. One was Marlborough’s own solicitor, but the other was hired to help him thwart a possible lawsuit from the Hanover Gallery, which he’d left so abruptly. Marlborough became his dealer but not, says one close observer, his manager: “All Marlborough did was allow Valerie Beston to become Bacon’s secretary because Bacon was so disorganized.”

In any case, the amount paid per painting was fair based on the painter’s market value at that time, say sources, as was the method of paying by measurement. (Picasso, observes one art critic, was paid by a comparable measurement scale by his Paris dealer for years.) When Bacon terminated his agreement with Marlborough after five years, he set his own escalating prices, understanding that the gallery would try to double them or better, to cover its overhead and earn a profit. By 1990, according to a Marlborough source, he was charging the gallery as much as $1.8 million per artwork.

If Marlborough had handled Bacon’s work on a consignment basis, it would have sent him regular financial statements—and paid him a higher percentage when a painting was sold than it did by buying his paintings outright. But Bacon, says someone close to the case, “knew very well what his paintings fetched on the open market.” The estate’s claim that Bacon received as little as 26 percent of his paintings’ retail price is based, says a Marlborough source, on the sale of a 1983 painting entitled Statue & Figures in a Street. This was a deal, though, in which Bacon also received a painting in exchange, says a gallery insider. Usually, says the same source, he received much more—enough so that over time, says a close observer quoting Gilbert Lloyd, the gallery netted only about one-third of its sales prices for Bacon paintings after all its expenses for promoting him.

At first, says the source, the sums paid to Bacon seemed paltry, because the estate knew only about Bacon’s U.K. account. Then the estate learned that Bacon’s work had been sold through Liechtenstein. Marlborough AG invited the estate’s lawyers to come inspect its books, but the lawyers canceled two appointments to do so at the last minute. When a full accounting was subsequently sent to the estate’s lawyers in New York, it was initially returned unopened—because the lawyers realized it would show payments made to Bacon’s Swiss account, which would obligate them to notify the Inland Revenue. “The gallery actually said, ‘You might not want this information,’” says one estate lawyer. Finally, they sent the accounting to the estate’s English lawyers, who did open it—revealing the Swiss account.

In any event, say sources, Bacon was hardly naïve about what Marlborough was making from his artwork, or how his finances were being handled. “There are all kinds of public statements, whether in interviews in the press or television, where Bacon complained about his taxes and talked with a great deal of sophistication,” says one observer. “This guy was no bucolic bumpkin.”

Art critic Brian Sewell agrees. “Francis was no fool. And this idea that he was naïve and being taken for a ride is absolutely idiotic.” Adds another old friend of Bacon’s, “You must never forget about Francis that he earned his money early on by being a croupier at illegal roulette parties. He was very good; and he had to be able to count.”

The shocking charge about the invoice of 1992 becomes an embarrassment to the estate if the gallery’s side of this particular story is true. “Bacon got himself a bit mixed up,” one source says. “He had all of the money—the full £4.2 million— sent to his Swiss account. Then he realized he needed to show some income in the U.K. for those paintings. So he asked for a portion of it to be sent back.” To do that without implicating himself, he had his Swiss banker send £1.6 million back to Marlborough, which then forwarded the £1.6 million to Bacon’s U.K. account.

As for the missing paintings, says a Marlborough source, they have all been identified. In most cases, Bacon gave them away himself—or sold them, which he was allowed to do after his initial agreement was terminated. (“It’s well known,” says biographer Michael Peppiatt, “that Bacon gave paintings to various friends.”) Marlborough, which thus had no record of them, and claims it had no obligation to bother about them, tracked them down anyway. A list provided to the estate—and to Vanity Fair— appears to show all those missing paintings, along with the full prices paid for them, detailing payments made both to Bacon’s U.K. and Swiss accounts. (A lawyer for the estate pronounces the information “not satisfactory.”)

The estate also believes that Marlborough paid Bacon little or nothing for some 3,700 lithographs made of his work over the years. Yet if a list shown to Vanity Fair is accurate, Bacon was indeed paid, on a consistent and proper basis, for the lithographs.

Intimations of a cover-up, on this or any other aspect of the gallery’s dealings with Bacon, says a Marlborough source, are simply groundless. Any documents and photos Beston may have taken from the studio were in the boxes that a lawyer sent to Liechtenstein by mistake, this source explains. Half turned out to contain information pertaining to Bacon, and were handed over to the estate. As for the telltale record book, only a copy of it was sent to Liechtenstein, this source says; the original resides in London. But a copy of it has been made available to the claimants. And Gilbert Lloyd’s personal trip to snatch back photos of Bacon’s paintings, says a source close to the gallery, never happened. (A spokesman for Marlborough confirms this.) Lloyd did have a lawyer advise the photographer who took the pictures that the pictures belonged to Marlborough, and warned him that he’d be dragged into a messy lawsuit if he cooperated with the estate.

Sources close to Marlborough acknowledge that the Rothko case hangs heavily over the Bacon lawsuit, even 25 years later, and puts the gallery on the defensive. But “the gallery has learned its lesson,” one insider says, “I can tell you that.” And so it may have, to judge by two of America’s best-known artists. “I’ve been very happy with them,” Red Grooms says of Marlborough, which he had the nerve to join in 1974, in the heat of the Rothko trial. “The accounting’s very good, very straight, they’re very good at collecting money—which isn’t easy to do, actually—and I get paid. And that’s been consistent.” Larry Rivers, a Marlborough artist for 30 years, concurs. “They’ve always been honest with me,” he says. “Like any two people who stay together a long time we’ve had our disagreements, but it was never about anything where I felt I was being shortchanged. They were always perfect with me.”

All of which leads one to wonder: in a game where every character has his motives, what are Clarke’s and Edwards’s?

e a bunch of cowboys,” says Brian Sewell. “The man who inherited the estate knows nothing about pictures, knows nothing about the market. The executor of the estate, Brian Clarke, is an absolutely lowly artist who has a private war with Marlborough because he thinks he’s marvelous and Marlborough wouldn’t take him on.” Their motives, say two other close observers, are simple. “Money, money, money.”

Clarke in particular does seem to draw his share of disparaging judgments. One prominent American dealer calls him a “ferret.” “Had you ever heard of Brian Clarke or his art,” says one dealer, “before he got the Bacon estate?”

One of Clarke’s supporters, English art critic Edward Lucie Smith, suggests that at core Clarke, like Edwards, is driven by class resentment. “Brian is a tough North Country boy,” says Smith, “and he’s not going to let the Duke [of Beaufort] off the hook.”

Clarke is, in fact, the child of a miner and a cotton-mill worker. “My childhood memories,” he told one British journalist, “are of deprivation, of hardship, damp, mice and cockroaches.” But he scoffs at Smith’s comment. “There’s a certain ill grace in suggesting that a [properly structured] lawsuit is class-motivated,” he says. “It’s too silly for words.”

In the mid-70s, Clarke dove into the London art scene through a chance meeting with Robert Fraser, the glamorous bad-boy dealer who stood at the center of it all. Fraser was famous by then as the handsome, Eton-educated founder of London’s most exciting gallery, the Robert Fraser Gallery, though his fondness for drugs and his utter recklessness with money doomed the venture from the start. In Groovy Bob, a recently published oral biography of Fraser by Harriet Vyner, Clarke recalls favoring clergyman’s clothing at the time. The day he met Fraser, he recalled, “I had on a clerical collar and a leather jacket and tight jeans, and Robert tried to pick me up in the toilets.”

The two became close enough for observers to feel that Clarke was Fraser’s boyfriend, but Clarke denies this. “I would be proud to say I was, but it wouldn’t be true.” In Groovy Bob, he says the relationship was more complex than that. “That night Robert and I left with two boys from the club,” Clarke recounts about an evening at a sleazy Soho club called the Toucan, “and that established a pattern of behavior that was to characterize a particular part of our friendship for the next decade.”

Through Fraser, Clarke met all the characters in the Bacon-estate saga: Edwards, Shafrazi, and Faggionato. Also Paul McCartney, who hired Clarke to design the sets for his 1993 “New World Tour,” and Linda McCartney, who would introduce him to her brother, John Eastman.

In the process, Clarke became what he calls an “architectural” artist, working in stained glass, and began to win large commissions to design abstract creations for corporate clients which ranged from a country club in Japan to an energy company in Kassel, Germany. Before long he became rather wealthy, living in a spacious private house in Kensington called Peel Cottage.

Clarke says he’s taken on his executor duties without fee. “I don’t need any help from the estate,” he says, “and I don’t particularly want it.” But an executor is entitled to charge for expenses, and Clarke is said to travel frequently with Edwards, sparing no expense: for a gallery show of Bacon’s work in Paris, according to a dealer, the two reportedly stayed at the Ritz, with Edwards in a particularly impressive suite. “I know a person who was in it who had never seen a suite this large at the Ritz,” says one person in the Edwards-Clarke circle. “I do travel by first class,” says Clarke. “I’ve done so since 1980. And yes, I’ve stayed in hotel suites for 20 years, too—and expect to continue to do so.”

Nor is an executor forbidden by law to receive gifts—of art, say—for his good work. One visitor to Clarke’s home observed a large Bacon painting on the wall. “That belongs to John [Edwards],” Clarke explained. Still, if Edwards sees fit—and perhaps if the legal action is successful—Clarke could be rewarded with art on which, by law, he would owe no taxes unless he sold it or died within seven years of receiving it. Meanwhile, as one close observer notes, the owner of such a gift could borrow money against it.

Clarke waves off the very suggestion, and says that in fact the case has become a huge obstacle and headache. For starters, he says, “I have an over-20-year relationship with both Shafrazi and Faggionato. I’ve never found them to be anything other than impeccable. And because both were known to Edwards through Fraser, I suggested he speak to them.”

This case, Clarke says emphatically, is not about money. “John Edwards is wealthy enough not to have to worry about financial matters for the rest of his life. So am I. This is about the truth. And it’s about Francis Bacon’s legacy.”

So far, Clarke says, the gallery has “given accounts created retrospectively. They have not answered our questions, they’ve stonewalled us, they’ve moved documentation out of the jurisdiction of English courts. We had to get the courts to order it back.

“When a will is discharged,” Clarke adds, “there are always delays of one sort or another. But in a simple will, a delay of five years is not acceptable. Especially when after that five-year period there was not the slightest hint it would be resolved. We’ve worked very diligently to avoid bringing this case to court. All we wanted was for Marlborough to tell us the truth. If they want the truth as well, they have nothing to fear.”

One way to assess Clarke and Edwards is by how they’ve handled Bacon’s art to date. Several shows of the estate’s holdings—the paintings at Reece Mews when Bacon died, and those found since his death—have been held in Paris, London, and New York. The consensus seems to be that many of the recent works are unfinished, and that most of the rest appear in an early catalogue raisonné as “abandoned” paintings—listed that way by Bacon so that if they surfaced they would not be sold or judged as part of his oeuvre. One London dealer recalls taking on several “abandoned” Bacons in the 1960s, and incurring the painter’s wrath. “I was on the wrong foot with Bacon after that.” An art-world source who attended a Shafrazi show found the paintings “pretty indifferent . . . I think Bacon had every idea that these paintings should have been edited out.”

To one rival dealer, the recent shows suggest an intriguing motive for the estate’s insistence on acquiring a complete list from Marlborough of all of Bacon’s paintings. Clarke has acknowledged wanting to create an updated catalogue raisonné. When that’s done, the matter of which Bacon paintings are or are not “abandoned” can be revisited. The legal, logical arbiter of that will be the estate. If “abandoned” paintings are redefined as part of Bacon’s body of work, their value will rise. Clarke concedes that that would probably make them easier to sell, “but the intellectual value is so exciting that the last thing we want to do is part with any of these pictures.”

Another realm of Bacon’s work in which the estate has made decisions is that of the drawings—genuine or not—which have surfaced since his death, challenging the painter’s oft-stated claim that he went straight to the canvas.

The first lot surfaced courtesy of a South Kensington neighbor of Bacon’s named Barry Joule, who became a friend and helper to the painter after meeting him by chance in 1978. Often, Joule says, Bacon asked him to destroy portraits that failed to meet his standards; Joule would comply by cutting out the faces with a Stanley knife. It was Joule, too, who introduced Bacon to a young Spanish banker in 1988 who became the painter’s last lover. When the banker broke up with Bacon in 1990, the painter was devastated, says Joule, and poured his sorrow into all his last paintings. The hope of reviving that romance was what propelled Bacon to take his ill-fated trip to Madrid in April 1992, even after a collapse and hospitalization, three months before, for a faulty heart valve.

Joule says that when he drove Bacon to the airport that last time, the painter asked him to deal with a cardboard box and a folder that together contained hundreds of drawings, as well as magazine and newspaper images drawn or painted over, and an early self-portrait on canvas. Joule claims his instruction was somewhat cryptic—“You know what to do with it”—but Joule interpreted it to mean he should safeguard the work.

In his art-filled London apartment, the 45-year-old self-described Canadian ex-hippie, his long blond hair cut Sir Galahad style, recalls the furor that greeted his unveiling of the drawings in 1996. “Here was a man who said all his life he never drew—and the people who’d written about him, and particularly [Bacon critic and interviewer] David Sylvester, had followed that line, hook, line, and sinker.” They were embarrassed, Joule feels, because they hadn’t pushed him hard enough in their questions about whether he drew.

The estate responded first with silence, then with lawyers’ letters demanding the trove be returned. In a number of coffee-shop meetings, Joule managed to persuade Clarke that he was, at least, a real friend of Bacon’s. And his avowal that he would give nearly all the drawings to a museum helped assuage Clarke’s suspicions. But a meeting at the Tate Gallery to judge whether the drawings were real ended in keen frustration. Sylvester, who had declared in a lecture upon first hearing of the drawings that they were legitimate, now said that he could not “see Bacon’s hand in them.” Another critic theorized that while much of the material must have come from Bacon’s studio, someone else might have “overpainted” the magazine pictures. Despite enthusiasm for them from more than one of his curators, Nicholas Serota, the Tate’s director, was persuaded to reject the collection.

Bacon biographer Michael Peppiatt, who sat in on the meeting, agrees with Sylvester about the Joule drawings. “They didn’t smell right,” he says. “From everything I knew about Bacon over 30 years, he didn’t need to practice like that, repetitively, before doing a picture. The whole point of the picture was that as far as possible it should be spontaneous. And the idea that he should have kept that huge amount of work, which he didn’t want people to see, then preserved it and given it to Joule—it’s unlikely.”

Yet within months of that meeting, the Tate announced its acquisition of a collection of other Bacon drawings from two old friends of the painter, Paul Danquah and Peter Pollock. The collection is essentially a notebook containing 42 works on paper, yet the Tate bought it for £360,000 ($637,200). Ironically, the collection came through Marlborough, supported by Sylvester and, tacitly at least, by the estate, which appears to need Sylvester as much as he needs it.

More curious still is the estate’s decision to give Bacon’s studio to the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in Dublin. In September 1997, John Eastman asked Serota if he would be interested in acquiring the studio as a gift to the Tate if it could be reconstructed as a permanent installation. Serota expressed some interest, but warned that he couldn’t predict how the Tate’s trustees would feel about dedicating a permanent space to it; the museum was having trouble enough finding space for its Bacon paintings. Eastman suggested that Serota view the studio by getting keys from Valerie Beston. But when Serota called her, on more than one occasion, Beston said the keys were with Edwards; she chose not to mention that the estate had begun to disassociate itself from Marlborough, or that she and Edwards were no longer working together.

Rather than approach Serota another time, Clarke and Edwards gave the studio to the Hugh Lane, reasoning that Bacon had been born in Ireland and spent his early years there. To Serota, who heard of the gift only when a newspaper reporter called to ask for his reaction to it, the estate’s behavior was baffling and unfortunate. The Tate clearly lost out on a plum, but to many in the Bacon circle the estate lost, too, because the Tate would have seemed the right place for the studio of a painter who had done nearly all his best-known work in London.

Now that most of the items are logged in on the Hugh Lane gallery’s computerized catalogue, a Bacon fan can amuse himself by typing in the names of Bacon cronies to see how many references to each appear in the studio’s contents. Photographer Peter Beard, a close friend since the mid-1960s, has 254 references. (Bacon, says Michael Peppiatt, gave him a triptych of Beard, just one of the many examples of paintings given by the artist to friends and not sold through Marlborough.) John Edwards has 143, and Lucian Freud 94. But, for Brian Clarke, there are only four references. Along with the photographs and papers, the collection includes 58 slashed canvases—each with a gaping hole where the face once was—and one unfinished self-portrait, the painting found on Bacon’s easel after his death.

A short ride away is the Irish Museum of Modern Art, which looks like a castle with elaborate formal gardens, where an outbuilding is currently given over to the Barry Joule collection, warily subtitled “Works on Paper Attributed to Francis Bacon.” Many of the items are news photographs—boxers, Nazis, cricket players— painted over with hurried brushstrokes. But enough of them do jibe so closely with the studio drawings as to seem of a piece with them. If the estate declares them so, the Tate will look foolish for buying its smaller collection of drawings instead of taking the Joule material for free; so will the panjandrums of the Bacon circle for judging them unpersuasive. But if it calls them fake, it needs some proof, and so far, it appears to have none.

Handing Bacon’s estate is, as it turns out, fraught with tough decisions—none harder than whether or not to push ahead with the lawsuit against Marlborough. The gallery’s strong response will surely give the estate’s lawyers pause. So must a recent verdict in another case against the gallery, brought by the estate of German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, who died in 1948. In the Schwitters case, Marlborough’s Liechtenstein branch was accused of withholding information about its stewardship of roughly 700 works by Schwitters from the legal guardian for the painter’s stroke-debilitated son. The son, like Rothko and Bacon, had a Swiss bank account. But when the guardian tried to access it, Marlborough moved it to Liechtenstein. The guardian, in turn, terminated Marlborough’s contract with the estate and sued for the return of the artworks. Eventually, Marlborough did surrender the art—but countersued for breach of contract. A lower court in Norway found in the estate’s favor, declaring Marlborough’s conduct “reprehensible.” But a higher court reversed the ruling last March, chastising the gallery for not coughing up information earlier to the estate, but finding that the gallery’s actions did not breach its contract, and awarding it $1.2 million plus court costs.

So Marlborough is powerful, and in the Bacon case it may also be right. If it is, however, that hardly makes it a paragon of virtue. As in the Schwitters case, the gallery is accused of almost extraordinary hubris, failing to communicate with Bacon’s rightful heir, much less giving him a full accounting in a timely fashion. If so, the gallery has brought the suit upon itself. (Marlborough’s lawyers say that the gallery cooperated with the estate’s executors from when the first requests for information were made in 1997, and that charges of hubris are completely unfounded.)

Then, too, even if Bacon was eagerly avoiding English taxes, Marlborough has played the tax game on a grand scale for far too long. “It’s a much bigger question than the Bacon affair,” says one longtime London dealer. “It’s about people using foreign currency to buy art.” And using the art, in turn, to launder their money. “If you take $10,000 into the U.S., you have to declare it,” the dealer explains, “but if you consign a $2 million painting through Liechtenstein, you don’t have to declare it.” The gallery wins, not just by selling its paintings, but by moving art from country to country for tax advantages. “Look at the annual gallery reports,” the dealer says. “You will never see Marlborough appearing in the highest profit or turnover columns,” despite the gallery’s prominence in the London art world. “There’s a pattern,” says the dealer, “of disguising information.” (“Absolutely false,” says one Marlborough lawyer. “It’s just that in London people don’t want to pay the 17.5 percent [value-added tax]. So anyone who wants a Bacon will go find it in New York or Switzerland.”)

Which side, in the case of The Estate of Francis Bacon v. Marlborough Fine Art, is more egregious? One titled English collector seems to sum up the growing consensus. “I don’t think for a moment the Marlborough [directors] are saints—they’re rough and tough—but there are very few artists’ families who don’t feel put out,” he snorts. And in this case, John Edwards has little reason to be. “He’s a wanker,” says the old lord. “He’s bloody lucky to get what he got.”

 

 

 

 All the pulsations of a person

 

Francis Bacon's small portraits are on show in London. The exhibition forms a gallery of his lovers and friends, notably Lucian Freud. David Sylvester, another subject, looks at the paintings and the web of relationships behind them

 

DAVID SYLVESTER, The Independent on Sunday, Sunday 24 October 1993

 

AN EXHIBITION of heads by Francis Bacon inevitably presents a portrait gallery of his friends, since the heads in his paintings are almost always heads of people he knew. He refused all but three of the many commissions he was offered to do a portrait of someone unknown to him (one exception was a triptych of heads of Mick Jagger). He chose to paint people whose features, attitudes, movements, expressions were familiar.

He did portraits of painter friends, such as Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud, and of writer friends, such as Michel Leiris and Jacques Dupin. He did portraits of women who were intimate friends, such as Isabel Rawsthorne and Muriel Belcher, the owner of the Colony Room, his favourite drinking club. He did portraits of his lovers, such as Peter Lacy, who was to die in 1962 on the eve of his first major retrospective in London, and George Dyer, who was to die in 1972 on the eve of his first retrospective in Paris and who inspired posthumous images which are probably the most moving things Bacon painted. He did portraits of John Edwards, the young East Ender who in later years played the role in his life of a surrogate son and was named his sole heir.

There is no kind of portrait more interesting than portraits of artists by artists, above all when they're reciprocal. Bacon painted dozens of heads and full-lengths of Lucian Freud, which are the clearest possible demonstration of what he meant when he said that in painting a portrait he wanted to 'give over all the pulsations of a person'. Freud for his part painted a head of Bacon in the early 1950s which remains the definitive image of his pear-shaped face despite all the brilliant photographs that were taken of it. He painted no others, although he, like Bacon, tends to paint interesting subjects again and again.

The reason was merely practical. Freud makes great demands on his subjects by getting them to sit for him hour after hour, week after week, for each portrait. Bacon only rarely worked from a sitter, preferring to work from memory and photographs; the subject could get on with his life.

The highly rewarding exchange of portraits between the two of them can be seen as symbolic of what was surely the most intellectually rewarding friendship Francis ever had. His relationship with Michel Leiris was not so much a friendship - with the usual brutal skirmishes of friendship - as a deeply affectionate mutual admiration. Moreover, he could never have had with Michel, whatever his esteem for him as a writer, the same free intellectual interchange as he could have with Lucian, for there was a certain ambivalence in Francis's relationships with most French intellectuals. On the one hand, he had a gut feeling that Paris was the cultural capital of the world, so it was always the place where he most liked exhibiting his work. On the other hand, he was affronted by the intellectual rigidity of the French. For example, as a Conservative politically, he despised the automatic leftism of the French intellectuals of his generation of whom Leiris was typical.

There was a different kind of ambivalence in his relationship with Lucian. In the early 1950s, at a time when they were almost inseparable, he would often say to me: 'I'm not really fond of Lucian, you know, the way I am of Rodrigo (Moynihan) and Bobby (Buhler). It's just that he rings me up all the time.' (But any ringing up had to be done by Lucian, as he made a point of not being on the telephone.) At the same time, Francis always said that Lucian was the most entertaining and stimulating person he knew. And whatever his ambivalence, he made no pretence that he very much minded the gap in his life when in later years Lucian stopped ringing up.

In those early days Lucian clearly had a crush on Francis, as I did. (We both copied his uniform of a plain, dark grey, worsted double-breasted Savile Row suit, plain shirt, plain dark tie, brown suede shoes.) The crush was more interesting in Lucian's case, because he was normally so much in control of every situation. When he was with Francis he gave the impression that he was twirling around him in his anxiety to please. Again, he was normally the most discreet of men but he couldn't resist confiding in Francis, which meant, as Francis was the most indiscreet of men, that Lucian no longer had any secrets. But, if his adoration was admirably intemperate, it was also characteristically intelligent. We had both met Francis at about the same time and used to talk about him to each other like a pair of groupies. One day, when I had been going on about what an unexpectedly moral person Francis was, Lucian amended my gushings by saying that what Francis was really like was Nietzsche's Ubermensch. He said it with embarrassment because it was such an extravagant thing to say, but he was, I think, absolutely right.

TALKING about Lucian's painting, Francis was usually pretty bitchy: I suppose some of this got reported back to Lucian, because people behave like that. But then, of course, Francis was hyper-critical about everyone's painting. Including his own. And including that of his heroes, Rembrandt, Velasquez and Picasso, for he always reserved his enthusiasm for a small proportion of their works.

Not only with art but with inanimate things generally, Francis was difficult to please. He was much more lenient about human beings. He was capable of the most devastating, because the most accurate and penetrating, analyses of the characters of his friends; he had no illusions about them. But he forgave them. On the other hand, he could be suddenly intolerant.

Francis had read and enormously admired a book by an eminent academic. He was aware that I knew him, and said that he would be very grateful if I could arrange a lunch for the three of us. This was easily done, and we sat down together at Wilton's in an atmosphere of the greatest cordiality. When Francis asked his guest of honour what he would like to drink and was told that he didn't drink, Francis, for all his social skills, could not disguise his disappointment and the occasion never quite took off.

But his exigency was more generally applied to objects. He was very fastidious about his clothes: if an expensive raincoat he had bought rustled in a way he disliked, it had to go. He was very exacting about food - it had to be perfect in itself and plainly cooked, not tarted up - and very decided in his tastes. Anyone who believed that Fortnum's was as good a grocer as Harrods was beyond the pale. In restaurants he did not contain his irritation if the poached turbot was served with a drop of water on the plate or if a waiter put gravy on the grouse before he could be stopped. He always had me order the wine and, so that it wouldn't cost him hundreds, I tended to order a second-growth claret of a good year rather than a first-growth of that year. This invariably led to his insisting the next bottle should be a first-growth. But I'm told that behind my back he spoke of my expensive tastes, which had to be satisfied.

Certainly, his dandyism stopped him from treating great wines with due respect. He didn't like to have them decanted, so they could breathe; that would have been officious. He preferred to leave them casually in the bottle, which sometimes meant that the lees got into his glass. He would drink them with relish. I once made up an epitaph for him: 'He loved the lees of great wines.' I think this is an improvement on his own remarks about living a life of gilded squalor or a gilded gutter life. He had too much style to put it the right way round. Upstarts have gilded lives; his life was tarnished gold.

He was difficult about art, then, but not at all offhand, once he thought an artist had something of his own. And, whatever his reservations about Lucian's work, he took it very seriously. Thus he deplored the fact that Lucian had not had a major retrospective when much lesser contemporaries had. Knowing that I served on various committees, he frequently said I should try and put that right. I did try, and after a surprisingly uphill fight, got a retrospective on to the programme of the Hayward Gallery in 1974. The exhibition was a great success and Lucian later became the only artist to have a second retrospective at the Hayward.

Francis cared very much about his friends, and was deeply generous by instinct. Not only with money but with his time. If a friend was ill, he was not content to pay their bills: he would visit them regularly. His old nanny lived with him until she died. For many years after he would visit a friend of hers every Saturday bearing gifts. He didn't like his sister Winifred at all - unlike his sister Ianthe - but when she was permanently hospitalised he visited her twice a week.

He firmly chose to be the one who gave. And he was doing so long before he was richer than the people with whom he spent his time. He didn't like to be given things; he felt uncomfortable about having to be grateful. Quite late in his life he went to dinner one night at the White Tower with two acquaintances, thinking that he was the host. They ate and drank well and then somebody else picked up the tab. Francis immediately took them off to Annabel's where he ordered quantities of caviar and champagne that nobody wanted.

No doubt he insisted on paying because that way he felt freer. But if he wanted to be the one in the chair it was not simply out of a need to be dominant. He believed that he had to buy his way through life. Although he was expert in using his charm to manipulate, he didn't realise how much he was treasured by the people he knew, how much they loved having him around, just as he failed to realise how tremendously his work was admired by fellow-artists, including artists whose own work was utterly different from his own.

HE ALSO underestimated the admiration of the tastemakers. When he heard that Alan Bowness had been appointed director of the Tate, he told me: 'Well, I can't expect anything of him. He only likes Ben Nicholson.' The first thing Bowness did on taking over was to find out which of Francis's available big triptychs was the one that he liked best and to buy it for a huge sum (though a fraction of its present value). And Bowness was to describe him in print as 'surely the greatest living painter'.

But Francis always imagined that he was going to be frustrated or let down. He could be quite confused if people were utterly nice to him, asking for nothing in return. He expected people to behave badly and was rather relieved when it happened.

On the spur of the moment, though, he could revolt against being put upon. In his relationship with John Edwards he was truly parental, rather maternal, worried about his welfare, very protective of him and of his family as well as materially prodigal. Like a parent, he not merely accepted but enjoyed the fact that there was much more give than take in his role. And John is the sort of person who commands helpfulness, being handsome, laid-back, never seeking to impress, never trying to call attention to himself, never apologising for himself, always relaxing, lapping up kindnesses.

But he overstepped the mark one day when four or five of us turned up at Holy Trinity, Brompton, to be with Francis at the funeral of his cousin and friend, Miss Diana Watson. As we stood in the churchyard afterwards Francis passionately reiterated his wish, well known to us all, to be incinerated without any ceremony and if possible with no one there. He had often expressed quite serious anxieties that no crematorium would dispose of his corpse without the imposition of invocations, however half- hearted, of the Deity. One day I had therefore telephoned the West London Crematorium to find out whether it was possible to be cremated there without any ceremony whatever, had been assured that it was, and had passed the good news straight on to Francis. He went on not quite believing it, and in the churchyard I reminded him of what I'd been told. That satisfied him for the moment.

'But you wouldn't mind our having a party for you, would you, Francis?' said John.

'No. I wouldn't mind that at all.'

'Maybe you'd better leave some money for it, Francis,' said John.

''Well, I'd have thought you'd had quite enough of that already.'

A good deal in Francis's handling of money suggests that his generosity was also a way of keeping people at a distance. And a disinclination for sustained intimacy could have played a part in his method of painting portraits. Posing for an artist - quite apart from any question of a sexual relationship - is one of the best of ways for two people to get to know each other. Not wanting any of that may have been a part of Francis's resolute practice of not working from a sitter but from photographs of the sitter. In doing so he was also, since he always painted people he knew, working from memory of what they looked like when moving about and not just from these fixed images.

In an interview in 1966 he explained that he found it inhibiting to have the subject sitting there in front of him. 'They inhibit me because, if I like them, I don't want to practise before them the injury I do to them in my work. I would rather practise the injury in private by which I think I can record the fact of them more clearly.'

Published reminiscences of Francis tend to give the impression that his life was extremely gregarious. In fact he needed solitude, to dream up images, look out of the window, read, walk in the streets, take the Underground, think, do nothing. And he preferred to be alone when painting. He was telling the truth when he said he liked to paint in private; I don't know how serious he was being when he talked about doing injuries to the model.

What he could have said seriously was that he found it much easier to paint pictures from photographs - or from paintings by other people, such as Velasquez or Van Gogh, or from his own previous paintings - than from life, that for him it was a great advantage to be working from images on the flat rather than from real figures in space. Throughout his career he used photographs from books and periodicals - some of them famous photographs, such as Muybridge's studies of human and animal locomotion, some of them found casually, such as pictures in the papers of politicians or prizefights or an illustrated book of David Gower in action. In using photographs, of course, he was continuing a tradition that included Degas and Sickert and Bonnard and Vuillard.

In the early 1950s, however, he decided to try to work from a model. Lucian and I were among his sitters. When Lucian arrived at the studio to pose for Francis's first portrait of him, he found that the picture had already been nearly painted from a photograph of Franz Kafka. When I was sitting for him in 1953, part of the time he was looking at me, part of the time at a photograph of a rhino in long grass: he said that he found this photograph suggested ways of rendering certain textures in paint. It has been supposed by one or two writers that the model was idiotically sitting there wasting his time while the artist was depicting the head of a rhino. In fact, he was producing a head of the model, one which is fairly recognisable.

However, the following day, working without a model, he dressed up the likeness as one of his Popes after Velasquez. During the next two weeks he painted seven further Popes. Some of their faces resemble that of the Velasquez Pope; none of them resembles mine. The picture I had sat for, and which triggered off a series, was thus a compound of several elements - a sitter, a wild-life photograph, an Old Master painting, plus a colour, violet, for the Pope's robes which is quite different from their colour in the Old Master painting. This is how a painter like Bacon works, not by reason but by instinct. And in life as well as art Francis put his faith in instinct: the word had an almost magical force for him.

In the course of doing those portraits from life of Lucian and myself, and also many of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, Francis realised that he might as well work from images and stop confusing himself with live models. At all events, from the mid-1950s on he did all his portraits from photographs, often photographs which he commissioned for the purpose. In one way and another he was haunted by photography. He often said that his triptychs of heads were inspired by police mugshots.

Those triptychs began quite spontaneously. In the summer of 1953 he had done a very remarkable small painting of a head resting on a pillow, a head in which the form was so broken up by the marks of the brush as to create a poignant image of disintegration. After several unsuccessful attempts to sell it had been made on his behalf, it went back to the studio, and

he did two further paintings of heads to go with it, putting them together as a triptych. The initial work was on the right, at the end of the sequence; the head on the left was of Peter Lacy; the head in the middle of a man orating was based on a photograph of a politician lately published in Time.

The middleman who had tried in vain to sell the initial canvas to various Bond Street galleries for the sum of pounds 60 or even pounds 50 did find a buyer for the triptych. The middleman was I. I had started occasionally selling pictures for Francis the year before. It grew naturally out of the fact that we were meeting almost every day - in his current borrowed studio; at the senior common room at the Royal College of Art; in Soho, at Wheelers, the Colony Room and the Gargoyle. We also went greyhound racing together at Stamford Bridge or Wembley. Though we both backed horses and often discussed and duplicated our bets, he never came with me to the races.

The sales I made of his work were made behind the back of his dealer, Erica Brausen of the Hanover Gallery. It was immoral of me to be part of the conspiracy because I owed a lot to Erica, firstly because she had wisely ordered me in 1942 to give up trying to be a painter, secondly because she had lately been giving me encouragement and patronage as a writer by commissioning catalogue prefaces for exhibitions. Of course, there was less to be earned from these than by trading on Francis's behalf. He paid me a very generous commission: 20 per cent of the selling price, the price to a dealer being pounds 150 for a large painting, pounds 60 for a small one - the dealers would sell them for double that or rather less. It's possible that the financial incentive meant less to me than endearing myself to Francis.

He really had no alternative to cheating. Erica would give him advances against paintings to be delivered but, thanks to the stinginess and obtuseness of her backers, the advances were too small. Francis was always in need of funds and it was an irresistible temptation to sell unofficially for ready cash rather than deliver something already paid for. I went on acting as his agent in these arrangements until 1955, by which time the trade price for a big picture was pounds 200.

ONE MORNING in 1953 three large paintings for sale arrived at my flat in Chelsea from Henley, where Francis was working: a man in a city suit; two figures embracing in a window; two figures on a bed having sex. The first was an averagely good example; the second was pleasant and the subject made a change, but it wasn't a strong painting; the third was a masterpiece, and one with a subject that was new, amazing, inevitable and, for many, objectionable.

It was clearly one of the finest things Francis had done and without exception his finest tribute to the Italian Renaissance, with a largeness and a sensuousness that recall Titian. At the same time it also recalled the faces of Peter Lacy and Francis Bacon. The composition was based faithfully upon a photograph by Muybridge of wrestlers. This was a perfect instance of something Francis said in an interview years later - that memories of Muybridge and Michelangelo and of bodies he had known became inextricably intermingled in his paintings.

In 1953 it was not going to be an easy picture to sell; it certainly couldn't be exhibited. Three or four months later Francis was to paint an almost equally beautiful picture of figures having sex in long grass, less brazen in its treatment of the subject. It was delivered to Erica Brausen and nearly 40 years later Francis was still giving a fierce impersonation, with an exaggeratedly foreign accent, of her saying: 'Vy do you have to paint these feelthy pictures that I can't sell?' She did sell it, and it was shown at the ICA in 1955, but Francis left the subject alone for 10 years, when the climate had changed, thanks partly to the Lady Chatterley case. In the meantime, when the picture which had arrived that morning was finally shown, nearly 10 years later, it was at the Tate, which lent it respectability. The Tate was circumspect enough to exhibit the Muybridge photograph of wrestlers nearby. Actually, it looked much more pornographic than the painting.

I got on the telephone and made an appointment with Pat Phillips of the Leicester Galleries to come at 11 and another with Freddie Mayor to come in the afternoon. Pat bought the suited man without hesitation for the asking price of pounds 150 in cash, but showed no commercial interest in the others. I sat wondering whether Freddie would be more daring. I hardly knew him but greatly liked and admired him. His father had been a good painter and since the early 1930s he had been England's most distinguished dealer in difficult modern art; indeed, in 1933 he had exhibited Francis. He was also a great gent and totally unpompous, given to abandoning his gallery to go racing in the afternoon.

He responded positively to the two paintings. 'But it'll be very difficult to sell that one. I certainly shan't be able to show it in the gallery.'

'I'm sure you won't, but there must be certain collectors for whom that will make it all the more enticing.'

'I don't think I could get the normal price.'

'Are you sure that if you can sell it at all it won't be for well above the normal price?'

'Well, you're asking pounds 300 for the two. I'll give you 200 - 140 for the figures in the window and 60 for the other.' I was shaken, morally. I said I'd accept 250 (150 for the figures on the bed and 100 for the other). Freddie stuck at 200.

We walked slowly down the long corridor to the front door. 'Freddie, I'll tell you what. I'll accept your offer on condition that Francis has the right if he can raise the money within seven days to buy the pounds 60 picture back for pounds 100.'

That evening I handed Francis an envelope containing pounds 350 less my pounds 70 commission. He thus received pounds 48 for a painting which would now fetch more millions than any other single canvas he ever painted. I felt ashamed, and determined that Freddie should not keep the picture at such a price. If it couldn't be sold for a proper price it had to stay in the family. There was no chance that Francis could find the money: he needed all he had to buy champagne and oysters for his friends. And I wouldn't be able to buy the picture myself: the pounds 70 was needed for arrears of rent, and in any case I had already bought one marvellous large painting. I therefore told Lucian that if he could raise pounds 100 in cash within a week he would become the owner of a superlative Bacon. Meanwhile the paintings went off in a van. After five days Lucian telephoned to say he had the money (it was provided, she later told me, by Caroline Blackwood, his future wife). I rang Freddie and said that Francis had managed to raise the money and would like the picture back; he wanted to give it to Lucian Freud. Freddie said that this was very sad for him because he had a client for the picture. I said I was terribly sorry and I was, but I had no qualms: he hadn't been wanting to keep the picture and he had almost doubled his money in a week.

Lucian proved to be a devoted owner. Though he was to sell other Bacons he had bought or been given, he resisted every temptation to sell this one, whatever the pressure of his spectacular gambling debts. He did pawn it several times but always managed to redeem it. Francis was extremely disappointed that he refused to lend it to the 1985 retrospective at the Tate and, as curator of the 1993 memorial exhibition in Venice, I was extremely disappointed that he refused to lend it there. As to my own Bacon, in 1955 I sold it to a friend for pounds 350 to get ammunition to go racing with.

'Francis Bacon 1909-93: Small Portrait Studies', Marlborough Gallery, 6 Albemarle St, W1 (071-629 5161), to 3 Dec.

Quotations extracted from 'Interviews with Francis Bacon' by David Sylvester (Thames & Hudson). The author is currently working on a critical study of Bacon.

 

 

The Brutality of Denial

Francis Bacon & Postmodernism

 

Erik Odin Cathcart, Imagine Zero - Contemporary Art in Context, 2011

 

Introduction

“Never before have there been so many gaping chasms between what the world seems to be and what science tells us it is…We ‘know’ a near-infinity of truths that contradict our immediate commonsense experience of the world. And yet we have to live and function in the world. So we abstract, compartmentalize: there’s stuff we know and stuff we ‘know.’ Viewed objectively, the whole thing is deeply schizoid; yet the fact of the matter is that as subjective lament we don’t often feel the conflict. Because of course our lives are 99.9% concretely operational, and we operate concretely on what we know, not on what we ‘know’.” 1

—  David Foster Wallace

 

                                                                  

 

We live in an age wrought with desire, longing and deeply embedded fears. A time when, as David  Foster Wallace says, we could become overwhelmed with the ‘known’ realities presented in 20th century scientific insight. Instead, we choose the concrete realities of classical physics and maintain our desires against this Real, by continuously feeding a collective denial, a denial of the Real. By Real I am using the Lacanian/Žižek definition—that state which is bound in pure relation to nature outside of language. In this postmodern, or as some suggest, post-postmodern time, the Real has been subjugated by the ironic. Expectations are set deliberately against the expected until they are 

lost in a haze of one ironic action on top of another. Wether it’s Maurizio Cattelan's La Nona Ora or that believes more fully in corporate advertising than in the senses, more potently in ironic gesticulation than mindful apprehension of the Real. In the wake of modernism’s failed utopian ideologies and the presence of multiple end time scenarios, postmodernism becomes the art banner for a grand ironic joke. In this post WW II world, artistic expression has become a cultural ouroboros. Of this self-referential looping irony David Foster Wallace warned,

“…[M]ake no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’ So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say?  That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: ‘How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.’” 2

In the 21st century we are faced with multiple annihilation scenarios. Radiation from nuclear power plant leaks; mutually assured nuclear destruction; biological warfare; overpopulation; climate change and the end of oil all conspire to create a collective denial of the Real. These realities and choices conspire to oblate our perspective and render any choice nullified by the anxiety of not having made the right, world-saving one. Instead of making any choice, instead we find ourselves locked in the death grip of denial. This brutality of denial (and by brutality I mean that which leaves destructive outcomes and the anxiety of awareness intact) is sustained and nurtured through ironic gesture. The same ironic gesture that has taken the art world from explorations of existential dread (Jackson Pollock) to the superficiality of Pop kitsch (Warhol, et. al.) However, this current incarnation of postmodernist expression didn’t have to be. There was another form of postmodernism that emerged in the forties and was fostered in large part by the genius of the painter Francis Bacon. Bacon’s postmodernism, formed before the genesis of Pop and its disciples, was an anecdote to the grand joke. In Bacon’s work and in his life, he discovered an alternative to our current postmodern form by fully embracing the Lacanian/Žižek Real and controverting what would later become the one-liner paradigm of contemporary art. This essay will examine the art and life of Francis Bacon as a maverick postmodernist who has been misidentified and sometimes dismissed as a figurative expressionist painter. Instead Bacon was a revolutionary postmodernist, who shunned modernism’s utopian ideals and existential solipsism while tapping into the dark corners of the human psyche. A psyche living in a world of persistent overwhelming dread.

Postmodernism has become to modern philosophy what the Mise en abyme was to the Surrealists: an indefinable infinite loop. For this reason, postmodernism is the catchphrase for anything decidedly un-modern and a scapegoat for cynical expressions in pop culture. The term postmodernism is well defined by Gary Aylesworth in his essay of the same name;

“That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.” 3

First used as a term by Jean-François Lyotard in his 1979 publication, The Postmodern Condition the term has since been bandied about by philosophers art critics and pop culture alike. What is clear is what postmodernism is not. It is not abjectly surrealistic (suggesting alternative or shifted realities), absurdist (in the fashion of Dada), nor is it simplistic irony. In fact postmodernism as it is currently used and understood as a historical periodization takes on a self-destructive, almost nihilistic bent. This world of reality TV and celebrity simulacra is what defines American postmodernism and it has its roots in the Pop underpinnings of Andy Warhol. Warhol was one of the first to reject the notion that art provided advancement and knowledge to a culture. His art was a full embrace of cynicism with a proclivity toward nihilistic boredom. This American postmodernism is firmly seated in the dynamics of an emergent consumerist capitalism of the late 1950’s. When desire is bound in consumption you build a culture that finds everything interesting and boring simultaneously and therefore art is prevented from holding an objective position. If nothing is more interesting than anything else, then it is impossible for any one artist or work of art to teach us anything. As Warhol famously said; “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have but that he, for some reason, thinks it would be a good idea to give them.”4

The artist, as defined by Bacon is not just agent provocateur, but an interpreter of sensation, the sensation that is otherwise lost in our distracted, electronically mediated lives. Bacon once said of Warhol; “Generally speaking, Warhol had good subjects, he knew how to choose them very well; but his problem, basically, was that what he was doing was realism, simple realism, and in the end it didn’t lead to anything very interesting.”5 When Francis Bacon told David Sylvester in 1962 that painting had the potential to escape narrative, he was expressing a deliberative, yet non-ironic postmodern idea. He was acknowledging that painting, at its best, can function within the ‘real’ as Lacan defines the Real, “the domain of whatever subsists outside symbolisation”.6 This idea that art, (oil painting), can escape language (the symbolic) while focusing on abstracted portraiture, was revolutionary. Cézanne and Duchamp initiated this shift. Cézanne as the precursor to Cubism and his elimination of single point perspective, (as seen in his obsessive studies of Mount St. Victoire) and Duchamp in The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even. Francis Bacon also believed that paint, due to its simulation of flesh, was best able to relay direct sensation to an audience because it was grounded in the body. “Flesh and meat are life!”7 Bacon’s optimism in the face of 20th century trauma was a result of his emancipation from the psychosis of irony. Unlike postmodern artists in America (Johns, Rauscenberg, et. al.), irony was seen by Bacon as an unnecessary layer serving only to conceal sensation. As the critic Robert Hughes puts it; “The paint acquires a wonderful plenitude in becoming flesh. This kind of paint surface is part of the work of delivering sensations not propositions, and it is neither idly sumptuous nor ’ironically’ sexy.”8 By fully embracing Amor fati, he was able to capture in brush strokes the jouissance of living. This is Lacan’s jouissance of extremes, the path that, “starts with a tickle and ends up bursting into flames,”9 the painting that Francis Bacon pursued throughout his life absent of pathos or irony. It is this postmodernism that sits in stark contrast to the American postmodernism of Warhol that would come to dominate the art landscape, and which still haunts us today, that is my focus here. How did Bacon arrive at this unique postmodern form? How did a self-taught painter and life-long atheist with a devotion to rough sex, heavy drinking, and gambling end up using portrait painting as an un-ironic postmodern form? The answer, I will later reveal, lies in the potent combination of his sybaritic lifestyle, his unbreakable work-ethic, his commitment to Lacan’s jouissance and ultimately his return to the renaissance transmogrification of paint into flesh.  

This was an embrace of a true postmodern idea, the removal of narrative as a form of communication and a move toward direct sensation. This dissolution of the narrative is key to understanding Bacon in the light of later postmodernism. Different in terms of what is now considered the postmodern nom de guerre, Pop Art, specifically that of Andy Warhol’s. Warhol’s postmodernism, as the art historian Beth Wilson explains, was a cynical expression,

“Andy Warhol was the consummate postmodern artist. He began his career in the 1950s as an extremely successful commercial advertising artist. When he shifted his attention in 1960 to the production of fine art, he brought with him the structural logic of his commercial work, radically departing from the classic modernist convictions with which almost all high art had been operating up to that point. By systematically reversing the traditional values associated with painting, replacing uniqueness with seriality, and originality with reproducibility, Warhol strategically transposed art from its historical attachment to what Walter Benjamin termed “cult value” to its postmodern apotheosis as a manifestation of “exhibition value.” In fact, Warhol’s work is incomprehensible without taking into account its media context. His concern with media permeated not only his art, but his life as well, as he crafted perhaps the most banal yet fascinating public persona in history. He was once quoted in an interview as saying, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings, and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”"10

Looking to Fredric Jameson’s seminal dialogue on postmodernism, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, we can unravel this difference between the postmodern ideology of Warhol, et. al. and Francis Bacon. Jameson described the postmodern condition largely in terms of its political implications but he framed the enigmatic qualities of postmodern thought as well. Although it is often spoken of that Bacon represented trauma, fear and horror, the implications of sensation as a meaningful 20th century cultural relationship to such is often glossed over as a response to WW II, or violence, which Bacon perpetually denied. Instead, Bacon’s ideas on trauma are based in the fabric of paint’s physicality and thereby stand in contrast to what Jameson here describes as the fixation on trauma within the dominant form of postmodernism;

“…[T]here cannot but be much that is deplorable and reprehensible in a cultural form of image addition which, by transforming the past into visual mirages, stereotypes, or texts, effectively abolishes any practical sense of the future and of the collective project, thereby abandoning the thinking of future change to fantasies of sheer catastrophe and inexplicable cataclysm, from visions of “terrorism” on the social level to those of cancer on the personal.”11

As Jameson described it, postmodernism under American consumer capitalism, builds an addiction to simulation and images to the point of psychosis. This is, in part, why Bacon was reticent to witness Velásquez ‘s Portrait of Pope Innocent X in Rome, even though he spent a month wondering the Vatican in 1961. Bacon’s relationship to these photographic records is fraught with contradiction, but it is clear he understood a power within them which gave him access to previous painting in a new way. Bacon said; “Photographs are only of interest to me as records.”12 He was suspicious of the simulacra that was being constructed and our addiction to imagery as an ironic gesture. Bacon believed deeply in the power of pigment by virtue of its materiality. Even his relationship to photographs was physical, tearing, ripping, bending and reforming them and discarding them like jetsam on the beachhead of his Reece Mews studio. Using substances that are literally a physical part of our being was a subconscious strategy, connecting us to a deeper level of sensation. We react the way we do to Bacon paintings, not because of their depicted distress, or violent apparitions but because we grasp them on some genetic level, the implications present in the psychology and materiality of pigment itself. This is the true Real that Lacan speaks of and Slavoj Žižek so clearly describes here:

“The Real is thus the disavowed X on account of which our vision of reality is anamorphically distorted; it is simultaneously the Thing to which direct access is not possible and the obstacle which prevents this direct access, the thing which eludes our rasp and the distorting screen which makes us miss the Thing. More precisely, the Real is ultimately the very shift of perspective from the first standpoint to the second…This means that, ultimately, the status of the Real is purely parallactic and, as such, non-substantial: [it] has no substantial density in itself, it is just a gap between two points of perspective perceptible only in the shift from the one to the other. “13

Bacon was distinctly different from Pop Art’s form of postmodern aesthetic in that he denied the idea of repetition. Although Bacon often created series, such as his Heads or Pope series, the persistence was an effort at reaching the perfect form, not as repetition as an idea unto itself. Repetition as a supposed rupture between perception and consciousness as Warhol would have it, is false in Bacon’s worldview. Instead, Bacon is saying that perception is consciousness when we see paint as a neurological response outside of narrative, metaphor or linguistics. He said, “What is painted is sensation.”14 The plasticity of paint can escape the bounds of irony. In Bacon’s mind, irony is a denial of the senses and therefore of no real human value. Although he recognized the difficulty that art faced in the 20th century to continue to enrich the conversation, he did not find it impossible.

Paint as Flesh

“With Bacon the play of paint is for real. One imagines his special watchfulness as it throws up unthinkable kinds of resemblance. Time and again he is drawn into a fearful game of chicken — to stay with the paint at the perilous onset of likeness. It is played with the only stakes that are big enough to make it most exciting, the indisputable equivalence of paint as flesh.”15

— Lawrence Gowing

Flesh belongs to the “99.9%”16 that Foster Wallace spoke of in our everyday concrete existence. Flesh is a living organ that forms a loose barrier between the external world and our internal make up. It is both superficial and connected, translucent and reflective. In a world of ever diminishing direct physicality, we can ground ourselves in flesh in our response to touch. Thirty-thousand years ago paleolithic artists scratched pigment into rock-face and smeared clay on their bodies to connect earth into body. Paleolithic artists discovered the magical seating of imagery within the frame. Without a framing, anthropomorphic mimicry stood in the way of the necessary conditions to load art making with magical import. Adorned bodies or small objects remained part of the natural contour of experience because they remained unframed. Once the smooth calcite walls of remote caves were discovered, pigments shifted from the ground of the body to the wall, the frame. This forever and acutely shifted painting into the realm of the spiritual, the magical and the sublime. These are the origins of symbolism reinforced for eons and now commonplace from childhood. This symbolic representation is forever inextricably connected to pigment (paint) grounded within the frame of a wall. Joseph Lyons in his essay on Paleolithic aesthetics clearly elucidates this concept:

“Adults who see a painting on a wall are not likely to perceive its scene as part of the visual field to which the wall it-self belongs. Yet, they accomplish this trick of separating the larger from the smaller space without giving thought to the process as it occurs nor to the long development necessarily involved. Animals below the level of the higher apes apparently never learn to make the separation, as witness the inability of even intelligent dogs to respond appropriately to a two-dimensional representation such as a drawing or a TV picture. Within the human culture, the trick is learned by every growing child: finally, he comes to recognize each un-real representation of a known object, even if it is a never-seen view of a horse, coloured green, and one-twenty-fifth the size of the real thing. In this way he grows into the typically human world, a world of symbols; and in the end, though he shares emotion with animals, he is alone in his possession of a “symbolic imagination.”"17

Jan van Eyck’s’s discovery of linseed oil as a binder and siccative agent to dried pigments, freed artists from the previous flattening limitations of tempera and gesso. Leonardo da Vinci improved this method in the mid-15th century and it was passed on in secret amongst the great Quattrocento Renaissance masters. Titian perfected the layering of oil paint to create translucent qualities that emulated human flesh. The painter considered the sun amidst small stars connected the anthropological frame of paint as flesh with the religious sublime. Oil paint captured light in such a way that a paintings surface disappeared and the subject matter took on the simultaneous qualities of physical reality and the supernatural. Titian’s Portrait of Pope Paul III began a lineage of portrait painting that captured not just the uncanny physiognomy of the person, but the personality and its requisite psychological ramifications. This lineage from Raphael to El Greco and Diego Veláquez, provided a historical grounding for Bacon. This was his way of acknowledging the importance of paint’s conceptual capacity. Whereas Bacon’s predecessors found this content rooted in the spiritual and the religious, Bacon denied the metaphysical and grounded painting in the body.

What was truly postmodern about Bacon though, was his ability to dismantle the very techniques that gave him a foundation for the exploration of the psyche. He was not a fine painter of precisely layered oils but chose to paint on the backside of primed linen. This technique, supposedly discovered by accident, would have been heretical to a painter like Velásquez. Further, Bacon was loose with his paint-working to the point of smearing, rubbing out and often throwing paint against his canvases. So here we have Bacon’s use of a common subject matter (the pope) and a grounding in the methodology of oil paint to represent being, but the transcendental and spiritual is inverted in service to the psychological. This is not the same psychology of the mind that Pollock elevated modernism to its apex with, but the psychology of inner emotion that the old masters invented. Bacon recognized art making as a game, and he wished to deepen the mystery of that game, not subjugate it any symbolism. The postmodernism of Bacon is how he combined modernity (photographic reference, expressionistic painting technique, atheism and motion) with the distinctly classical (subject matter, oil painting as flesh and gilded frames). Bacon found a way to break the fourth wall of painting

Francis Bacon’s fixation with Diego Velásquez was necessary if he was to reach true master status. If you wish to be a master, you must first copy one. Velásquez was arguably the greatest portrait painter in history and an unquestioned master of the transcendent capacity of oil painting. The verisimilitude of Velázquez’s portraits imbue them with a inimitable quality that pushes the body into an idealized space. This was no doubt the reason Velásquez was the chosen pet of King Philip IV. But the captivating component of Velázquez’s paintings for Bacon, was not merely their formal mastery but their conveyance of what Lacan would refer to as the objet petit a, or the mystical space of desire, that idea that confounds us to pure wanting. Žižek clearly defines Lacan’s definition; “objet petit a is precisely a kind of non-pathological a priori object-cause of desire, precisely a kind of quasi-transcendental object”.18 Bacon said of Velásquez; “You feel the shadow of life passing all the time.”19 To Bacon, that was not an reference to transcendence but recognition of what humans uniquely confront everyday and what separates us from the animal kingdom — our connection to and recognition of, our own mortality. Uniquely, Bacon managed to be seated within a violent existence from an early age, which kept him more aware of the cloak of mortality than most.

“I was brought to London during the war and spent quite a lot of time there, because my father was in the War Office then, and I was made aware of what is called the possibility of danger even at a very young age. Then I went back to Ireland and was brought up during the Sinn Fein movement…and we lived in a sandbagged house and, as I went out, these ditches were dug across the road for a car or horse-and-cart or anything like that to fall into, and there would be snipers waiting on the edges. And then, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I went to Berlin, and of course I saw the Berlin of 1927 and 1928 where there was a wide open city, which was, in a way, very, very violent…And After Berlin I went to Paris, and then I lived all those disturbed years between then and the war which started in 1939.”20

His early awareness of danger, the recognized fragility of the body and persistence of violent experiences forced Bacon to contend with death. Bacon internalized this trauma and paired it with his sexual blossoming to emulate jouissance. Pleasure at that moment became inextricably connected to pain, and the inevitability of death. The literal French translation of jouissance is enjoyment, but unlike plaisir, it is an enjoyment of the extreme. This idea of pleasure being pushed to the boundaries of pain, is precisely where Bacon preferred to be throughout his life and career. He acutely understood the dynamics of human uncertainty and the absurdities of our own existence and how that was manifested in this idea of jouissance. His lifestyle as well as his art was a pursuit of this idea. In a television interview he discussed his thoughts on this tenuous realm of human existence;

“Supposing I was satisfied with what I did? How can you be satisfied, because everything escapes you. You know that perfectly well. You know that even if you’re in love with somebody, everything escapes you. You want to be nearer that person, but how can you cut your flesh open and join with the other person? It’s an impossibility to do. So it tis with art. It is almost like a long affair with objects and images and sensation and what you would call the passions.”21

I’ll discuss further the implications of Lacanian jouissance later, but this forms an inseparable link between Bacon’s ideas on the physicality of paint and his own psychological strata. Bacon needed a medium with maximum tactile properties and maximum psychological implications. The Paleolithic framing of painting and the unique light-bearing qualities of oil painting together gave Bacon access to expressing pure sensation outside of the object. The body was in constant motion to Bacon, so sculpture would not have satisfied his need to create a faux-cinematic gesture as he could with the free flowing qualities of paint. Nor could the static, suspended in time, nature of photography. Only paint allowed Bacon to seat the post-war psychosis of modern living into postmodern expression.

Photography’s genesis poisoned the well of painting’s dominating narrative with its ready-made simulation of object reality, flattened and pure. As visual creatures we readily abandoned the binding force of pigment in exchange for the fantasy of photography. With the rise of industrialism, photography offered a new kind of magical realism that ungrounded us from painting’s legacy and bound us to a new machine virtual. For the first time in human history, tactile surface was subjugated. When Bacon saw photos of Velásquez’s painting Portrait of Pope Innocent X, he recognized the power of paint to convey psychology. Having only seen printed replicas of the original painting, Bacon had the convenience of being free from the splendor of the actual surface, allowing him to plumb the psychological implications of paint itself. At first blush, one painter’s understanding of another’s mastery through reproduction must appear contradictory and misguided. If Bacon had seen Velázquez’s mastery of technique first hand, it might have rendered him incapacitated and feeling overwhelmed, in turn forcing him to avoid ever recreating the forty-five screaming Pope portraits. By limiting his own exposure to the Velásquez portrait, he narrowed rather than widened the distance between the two. The postmodern component of Francis Bacon here is his subversion of reproduction and repetition. Sensation to Bacon isn’t limited to the immediate world, but includes imagery of that world, past and present. All inputs are fair game for interpreting and realizing sensation. The photographic allowed him the psychic distance he personally needed to understand the original’s power, without being subsumed by its majesty. As an object, a photograph also gave Bacon access to physical manipulation of the image. His maceration of photographic reference material gave it a physicality he could then translate into paint. By painting what he saw, meaning not just the physical exterior of the person who sat before him, but the metaphysical expression of that person as well, Velásquez captured the pure sensation of Pope Innocent X. The connective tissue of that conveyance was paint. Paint as flesh. Bacon inverted this as a postmodern idea that living and dying are nullified by our simulations of both. The scientific concepts of relativity and quantum mechanics shifted the 20th century into a different understanding of space/time than Velásquez’s (although arguably, Las Meninas predicted within the limitations of classical physics some of the dynamics inherent in quantum mechanics through its use of mirrors). Bacon’s space is both curved (relativity) and fractured and disorienting (quantum). Photographs, especially Muybridge’s, gave Bacon a way of meshing the structure of cubism and the warping of time held in surrealism with cinematic motion to define the shifting nature of space/time. Velásquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, contained a clearly defined space with the gold chair, creating a frame, thereby remaining firmly within classical painting’s tradition. Bacon in contrast, uses streaks that mimic television scan lines or warped platforms that appear smaller than the pope figure atop them. The pope figure itself often does the unimaginable, pushing paint in a way that even after solidified appears still in motion. One could describe it as cinematic, but that would be a conceit, because cinema is in essence, 24 frames of still photography per second. Flat, static photography. Paint on the other hand, shifts over time due to the nature of the reflected spectrum in contrast to cinema’s projected light. Bacon’s realization of paint’s efficacy in producing such an effect is nothing short of profound and often the one thing, particularly in the pope portraits, that is lost amongst the conversation that is misdirected by the scream. This is the intuition of genius that can only be defined by proprioception, that innate ability to understand the kinesthetic possibilities of paint as a representation of our own perpetual movement. Bacon describes this kinesthetic conflict:

“Painting materials are in themselves abstract, but painting isn’t only the material, it’s the result of a sort of conflict between the material and the subject. There’s a kind of tension there, and I feel that abstract painters eliminate one of the two sides of this conflict right from the start: the material alone dictates its forms and its rules. I think that that is a simplification. I also find that the human figure with its constant changes is very important. Abstraction has never been enough for me; it has never satisfied me. It seems to me that abstraction basically reduced painting to something purely decorative.”22

The Pope is symbolic to most because he represents the Catholic Church and an embodiment of political power. What Velásquez saw was not just (or perhaps not at all) the one arbiter of the voice of God (Pope Innocent X), but the man who sat in the chair. No matter his eminence’s stature, he was a man composed of flesh and blood, reified by delicate layers of pigment suspended in linseed oil. Bacon reduced this more plainly, because he was free of religious symbolism. To him, the Pope represented a human embodiment of glorified horror and psychosis, nothing more. Both painters knew pigment was earth and therefore a direct corollary to the body, to matter. The difference lay in Bacon’s denial of symbolic spirituality. His appropriation of the pope was a way of symbolically assimilating Velásquez’s powers as a father-figure painter, and exemplar master of the form. Just as with his crucifixions, Bacon used the pope from Velásquez as an ideal in painting and a way at describing a particular kind of sensation. Bacon said of his own Portrait of Pope Innocent X;

“Can you analyze the difference, in fact, between paint, which conveys directly and paint which conveys through illustration? This is a very, very difficult problem to put into words. It is something to do with instinct. It’s a very, very close and difficult thing to know why some paint comes across directly onto the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain.”23

Confusing for many who view Francis Bacon paintings, and probable cause for the persistent dismissals of American art critics, is Bacon’s un-ironic approach to the sublime in painting. Whereas Chaïm Soutine was seen by de Kooning as a precursor to Abstract Expressionistic painting, Bacon saw Soutine as an example of how the subject and the handling of the paint were equally important. He didn’t want to fragment painting into a decorative expression of existential crisis, he wanted to use paint as flesh to embody the trauma of everyday reality living within us all. This is not to deny the importance of de Kooning, Pollock, et al., despite Bacon’s disparaging remarks toward them and abstract painting, but rather recognize the split that occurred between the American post-war approach to painting and Bacon’s. Bacon was firmly distancing himself from Modernism. Francis Bacon incorporated the Real as an expression of the body couched in the magnificent beauty of our meaningless existence. Gilles Deleuze in his book The Logic of Sensation makes this distinction between sensation in Bacon and the modernism of abstraction:

And positively, Bacon constantly says that sensation is what passes from one order to another, from one level to another, from one area to another. This is why sensation is the master of deformations, the agent of bodily deformations. In this regard, the same criticism can be made against both figurative painting and abstract painting: they pass through the brain, they do not act directly upon the nervous system, they do not attain the sensation, they do not liberate the Figure—all because they remain at one and the same level.24

For Francis Bacon, all of life remains intact and cumulative until death, as it is and nothing more—pure sensation. His painting sought to unravel the paradox of mind/body through a pursuit of paintedjouissance. This is and was a distinctly postmodern position. The emergence and primacy of Pop Art has deepened the mind/body delusion, rather than unravel it. Lyotard describes the birth of postmodernism as the beginning of a cultural fragmentation and pluralism. Violence, after Hiroshima, transcended the raw, up-close and personal sensibility it had retained for millennia. Americans, unable to ground this newfound reality of potential mass extinction and their complicity in it, devised ways of concealing the horror, our sensation. Francis Bacon created a different postmodern strategy, one that dealt with our fears directly by reinvigorating our connection to sensation through our own anthropology. Life was always violent to Bacon, and he experienced that first as a child, and then in the pursuit of rough sex and the company of thugs, thieves and drug addicts. He fully embraced the randomness of quantum existence and found in paint, the ability to work quite literally with matters shifting presence. He backwards engineered the Real through physical manipulations of a simulation — photography. It would not be hyperbole to suggest Bacon saw little distinction between the painted figures he put to canvas and the realities of every day living. All were a commingled series of sensations that formed a precise reality.

Jouissance and Trauma

The rise of Naziism and the trauma of WW II created a schism in the steady progression of the Avant-garde. Instantaneous mass annihilation fractured the human narrative. A psychic abyss opened up, forever destroying the illusory underpinnings of logic held by humanity before the bomb. It was becoming much clearer, that what Bacon had foretold in his 1944 painting, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, was that humanity is an accident, and a horrifying one at that. Bacon’s atheism freed him from the constraints of religious symbolism and as Milan Kundera puts it; “even the great subject of the Crucifixion, which used to concentrate within itself the whole ethics, the whole religion, indeed the whole history of the West, becomes in Bacon’s hands a simple physiological scandal.”25 Unlike the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School, Bacon had witnessed the aftermath of war first hand, “sometimes having to pull dead or mangled bodies from the wreckage.”26 This pushed Bacon away from any internal existential struggle and firmly into the expressive dynamic of making the body the center of human debate. Humanity wasn’t manifested through the open-ended machinations of drips and flowing paint, but through the morphology of the body. It is in the acceptance of the absoluteness of death the dominating postmodernism of Francis Bacon was derived. He said just months before his death;

“Life and death go hand in hand in any case, don’t they? Death is like the shadow of life. When you’re dead you’re dead, but while you’re alive, the idea of death pursues you. Perhaps it’s normal for people to have this feeling when looking at my paintings. It rather surprises me because on the whole I’m an optimist, but in the end why not?”27

The first forty years of Bacon’s life were filled with destruction and decadence. Bacon chose not to take an absurdist position, nor did he embrace one of bleakness. Instead he embraced an absolutely guiltless, optimistic atheism. “I’m optimistic about absolutely nothing”28 he was famous for saying. In other words he was optimistic about the abyss, the very idea of emptiness. At the core of this seemingly paradoxical viewpoint was Bacon’s connection to Lacan’s notion of jouissance, a biochemical expression that inextricably links our neurological impulses to both pain and pleasure (the very same brain chemistry, primarily dopamine and endorphins, produce feelings of either pain or pleasure). Lacan’s is a psychological precept that deals with the dynamic revealed first in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, where the duality of pain/pleasure is examined. Lacan, however distinguished himself from Freud by suggesting the dynamic between pain and pleasure is indistinguishable, irrevocably tethered.

 

 

                                                                    

                                                                                                    Francis Bacon, Two Figures, 1953

 

Libido and sexuality for Lacan are tied to the Freudian concept of the Death Drive, that inner desire to return to our biological beginnings — return to the earth. The idea of jouissance is distinguished however, from libidinal desires which Lacan saw as fantasies, or symbolic. Instead, jouissanceoccupies a special place that sits in opposition to the biological, as if a germ implanted in us to work against our own biological tendencies. This idea of jouissance, of contraindicative behaviour against our biological imperatives brings with it a certain knowledge and that knowledge serves as a mirror, a reflection of truth as its opposite. It is at the core of what gives us meaning. Jacques-Alain Miller elaborates:

“To say that knowledge is the means of jouissance is to say that even as it works towards its articulation, knowledge continuously produces and reflects the loss of jouissance, and thus jouissance flows under the signifier. Henceforth, this jouissance that flows under the signifier is the equivalent of meaning. This is what will lead Lacan to speak of jouis-sens, enjoy-meant, in the sense of meaning enjoyed. Henceforth, truth as the meaning of the signifier appears as the parent of this metonymical jouissance.”29

The onset of early childhood asthma and allergies formed the rough ground to see existence as perpetual suffering for Bacon. Ianthe Knott, his only surviving sibling until 2009, spoke of his difficulties breathing and the torture of an asthmatic living amongst horses and dogs.30 Rejected by his father who often beat him and suffering from acute asthma, Bacon experienced personal trauma from a very early age. The family was living on an English estate during the inception of the IRA in Ireland and was under the constant threat of violence as outsiders. Ianthe spoke of the constant threat of the IRA burning every other English farm to the ground; “I think ours was the only house that wasn’t burned”31 Bacon’s father, a Major and veteran of two Boer Wars, was the antithesis of Francis. Eddy Bacon was a horse trainer in Ireland and bet on horses, a cynical and impudent act looked down upon by other horse trainers. He also banned alcohol from the house and left the children largely in the Victorian charge of a nanny. His stark Protestantism, and strict discipline must have placed him at tremendous odds with his weak, sensitive, artistic and homosexual child. The brutal, austere remnants of Bacon’s childhood remained present throughout his life but retained a particular sting while his father was still alive. This family dynamic manifested jouissance in two key ways. On one hand, Bacon admitted to being attracted to his father sexually.32 On the other, at the apex of his father’s frustration, a family friend, Harcourt-Smith was employed to take Bacon to Berlin, the aim to expose him to a model of masculinity. Instead, Harcourt-Smith turned his sexual prowess on Francis himself.33 These two pieces of Bacon’s teenage life shaped a concept of life firmly couched in jouissance. Sexual attraction was forever linked with violence— paternal violence (masochism) and literal punishment (sadism). Bacon went directly from a sexually repressive, violent overbearing childhood into the absolute open decadence of a Weimar Berlin, where nearly anything was permissible. He learned very early on about the extremes of pleasure and pain and accepting struggle was a core of human existence. This volition, this parallax of competing ideas between a desire to be loved, and sexual violence would form the foundation of Bacon’s postmodernism. His strategy was to destabilize cultural senses of normalcy, and the Real. It wasn’t just Bacon’s sense of otherness in his own homosexuality, but the inextricable relationship his particular sexual experiences shared, very early on, with violence. He understood by the time he was 17 that he was not going to die from his personal intersections with violence, and even more importantly, those experiences were triggering something deeply erotic and hyper-sexualized that revealed a visual truth unique only to Bacon. Again, Žižek explains this Lacanian psychoanalytic principle:

“Within psychoanalysis, this knowledge of drive which can never be subjectivized assumes the form of knowledge of the subject’s “fundamental fantasy,” the specific formula which regulates his or her access to jouissance. That is to say, desire and jouissance are inherently antagonistic, exclusive even: desire’s raison d’etre (or “utility function,” to use Richard Dawkins’s term) is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire. How is it possible nonetheless to couple desire and jouissance, to guarantee a minimum of jouissance within the space of desire? This is made possible by the famous Lacanian object a that mediates between the incompatible domains of desire and jouissance.”34

Francis Bacon was expressing raw sexuality in his work at a time when homosexual sex was still illegal in England and culturally unacceptable throughout much of the world. This open homosexual behavior (cruising dark allies and wearing lipstick) fueled the jouissance Bacon was exploring. He courted the danger that being openly homosexual brought with it at the time. He maintained his family connections in his relationship with the older, paternal Eric Hall and by living with his childhood nanny, Jessie Lightfoot. He replaced the absence of a loving father with the paternal relationship of Eric Hall, which steadied him not only financially and in terms of moral support, but provided a stable outlet from which to explore his homosexual attraction to his father. With the death of his nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, he let go completely of his father figure compulsions and move more into the seat of a father-figure himself, successively dating younger and younger men until his death. The death of his nanny and the chaos and destruction of war lent a liberating focus to Bacon’s work. The self-imposed chaos of lurid parties, gambling, drinking and chance encounters with men became less important in the wake of all-out armageddon. This was Bacon’s comfort zone, the organized chaos and predictable violence of mankind. It fit neatly into his childhood understanding of persistent external violence (WW I and the IRA threat) and internal violence (beatings from Eddy Bacon). His sexual excitement toward his father was connected deeply with rejection and brutality but also sexual desire. Bacon sought to control these forces of chaos himself by seeking relationships with men that continually elevated his understanding of jouissance as way of life. With Jessie’s death in April of 1951, traumatized he moved many times over the successive ten years. He began to pull away from his father-figure and lover Eric Hall at this time as well. Around late 1951 Bacon moved in with two friends Peter Pollock and Paul Danquah who lived in Battersea. At the same time he met an ex-fighter pilot Peter Lacy whose extreme sadism attracted Bacon. This was a turning point that opened Bacon up to realize the power of jouissance in his painting. He used the photographs of Muybridge to emulate the fusion of bodies in time and space in sexual concourse and the wild animals he observed on a recent visit to Rhodesia (South Africa). He was moving out of the direct horror and macabre of earlier work and into a newer space where jouissance could be more fully realized in the contained spaces of his new cinematic expressions. Lacy offered a potent cocktail of sexual sadism and youthful vigor (he was younger than Bacon). For the first time in Bacon’s life he had broken the bonds of paternalism and was nearly free of outside financial support (his paintings were selling for an extraordinary price of £400 – £600 each, approximately £9,000 to £13,000 in today’s currency). During this time Bacon painted anonymous men in bars, men coupled and his famous Pope series of studies. Whether it was exorcising demons from his past or fully realizing himself, Bacon moved fully into the postmodern expression of jouissance. Sex was cruelty, especially with Lacy and painting was a tool for externalizing this splintering of norms. Bacon began to fully realize painting as sensation. He understood how to transmit this mix of psychology, brutality and sexuality through a focus on figuration. Georges Bataille gives insight into this notion of figuration, mortality and sex;

“We only know our own sensations, not those of the other…The sensations of the sexual act themselves have a provocative agreement with figures. The sensation exhibits the true object of desire (but the object of desire is itself an exhibit of the sensation). The tepidness of rain in the [brambles? rosebushes?], the dull fulguration of the storm, evoke both the figure and the inner sensation of eroticism. The smoothness, the tumescence, the milky flow of feminine nudity anticipate a sensation of liquid outpour, which itself opens onto death like a window onto a courtyard. But it is human to search, from lure to lure, for a life that is at last autonomous and authentic.”3

Humans are members of the bestiary and sex is our closest link to that existence. Bacon’s paintings focused on the ecstatic moments’ relationship to death. Sensation at its height was violence. Sexual ecstasy lives in the space between living and dying, Le petite mort. Persisting this state between the noumenal and the phenomenological artistically is a core operation of postmodern thought because it fractures the narrative. Bacon fully accepted the wisdom of learning to die and used the pain of his asthma and the difficulty of his relationships as a foil for his painting. He thrust this idea of jouissance against the physicality of flesh, reducing us all to meat, and translating the ecstatic moment—sensation, into a visual expression or the literal and metaphorical violence of confronting the awareness of our own mortality.

“Eroticism always entails a breaking down of established patterns, the patterns, I repeat, of the regulated social order basic to our discontinuous mode of existence as defined and separate individuals… The stirrings within us have their own fearful excesses; the excesses show which way these stirrings would take us. They are simply a sign to remind us constantly that death, the rupture of the discontinuous individualities to which we cleave in terror, stands there before us more real than life itself.”36

Bacon’s true genius was realizing through an expression of jouissance the fundamentals of what would later grow into postmodern ironies. He expressed with paint how human violence had reached an apex that nullified its significance and left the only alternative an embrace of jouissance. Bacon never one to deny his connections to the sensations of the Real, fully embraced them instead. Unlike the postmodernism that grew out Warhol’s silkscreened, star-fucking irony, Bacon’s postmodernism grew out of a full acceptance of decadence. Fredric Jameson astutely describes what became the Warhol prescribed form of postmodernism, as an embrace of the absence of decadence:

“One would have thought that the world of headphones and Andy Warhol, of fundamentalism and AIDS, of exercise machines and MTV, yuppies and books on postmodernism, punk hair-dos and fifties’-style crewcuts, the “loss of historicity” and the éloge of schizophrenia, the media and obsessions with calcium and cholesterol, the logic of “future shock” and the emergence of scientists and counter-insurgency strike forces as new types of social groups, would have all the qualifications to pass for ripely decadent in the eyes of any sensible Martian observer; but it is corny to say so, and one of the other tactical achievements of the postmodern discursive system lives in the relegation of the lauditor temporis acti to the storeroom of no longer very plausible or believable literary characters.”37

In 1965 on the day of Bacon’s first retrospective at the Tate in London, he received a telegram informing him of the sudden death, in Tangiers, of his most intense love, Peter Lacy who drank himself to death. The very same thing repeated itself in 1970 with another lover George Dyer, who died on a toilet in a Paris hotel the morning of Bacon’s Grand Palais retrospective, of a drug overdose from Tuinal, Bacon’s prescription sleeping pills. Bacon’s response to this experience sums up his notion on trauma;  “although one’s never exorcized, because people say you forget about death, but you don’t…time doesn’t heal. But you concentrate on something which was an obsession, and what you would have put into your obsession with the psychical act you put into your work.”38

There is another important parallax Bacon established early on, focusing on male power and the reception and subsequent agony associated with it. It is not just the purely sexual focus on the open mouth that Bacon seems to begin to contemplate, it is the deep psychological layering that can be drawn from working with mouths. In fact this is likely part of the reason Bacon was fascinated with Velásquez’s Pope Innocent painting. He often remarked how much he adored the coloration of Velásquez’s mouths. There was erotic beauty in the redness of the lips and the openness of the mouth. Bacon himself was known to frequently don lipstick as a prop of his own dandyism.39 On the other hand, the mouth represented a point of deeply held expression. It is the vehicle with which we communicate and the locus of the scream. The mouth also contains teeth and the ability to bite and inflict damage. Ever since his viewing of the Battleship Potemkin in 1935, Bacon was inured by the screaming mouth. The nurses’ mouth, agape in agony after being shot through the eye was a mirror of Bernini’s Ecstasty of St. Theresa. A single frame that captured the moment of jouissance, that ecstatic moment when the life force departs and endorphins overwhelm the pain centers of the body to produce an elevated death. Bacon saw in this frame a singular expression of jouissance, the actual moment of ecstatic death. The mouth is open in both a scream of pain and terror but also final release — release as in the moment of orgasm. The epitome of jouissance expressed by Lacanian thought as “some concrete, material object of need that assumes a sublime quality the moment it occupies the place of the Thing”40 However, Bacon was not representing abject violence in the way it has often been interpreted, but the violence in everyday existence — the violence of pure energy. This rapture was understood by Bacon in the form of his own rough, masochistic love and the decadent way in which he lived. The idea of jouissance wasn’t in the abstract, in the metaphysical, but in the real moment of release in the painful sex he engaged in with his male partners and the powerful hangovers he lived with the mornings he painted. His one-time housemate Paul Danquah speaks of Bacon’s sexual encounters: “He courted danger in sex. And he was aware of the pleasure of the pain and he was conscious of the excitement of extremes, whether being the punished or the punisher.”41 Bacon saw the confluence of the sublime and the Real seated in the body. Beginning with the phallus (Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion) moving through the mouth (Painting 1946Head I, II & VI and Study after Velázquez) and resting in the full body (Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus), Bacon’s fixation on jouissance never ended. The landscape of the body was the connection to the Real and drawing from its sexual centers, Bacon was accessing those areas that could most expressively realize the sensation of jouissance.

In the later years of his painting, jouissance took on a bolder, more abstract gesture akin to ejaculation as seen in Jet of Water (1988). In fact contrary to many critical assessments of Bacon’s declining abilities in later years, he actually was at the height of his powers right up until his death in 1992. Always a brutally honest painter and a person fearless in the face of judgment or criticism, Bacon let go more and more of the constructs that served him in earlier work, stripping out the unessential elements in an attempt to approach the purest expression of jouissance he could. As the painter Barnaby Furnas puts it,

“The jet of water is not painted in a conventional sense, rather it’s splattered á la Jackson Pollock — it must have been done flat (no?) — which is analogous to the way real water would behave. This suggested to me the possibility of a kind of material realism, found in the employment of paint itself. Making paint a voodoo substance in its own right, devoid of the need to capture an image, which, as Bacon has said, was photography’s job anyway.”42

 

                                                                                                     

                                                                                                        Francis Bacon, Jet of Water, 1988

 

Jet of Water is Bacon cutting painting down to its bare essentials. The body now is represented by a bodily act and the actual body is no longer needed. In fact if we take it a step further, the body has largely been removed in the conventional sense, from the act of painting as well, as the the controlled brush against canvas has been removed from the equation. Sensation is as direct as it can be, even to the point of removing brushwork. In his obsessive quest to remain true to chaos and ability and accident, he removed his deliberate hand from the equation. It could be said, in essence, he ejaculated directly on to the canvas transforming once and for all his love for the material body as flesh into the material body of paint as flesh. He was directly transmuting La petite mort to canvas in the same way it expressed itself in his bedroom —violent physicality, uncontrolled, free and beautiful. He was four years away from his own passing, and his intuitions regarding jouissance were reaching a level closer to full realization, both in life and in painting.

postmodern lifestyle

Openly homosexual long before it was acceptable, a heavy drinker and a life-long gambler, he embraced fully the Lyotard form of postmodernism; that multiple options exist simultaneously and ironic expression is both oppressive and normal. Lyotard said, “Simplifying to the extreme, I definepostmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”43 In postmodern existence the grand themes or narratives of ethics and history no longer apply because we have fractured them by centering our lives between scientific methodology and absolute meaning, which fragments reality and forces us into a brutal denial, taking the form of looping ironic gesture. Lyotard asserts science is essentially a language game (ever more so with our current reliance on programming language). If empirical truth’s ultimate outcome is self-annihilation (atomic weaponry, et al.) then the language of science (modernity) becomes a compartmentalization of knowledge that inevitably destroys itself. Postmodernism defies this logic by questioning the irrationality of these metanarratives. Lyotard explains,

“What, then, is the postmodern? What place does it or does it not occupy in the vertiginous work of the questions hurled at the rules of image and narration? It is undoubtedly a part of the modern… What space does Cézanne’s challenge? The Impressionists’. What object do Picasso and Braque attack? Cézanne’s. What presupposition does Duchamp break with in 1912? That which says one must make a painting, be it cubist…In an amazing acceleration, the generations precipitate themselves. A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.”44

Much has been written about the trauma, agony and violence within Bacon’s work, and yet many remain confused by Bacon’s devout subjugation and inversion of symbolism and his deliberately ambiguous responses about his work. Few examine his lifestyle as the true precursor to his postmodern expression. The zoologist and surrealist painter, Desmond Morris knew Francis Bacon and understood Bacon’s lifestyle was really the root of his painterly expression.

“Others may see in this screaming face a reflection of the agonies of war-torn Europe, a statement about the horrors of modern existence, or the entrapment and isolation of modern man in his urban cell. I see nothing of the sort. I see a devout masochist enjoying the thrill of encapsulating the secret joys of his most private moments. The great mystery about Bacon’s work is why this lifelong fetishistic indulgence should have resulted in the creation of such truly great art. But then mystery is the very essence of art. As Picasso once said: “I don’t understand it and if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”45

In the 1950’s two divergent postmodern paths lay before practicing artists. On one hand, there was Francis Bacon’s postmodernism, an overt exploration of sensation through a reinvigorated, loosely expressionist form of figurative painting. On the other, Andy Warhol’s self-immolating postmodernism, rooted in the hegemony of capitalism and embracing a cynical irony. In the wake of a war-torn Europe, wealthy America entered the 1950’s nearly unscathed and oblivious to much of the insanity of WW II. Soldiers that returned from Europe and the Pacific wanted to forget and were quickly provided tremendous incentives to do so in the GI Bill, wealthy America rewarded violence with capitalist outcomes — education, housing and business loans. English culture in the 20th century knew no such outcome. England, particularly London where Bacon lived the greater part of his life, was devastated. The thought of England dominating the cultural zeitgeist was outside their comprehension, and therefore outside the art world’s. The art world’s center was re-situated in New York with the dominance of the Abstract Expressionists. England’s empire was dead and left in ruins and with it their cultural importance. It would take decades before even Bacon was recognized outside of Britain, let alone David Hockney or Lucien Freud. Meanwhile, the New York art world embraced a kind of nihilistic postmodernism that has seen obfuscation and diminution of Bacon, in exchange for the hyper-kitsch of Jeff Koons. This unfortunate embrace has in turn led to our decidedly self-destructive posture as a culture. Worse, because American culture through its imperial extensions, now dominates the world, our form of postmodern aesthetic is the dominant one. This is a new kind of abstraction; the abstraction bound by ironic gesture. We have silenced the senses in favor of the cynical. The philosopher J. M. Bernstein sums this up by saying;

“Delegitimating sensory knowledge takes with it the sensible world. It is not too much of a stretch to see the abstraction from particularity and sensory givenness as the abstractive device of modern forms of social reproduction: the subsuming of the use values or particular goods beneath the exchange value of monetary worth, or the domination of intersubjective practices by norms of instrumental reason that yield the rationalization or bureaucratization of our dominant institutions. Somehow the advance of the modern world, its enlightenment, is the advance of the process of abstraction and the domination of the qualitative by the quantitative. This of course is both a utopia and a nightmare.”46

We are constantly bombarded by stimulation that pushes us further into Baudrillard’s simulacra. We are fixated on staying younger, and in turn bastardize the body with plastic surgery and permanent makeup. Our violence is projected outward and is only understood in terms of simulation (video games) or simulacra (television/internet). The art world has in turn embraced the mediums reinforcing our own dominating paradigms — photography and video art. Painting is mainly seen as quaint and irrelevant art form. Rather than embrace the conjunction of the mind and body, we deny the mind and embrace a hyper-realized and idealized body. Even when painting is embraced as a medium, it is more often than not in the Warhol tradition of decoration, pattern and flatness (with the exception of John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage, who have denatured painting as an ironic gesture akin to velvet Elvis paintings). In contrast, Bacon used figurative painting as a way of confronting the Real of post-war Europe and his own suffering. He chose an incredulity toward metanarratives as opposed to their American embrace. Paint wasn’t facile or quaint to Bacon, but a natural extension of flesh due to its material properties and historical seat. It also offered a way past the one-liner mentality of American postmodernism by offering a pathway to immortality that would perpetuate Bacon’s own physicality. Painting was the ultimate gesture of fully realized jouissance because it lived on outside the artist in enigmatic perpetuity. “I think that only time tells about painting…. I think that the potency of the image is created partly by the possibility of its enduring. And, of course, images accumulate sensation around themselves the longer they endure.”47 What he discovered about painting was its ability to capture the inexpressible, the unexplainable found in everyday life. It was his way of providing others an opportunity to escape the oppression of modern life by accessing the sensations of the Real.

It wasn’t as if Francis Bacon ignored the interdependence of high culture on low, as Pop Art did, because he lived it. Equally at home in a museum or book store as he was in a seedy London social club or back room gambling establishment, he found no contradiction in their mutual presence in his daily life. He painted Popes and socialites as well as drug addicts with egalitarianism. This mirrored the way he lived. His last flat at 7 Reece Mews in the Kensington district of London was an unimproved tenement. Bacon said of this flat, “People think I live grandly you know, but in fact I live in a dump.”48 Although neatly kept, the two-story dwelling was never improved in the entire thirty-one years of his living there. Raw light bulbs hung from the ceiling and a ship’s cordage formed a makeshift railing while climbing an incredibly steep staircase to his second floor studio. Basic wooden counters enclosed an ancient and small gas stove used for cooking. The walls of his kitchen were made of pine clapboarding with a white wash. The kitchen served double duty as the bath with a simple dresser and tub sitting across from the sink and refrigerator. His legendary studio space was of course an expression of working chaos. So much so, that it was literally cut from the house after the artist’s death and situated permanently in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin, as an archeological artifact. In this tenement dwelling Bacon would imbibe from bottles of vintage Krug or use Château Pétrus (an elite French Bordeaux) in his cooking. Living to Bacon was not an ironic joke but a very real experience that required persistent re-acquaintance. Dwellings were necessary for eating, sleeping and working but comfort was a conceit that led to relaxing, something he didn’t understand. He said of vacationing; “I can’t imagine lying on the seashore, for instance, for hours like people can do, with the dumb satisfaction that the sun is shining on them. That I couldn’t do at all.”49 There was a serious pragmatism to Bacon’s life that allowed for the natural confluence of things and life’s perpetual uncertainty. The tidy but run-down flats allowed him to maintain autonomy, never hiring a servant, despite his enormous wealth. He did his own shopping and dropped his laundry off himself at local Kensington dry cleaners. He preferred buses and the tube over taxis. Despite his austere lifestyle, Bacon wasn’t stingy. He tipped bartenders and taxi drivers lavishly and would frequently buy rounds at Muriel’s in Soho or host lavish dinner parties at his favourite seafood restaurant Wheeler’s. Drinking was another piece of this form of living that likely helped to quiet his dealings with sensation. Bacon’s constitution was legendary in Kensington and both John Edwards and David Sylvester who were close to Bacon for years spoke of his ability to drink all afternoon and late into the night then rise early to paint the next day. David Sylvester, a London art critic who met Bacon in 1952, sums up Bacon’s attitude toward drinking by relaying a story:

“His love of alcohol seemed to be not merely an addiction but a moral imperative almost. He greatly admired a book that he had read by Isaiah Berlin and, knowing that I was acquainted with its author, asked me to invite him to lunch. Berlin accepted, saying that it was always exciting to meet a genius. The three of us sat down together at Wilton’s in an atmosphere of high cordiality, Bacon treating his guest with enormous respect. When the wine waiter arrived, Bacon asked Berlin what he would like to drink; Berlin replied that he didn’t drink. Bacon, for all his social skills, could not conceal his disappointment in his guest and the occasion never really took off. Bacon made no subsequent mention of it to me; Berlin did, ruefully, more than once.”50

Alcohol was certainly a way for Bacon to flatten the emotional content he carried with him from his often tragic personal experiences. As many an artist has experienced, from Van Gogh to Dylan Thomas, alcohol can be a powerful artistic device as well, freeing the mind of certain inhibiting constructs and allowing a more open mental space from which to operate. This was certainly the case with Bacon who said; “I often like working with a hangover, because my mind is crackling with energy and I can think very clearly.”51 This was the controlled chaos of a postmodern lifestyle. Detachment from the imposed narratives of cultural norms and conformity would serve Bacon throughout his life. The rough-hewn neighborhoods against trips to Monte Carlo. The epic drinking but obsessive dedication to a nearly unbroken production of some of the 20th century’s masterpieces. The quest for fine food and wine while inviting London hoodlums along for the ride. His life-long passion for gambling at the game with the worst odds — roulette, and in turn burying his winnings behind old canvases and forgetting about them until the currency grew worthless. Ultimately we are talking about chance. Bacon espoused  liberation in living because it embodied his philosophy on chance. Any state that put him closer to the hard reality of uncertainty was a state he encouraged to the fullest sybaritic extent. Even in his control of his paintings, the way he used gilded frames and insisted on regular glass, Bacon was imposing a form of chance. The dualism of postmodern figurative painting and glass took on a shifting reality. The glass picks up the reflections of the room and its lighting, preventing the viewer from getting too close to the subject inherent in the paint itself. This shifts the viewing experience with every successive witness and creates movement in the painting otherwise not found. It is a cinematic tool and also one that discourages the reading of narrative into the work. Your reflection becomes part of the work itself and you are confronted with new layers of meaning. The gilded frames seat the work in the history of painting while simultaneously suggesting a dismantling of that same history. The frames are not the gilded Michael Jackson’s of Jeff Koon’s, but a deliberate reference to the importance of the history of painting itself. Bacon was following in the tradition of Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Velásquez, not Duchamp, Rauschenberg or Warhol. This is one of the most striking components of Bacon’s oeuvre, his ability to control chaos. He did his utmost to shape the way people would access his work by avoiding discussions on production and making statements that were contradictory to themselves. He would not allow his process to be filmed and his studio was a confluence of imagery, dirt and pigment. The chaos provided heightened access to experience that lived close to danger and accident and therefore jouissance. It was a mimicry of quantum mechanics as described by Žižek;

“Consequently, quantum physics confronts us with the gap between the Real and the reality at its most radical: what we get in it is the mathematized Real of formulas which cannot be translated into ontologically consistent reality—or, to put it in Kantian terms, they remain pure concepts which cannot be “schematized,” translated/transposed into objects of experience.”52

Unlike contemporary forms of postmodernism (reality TV, Jeff Koons, etc.), irony did not come into play for Bacon. In fact, Bacon’s work was nascent postmodernism that preceded the Warhol paradigm of pop culture and irony. Bacon’s untethered lifestyle, bound in chance sexual encounters and sado-masochistic relationships, heroic levels of drinking, bacchanalian dinners, roulette gaming and interactions with both the famous and criminal was his vibrant connection to chaos. Through chance he could strip away the cultural ephemera that might otherwise prevent him from accessing pure sensation. This obsession with sensation led him to explore ways of simultaneously expressing perceived reality and interior reality. Modernism’s focus on phenomenon and utopian constructs prevented humankind from really seeing the reality of man’s brutality, violence and meaninglessness. Modernity, especially in Bacon’s mind, was a veil to sensation and therefore less meaningful than his own form of postmodern expression. This lay at the center of Bacon’s dislike for abstract expressionism, which he said looked like “old lace.”53 Abstract expressionism to Bacon was rooted in modernity and the failed enterprise of unbounded, metaphysics. By the mere fact our own existence was random, brief and without meaning, one could live fully because we were shaping the only thing meaningful about our existence in our actions while alive. Throughout his life Bacon knew great luxury and great necessity but remained centered and optimistic throughout, choosing instead to focus on the work. His flexibility stood in contrast to the promise of modernism’s ideals and in his private life he denied what modernity promised—comfort. From a very early age Bacon had witnessed the irrational violence that followed modernism and saw it for what it was, an empty promise. Instead he chose to live his life free of ideology or irony (an antiseptic to the suffering brought on by modernism).

Weltschmerz

David Sylvester:  “The will to lose one’s will?”

Francis Bacon:  “Absolutely. The will to make oneself completely free. Will is the wrong word, because in the end you could call it despair. Because it really comes out of an absolute feeling of it’s impossible to do these things, so I might as well just do anything. And out of this anything, one sees what happens.”54

Cézanne valued sensation above all else. He did not envision a world that could be in conflict with sensation, merely one that devalued it. The violence of sensation, grounded in the tactile performance of painting has been atomized, digitized and scattered, becoming a 21st century ephemera — a brutal denial. Francis Bacon predicted this and did what he could to bring the act of painting back into the game of art making. As with Heisenberg’s quantum mechanical world, Bacon aimed to emulate the impossible—the gap between noumenal and the phenomenal. In this regard he was creating a form postmodernism long before it became a late 20th century catch-phrase for everything ironic and fractured. In fact, in the purest sense, Bacon worked outside of irony, seeing all life as a kind of futile act that we must necessarily fill up with meaning to assuage the inevitability of our own mortality. This was the game and art was a means of both filling up life with meaning but also an optimistic gesture against the void.

“Painting has now become, or all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself. What is fascinating actually, is it is going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to become any good at all. And, return the onlooker to life more valiantly.”55

Francis Bacon was a man of seeming contradiction in a world that was fighting, quite literally for the modern sublime. His sybaritic pursuits were in fierce contrast to his nearly ascetic home life. His homosexuality was an embodiment of the unrequited love with his father and the brutal realities of the body’s fragility. A masochist who preferred the company of drug addicts and thieves as well as famous authors and artists, he sought comfort in the ferocity of one man’s sex against another. The pain and violence of sensation, the jouissance, gave him a foundation in the Real and a context to fight against the impending irony of a future filled with negation. For Bacon life contained a perpetual violence of experience in the form of direct energy. Bacon speaking on his Van Gogh paintings said, “Van Gogh got very near to the violence of life itself. It’s true to say that when he painted a field he was able to give you the violence of the grass. Think of the violence of the grass he painted. It’s one of the most violent and abominable things, if you really want to think about life.”56 This is where painting and life began and ended for Bacon, in the knowledge that existence is pure sensation and that for him, translating his own sensations of the world was best rendered in the flesh of paint and the meat of the body.

We live in a time now that has lost the potency of Bacon’s postmodern expression. The game has gotten the best of us and painting has gone the way of esoteric art forms like jazz and free verse poetry. The current form of postmodernism, now ironically referred to as post-postmodernism, has so deeply encamped itself in ironic gesture and exalted kitsch it can be said it has effectively begun to take the lives of its progenitors, i.e., Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, Jeremy Blake and recently, David Foster Wallace. As Adrian Searle stated just after Bacon’s death;

“We are all postmodernists now. It is difficult to avoid the paralysis of knowing too much, of seeing too many points of view; the doubts come tumbling in. Too much leakage. The multiplicity of discourses, formal approaches, language games, all he ‘postmodern’ instances of quotation, requotation and decontextuatlization; the deconstructionist vortex, with it cetrifugal locutions, reversals and ‘misreadings’; all the socio-political arguments concerning context and commodification, all the literature, the applications of Freud and those who come after him, all the appropriations (in the case of the analysts, frequently by those who have never in their lives lain on a couch) …one has to believe that something is still possible, that the situation is not completely framed and unbounded.”57

Francis Bacon’s postmodern gift was his ability to live an unfiltered life, free of the everyday despair and violence of existence without being consumed by a feeling of weltschmerz that more often than not, quite literally kills artists given their sensitivities. Bacon translated the power of living in the context of a postmodern world without letting it consume him. His suffering was matched by the fullness of his living and we are all benefactors of his translation of that experience to canvas. The Buddhists refer to this idea as cutting through spiritual materialism, the idea that the pursuit of spiritualism, or the sublime (in this case of art-making), is a self-defeatist egotistical act. Although Bacon was an atheist, this is a reasonable analogy for his philosophy on art and living. He was very humble when speaking of his own work and often titled his paintings studies. Bacon wasn’t interested in clouding the vision with his own delusions of grandeur. He did this literally in the way he constructed his paintings, constantly stripping down the figure to pure experience, and getting directly to the nervous system. As Gilles Deleuze states it in The Logic of Sensation;

“Figuration and narration are only effects, but for that reason they are all the more intrusive in painting. They are what must be eliminated. But neither the tactile-optical world nor the purely optical world is a stopping point for Bacon. On the contrary, he cuts through them, subverting and scrambling them…The optical world, and the tactile-optical world, is swept out, and wiped away. If there is still an eye, it is the “eye” of a hurricane, as in Turner, which more often tends to the bright than the dark, and which designates a rest or stopping point that is always linked to an immense agitation of matter.”58

Where Francis Bacon has been misrepresented, misclassified and even denigrated (by U.S. art critics)59 his placement within art history and his importance undermined or questioned, is in American critical presentation of him as a mere modernist figurative painter. It isn’t an accident that Damian Hirst finds Bacon the most compelling artist to draw power and content from. Unlike Cecily Brown or Jenny Saville (also Brits) who work mainly from Bacon’s expressionistic figuration, and his unnerving interior psychologies, Hirst sees Bacon for what he was—an original postmodernist. In A Thousand Years, Hirst mimics a Bacon postmodern gesture creating a vitrine with an actual life cycle. “Maggots hatch inside a white minimal box, turn into flies, then feed on a bloody, severed cow’s head on the floor of a claustrophobic glass vitrine. Above, hatched flies buzz around in the closed space. Many meet a violent end in an insect-o-cutor; others survive to continue the cycle.”60Bacon liked this Hirst piece which he saw just months before his death in 1992 and wrote about it in a letter to a friend. Hirst himself said that Bacon’s work was evocative of the idea “We’re here for a good time, not a long time,”61 which becomes a short hand for the dualistic nature of Bacon’s work. The paintings of course are living on in Bacon’s absence and just now, nearly twenty years after his death beginning to resonate with a larger audience. But, the paintings are also objects that convey a moment in time that is forever lost. That moment of jouissance where horror pushes right up against ecstasy as an explosive mimicry of death urge itself.

Where the oppression of weltschmerz has gripped much of painting in the 21st century, Francis Bacon saw a different vision of art. The current paradigm asserts a focus away from the Real but at the same time falsely asserts its place ironically. It is a denial of identity and faculty that accepts the reality presented to us, unquestioned and unrestrained without looking for the harder reality of sensation. Bacon apprehended sensation through jouissance by pushing the boundaries of paint handling and living with jouissance as often as he dared. He was disinterested in mass media and preferred the direct contact of the clubs, casinos and restaurants he frequented. This shielded him from the oppressive psychosis of postmodernism’s other, darker side, the Warholian side. Today, we are a postmodernists bound in the meta-narratives spun by the perpetual emissions of mass media. This corporate frame has replaced Bacon’s understanding of direct sensation with one of absolute denial of sensation. Pleasure and pain are no longer understood as close relations, instead pain is repudiated and pleasure has been elevated to heroic status. Pharmaceuticals, television, video games and computers have created a painless simulacra that has detached us almost entirely from the Real. True liberation for Bacon was to living close to death every day and therefore denying its power over us. The way he did this was to live free of guilt or shame, open and in pursuit of those things that grounded him the chaos of existence. In our overly nurtured, coddled, brainwashed world, objects are fraught with such imposed content they become sacred. We have lost touch with the realities of everyday experience and our art demonstrates it. The visceral language of living in the Real is wrought with violence, impermanence and decadence. Human beings are a violent, chaotic, unpredictable element within the world and denying so only makes us even more dangerous and destructive. Bacon knew it wasn’t melodrama to confront the Real in the fullest, but the only true way to live without going mad, as Dr. Nathan did in J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. This apparent duality formed the backbone of Bacon’s postmodern art, which stands in stark contrast to today’s lesser-evolved form. It is why a friend of his, Francis Moynihan once said; “Francis could be the sweetest person in the world and also the cruelest person in the world.”62 This was Bacon’s embrace of chaos and jouissance. The true lesson of postmodernism as Bacon saw it is not to consent to the endless ironic loop as a way of distracting us from the Real, but embrace the duality inherent in our own existence. Again, Žižek encapsulates this precisely; “We are too close to das Ding. That is the theological lesson of post-modernism. The mad, obscene God, the Supreme-Being-in-Evilness, is exactly the same as the God taken as the Supreme Good. The difference lies only in the fact that we got too close to Him.”63 In the end, Bacon’s power lay in his capacity to experience pure sensation and translate that into art that lives on as some of the most powerful and real of the 20th century.

For full references click here

 

 

'To See Bacon's entire oeuvre is a revelation'

 

 MARTIN HARRISON | APOLLO | THE INTERNATIONAL ART MAGAZINE | 29 MARCH 2016

 

             

                                       Study after Velázquez (1950), Francis Bacon

 

Working on a project as extensive as a catalogue raisonné, one incurs debts to countless individuals and organisations. At present I am completing the final section, the ‘Acknowledgements’, trying to ensure that no one who should be thanked is forgotten. In this section I have also briefly slipped into the first person, to remark that while I think I now know exactly how to produce a catalogue raisonné, when the project began 11 years ago, this was not the case. I believe my methodology was reasonably efficient, but with hindsight I suspect I would have changed the general approach in certain respects. Of course the standard apparatus – provenance, exhibition history – must be there (it was Rebecca Daniels’ task to research these topics, drawing information out of sometimes recalcitrant owners), but I anticipate criticism of the subjective aspects of my texts; though not, I trust, of the factual information.

For 10 years I have met twice yearly with my colleagues on the Francis Bacon Authentication Committee – Richard Calvocoressi, Hugh Davies, Norma Johnson, and Sarah Whitfield – to review paintings submitted for our consideration. Their advice has been invaluable, and has helped set the parameters of the project. I had to deal with strange questions from ‘outside’, for example about whether I intended to include Bacon’s ‘abandoned’ paintings in the catalogue, as though it were within my remit to be selective, to weed out paintings that I (or someone else) deemed inferior or unsuitable. I have deviated from the Committee’s precepts in only one respect: at the eleventh hour I drew back from including Bacon’s so-called ‘slashed’ canvases, the paintings that he destroyed by cutting out the ‘image’, leaving only tattered fragments of background hanging from the stretchers. The ruthless destruction of failed paintings was crucial to Bacon’s creative process, but I could not bring myself to have him represented by over 50 of these scraps. Anyone so inclined is free to research them; there are 40 in Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. The only destroyed paintings in the catalogue are those exhibited in Bacon’s lifetime (which are accessible in old catalogues) and three that were unfortunately lost in accidents while in private ownership.

To say that the most significant contribution in the catalogue is the illustrations rather than the words is not false modesty. To see Bacon’s entire oeuvre – 585 paintings – arranged in chronological order and illustrated in colour is a revelation. Until now the critical reception of his work has been predicated on less than half of that total, and consequently is skewed: there are not really so many ‘screaming popes’. It has been a great privilege to get close to almost every one of Bacon’s extant paintings. I was acutely aware that I was peering at paintings that very few people had ever seen, or knew only from small, rather dim black and white reproductions in the 1964 catalogue raisonné. Many of them were startling. Among Bacon’s statements about his artistic aims, the one he repeated most frequently was that he wanted to affect the viewer’s ‘nervous system’. When he achieves this his paintings induce a literally spine-tingling reaction – arguably more visceral (albeit not necessarily more profound, or moving) than experiencing Velázquez’s Las Meninas, Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at Kenwood – or whichever artworks turn you on.

In seeking to explain the impact of some of Bacon’s paintings, I have invoked biographical details, all too aware that this flouts current art-historical convention. Bacon became a great painter of the human body in 1949 and made many of his groundbreaking images during the next three years. But in 1952 he met Peter Lacy, who, though seldom identified in the paintings’ titles, became Bacon’s muse for the next decade. A high proportion of Bacon’s paintings were motivated by his feelings towards Lacy, which ranged from (perhaps surprising) affection to violence or the sexually transgressive. Bacon’s partially hidden agenda was similarly personal in 10 masterpieces of George Dyer that he painted between 1966 and 1968, which chronicle his frustrations with, and ambiguity towards, his younger partner: his search for ‘the Nietzsche of the football team’ was doomed to failure. There are many ways of looking at Bacon’s paintings, but there was undeniably a psychological impulse at play. In attempting to decode their iconography I do not pretend it is possible to penetrate all of their mysteries, but their palpable presence continues to suffuse our consciousness, posing questions.

Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné will be published in June by The Estate of Francis Bacon

 

 

 

"I haven't finished with Bacon yet" : an interview with Martin Harrison

 

MARTIN HARRISON | AMA | ART MEDIA AGENCY | 3 APRIL 2014 

 

Martin Harrison’s first publication on Francis Bacon was Points of Reference, published in 1999. Since then, the author has come to be established as one of the world’s leading writers on the artist’s work, publishing In Camera in 2005, and producing an accompanying essay for the artist’s  2009 centenary retrospective, held at Tate Britain, the Prado Madrid, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. AMA spoke to Martin Harrison about his latest work— a four-volume catalogue raisonné devoted to the artist — considering both the challenges of such a project, and its ramifications for our broader understanding of Bacon’s oeuvre. 

You’re the editor of Francis Bacon’s new catalogue raisonné. How did the project come about? 

The first piece I ever wrote about Bacon was in 1999. I was then asked by The Estate of Francis Bacon to write a book, which was published 9 or 10 years ago, called In Camera: Francis Bacon. David Sylvester had already died, though he was never in question for the catalogue raisonné — he’d probably had enough with Magritte — but his advice was very much sought by the Bacon Estate. And, I didn’t know this for a long time, but he put me forward to the Estate as a candidate to do the catalogue – so thank you David. When I’d finished In Camera, I thought I’d need six years to do the catalogue. That time’s now been somewhat exceeded, but we’ve made a last call for works — which really is a last call — and we really do mean to begin the publishing process at the end of October, with a view to releasing next May.

You’ve been working with The Estate of Francis Bacon – is there anyone else who proved particularly important to the project? 

Well, apart from museum archives, there’s not a specialist source to work with, except for Marlborough, who represented Bacon from 1958 until his death. The Bacon Estate had been involved in a court case against Marlborough – in hindsight an unfortunate affair which was expensive for both sides. When I began the catalogue, neither party was the best of friends. Luckily, however, after a few years a rapprochement was reached, and my assistant, Rebecca Daniels, and I were allowed access to their archives.

We could not have completed the project without Marlborough or without Valerie Beston, the person at Marlborough who looked after Bacon’s everyday interests. She’s since died, but we work with her former assistant Kate Austin, who is equally wonderful. Were it not for Miss Beston’s ‘old school’ English attention to detail and efficiency – keeping records which Bacon himself would never have done – the task would have been doubly impossible. One’s debt to her is impossible to pay: the fact that we have reliable records for the period from 1958 to 1992 is largely down to her.

The particular challenges of this project seem, not only time constraints and sourcing information, but claims that previously “undiscovered” authentic works have been found. Is this something which has been a distraction during the project? 

Absolutely, I can’t give a polite response to this, or say anything other than, yes, it has been a huge distraction. Quite honestly — and this is an approximate quantification — I’ve probably wasted a year on that rubbish. The worst has been a group of, shall we say, mischievous Italians: they claim to have far more drawings than there are authenticated Bacon paintings.

One has to deal with it and, though people have said “I don’t know why you bother, we all know it’s rubbish”, you can’t take that position when you’re almost, as it were, representing him. You’ve got to take each case seriously; you have to try and assemble some rational, empirical, or scientific reason as to why they’re wrong, because of course they will claim to be convinced that they are right.
The final call for works has, as I feared, not produced much, and it’s quite expensive to organize. But it has elicited one or two very worthwhile tips, along with a number of ridiculous fakes.

But are there not any gems amongst this rubbish? Has there been anything exciting amongst the ridiculous fakes? 

No, not among the rubbish. One person was particularly irate, though I felt they really ought to have thanked me. I happen to be interested, among many other things, in French neo-Romanticism of the 1930s. This person had misread the initials ‘EB’ on a rather fine work as ‘FB’, which, of course, would have added millions to its value. I told them that, if I owned it I would be very pleased – I’d love to have a work by Eugene Berman – although I still got a rude reply for passing on my correct attribution.

They were disappointed not to have a Bacon — 

Yes, but I regarded it as exciting – it was not a work I had ever seen, or which I knew to have been written about. I felt it was terrific.

Works by Bacon have sold for millions – with a 1969 triptych selling for $142.4 million during a recent sale at Christie’s.Why do you think that Bacon has such an enduring appeal amongst buyers? 

Search me! I can’t answer for collectors – it seems slightly daft to me. I haven’t seen any Caravaggios come onto the market in that time, but it’s quite possible that works by Bacon fetch more than any artist you might care to name. When I think what you could have for that money… I love Bacon, but I wouldn’t want to spend that kind of money – though unfortunately this is all hypothetical!

When you published Points of Reference, your first work on Bacon, had you already written about the artist? Why did you decide to? 

I didn’t decide to, I was just asked. I admired Bacon, though I’d never dreamed of writing about him. And I just thought how great. Yes, I’d love to, thank you very much.

Did you find that you already had thoughts on the artist, or did you find that you had to form your own opinion, and find your own “take” on Francis Bacon? 

Very much the latter.  I remember very clearly one of the very first Bacons I saw – and I still think it’s one of his greatest paintings. It’s called Landscape Near Malabata, Tangier (1963) and — it sounds stupid — I was a teenager and I thought, this is the work of a genius. This is one of the greatest works ever, and I don’t even begin to understand it, or understand why this is the case. I’m not sure I could explain it now. I can say a lot more about it, but whether that gets you anywhere I don’t know.

Has it ever been problematic to approach pictorial works through words?

At the time, there wasn’t the current body of work — this body of philosophy, of art theory — as opposed to connoisseurship-based art history. There was no way of approaching my first essay which might have had a solid philosophical, or quasi-philosophical framework. There was not so much writing on Bacon, apart from Sylvester’s interviews. Sam Hunter published a good thing in America in 1952, but I didn’t have access to it at that time. There were some good pieces of writing by critics in art magazines and so on, but there wasn’t much.

Was the lack of publications on Bacon at this time liberating or challenging? 

Given the plethora of publications available now — you might say the excess — I think it probably was liberating. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but I do think it would be liberating not to have most of the bilge that’s been written on him – probably by me, too!

Did you feel that anything you wrote had to acknowledge the work of other critics, or situate itself within existing theories on Bacon’s works? 

I think it would be impossible to avoid that now, yes. The people who used to write about Bacon — David Sylvester, John Russell — are no longer with us, and there’s no one who’s doing that kind of writing now.
Even writing by James Elkins — an American art historian who I think is a cut above the rest — has a kind of bias towards theory. The commercial catalogues for galleries are already constrained: it’s hard to say an artist is rubbish when you’re being paid a couple of thousand dollars to write an essay.

There’s very little objective art criticism anymore. But there’s a huge amount of publications that probably don’t sell, and aren’t much above a PhD thesis, but they will now get published, and are adding to the volume of Bacon writing. Whether they’re adding anything very useful on Bacon, I don’t know.

How did you approach the catalogue? Did you look at works in isolation, or was the piece biographical? If the latter, what were your sources, and were you ever conscious of ventriloquizing Bacon?

The approach certainly isn’t biographical, and I don’t feel it would be appropriate in a catalogue raisonné. Of course, the man had a life, and that his life was inextricable from what he painted seems pretty obvious, even if those in the post-Deleuze camp wouldn’t accept that.

I’m not so interested in biography as such, though the last volume of our catalogue, which is to be published in 4 parts, will feature a pretty lengthy chronology. There was a catalogue raisonné by John Rothenstein and Ronald Alley published midway through Bacon’s career in 1964 – a single volume work which covers less than half of his oeuvre, but which is nevertheless very helpful.  At the time, Bacon himself was still alive: that limited what you could say, because he either wouldn’t allow it, or wouldn’t talk about it. But they did include a brief but useful chronology, and we intend a much lengthier one. But it remains factual: I don’t want someone’s interpretation of what it meant, say, when he went to South Africa in January 1951.

The catalogue raisonné is a very complete study of an artist. Does the work represent you coming to terms with the artist as it were, or having a final say on his practice?

No, absolutely not, I don’t think the subject will ever be exhausted. I’m trying to produce a work which remains fairly brief in the introduction, but which deals with the broader subdivisions under which one might approach Bacon — things about him which have to be taught in a way: his materials, how they changed, how that might affect expression and so on. But there will be a subjective element — alongside exhibition history, provenance, size and medium — with bits of text by me because I think so many of his paintings are great and I want to say something about them — tough!

Nevertheless, now that the end is in sight, and we’ve started the layouts for the whole thing and so on, I’ve realised that — however clever I might think I am, or whatever someone else might think of what I write — the real contribution is to make Bacon’s paintings available. Unlike the Rothenstein and Alley’s catalogue, everything is to be illustrated in full-page colour, and I think that will radically alter the way people look at Bacon.
I realised that, over the last twenty years or so, the majority of writing on Bacon has focused on a group of about 150 paintings, which represents only a quarter of the artist’s total oeuvre. Many works aren’t written about because they’re in private collections; there’s a good number which have seldom, if ever, been exhibited. The catalogue raisonné means that, suddenly, paintings which have been ignored, and which most people don’t know of, will appear as full-colour illustrations.

I think — and I don’t take any credit for this — that it will change the nature of his oeuvre, and how it is perceived. And that’s probably the single most important thing to come out of the catalogue raisonné, and the reason for doing it: it comes back, as it should, to what he painted.

You’ve also curated a number of exhibitions – often on a rather large and impressive scale. When did you first begin curating? Did you come to the field after your written work? 

When I had more to do with photography, I did exhibitions all over the world, many of which were quite big. For Bacon, there’s a show that’s just finished at Oxford’s Ashmolean – currently travelling to Canada – which is on Bacon and Henry Moore. My accompanying essay is really about Bacon and sculpture rather than Bacon and Moore. I know it’s done, but although I think it’s necessary to view the artist in a broad context, I’m quite concerned by the vogue for binary oppositions.

The idea for the exhibition came from a discussion with Richard Calvocoressi, who was Director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, but who became Director of the Henry Moore Foundation halfway through the catalogue’s production. It was one of those things that you discuss over a glass of wine: Richard said “oh, we should do Bacon and Moore – and I said yeah, we should”. It was as intellectually basic as that.
But, as we worked on it, we actually became very excited. Though I think the artists are probably more marked by their differences than their similarities, they both dealt with the human body. This was manifested in different ways, but I think the comparison is very illuminating.

I’m planning only one exhibition, and have no ambition to do any more. The show, which will be held in Monaco in 2016, aims to explore Bacon’s relationship with French culture. The artist was the world’s number one Francophile: the country meant more to him than anywhere else, and the Grand Palais exhibition in 1971 was the most important moment in his professional life.

Are there any other artists you’re particularly interested in? Do you have any other projects apart from the 2016 exhibition? 

I haven’t necessarily finished with Bacon, because the catalogue raisonné is not the only way of approaching his work. I’m currently writing on Jenny Saville and Egon Schiele or an exhibition at the Kunsthalle, Zürich, which opens in October. Both are artists that interest me a lot, and the new Curator, Oliver Wick, came here to see me, and I thought he seemed bright and full of ideas. I could hardly refuse. It seemed such an intelligent thing.
You can imagine straight away that my first question was how would he deal with relatively small works by Egon Schiele and the vast Savilles. Wick was of course aware of that, and has thought of an ideal solution. I liked his ideas and I’m very pleased to be doing it. To be honest, I was thinking I wouldn’t do it, I’ve got enough to do. People may believe it would be better if I were put out to grass, but I’m not ready for that: I’ve hardly begun.

 

 

The attribution of drawings to Francis Bacon

 

by Martin Harrison, June 2011


This essay looks at the issues surrounding the attribution of drawings to Francis Bacon (1909–1992) and the specific example of the drawings from the collection of Cristiano Ravarino.

 

Bacon’s drawing

We probably know more about Bacon than any other modern artist. The extensive contents of Bacon’s studio, painstakingly catalogued and stored by the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, provide an unusually comprehensive ‘control’ sample of Bacon’s artistic output. It does not represent it in its entirety, but contains material from the 1930s to his death. The sample also accords closely to the broader body of securely attributed works (by which I mean those that have sound provenance and are not in any way contested) held in major national collections. These provide a reliable point of comparison for works of art that may or may not be by Bacon in other collections.

As David Sylvester noted, with regard to format, ‘Bacon tended to get set in his ways’. There is evidence that at the very beginning of his career he made a few simple drawings in traditional media on traditional supports, but by the 1960s he had stopped.

Untitled (Biomorphic Figure) c1933 [ink on lined paper, 167 x 121 mm, Dublin Art Gallery, The Hugh Lane, RM98F1, is an extremely rare survival from the 1930s. Figure in a Landscape, c1952 [oil on paper, 339 x 263 mm, Tate, purchased for Tate Gallery from the poet and friend of Bacon, Stephen Spender in 1998, represents the extreme degree of elaboration for any graphic work of the late 1940s or early 1950s, but is still relatively simple. It is also in some sense a painting as, like much of Bacon’s graphic work, it is executed in oil. The period we are concerned with in this paper, c. 1980s, is much better served for evidence of Bacon’s output and methods. More material has survived from the 1960s–80s, after Bacon moved to his final studio in Reece Mews in 1961 and Bacon’s extensive interviews with the critic David Sylvester span the same period, 1962–86.


Drawing/notation 1960-92

The status of Bacon’s drawing during the 1960s–80s is very clear. If we mean by ‘drawing’ a considered and substantial set of graphic marks made over a significant time period (more than 10 minutes or so) with professional drawing media on professional supports, then Bacon did not draw. If we mean works on paper respectfully kept, signed, framed, given, sold or exhibited, then Bacon did not draw. If we mean a small number of marks made in the space of minutes, even seconds, then Bacon did draw, but it is unsurprising that he did not advertise or circulate this kind of graphic practice under that name, or that he often cleared them away with studio detritus. I shall call them ‘notations,’ to distinguish them from the more traditional forms mentioned above which I shall call ‘drawing’. Notations were a part of the artist’s process, his ‘workings’. They vary from the guidelines he laid down on a canvas before painting to as little as 2 or 3 strokes on a scrap of paper or printed image, for example a page torn from L Duissler, Die Zeichnungen des Michelangelo [(Berlin, Gebr. Mann, 1959), Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. Only 41 examples of this kind of graphic work on paper, dating from the 1930s to the 1980s, were found in Bacon’s studio at his death.6 ‘Rough sketches’ on canvas made prior to painting comprised the same kind and number of marks as the notations on paper, but on a larger scale; for example, the unfinished canvas Untitled (Seated Figure), c1979 [oil on canvas, 1920 x 1470mm, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, and Untitled (figure), c 1979 [pencil on tracing paper, 399 x 294mm folded, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. If this is drawing then it is drawing that Bacon did not conceal, he just described it in other words. Sylvester’s particular use of the term ‘secret vice’ in his discussion of Bacon’s preparatory work has been over-determined. It refers to the naturally non-public nature of slight source materials such as notations, printed matter and text used by Bacon in the studio, and to Sylvester’s gradually evolving understanding of it. References to the secrecy of this practice are not useful; one might as well comment on the fact that Bacon kept over-painted parts of his paintings secret; the notations were simply a superseded part of a process. Neither Bacon nor those who knew him were ambiguous about the existence of them, and the studio was not out of bounds. Confusion may have arisen due to critics’ use of the words ‘sketch’ and ‘drawing’ for both the notation that Bacon did do and the more conventional kind of preliminary work that Bacon didn’t do. Sylvester recorded his memory of not realising the implications of the first notations he saw in the 1960s. Although he called them ‘small pencil-sketches for paintings’ they were not conventional preparatory drawings. They were notations; as Sylvester says, ‘in the endpapers of his copy of a paperback edition of poems by T. S. Eliot’, 20mm high and comprising no more than 20 quick strokes (David Sylvester archive, un-catalogued, Tate Gallery Archive). Sylvester proposed the idea of there being no preliminary drawing because he was very pre-occupied with understanding Bacon’s implementation of what he called ‘accident’ on the canvas and on such a large scale, but this did not stop him from publishing Bacon’s clarification of the matter: In 1962 Sylvester asked: ‘And you never work from sketches or drawings, you never do a rehearsal for a picture?’ Bacon replied: ‘any sketches that I did before could only give a kind of skeleton, possibly of the way the thing might happen’ Sylvester was asking about sketches as drawings, rehearsals; Bacon replied about sketches only as notations. He reiterated the point in a BBC Interview of 1966 and in 1986, the last interview, when Sylvester again suggested that he did entirely without preliminary drawings, Bacon clarified once more: ‘I sketch out very roughly on the canvas with a brush, just a vague outline of something, and then I go to work, generally using very large brushes, and I start painting immediately then gradually it builds up’.

Bacon is entirely consistent in his practice and his statements about it. He does not draw in the sense of traditional preliminary drawings; he does draw in the sense of notations on the canvas or elsewhere, ‘a kind of skeleton’, ‘a vague outline of something’. Sylvester’s conclusion on this is worth quoting at length: Bacon wasn’t prevaricating… there is a huge difference between his sketches and Miro’s [for example] in that the latter’s are precise studies and that the canvases are more or less precise enlargements of them, whereas with Bacon the sketches are quick, expressionistic and summary. What counted for him was what happened when he put on the paint. The sketches were no more than tryouts for layouts and, as he said to me in 1979, ‘I don’t think the layout of my pictures is to me really that important. I mean you can use the same layout for the whole of your life. It’s the way they are painted that matters'. One difference between ‘drawings’ and ‘notations’ (in the sense I am defining them) that has been crucial to critics’ interest in the former and neglect of the latter was their commercial potential. Drawings, even preparatory drawings, have an established market; As Sylvester noted, Bacon’s notations were ‘never’ made for anything other than private, studio use. They were valued as records and financial assets by other people late in his career, especially after his death. Notations made on paper were not generally made on professional supports that were appropriate for display or for preservation, and remained in the studio or were thrown away. The only exceptions pre-date 1961. They are a set of loose sheets torn from sketchbooks (26 from a spiral bound sketchbook of woven paper, 9 from a smaller sketchbook with a perforated edge) left in a book given to Paul Danquah and Peter Pollock in c.1960 and purchased for the Tate 1998. There are also three further paintings on paper purchased with the earlier Figure in a Landscape, from Stephen Spender. None are signed, but their conventional support and their departure from the studio does place them in a slightly different category. This may be due to the majority of works being partly or wholly in oil like Figure in a Landscape, scaled down versions of Bacon’s method on canvas, see Falling Figure c1957–61, [pencil and oil on paper, 340x 270 mm, Tate.

The works in the Ravarino Collection are not in oil and are drawings in the traditional sense, not notations. They are exhibited in large groups of very similar works. For example, 51 were exhibited at the Werkstatt Galerie, Berlin in 2010. This set is at least 640 x 450mm, many nearly a metre high or over, twice the size of any extant graphic work on paper by Bacon. They are on clean ‘architect paper’, drawing paper, or drawing board, none of which it was Bacon’s habit to use. An example is Ravarino 2010 no. 16 [pencil on drawing board, 995 x 700mm, Ravarino Collection. Unlike Bacon’s attributed notations or even his handful of drawings in oil, they are inscribed with Bacon’s name. Bacon’s firmly attributed works include no precedent for a signed drawing, for an extended series of similar drawings, for a drawing that was not a preparatory sketch, or for drawings on a scale over 400mm. Thus it is extremely unlikely that the Ravarino series of large drawings are from Bacon’s studio or his hand. With an artist of Bacon’s importance, however, it is prudent to look into the style of the works, as well.

Comparison with attributed works

In excess of six hundred drawings from the Ravarino collection are said to exist or have been brought forward, far in excess of the less than one hundred graphic works on paper that have firm authentication. Those circulated since 1997 are more consistent in style, composition and medium than the Bacon notations. I shall use examples from the Werkstatt Galerie in 2010. As they are untitled and undated, they are identified by the date of their exhibition and catalogue number. In order to evaluate them it is necessary to identify works incontestably attributed to Bacon that are the closest in date and type. In the case of an artist about whom so much is known, this would be easy if the Ravarino works were part of his oeuvre; it is not. The lack of anything approaching a conventional drawing in Bacon’s output from 1960 onwards and the profound differences between his notations and the works in the Ravarino collection make it difficult to find comparators. The six notations in Tate that are executed in pencil on drawing paper (from two different sketchbooks) are the closest – see Man on a Bed c.1957–61 [Tate, pencil on paper, 254 x 190 mm. and Seated Woman c1957-61 [Tate, pencil on paper, 254 x 190 mm]. Although they do not coincide in date, are not signed and not a series or set, in some respects they are useful in providing comparisons to the Ravarino works. The only notations in relatively conventional mediums and supports from the early 1980s are a small number of ink or pencil notations on tracing paper or paper scarps found in Bacon’s studio at his death, such as Untitled (Figure), c. 1979. One notation is, unusually, on a pad of paper, Untitled (Torso and legs), 1980s [pencil on paper, 298 x 21 mm, Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, ARM98F103:8]; yet it is not a sketchbook; it is a ring-binder refill pad purchased from a newsagent and no other sheets are used. Since no notations coincide with the compositions of the Ravarino drawings, some comparisons can only be made by looking at Bacon’s paintings. I have chosen a late image of a Pope and a self-portrait of the date that Ravarino says his drawings were made (c. 1980s), as the closest in period, subject matter and arrangement.
A comparison of ‘hands’

In the nineteenth century the art historian Giovanni Morelli placed attribution through the study of ‘style’ and particularly individual ‘hand’ on a systematic, diagnostic basis, known as the Morellian method. It raised insignificant details unlikely to be noticed by students or imitators (such as ears, or automatically rendered components such as architectural frameworks), above the significant or obvious aspects of medium, composition, style and subject matter.

1. Framework:

Typically, Bacon’s places an organic form within geometric space made up of lines. These make a good starting point. The lines on drawings in the Ravarino collection act as a backdrop for the figure, see Ravarino 2010 no. 4 [pencil on drawing board, 995 x 700mm, Ravarino Collection. Even orthogonal lines at the bottom of the drawings, which conventionally suggest three dimensional space, read as background pattern, see Ravarino 2010 no. 39, [pencil on board, 995 x 700mm, Ravarino Collection. Bacon used lines according to a different underlying principle. His lines contain the figure, locating it powerfully in space; and raise the figure up, he wrote ‘the alteration of level is, from my point of view, very important. If we compare any of Ravarino’s centrally positioned man/popes with a picture of the same format, Study from Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1965, oil on canvas, 1980 x 1475, private collection, we can see Bacon’s lines run behind and in front of the figure. The same is true of Bacon’s notations on paper: The setting of Untitled (figure mounting a step), 1980s [pencil on tracing paper, 420 x 295mm, the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, RM98F15:48, looks at first glance similar to the setting of Ravarino 2010 no. 4, while its lines enclose and raise the figure and those on Ravarino 2010 no. 4 do not.

2. Framework of the eyes:

There are no precedents for Bacon notating a full face and features on paper. Even if we were to accept that the Ravarino drawings are a one-off, again the features themselves are made according to a different underlying principle than Bacon’s. Bacon looked at the marks that make up the eye in a Rembrandt. There are hardly any sockets to the eyes, that it is almost completely anti-illustrational... there is a coagulation of non-representational marks which have led to making this very great image.

We can see that this is true of Bacon’s eyes as well. Most of his heads are more distorted than the heads in the Ravarino drawings; Three Studies for a Self- Portrait, 1979–80 [oil on canvas, 375 x 318mm, MoMA, New York is one of the least distorted, so gives us the closest possible comparison. Even so, it is very different. What we experience as seeing an eye and lid in a socket in the Bacon is, in fact, like the Rembrandt, a collection of swatches of paint; none of them literally and entirely describe the structure of an eye. The eyes of drawings in the Ravarino collection, such as Ravarino 2010 no. 39 and no. 4, collection are composed of a circular pupil, sometimes with a small black circle within, capped by a line that equates to the lid which sometimes even continues round to define the lower lid as well; Bacon would call this ‘illustrational’. Sometimes the eye is rubbed or drawn over, but in all cases there is a discrete diagram of the eye. The socket in Three Studies for a Self- Portrait is created by the same swathes of paint as the eye.

Ravarino 2010 no. 4 and others suggest the socket separately by a closed oval and circle that is also reminiscent of spectacles. If Bacon chose to emphasise the oval of the socket he did not do it illustrationally like this, by means of a complete oval shape, but by a combination of marks that simultaneously suggested adjacent forms of the face as well, locking them all together. A very simple example is the large, dark ٨ above the right eye of the central figure in Bacon’s Three Studies for a Self-Portrait. This single mark contributes to the sense of the lid as curving into the nose, the projection of the brow, and to the recession of the temple and the sharpness of the cheekbone on the opposite side of the eye. Bacon does occasionally use self-contained ovals, as in Triptych 1976 [oil and pastel on canvas, 1980 x 1475, private collection], but they are not part of the face at all.

3. Marks

The virtuosity of the range of marks collected in a Bacon is one of the reasons his paintings are valued so highly and compared with Rembrandt and Velasquez. Three Studies for a Self- Portrait is a wonderful example, but in order to provide a comparison restricted by the limitations of the pencil medium, we need to look at the drawings in the Ravarino collection and Bacon’s rare pencil drawings in the Tate. A general glance at Man on a Bed c1957–61 and Seated Woman c1957–61 tells us that the Ravarino drawings lack the agility of line of the Bacon’s pencil notations. There is no hint of the vivacity and graphic skill of the Japanese art or old masters Bacon admired, of his own idiosyncratic and inventive mark making.

Bacon’s Man on a Bed, c.1957–61 shows us:

a) Bacon varied the pressure exerted on the pencil – In Man on a Bed the lines are heavy and light. The drawings in the Ravarino collection are made up almost entirely of marks of the same width and intensity. The only variation occurs when the has been smudged afterwards or an eraser has been used to reduce them. There is no distinction between the kind of marks used for straight lines or free, curved lines. The fact that many of the straight lines have been made with a ruler, by drawing the pencil along at an even rate and pressure, is further evidence that curved lines of the same width and intensity were also drawn with a neutral, uniform press on the paper.

b) Bacon never simply ended a line, they end in suggestive ways by turning or lifting or pressing the pencil. Man on a Bed we see a disappearing trail (middle right hand horizontal), flicks, an emphatic cut (horizontal into the figure’s groin). The lines of the Ravarino drawings do not have expressive or varied ends. The lines stop when they reach the figure and then continue on the other side, as though they have been put in afterwards. Bacon’s often run through the figure.

c) Bacon’s lines change direction in different ways - a sharp angle or a gentle swerve. A very specific comparison can be made between the handling of undulation in the Ravarino drawings and Man on a Bed. The Ravarino drawings use wavy lines a lot but without much variation. The designation of the centre of the Pope’s cape in Ravarino 2010 no. 2 and no. 3 [pencil on drawing board, 995 x 700mm and 640 x 445mm, Ravarino Collection and no. 4, simply snakes back and forth. If the viewer imitates making the line with their hand they can feel the relaxed nature of the wrist. The same applies to loping or looping lines such as the edge of the cape. Bacon’s undulations, by contrast, vary according to the form that is being suggested. For example, in Man on a Bed a fuller curve for the bulging thigh muscle changes to a smaller one for the knee further on. If the viewer imitates making the line of this leg, the wrist is necessarily tense and controlled. Bacon’s undulations provide rhythm and movement and energise the line in a way that the relaxed Ravarino drawings do not. Compare the cape of Ravarino 2010 no. 2 and no. 4 with the cape of Study from Portrait of Pope Innocent X.

d) Bacon integrates interior and exterior . The Ravarino lines are either contour, enclosing a shape (such as the hats, heads, penis and testicles, capes, lapels, even hands), or they are filling inside a contour, usually hatching (such as the filled-in pupil and filled-in beard of Ravarino 2010 no. 4 or the filled in face of no. 16 and no. 39. The contours of Bacon’s Seated Woman and Man on a Bed are typical in that they weave contour and texture, outside with inside, together, a technique also seen in Rodin, Rembrandt and Michelangelo. Bacon commended this in his statement on Matthew Smith: ‘a complete interlocking of image and paint, so that the image is the paint and vice versa. Here the brushstroke creates the form and does not merely fill it in.

This is very clear; Bacon does not favour separate outlines like those found in the Ravarino drawings) Bacon does not repeat the same mark. The back and forth hatching in many of the drawings in the Ravarino collection, although sometimes altered afterwards by rubbing or erasing, is automatic and regular. Bacon’s hatching varies constantly to create nuances of the form and texture. The lines that fill in the head and décolletage of Seated Woman are not like the lines that fill in the head of Ravarino 2010 no.4 (or no. 16, no. 39 or many others). Bacon’s lines cross between the inside and outside the form and they are irregular so that they suggest the jowl, the eye, the throat diving into the cleavage, and so on.

4. Repetition

The mark of an exceptional artist is the mark itself, no mark is ever repeated; each is a new thought on a problem. This is an observation made by Seymour Slive on the graphic work of Rembrandt, but it certainly applies, in general, to Francis Bacon. The repeated shapes that are so common in the Ravarino drawings violate the principles of asymmetry, invention and research that are fundamental to Bacon’s notation. The identical left ear on Ravarino 2010 no. 2 and no. 3, is a good example, as are the repeated circles that are used to notate buttons in other drawings; again compare these with the complex cape of Study from Portrait of Pope Innocent X. The re-use of the rounded back and forth line for both lapels in Ravarino 2010 nos. 2, 4 and 39, or the even simpler cape curves either side, are typical of many repetitions and simplifications of this kind.

The Ravarino drawings reduce and summarise the lapel, rather than investigated it, and the way it relates to other parts of the form as Bacon does. He understands, from Michelangelo and Rodin for example, the way that asymmetry enlivens a form, especially a centralised form, such as the portrait format. The white shirt collars in Bacon’s Three Studies for a Self- Portrait’s appear at first glance symmetrical like those in the Ravarino drawings, but they are not; they are different combinations of marks: On the left, a dark stroke under a thin light stroke on the left ends sharply; on the right, two more blended light strokes divided by a central dark streak in the middle end in a fade. Compare also the repetitive notation of the fingers of the hand in Ravarino 2010 no. 2.

No one who has contemplated and enjoyed hands, looked at Rembrandt’s heartbreakingly clumsy hands or thought as carefully about Michelangelo as Bacon did, could make these. In fact Bacon’s hands are often condensed into clubs; digits are more clearly distinguished in feet. They are never a regular row of loops.

There are no drawings of hands to compare, but a similar fan of rounded forms representing a reclining figure can demonstrate the difference between shapes that are differentiated, like Bacon’s and automatically repeated, like the Ravarino drawings, Untitled (based on Michelangelo, Night, The New Sacristy), no date, [pencil on chain-laid manufactured paper, 298 x 21 mm, Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, RM98F125:8].

42 works on paper, most of them in oil, have been identified as Bacon’s graphic work in national collections. A further 41 graphic notations were found in the studio. These were far exceeded by printed material that served a similar function of suggesting motifs and forms for paintings. 83 graphic works is a tiny number from a fifty year career from which 600 paintings on canvas survive. Bacon left over a 100 abandoned canvases in the Reece Mews studio alone. Notation was an important but tiny proportion of Bacon’s practice. A series of 51 pencil drawings such as those in the Ravarino collection (and even more so the alleged total of over 600 drawings) is dramatically inconsistent with this pattern.

Artists make drawings for different reasons: as a preparatory stage towards a more final work of art, or as a final work of art in itself, or both. Bacon made preparatory notations throughout his career, especially in the transitional period 1959–62. A few made before 1962 could be considered simple drawings and a few left the studio, but after this date all attributed work took the form of preparatory notations.

There is no precedent for Bacon making finished drawings as self-sufficient works of art, like those in the Ravarino collection. The medium of the Ravarino drawings is not consistent with Bacon’s graphic practice. The studio contents revealed that almost all ‘preliminary studies’ were printed images, many modified by damage, folds or marks. Some printed matter or other forms of paper bear lines or notations. The small number of these lines, there can be only as little as one or two, and their quick gestural nature, suggest that they occupied the artist for a matter of seconds rather than minutes. There is no evidence of consistent use of any particular drawing medium or support with the exception of tracing paper (of which there are 12).

Supports tend to be materials that were ‘to hand’, an envelope, fly-leaf, piece of card, or letter paper. There was no surface in the Reece Mews studio on which to accommodate sheets of the size used for the drawings in the Ravarino collection other than the artist’s knee. There are no pin marks on the corners of the drawings. There is no evidence of Bacon’s regular use of pencil. Bacon’s mediums tended to be ‘wet’– ink, felt-tip or paint; pencil is slippery on tracing paper.

Bacon drew a great deal, in the sense that he explored graphic marks all the time, but he was one of many artists of his era who dispensed with paper and mostly drew directly on the canvas in oil. He found it less useful to explore marks in a different medium or on a different surface. The 100 abandoned canvases might also be considered as preparatory work. This was because the marks were very dependent on the medium in which they were made and because he was specialising to an unusual degree in the kind of marks that can be made with paint, evolving a very sophisticated understanding and virtuosity. Mark making in other media was not effective ‘preparation:’‘ not very helpful in my kind of painting as the actual , texture, colour, the whole way the paint moves, are so accidental, any sketches that I did before could only give a kind of skeleton, possibly of the way the thing might happen’.

The fundamental principle of Bacon’s graphic work was transformation. Notations changed their source image, and were in turn changed themselves. Tracing paper is particularly appropriate for this. The 12efficient works on this surface couldn’t be more different from the laboured Ravarino drawings in this respect. For example, Untitled (based on Michelangelo, Night, the New Sacristy) registered Michelangelo’s sculpture in the new form of five, fanned loops. The subsequent crumpling of the paper was another kind of notation that condensed and altered the image again and suggests sculptural drapery forms. Untitled (kneeling figure) [pencil on tracing paper, 416 x 295 mm, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, RM98F107:25B] comprises a mere 8 pencil lines on tracing paper which summarise a headless kneeling torso and legs with a shadow. RM98F107:25A [pencil on tracing paper, 416 x 295 mm, Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane] reduced the same form to 4 lines 2 continuous, two brusque. Another fifth pencil line alters the shadow to echo the knee. RM98F107:25C [pencil on tracing paper, 416 x 295 mm, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane] adds setting, placing the figure against framing lines and reconfiguring the thighs on a more downward slant. This paper is not crumpled but folded, perhaps to make it less transparent and heighten contrast. The line provided by the edge folded into the middle contributes another tramline. This and other preparatory work was further transformed by accidents of reproduction, age and defacement. ‘By establishing, isolating and transforming the image, Bacon could then use the sketch as a point of departure for work on a larger scale. He is extremely unlikely to have repeated old (indeed obsolete, in his oeuvre) motifs to the extent that they are repeated and elaborated in the Ravarino collection.

Conclusion

Bacon evolved a ‘unique technical vocabulary’ in all mediums. He was dismissive towards those who had a simplistic and under-informed concept of the artist and about what they did, including drawing. He was acutely aware that modern art had moved on, that the interdependence of mark and medium was being explored in a vastly expanded array of tools, vehicles and surfaces of which charcoal, pencil and ink on paper were an important, but small subset. He distanced himself from the latter. His famous quip to Michael Ayrton, ‘Is drawing what you do? I wouldn’t want to do that’, makes most sense if taken most literally: he wasn’t interested in drawing in the limited sense that Ayrton ‘did’. Bacon’s statement about Giacometti’s drawing being his best work, sometimes taken to imply belittlement of the sculptor’s modelling, or sculpture in general, 35 is a perfectly transparent statement, reiterating Sylvester’s appraisal of Giacometti’s drawing as ‘perhaps the most perfect aspect of his art’.

Bacon discarded the traditional polarisations between drawing and painting, line and hue, even painting and sculpture, and expanded the role of the graphic mark in all sorts of ways. Bacon ‘drew’ on canvas with paint. In this medium he developed breathtaking skill and it provided tests, problems, accidents and revelations that he had by no means exhausted even at his death. There was no reason for him to take up a pencil and draw its dry, confined, monotone lead across an expanse of a clean, uneventful, uniform, white surface – that is not what Bacon ‘did’.

 

 

Feigned or Faux?

 

BY ANDREW ACQUIER | THE EXPERT WITNESS JOURNAL | SUMMER 2014

 

More recently I was involved in an expert witness case involving a number of allegedly fake Francis Bacon works that had been offered to a consortium led by an experienced dealer. This involved six purported Bacon large scale drawings that had been executed by the artist and given to one of his then boyfriends, Cristiano Ravarino. Ravarino has claimed that between 300 and 600 of these large scale drawings (depending on which conversation was referenced) had been given to him by the artist as Bacon did not wish them to be included with the rest of his known work. Furthermore Bacon had claimed that he did not draw, although a small number of his oil sketches were extant as preparatory studies for finished oil paintings, but nothing in pencil. He had even cut the face out of several portraits with which he was unhappy, indicating how concerned he was as to how his work should be judged.

These six pieces had been offered alongside a basket of works that the dealer had understood had come directly from John Edwards, Bacon’s last boyfriend and the inheritor of part of his estate. When John died, his brother David inherited John’s estate. A premium price was sought, given the provenance direct from the artist. A deal was struck and money changed hands. At roughly the same time, another group, represented by a second dealer, bought another six large scale drawings from Edwards. The new owners of the first six, who had in place a potential sale to another collector, then submitted their works to the Francis Bacon Authentication Committee and were alarmed when these were rejected. The Committee stated that the style was “inconsistent with all the sketches and paintings currently attributed to Bacon.”  The consortium then tried to rescind the sale and get their money back. This was refused and legal action commenced.

I was then contacted by solicitors to value all the drawings and the ‘basket’ collection. It was clear to me from the start that these were works that appeared to imitate Francis Bacon’s style, without communicating any feeling whatsoever. Francis Bacon’s finished oil paintings have a contortion and tension about them that is unmistakeable. How could it be lacking here? After exercising due diligence and research into comparables, I valued them at a great deal less than the $1,000,000 or so that the new owners had hoped to achieve for each in selling them on. My report was then submitted.

When the case came to court, Martin Harrisonn, the Chair of the Bacon Authentication Committee and the editor of the artist’s Catalogue Raisonne, due to be published later this year, also came to give evidence and stated that the drawings were not by Francis Bacon. There had been a complication in that some of the drawings from the Ravarino source had previously been featured in a court case in Italy and the judge in that trial had declared those particular drawings not to be fakes. The court had also ruled that some of the signatures were by Bacon. In the case where I had given Expert Witness, the judge determined that all the drawings put before the court were forgeries. The London Appeal Court rejected a bid to introduce new evidence in October 2013.

This leads us to another question. How should we assess the paintings produced by an assistant in an artist’s studio? They are clearly not fakes or forgeries, but are they to be regarded as genuine works? In the case of, for example, Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599 – 1641), the artist, once successful, maintained a large London workshop, where he usually made a sketch, which an assistant then enlarged on canvas. Van Dyck then returned to paint the head and other flesh tones and left his assistants to complete the work; specialists in painting clothes were engaged where necessary. So a form of production line was created. In valuing a work by Van Dyck, it is essential to establish how much of the painting is ‘autograph’/actually his own work. Before establishing his studio he painted all of the work himself. So the value here will depend on the perceived involvement of the artist as adjudged by experts.

So how can we be sure that a fake is a fake and not a misidentified masterpiece? A great deal currently depends on the opinion of the world specialist, of which there are often more than one, working as a committee. And experts change their minds depending on the evidence placed in front of them. It can work the other way – the Rembrandt authentication committee sits every seven years and takes a fresh look at all the works fully attributed to the artist at that time. If a majority vote decides that a particular work is not genuine, then it is un-Rembrandted. Who the owner is makes no difference. Even the last Duke of Westminster had a previously authenticated painting’s authenticity reversed.

Can you be sure that you are looking at the real McCoy? It is all down to the level of scholarship that applies that day. There are often only temporary guarantees of authenticity, rarely definitive ones. You can never take it as read that historic authentication will apply when a painting is reoffered for sale. With increasing levels of professionalism Arts Surveyors are at the forefront of ensuring that owners get the correct levels of identification based on current evidence.

 

 

In Bacon's existential zone

MATTHEW WESTWOOD | ARTS CORRESPONDENT SYDNEY

 

THE AUSTRALIAN | OCTOBER 30, 2012

                              Francis Bacon's Three Studies for a Self-Portrait (1979-80). 

 

FRANCIS Bacon seduces the viewer like a bottle of whisky and a grope under the table. One way or another, he'll drag you into his thrillingly dangerous world - or you'll straighten your skirt and run from the room.

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

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

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

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

Bacon's story is a gift for biographers, dramatists and hagiographers. Born in Dublin in 1909, he was thrashed by his puritanical father, who discovered him wearing his mother's underwear.

The beating gave him an appetite for sado-masochistic sex, he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"He obviously pinned them on to a canvas and painted around them," Cappock says.

"It's not something you expect."

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

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

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

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

Bond points out the different methods Bacon used.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Francis Bacon's 'repentances'

 

The complicated story of the artist's so-called Italian drawings

 

By Mimi Fronczak Rogers |The Prague Post | July 11, 2012

 

The selection of three dozen large-format drawings at the Gate Gallery was brought to Prague by a curatorial team composed of Serena Baccaglini, the renowned English art historian Edward Lucie-Smith and Monika Burian Jourdan, the director of Prague's Vernon Gallery.

The show presents two dozen pencil drawings and a dozen vividly coloured mixed-media works. All are from the private collection of Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino from Bologna, Italy. All are prominently signed and have been dated between 1980 and 1992 by the curators.

They undeniably relate to themes that obsessed Bacon throughout his career - portraits, popes (based on paintings by Diego Velázquez) and crucifixions - and clearly possess the defining feature of his work: a radical deformation of the figure to convey underlying emotion.

The curators propose that Bacon (1909-92) and Hrabal (1914-97), who never met, were kindred spirits: "If Hrabal were a painter he would paint like Bacon, and if Bacon were a writer he would write like Hrabal."

There are five text excerpts by Hrabal in the gallery to support this, although the exhibition catalog goes further to explore links between the "two geniuses" of the show's title.

As for the drawings themselves, Edward Lucie-Smith believes these were "presentation drawings," made to commemorate his friendship with Ravarino. But he also views them as "recapitulations, summing up the essence of what Bacon tried to do."

By Ravarino's account, he met bacon in Rome in 1977 and Bacon frequently travelled to visit him, although their relationship was clandestine. On these journeys, Bacon began to draw, and eventually left about 600 drawings to Ravarino.

In the catalogue essay for the Prague exhibition, Lucie-Smith writes, "As everyone interested in Bacon's work knows, Bacon many times, and often vehemently, denied that he made any use of drawing."

At a press conference in Prague June 26 to refute pervasive questions about the authenticity of the drawings, Lucie-Smith said, "This great amount of material is a great inconvenience for Bacon 'groupies' who support that he didn't draw." For them, "because he said he didn't draw, it is heresy to say he did."

Lucie-Smith continued, "He was a habitual liar. He had no regard for the truth. There are lots of stories to support this."

In his catalogue essay, Lucie-Smith further writes that at the end of his life Bacon wanted to try a medium that had always daunted him. "He also seems to have wanted to correct mistakes made in the past."

"Italian art historians often refer to works of this type as 'repentances,' " he said.

Peter Hunt, a trustee of the estate, told The Prague Post "the estate has no comment whatsoever" on the so-called Italian drawings. He confirmed the estate is aware of their existence but has yet to see them. Asked if the estate was willing to examine them, he replied, "That's up to them."

As Bacon holds the auction record as the most expensive postwar artist, if these works were determined by Harrison's team and the estate to be genuine, their collective value would be phenomenal.

Baccaglini told The Prague Post, "We just want to keep this collection together, not to put them on the market."

"It is really a commercial war. We have to go to the estate and see how many drawings they want," she said. "The estate wants to control everything. I'm sure when the estate receives some drawings, it will be resolved."

The participants in the Prague press conference attempted to put any doubts about their authenticity to rest with documents and testimonials. Handwriting expert Ambra Draghetti concluded that these drawings are indeed by Bacon, based on her 13-year analysis of the signatures and the lines of the drawings themselves. She was the expert in a Bologna court case against Ravarino that dragged out for a decade. In 2004, the Bologna court cleared Ravarino of possessing forgeries and declared the drawings not to be fakes, said Umberto Guerini, the lawyer for Ravarino. He said the court also ruled that some signatures were by Bacon.

Guerini said he would be launching civil and criminal suits against Czech publications for publishing what he called false statements about the drawings' authenticity. He has initiated similar lawsuits in Italy, England and Berlin, where Lucie-Smith curated the show "Drawings Attributed to Francis Bacon" in the autumn of 2010.

A symposium to discuss these drawings was organized in late January at the Courtald Institute in England but was cancelled at the last minute. The panel was to have included Harrison and representatives from the Bacon estate.

Guerini told The Prague Post he wrote a letter asking only for a change of the symposium's title - "The Challenges of Authentification: Francis Bacon - A Case Study" - because the drawings are authentic and it is not possible to title the symposium 'Challenges of Authentification.' "

A statement issued by the Courtald Institute one week before the scheduled symposium said: "… Whilst there is the possibility of legal action being taken in relation to the 'Bacon/Ravarino' drawings, it has been decided that this particular case study is not appropriate for a Courtald Research Forum event. Therefore, the debate."

It is difficult to imagine such an eminent art historian as Lucie-Smith would put his reputation on the line if he were not convinced that the drawings are genuine. However, when the recognized experts on a given artist fail to reach a consensus, doubts will persist - despite the evidence presented in their favour.

There is still time to see the "Italian drawings" ascribed to this modern master and let the works speak for themselves, with Hrabal whispering in the background.

 

 

TATE

Francis Bacon: Back to Degas

 

Rothenstein Lecture 2011

 

By Martin Hammer | Tate Papers Issue 17 | 11 May 2011

 

There is nothing like a pair of matching sofas for sparking off a conversation. In the case of this first juxtaposition, both are blue, with rounded backs, set against off-white walls and plain light brown floors (figs.1–2). Both are accompanied by middle-aged males in postures suggesting private contemplation, who have set aside their cigarette or pipe, as well as their well-thumbed papers, and who either sit or put their feet up on rather more flimsy items of wooden furniture. Each picture subverts the social transaction traditionally inherent in portraiture, evoking instead states of inwardness and the casual clothing and sparse environment of the modern bohemian. It was observing such affinities between Edgar Degas’s portrait of his critic friend Diego Martelli 1879 (National Galleries of Scotland), and Francis Bacon’s Self-portrait 1963 (National Museum of Wales), that triggered the exploration that follows.1 The two pictures are very different in ways that are typical of their makers: Degas’s dispassionate observation and daringly asymmetrical composition and high viewpoint, as opposed to Bacon’s symmetry, simplification and abstraction from appearances. Nevertheless, the parallels seem striking enough to go beyond coincidence and to provoke speculation about what Degas meant to an artist born seventy-five years later, who worked long after the demise of naturalism and, indeed, in the aftermath of cubism, abstraction and surrealism. The question, then, is what might have motivated Bacon to look all the way back to Degas?

Bacon once observed that ‘to create something … is a sort of echo from one artist to another’.2 The mainstream texts on his work tend to emphasise the places Bacon encountered, the people he knew, and the terrible times he lived through, as though his work adds up to a kind of psychological autobiography. This is overstated and simplistic, even if Bacon in other moods encouraged such readings. Art does come out of life, but in an indirect and more complicated fashion than this type of commentary implies. What is more demonstrable is that major artists engage with past and present art as a resource in itself, in developing the aesthetic means to embody whatever content they have in mind. This was certainly true of Bacon, who insisted that he looked at everything. Quite a lot is now known about his visual and imaginative reactions to photographs, which he worked from more consistently than almost any other modern painter. But we are at a rudimentary stage in grasping how Bacon responded to the work of other artists. The theme encompasses his quotations from Old Masters such as Velázquez, Rembrandt, Grünewald and Ingres; and his appropriations from such immediate predecessors as Picasso, Sickert and Soutine; as well as his interchange with contemporaries such as Sutherland and Giacometti.3 Bacon also declared great admiration for several late nineteenth-century artists such as Monet, Gauguin, Rodin, Seurat and, above all, van Gogh. But this essay focuses on Degas, and can only hint that Bacon’s interest in the work of these artists is much more jumbled up than a crude listing makes out.4

Artists scrutinise other artists in distinctive and idiosyncratic ways, through the filter of their own preoccupations.5 But Bacon’s take on Degas was also shaped by the works he happened to confront, and whose availability reflected decisions made by other people about acquiring works for museums, selling them in galleries, and displaying them in exhibitions. In that sense, Bacon’s artistic assimilation is one component within the larger story of the British response to Degas, which began as early as the 1870s, and is of course still alive and well.6 In between, we might note the commercial Degas show at Agnew’s, London, in 1936, the year before a group show in the same gallery in which Bacon participated; and further exhibitions in 1950 and 1958 at the Lefevre Gallery, which had also staged Bacon’s emergence in another series of group displays in 1945 and 1946.7 Many of the best works by Degas in British public and private collections were brought together in a major exhibition in Edinburgh and then at the Tate Gallery in 1952. Then there were the works and exhibitions Bacon could have seen on trips to Paris, which may well have been more frequent than is currently known. At any rate, Bacon had ample opportunity to engage with Degas in the original – over and above the increasingly vivid reproductions that were becoming available – and this essay will try to pin down what he gleaned from such specific encounters.

In Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944 (Tate N06171), the work in which Bacon came to believe he had discovered his artistic identity, the disquieting hybrid creatures pay homage to the grotesque anatomical distortions and sculptural presence of a particular phase in Picasso’s art around 1930, focused upon bather imagery.8 Bacon’s three images almost certainly started life as separate pictures, and the decision to bind them together visually into a triptych was realised in part by superimposing around the figures’ contours a consistent backdrop of unmodulated orange, with minimal perspective indications. One critic has drawn a visual parallel with Degas’s Combing the Hair c.1896 (National Gallery, London), which had been acquired for the national collection in 1937.9 In the wake of Degas’s death in 1917 and the sales of his studio contents, the interwar years were a key moment for the acquisition of works by British institutions, works that tended to be shown initially at the Tate Gallery and were only later sent to their present home in Trafalgar Square. Another work already in public hands, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando 1879 (National Gallery, London), was an even more telling model to Bacon for the floating three-dimensional form set against a backdrop of strong, flat orange, which Degas also superimposed late on, to offset the figure and perspective construction (fig.3).10 

 

 

                                      

                                                           Fig 4 Edgar Degas Ballet Dancers c. 1890 - 1900

 

The triptych also indicates Bacon’s interest in a third Degas that had entered the national collection as early as 1926, namely the late Ballet Dancers c.1890–1900 (National Gallery, London; fig.4). Discussing the left-hand picture of the triptych (fig.5), Martin Harrison has noted that Bacon appropriated the head in profile from one of the photographs in an old book he owned about ectoplasms and mediums.11 But it is almost as though Bacon homed in on the particular illustration that reminded him of the treatment of the head in the nearmost dancer in the Degas. That figure certainly seems to be the springboard for the configuration of the upper body, where Bacon exaggerates the indentation between the two rounded shoulder blades, and the extension of the spine into the neck, which in his hands becomes elongated and downwards inclined. The slender white straps and emphatically curved forms seem to secure the connection with Ballet Dancers, as do the placement of his creature’s knee and the angle of the stool on which it rests. In sum, the Bacon figure starts to look like an unlikely composite of the photograph, the Degas, and Picasso bather imagery. Such things appear ‘mixed up’ in his mind in much the same way that Michelangelo and Eadweard Muybridge converged, Bacon famously remarked, in his imaginative projections of the male body.12 Moreover, it is likely that Bacon was excited by the painterly freedom of Ballet Dancers, the bold and diverse marks, made with the artist’s fingers perhaps in places, applied onto coarse unprimed canvas which is left substantially exposed, especially to the right of the picture.13 Bacon, too, often left canvas bare, as in the central panel of the 1944 triptych. He subsequently took to painting on the rear, rougher side of his supports, to heighten the contrast between the visual textures of granular canvas and smeared, scumbled paint marks. It is even possible to speculate that Degas’s necessary recourse to glazing large pastels might have reinforced Bacon’s impulse to use glass in framing his paintings, for practical reasons initially, perhaps, but thereafter on aesthetic grounds. At any rate, Ballet Dancers suggests that late Degas was a key point of departure for the sense of layering and variable degrees of sharpness and blur, the sense of an image suspended in the course of its improvisation into being, that remained fundamental to Bacon’s art.

At the same time, Degas demonstrated to Bacon how emphatically pictorial statements could emerge out of a process of appropriating photographic imagery. Degas’s overt exploitation of photography was announced in another London picture, the early Princess Pauline de Metternich c.1865 (National Gallery, London), famously based on a carte de visite. Given Bacon’s immersion in Muybridge, he may well have sensed the strong link between the late nineteenth-century photographer and the contemporary work of Degas.14 Bacon’s friend and interlocutor David Sylvester made the connection as early as 1954, noting Bacon’s exploitation of Muybridge’s ‘great photographic compendium – which served Degas in a quite different fashion – of human and animal locomotion’.15 

 

 

                                       

                    Fig 5 Francis Bacon Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c. 1944 (left panel)

 

 

A process of compacting visual sources may be evident again in Study from the Human Body 1949 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), which was executed shortly before being included in Bacon’s one-man show at the Hanover Gallery in late 1949. A fascination with the image of the human back is one of the more obvious common denominators between Bacon and Degas. After Bacon’s death, Sylvester remarked of Study from the Human Body: ‘The figure is the first of many which show an undying love for the Degas pastel in the National Gallery, London, of a woman drying herself.’16 For Bacon, After the Bath, Woman Drying Herselfc.1890–5 (National Gallery, London) was indeed something of a talisman (fig.6). It epitomised Degas’s approach to a larger obsession the two artists shared with the plasticity of the body, its potential for the most varied forms of articulation, in movement and repose. But when did Bacon encounter After the Bath? Sylvester’s authoritative tone suggests that he was remembering its discovery around the time that he and the artist first got to know one another. This particular Degas was not in fact acquired by the National Gallery until 1959. However, it was shown in the Lefevre Gallery’s Degas show in 1950, and there is no record of a previous public showing.17 After the Bath was then purchased by the collector Harry Walston from the exhibition (though it was twice lent to the Tate Gallery for a few months before finally being acquired for the nation).18 It is possible that Sylvester was conflating the work with the equally remarkable Degas bather pastel in the Courtauld collection, shown in a memorial display at the Tate Gallery in summer 1948; equally, before its exhibition, Bacon may have encountered After the Bath informally at the Lefevre Gallery, where he had exhibited and was well known.19 At any rate, such quintessential Degas imagery seems to have fed into Bacon’s first variant on the toilette theme, the Painting 1950 (Leeds Art Gallery), fusing with impressions derived from a Sickert drawing identified by the art historian Rebecca Daniels.20 

 

 

                    

                                        Fig 6 Edgar Degas After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself c. 1890-5  

 

 

From a different perspective, Degas’s After the Bath was again in Sylvester’s thoughts when discussing the remarkable Study after Velázquez 1950 (private collection), one of Bacon’s very first pope pictures. The critic evoked Bacon’s reinvention of the curtain motif here in less literal terms:

The short folds in the purple cape and the long folds in the grey background curtain together create a wonderful counterpoint … He had observed in certain late Degas pastels the use of sets of close parallel lines that seemed to be passing through a semi-transparent body. Bacon’s development of this usage, which he called ‘shuttering’, was to formalize the folds in background curtains into stripes that passed very emphatically through a figure. I asked him once if he could explain why Degas’s shuttering could be so poignant. ‘Well, it means that the sensation doesn’t come straight out at you but slides slowly and gently through the gaps.’21

Degas himself would not perhaps have put it like that. Rather, the remark captures Bacon’s own, highly metaphorical sense of pictorial devices. In a later interview, the artist remarked of Degas’s pastels: ‘he shuttered the body, in a way, shuttered the image and then he put an enormous amount of colour through these lines.’ For Bacon, this device ‘created intensity’.22 In Study after Velázquez, any such impressions from Degas fuse with more direct derivations from black and white photography. Bacon would, for example, have known Erich Salomon’s photograph, reproduced in Picture Post magazine in 1947, where the great and the good are captured, unaware and unposed, through a diaphanous curtain.23 Another possible model is pre-war Nazi propaganda imagery, specifically the spectacle of the ‘cathedral of light’ that Albert Speer devised for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games and the culminating ceremony at the Nuremberg rallies, in which parallel beams of light directed into the night sky register as densely packed stripes of light and dark.24 Bacon was fascinated by the gulf between the Nazi propagandist façade and the ruthless will to power that it veiled. A terminology akin to shuttering came to mind when he talked, in a somewhat Nietzschean vein, about his aims: ‘We nearly always live through screens – a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.’25 Bacon surely saw Degas, Nietzsche’s near contemporary after all, as the exemplary artist who cut through to raw human realities. 

The light and dark striations generally recede into the background in Bacon’s work from the first half of the 1950s. In the foreground, the Degas-like motif of the naked figure viewed from the back is restated in a sequence of pictures from 1952, including Untitled (Crouching Figures) (Estate of Francis Bacon) and, above all, Study for Crouching Nude (Detroit Institute of Arts) that was one of Bacon’s favourite works.26 The theme allowed him to channel visual suggestions from such varied sources as Muybridge’s photography, Michelangelo drawings, Rodin sculptures and from classical antiquity, which have all been seen as catalysts.27 Or Degas may again be cited, such as the nude drying herself, unusually oriented to the right, which had been shown at the Lefevre Gallery show two years earlier.28 But such points of reference interacted with an even more direct springboard in photojournalism for Bacon’s conception of the figure. For Bacon, the image of the back edited out the individuality implicit in facial features and so projected an animalistic sense of humanity. The association is reinforced here by the squatting or crouching posture that recalls the body language of apes, complementing the cage-like setting. For his part, Degas famously remarked that women at their toilette were like cats washing themselves, and the application to his work of the term ‘human animal’ goes all the way back to the writer Joris-Karl Huysmans.29 In 1952 Bacon was actually working from an illustrated feature article that had appeared in the same 1947 issue of Picture Post magazine about a lioness attacking a photographer in the wild.30 Bacon was clearly mesmerised by the largest image, in which the seated lioness seems to take on an incongruously gentle and protective attitude towards the recumbent figure, and to take on a decidedly anthropomorphic appearance. In Study for Crouching Nude the image of an animal with human attributes is metamorphosed by Bacon into a figure with animal undertones. Aside from the articulation of the body, the relationship with the photograph is implicit in the pool of shadow to the right of the figure, and in Untitled (Crouching Figures) and several related pictures by the inclusion of elements of the lying figure with bent legs. Here the imagery takes on unmistakable homoerotic overtones, almost as if the instinctive violence of the kill is converted in Bacon’s imagination into some sadomasochistic fantasy. The photograph was Bacon’s immediate source, but Degas remains in play if we concur with the art historian John Rothenstein’s description in 1964 of a typical mechanism in Bacon’s creativity: ‘his images often derive from a variety of photographs of different subjects and these may be fixed or coloured by his memory of still some other thing seen or remembered.’31 This remark captures a very visual process of transformation and synthesis that is bound to be travestied in any verbal description.

Several new departures are evident in Bacon’s art of the late 1950s and into the 1960s, in the aftermath of the variations on a van Gogh self-portrait that Bacon hurriedly executed in 1957. These developments include, first, a proliferation of naked figures, and in particular of female bodies, hitherto a rarity in Bacon’s work; secondly, an emphasis on the overall articulation of the body, which is sometimes more dynamically charged, but in general becomes more sculpturally defined, against simpler and increasingly colourful backdrops; thirdly, a move away from the photographic effects of grisaille, blur and inconsistent focus that had been dominant a few years earlier; and, fourthly, an espousal of working on paper.32 Although Bacon always denied that he drew, a significant cluster of cursory sketches have since come to light, with provenances among Bacon’s circle, but without any signatures or dates. The bulk were acquired by Tate and exhibited in 2003. Curator Matthew Gale convincingly ascribed the bulk of the drawings to around 1957 to 1961, on the basis of documentary evidence as well as visual correspondences with paintings dated from 1959 to the early 1960s.33 It is the hypothesis of this essay that these various new directions register in part Bacon’s assimilation of a fresh aspect of Degas.

Bacon is very likely to have seen the Lefevre Gallery exhibition Degas. Monotypes, Drawings, Pastels, Bronzes, staged between April and May 1958. It was accompanied by a bigger catalogue than usual, with all works illustrated and with an essay by Bacon’s long-time acquaintance Douglas Cooper, setting Degas within the wider history of the monotype (fig.7).34 Indeed, although there was a handful of works in the other media, the undoubted revelation of the show was the thirty-six monotypes, one-off images pulled from a sheet of metal on which the artist had improvised the image in printers’ ink, with radical freedom of touch and economy of means (at times working with his fingers and with rags). This was a strand in Degas’s work that had hitherto been relatively unknown in Britain compared with the paintings, pastels and sculpture. No monotypes, for instance, had been shown at the Tate Gallery six years earlier. Their impact would only have been enhanced for Bacon by the well-founded rumours that Picasso was keen to purchase several brothel monotypes from the London exhibition.35 The works on show in 1958 are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Degas’s elegant ballet and race track pictures. Their earthy sensuality and bleak atmosphere were evoked at the time in the pages of the Burlington Magazine:

nothing can mitigate the wretchedness of their [the prostitutes’] existence. Degas is prepared with Goya-like mercilessness to drain away all vestige of lying glamour in order to distil this disagreeable truth. The women are hideous, fat, no longer young; their clients shifty, and horribly respectable with their umbrellas and bowler hats … his attitude towards all such sad exploits of human beings was never compassionate. Rather he was deeply concerned with truth for its own sake, in probing life beneath the crust of good manners … He knew just how thin this crust was, and took a defiant delight in exposing the squalor that lay below it. We who still like for the sake of a little piece of mind to pretend that the crust still holds, are put in our place by the spectacle of all grace, all varnish, being ripped away with so much genius to reveal the raw facts.36

While the words of this review may echo any number of contemporary reactions to Bacon’s paintings, what is the visual evidence that these works by Degas struck a chord with Bacon? The abject, contorted naked women, in minimal interiors, who feature in Bacon’s art over the next two or three years suggest a general continuity with the Degas monotypes. More specific affinities exist between the drawn Figure in a Corner and one such Degas: in both, the figures’ arms are stretched out, and one leg is extended and the other bent, with the genitals prominently displayed, while the bed or sofa on which they disport themselves recedes diagonally into a shallow space.37 In several of the monotypes Degas’s women recline and doze, perhaps in a state of post-coital stupor (fig.8). Likewise recumbent figures abound in Bacon drawings, as in Figure Lying No.2 (Tate T07375), and related paintings such as Sleeping Figure 1959, a tender depiction of his lover Peter Lacy.38 In its unselfconscious body language, remote from the posing of the traditional nude, the latter may incorporate Bacon’s recent memories of the girl conceived by Degas forRest c.1879 (Musée Picasso, Paris), one of Picasso’s acquisitions. The same monotype includes a fragmentary glimpse of a male customer entering the space which may have been a point of reference at some level for Bacon’s enigmatic Walking Figure 1960 (Dallas Museum of Art). Bacon’s nudes lying upside down on sofas, in works on paper (such as Reclining Figure No.1 and Reclining Figure No.2; Tate T07353–4) and on canvas – as in Reclining Woman 1961 (Tate T00453; fig.9) – recall the postures in several monotypes, which show prostitutes relaxing on upholstered couches (fig.8).39 Figures viewed from the back occur in several of Degas’s prints and drawings in the Lefevre Gallery exhibition, as they do in Bacon sketches like Standing Figure (Tate T07367), an especially economical image that possibly incorporates a recollection of one of Degas’s naked girls.40 Finally, Figure Bending Forwards (Tate T07358) and Bending Figure No.2 by Bacon (Tate T07379; fig.10) bring to mind the more contorted bodies in Degas’s imagery of girls at their toilette (fig.11), although Muybridge’s photographs are also relevant here.41Generally, Degas and Muybridge seem to have coalesced for Bacon within this body of work.42 It is not possible to say for sure that Bacon saw these works by Degas. But the cursory discussion above indicates that there are sufficient visual and thematic parallels, across a fair proportion of Bacon’s work known or thought to date from the subsequent period, to support the proposition that the Lefevre Degas show in spring 1958 was a significant catalyst. 

Its fascination for Bacon may have gone beyond iconography. The exhibition might also have prompted him to explore the possibilities of drawing. The current view is that Bacon turned to working on paper in the late 1950s as something of a temporary expedient, in order to help him resolve his current pictorial problems.43 If that is correct, which is impossible to prove since earlier and later graphic production could be lost, then Bacon might well have derived sustenance from Degas’s monotypes. Their extraordinary daring and lack of inhibition, in relation to both imagery and technique, would surely have resonated with Bacon. At the same time, they demonstrated how an artist might choose working on paper, on an intimate scale, as a vehicle for private studio experimentation and perhaps for erotic reverie, producing images that only became public after the artist’s death. In other words, they showed how drawing could be something other than a practical instrument for developing ideas for paintings, which was anathema to Bacon given his commitment to improvisation on the canvas.

The argument about the Degas monotypes makes sense in relation to Bacon’s wider evolution. The period around 1960 tends to be rather glossed over, even by the Tate’s 2008 retrospective, reflecting its problematic aesthetic status. The one point that is regularly made is that Bacon’s simpler, colourful backdrops reflect his new awareness of American abstract expressionism and its St Ives equivalent in current British art, reinforced by his three-month stay in Cornwall in 1959.44 Yet, paradoxically, Bacon’s move towards a more animated treatment of the human body may in part have represented a reaction against abstraction, a type of art which lacked meaningful content in Bacon’s view. He may have been appropriating abstract devices for his backdrops in a spirit more of parody than emulation. An intensified interest in Degas, on the other hand, would be entirely compatible with the broader engagement with late nineteenth-century French art that informed Bacon’s art at this point. This extended notably to Rodin’s sculpture, analogous of course to Degas in its brutal realism and bodily contortions. Rodin was mentioned admiringly by Bacon in his lists of possible new pictures, and was proposed by Matthew Gale as a springboard for Bacon’s ‘distortion and idiosyncratic articulation of the human figure’ at this juncture.45 

By general consent, Bacon hit his artistic stride again in the early 1960s, a moment which roughly correlates, coincidentally or otherwise, with the new contentment in his personal life associated with meeting George Dyer. The period from then until the mid-1970s was one of the undoubted peaks in Bacon’s art. His sense of himself as a latter-day realist comes through strongly in the concurrent interviews with David Sylvester. Correspondingly, Bacon’s engagement with Degas becomes more overt, one element in a Francophilia that was apparent in the satisfaction he derived from being invited to stage a big retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris in 1971, in his acquisition of a flat in Paris, and in his several friendships at this time with French artists and writers, notably Michel Leiris. It is plausible that Bacon identified with Degas as a fellow spirit, a model for his own devotion to ‘the human clay’, in W.H. Auden’s resonant phrase, and thus as the antidote to a contemporary scene dominated by abstraction and pop art, from which Bacon felt increasingly isolated.

His new immersion in portraiture, for instance, was bound up with his admiration for Degas, as has already been indicated. Bacon no doubt perceived that, in works like Diego Martelli, shown in London in 1952, Degas had taken portraiture off its pedestal in much the same way that the women at their toilette pictures brought the image of the nude down to earth, locating it within contemporary everyday experience and the private sphere. In the Martelli portrait, the pose served to convey the singular physical and psychological presence of Degas’s sitter, and to evoke a fictive obliviousness to the observing artist, rather than the social front that is normally encountered in portraits. Its enduring impact is evident in the more exaggerated body language of Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud 1969 (private collection), ‘awkward in his squirming pose’ in Chris Stephens’s words, as well in certain late self-portraits such as Self-Portrait with a Watch 1973 (private collection).46 Bacon’s immediate points of reference were often photographs by John Deakin, but in directing the conception and making of these, Bacon may well have had Degas at the back of his mind. The George Dyer images from the 1960s, such as Study of George Dyer in a Mirror 1968 (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid), raise the further point that including paintings within paintings is an interesting sub-theme in both artists’ approaches to portraiture.47 At the other end of the scale spectrum, the robust physicality and rich tonality of Degas’s Head of a Woman c.1874 (Tate N03390; fig.12), another early acquisition for the national collection, may have been an example for Bacon’s head and shoulder portraits form the early 1960s onwards, especially in the many, robustly sensual depictions of the artist and model Isabel Rawsthorne.

Dyer inspired other works that went beyond straightforward portraiture. In the 1964 triptych Three Figures in a Room 1964 (Centre Pompidou, Paris), a playful and erotically charged love letter, Bacon’s apparent feminisation of the naked figure is accentuated by his allusions to Degas. The centrepiece of Dyer in repose on a couch recalls Degas’s imagery of the boudoir interior as a place of serenity and bodily pleasure while the right-hand depiction of his lover swivelling on a barstool evokes the ungainly poise of Degas’s sculpted ballet dancers, exemplified by the two bronzes acquired by Tate in 1949 and 1951.48At the same time, the dance studio interiors could have encouraged Bacon to distil the luminous, simplified spaces that offset his increasingly plastic figures. Most obviously, Degas’s imagery of women at their toilette is transposed in the left-hand panel of the triptych into Bacon’s depiction of a man literally sat on the toilet, which it is hard not to see as light-hearted, even an in-joke, if Bacon is permitted to depart from tragic mode. The visceral physicality that he saw in Degas turns into a projection of Bacon’s own muscular ideal. Here, and above all in the depictions of the male toilette in Three Studies of the Male Back 1970, Bacon paid his most explicit homages to Degas’s After the Bath, by then on permanent display in the National Gallery. In between making the two triptychs, Bacon explained to Sylvester in their 1966 conversation what it was that he found so riveting about that particular Degas: ‘You will find at the very top of the spine that the spine almost comes out of the skin altogether. And this gives it such a grip and a twist that you’re more conscious of the vulnerability of the rest of the body than if he had drawn the spine naturally up to the neck. He breaks it so that this thing seems to protrude from the flesh.’49 The most literal elaboration of this idea in his own work occurs in Three Figures and Portrait 1975 (Tate T02112), though here virtuosity comes perhaps at the expense of vulnerability.

The first half of the 1970s may well have been the period in which Degas meant most to Bacon. Sylvester shrewdly noted that Triptych 1974–7 (private collection) ‘surely contains Bacon’s most complex homage to Degas’:

The two male backs are among the many in his work which are indebted to the Degas pastel in the National Gallery of a woman sponging her back; the horses with rider also recall Degas; and the whole atmosphere must be indebted … to a further Degas in the National Gallery, the Beach Scene: the panorama of sands and sea and sky, the contrast between figures near and far, the umbrellas, the way that shadows and pieces of fabric are silhouetted against the sky.50

Bacon proceeded to include After the Bath in his The Artist’s Choice exhibition, staged in 1985 at the National Gallery, London, with the Degas on the cover of the accompanying pamphlet. The actual picture was hung in the middle of three nudes occupying what Sylvester recalled as ‘the best wall’, flanked by Velzáquez’s Rokeby Venus 1647–51 and Michelangelo’s Entombment c.1500: ‘Degas was seen as the progeny of the masters on either side, and thus as Bacon’s key painter.’51 

Others who knew Bacon well picked up on this reverence for Degas. In the first, but still the most suggestive monograph, the art critic John Russell lingered over the importance of After the Bath but observed too: ‘since Degas was a great student of people in rooms, it is natural that Bacon should often have studied the paintings in which Degas brought off just that element of psychological ambiguity which Bacon himself often strives for’ – a point Russell illustrated with Degas’s early Interiorc.1868–9 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), a picture which does indeed presage the air of indeterminate menace in, for instance, the central panel of Bacon’s Triptych – In Memory of George Dyer 1971 (Fondation Beyeler, Basel).52 Subsequently, the biographer Michael Peppiatt quoted Bacon thus: ‘I love Degas. I think his pastels are among the greatest things ever made. I think they’re far greater than his paintings.’53 And from Peppiatt himself: ‘Bacon had obtained a copy of the rare Lemoisne catalogue raisonné of Degas’s work and he kept it in the studio during this period, frequently leafing through the hundreds of images that Degas, whom he admired more than any other nineteenth-century artist save van Gogh, had created.’54

Visual parallels with Degas occasionally make themselves felt in Bacon’s work from his final decade or so. It is interesting to note that both of these committed recorders of the human form were unusually drawn in their later careers to imagery of landscape, although the knobbly, rounded forms that both of them explored in the natural world were redolent of bodily associations. Compare, for instance, Bacon’s Sand Dune 1983 (Fondation Beyeler, Basel; fig.13) with Degas’s late coastal scenes, for example Le Cap Hornu near St Valery-sur-Somme c.1890–3 (British Museum; fig.14). One of Bacon’s very last pictures, Study for the Human Body 1991, presents striking parallels of scale, imagery and palette to Degas’s Dancers at the Bar c.1900 (Philips Collection, Washington), notwithstanding the gulf between Degas’s slender, immaterial females and Bacon’s body-building beefcake.55

A feature of Degas’s later art that Bacon is likely to have found exciting was its combination of taut, analytical drawing of the structure of the body, in defined spatial settings, with sparse expanses of painterly texture and increasingly arbitrary flat colour, including the bright oranges to which Bacon was especially devoted. Equally, the acidic greens encountered in late Degas, such as A Group of Dancers c.1890 (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh), are the most striking precedent for Bacon’s audacious viridians, epitomised by Crouching Nude 1961.56

In general, what Bacon admired in Degas was the sensation of visceral reality, created not merely through description but also by the knowing manipulation of paint marks on a flat surface, beneath the effect of spontaneity that both cultivated. An underlying affinity of attitude is evident by juxtaposing a typical comment made late in life by Bacon – ‘The more artificial you can make it, the greater chance you’ve got of its looking real’57 – with remarks attributed to Degas such as: ‘One gives the idea of truth by means of the false’ and ‘”Art” is the same word as “artifice”, that is to say, something deceitful. It must succeed in giving the impression of nature by false means’.58 Moreover both artists were neurotic perfectionists, prone to asking if they could take back for revision works they had completed and even sold. Each went so far on occasion as to destroy the work in question, and unsurprisingly both had such requests turned down by wary owners, by the Tate in fact in Bacon’s case, when in 1966 he asked to add a green carpet to Study for Portrait on Folding Bed 1963 (TateT00604), acquired three years earlier;59 and by the owner and friend of the artist Henri Rouart, when Degas asked if he could modify Dancers Practicing at the Barre1877 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), having come to regret the visual analogy between the watering can, commonly used to sprinkle the floor to suppress dust, and the pose of the rightmost dancer.60 

It is tempting as well to see Bacon’s attitude to artistic media as reflecting his awareness of Degas. His mixing of pastel and paint, especially in the 1940s, may reflect a fascination with the French artist’s technical experimentalism. Bacon, too, felt the lure of working in three dimensions, judging from the Sylvester interviews, though unlike Degas he remained a sculptor manqué.61 Even taking into account the posthumously revealed sketches discussed earlier, Bacon barely drew and, according to Sylvester, was ‘forever asserting that he couldn’t draw’, but, interestingly, he was drawn to several artists renowned for their virtuoso draughtsmanship, Degas and Michelangelo as well as Giacometti and Seurat.62 Discernable here is an element of compensation or wish fulfilment in an artist who had never learnt to draw in the traditional sense, and who relied on inventive manipulations of paint to evoke the presence of forms in space. In other words, within the identification, there was also an attraction of opposites in Bacon’s response to Degas. 

This essay assembles some evidence – and quite a lot of speculation – regarding what Bacon might have derived, throughout his career, from looking hard at works by Degas. Some of its juxtapositions of particular works may seem more persuasive than others, but it is hoped that the overall argument has demonstrated that there is a real continuity of sensibility between the two artists, and that Bacon’s documented admiration for Degas had profound, wide-ranging consequences for his art – on a par with his immersion in Picasso or Soutine. There is doubtless much more to be said about what he saw and valued in Degas, such as sexual connotations, or a darker side of the French artist implicit, too, in John Berger’s comments about his fascination with ‘the human capacity for martyrdom … The human quality Degas most admired was endurance’.63On a broader front, finally, this essay has sought to indicate the benefits of treating Bacon as a singular but also regular artist, rather than as a kind of shaman or a charismatic bohemian who happened to paint. Regular artists, especially those of the highest distinction, find compelling provocation in other works of art, and Bacon was no exception: ‘to create something … is a sort of echo from one artist to another’. He may have been personally committed to alcohol, gambling and picking up teddy boys, but bouncing off great artists like Degas was ultimately far more significant for Bacon’s painting.

Notes

1.See Martin Hammer, ‘Clearing away the Screens’, in Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, exhibition catalogue, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh 2005, pp.21 and 27 note 17. Perhaps Bacon’s interest in Degas revived at this point as a result of encountering Jean Sutherland Bogg’s pioneering and monumental study Portraits by Degas, Berkeley 1962.

2.Francis Bacon, cited in Francis Bacon: In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud, London 1993, p.126.

3.Some of these relationships are addressed in Wilfried Seipel, Barbara Steffen and Christoph Vitali (eds.), Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art, Milan 2003; Anne Baldassari, Bacon Picasso, Paris 2005; Rebecca Daniels, ‘Francis Bacon and Walter Sickert: “Images which unlock other images”’, in Martin Harrison (ed.), Francis Bacon: New Studies. Centenary Essays, Göttingen 2010, pp.57–87; Soutine/Bacon, exhibition catalogue, Helly Nahmad Gallery, New York 2011; Martin Hammer, Bacon and Sutherland, New Haven and London 2005.

4.The legacy of Degas, for instance, was transmitted to Bacon in part through Sickert and Bonnard, as well as through Picasso, who studied Degas’s work intensely. See Elizabeth Cowling and Richard Kendall, Picasso Looks at Degas, New Haven and London 2010.

5.The classic discussion of ‘influence’ remains Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention, New Haven and London 1991, pp.58–62.

6.See Anna Gruetzner Robins and Richard Thomson, Degas, Sickert, Toulouse-Lautrec, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2005. Frances Fowle, Impressionism and Scotland, exhibition catalogue, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh 2008; Douglas Cooper, ‘A Franco-Scottish Link with the Past’, in Alex Reid & Lefevre, London 1976; Richard Kendall and Jill Devonyar, Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2011.

7.Martin Hammer, ‘Francis Bacon and the Lefevre Gallery’, Burlington Magazine, May 2010, pp.307–12.

8.See Hammer, Bacon and Sutherland, pp.203–4. It is worth noting that Picasso’s Nude Standing by the Sea 1929 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) was with the Lefevre Gallery from 1929 until at least 1936; see Gary Tinterow and Susan Alyson Stein (eds.), Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum, New Haven and London 2010, p.212.

9.Martin Harrison, In Camera. Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, p.41.

10.David Bomford, Sarah Herring, Jo Kirby and others, Art in the Making: Degas, London 2004, pp.90–1.

11.Harrison 2005, pp.41–3.

12.David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1993, p.114.

13.On the innovative technique used in this work, see Bomford 2004, pp.136–41.

14.See Kendall and Devonyar 2011.

15.David Sylvester, ‘Francis Bacon’ (1954), partially reprinted in David Sylvester, About Modern Art, London 2002, p.57.

16.David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2001, p.54.

17.Edgar Degas 1834–1917, exhibition catalogue, Lefevre Gallery, London, May–June 1950, no.9, reproduced p.7. The provenance is given as the studio sale and another Paris sale in 1942, from which the gallery or their French partner had presumably acquired the work.

18.Loaned to the Tate Gallery in December 1951–May 1952 and February–April 1958; details of the picture’s history are derived from the file on the work in the National Gallery Archives.

19.By contrast, Degas’s study of Hélène Rouart (Lefevre Gallery 1950, no.8) is listed as having been shown in the gallery’s XIX Century French Masters exhibition the previous year.

20.Daniels 2010, pp.57–87.

21.Sylvester 1993, pp.49–50.

22.Ibid., p.176.

23.‘He Photographed Europe in Decay’, Picture Post, 9 August 1947, p.8.

24.Martin Hammer and Chris Stephens, ‘“Seeing the Story of One’s Time”: Appropriations from Nazi Photography in the Work of Francis Bacon’, Visual Culture in Britain, November 2009, pp.340–3. See also Martin Hammer, Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda, London 2012.

25.Sylvester 1993, p.82.

26.Study for Crouching Nude was exhibited finished in the summer of 1952, which negates the possibility that Bacon was prompted by works such as Woman Drying Herself c.1890–5 (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh) exhibited in the Degas show at the Tate Gallery that autumn.

27.Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens (eds.), Francis Bacon, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2008, p.110.

28.The work is visible in the installation shot in Alex Reid & Lefevre, London 1976, and reproduced in Degas. Monotypes, Drawings, Pastels, Bronzes, exhibition catalogue, Lefevre Gallery, London, April–May 1958, p.22 no.31. At the time of publication, the whereabouts of the work are unknown to the author.

29.Kendall and Devonyar 2011, p. 130.

30.See Martin Hammer, ‘Francis Bacon: Painting after Photography’, Art History, April 2012, pp.369–70

31.John Rothenstein, ‘Introduction’, in Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon, London 1964, pp.17–8.

32.There is a useful discussion of this period in Martin Harrison’s ‘Catalogue Note’ on Francis Bacon, Crouching Nude 1961, in Sothebys,Contemporary Art Evening Auction, 29 June 2011, lot 49.

33.Matthew Gale, Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1999.

34.Douglas Cooper, ‘The Monotypes of Degas’, in Degas. Monotypes, Drawings, Pastels, Bronzes, pp.3–5. The images are arranged visually rather than by numerical sequence. It was the art historian Richard Thomson who initially drew my attention to the possible significance of this show for Bacon. In the discussion after the first presentation of this paper Anthony Diamond recalled that the Lefevre show had had a powerful impact on artists more widely.

35.See Cowling and Kendall 2010, pp.223–36. This study demonstrates that the monotypes had been known for decades in advanced artistic circles in Paris.

36.Benedict Nicolson, ‘Degas Monotypes’, Burlington Magazine, May 1958, pp.172–5.

37.Bacon reproduced in Gale 1999, fig.22; Degas reproduced in Lefevre Gallery 1958, no.16.

38.Bacon reproduced in Gale 1999, fig.31; Degas reproduced in Lefevre Gallery 1958,no.23.

39.Bacon reproduced in Gale 1999, nos.3 and 4; Degas reproduced in Lefevre Gallery 1958, nos.20 and 26.

40.Bacon reproduced in Gale 1999, no.17; Degas reproduced in Lefevre Gallery 1958, nos.5 and 18.

41.Bacon reproduced in Gale 1999, nos.8 and 29; Degas reproduced in Lefevre Gallery 1958, no.33.

42.On the Muybridge sources for several drawings, see Gale 1999, pp.25–9.

43.See Rachel Tait, ‘Archive’, in Gale and Stephens 2008, pp.186–7.

44.Harrison 2005, pp.136–41; Ben Tufnell, Francis Bacon in St Ives: Experiment and Transition 1957–62, exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives 2007.

45.Harrison 2005, pp.141–7; Gale 1999, p.78.

46.Chris Stephens,‘“Like a Shadow”: Darkness, Life and Death in the Art of Francis Bacon’, in Anna Coliva and Michael Peppiat (eds.), Caravaggio Bacon, Rome 2009, p.70.

47.Compare, for example, Degas’s portrait of James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot c.1866–8 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

48.Degas’s Dancer Looking at the Sole of her Right Foot c.1910–11 (Tate N05919) and Dancer Putting on her Stocking c.1900 (Tate N05918) were acquired for the Tate collection in 1949 and 1951 respectively.

49.Sylvester 1993, pp.46–7.

50.Sylvester 2001, pp.151-2. I am happy to echo Sylvester’s acknowledgement to Sarah Whitfield for the point about the National Gallery’sBeach Scene c.1869–70.

51.Ibid., p.210

52.John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1979, pp.39–40 (also pp.116–8)

53.Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait, New Haven and London 1996, p.144.

54.Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, pp.267–8. Further confirmation of Bacon’s admiration for Degas was also given by Angus Stewart, who knew Bacon as a Chelsea neighbour, in the discussion that followed the first presentation of this paper.

55.Bacon reproduced at http://www.francis-bacon.com/paintings/study-from-human-body-1991/?c=85-92, accessed 8 May 2012; Degas reproduced at http://www.phillipscollection.org/exhibitions/past/2011/2011_12_31_Degas.aspx, accessed 8 May 2012.

56.For Crouching Nude 1961, see Sothebys, Contemporary Art Evening Auction, 29 June 2011, lot 49.

57.Sylvester 1993, p.148.

58.Kendall and Devonyar 2011, p.192.

59.See Matthew Gale, ‘Study for Portrait on Folding Bed 1963 by Francis Bacon’, catalogue entry, February 1999,http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=-1&workid=680&searchid=16986&roomid=false&tabview=text&texttype=8, accessed 17 January 2012.

60.Jean Sutherland Boggs, Henri Loyrette, Michael Pantazi and others, Degas, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1988, p.278.

61.Sylvester 1993, p.108.

62.David Sylvester, ‘Bacon’s Secret Vice’, in Gale 1999, p.10.

63.John Berger, ‘The Dark Side of Degas’s Ballet Dancers’, Guardian, 15 November 2011.

 

Acknowledgements

This paper was originally presented as the Rothenstein Lecture at Tate Britain on 24 November 2011. My thanks go to Jennifer Mundy in Tate’s Research Department for the invitation to speak, and to Lucy Carter, John Rothenstein’s daughter, for sponsoring the event. I am also grateful to members of the audience for their illuminating feedback on the lecture, and to my wife Christina Lodder and my friend and colleague Richard Thomson, noted Degas specialist, for commenting on preliminary drafts.

Martin Hammer is a Reader in Art History at the University of Edinburgh.

Tate Papers Spring 2012 © Martin Hammer

 

 

                                                                                                                       

 

 

Casino Confidential

 

 PATRICK BURTON | EUROART AND BEYOND | ISSUE 11 | WINTER 2010

 

I wonder, perhaps it was that BBC documentary concerning the life and times of the famed Irish born artist Francis Bacon, in which he confided his love for roulette and the unfortunate turn of events or nestling of the little spherical white object, which had instituted his going into hock forty grand with a London bookmaker, that had planted the seeds of temporary fiscal self destruction firmly within my sub conscious. Another work day and night of hierarchically driven drudgery and perhaps old fashioned industrial revolution style exploitation as a junior litigator had by some stroke of good fortune resulted in my adjournment to bed. Lying down, I had facilitated the placement of my laptop on my chest, an hospitable yet awkward locale, given the human like warmth of its energy efficient battery upon my pectoral muscles and upper abdomen, contrasted with its necessitating that I dig my chin into the flesh protecting my clavicle and wedge a pillow tightly against the back of my head, thereby generating a vague tension in the upper reaches of my spinal chord, and an occasional meandering into concerned thought regarding the potentiality that the proximity of my head to the laptop's wireless receiver might perhaps precipitate some kind of cancerous growth in my brain, which would then be immediately followed by a feeble attempt on behalf of my long term memory to reconstruct some sensationalist, yet quite possibly factual commercial television network current affairs report relating to the health risks associated with mobile phone usage and thereupon make some kind of brief cost benefit analysis before invariably reaching a conclusion concomitant with my state of physical and mental fatigue. There, in the primeval comfort of my metaphorical cave, ostensibly free from subjugation to political necessities conveniently or humanly veiled as commercial necessities, I journeyed into the world of Francis Bacon, where it became obvious, in an experiential or existential sense and even a metaphysical sense, that one could confront the unintended vulgarities, indignities and sufferings of life with a kind of tragically spirited intuitiveness.

Each day we take something of a gamble on what to wear. For some, the stakes of this perceptual wager are infinitely greater than for others, take for example, women subject to Taliban rule or famous people afraid of being mobbed when they go to buy some milk. Bacon rendezvoused with the intrepid reporter slash interviewer wearing a black leather jacket. For some inexplicable reason, the Bermuda triangularity of which is similar in nature to certain mysterious aspects of quantum physics studied by Stephen Hawking, if you put an old man in a leather jacket, all of a sudden every single word and or painting that he utters is little short of gospel. Try it some time, I urge you to go and try talking to an old man while he's wearing a leather jacket, let's say at least 60 years of age or over, and I guarantee that if you can speak to him (without being biased of course, from having read this) you will be noticeably more inclined to believe everything he says or does. As an old man Bacon wore a leather jacket regularly. Good leather has been places, it has experience; it's really no wonder that a lot of the faces in his paintings are what colloquially might be described as old 'leather faces'. Not to mention that he hailed from a family involved with the thoroughbred industry, an industry renowned for being into leather whips, saddles, boots and the like.

There is a luxurious decadence in Bacons' pictures, which is perhaps not as readily emulated in works tending more toward photographic realism. Here, we get generous blankets of violet, scarlet, agent orange, turquoise; colours which in more sober (Bacon liked a drink or three or four or ten) works we are afforded but small morsels in careful moderation such as flower beds, the linings of clouds, patterning on curtains, and clothing. Connected with the above theme is the mythological or artificial aspect of the paintings, this conscious veering away from labourious realism provides that element of escapism, that sense of the higher consciousness of humanity imposing its culture slash technology upon the random all conquering sublimation of nature. I think Kant said something about this, and Rothko refers to this in his somewhat challenging writings on art as the 'plastic' aspect of a picture. When asked about his favourite art or what he considered the best art, Bacon answered that he liked that which was most 'artificial' – then emphasizing that he viewed this word as a compound comprising the words art and official. Myself personally, I love official art, and I love fake art too, so this covers so much, it includes everything all in one; limiting infinity is Godly wouldn't you say? Additional indicia that Bacon's art was endowed with an officially fake sensibility, might be deduced through reference to the fact that Bacon's painting have long been pedaled by only the most wealthy dealers, coveted by the most hyper real collectors, and carefully stored in only the most posh and widely legitimated art museums.

As opposed to the picturesque expanses of impressionist works, Bacon's spaces are intensely claustrophobic. His distressed subjects are occasionally boxed within boxes within boxes, perched upon some precarious plank like object as though perhaps starring in a new television genre, the sad-not com (the sadomasochistic assault of disapproving subjects which is not considered comedy), or apparently under observation by a mechanisms in league with those Foucault seeks to disrobe in him famous work 'The Birth of the Prison'. Location in Bacon's paintings is generally a matter of ambiguity too. Figures often appear to be lost or at least unfamiliar with their surroundings, their expressions apprehending that in this atypical environment, they will meet their fate in whatever form it may manifest itself in. Bacon would have been well equipped to convey this emotion, no doubt having experienced that heady sensual delirium besetting one confronted with the colourful cornucopia of artificial lighting, the maize of homogenously decorated interconnecting rooms, and the constant schizophrenic audiovisual stimuli which accompanies a crowd of strangers conducting all the fevered discussions, the comings, and the goings, of multiple selves possessive of a simultaneous disparity yet retaining a distinctive crystallography as charming as diamonds harbouring a sulphuric element of pathological toxicity, when initially orientating one's self with a well patronized casino.

Bacon's penchant for gambling is artfully recounted in Michael Peppiat's work Francis Bacon in the 1950's, published by the Yale University Press. According to Peppiat, Bacon's abiding passion was for gambling. Often, it was only through the proceeds of his manic gambling episodes, that Bacon managed to finance the continuance of his costly painterly pursuits, and circumvent the creativity constraining forces which would inevitably accompany any prolonged return to bourgeois routine occasioned by the necessity to work a regular job. Thus, it is through this Peter Pan like rubric of post war casinos in Nice, Cannes and Monte Carlo, that Peppiat conducts his skillful post mortem on the creative energy ultimately brought to bare in such striking fashion in Bacon's paintings. Amidst these aesthetic environments, capital and its assorted sophisticates reigned, and as though it were some pre menstrual chemical reactant, there exploded a most flagrant artificiality; that masquerading 'official' fakeness that Bacon had reasoned as being most densely constructed in only the best art. For Bacon, the poetic genius evinced by the painter was analogous to that expressed by the roulette tragic. All the romantic futility of the 'art life', that inspired confrontation with tragedy which Vincent Van Gogh had waxed so lyrically and so repetitively about to his brother Theo, was for Bacon, there, residing in a microcosm in a Monte Carlo casino ingeniously positioned so as to enable intrepid punters to bask in the sublimity of a mountainous coastal sunset whilst being besieged by a whole raft of sensual psychosomatic tensions as the wheels of fate spun with the fluidity of the 'Formula One' motor racing tires being massacred nearby. In a free sample of the publication generously provided by Peppiat and or the Yale University Press to Amazon dot com, Peppiat recalls conversing with Bacon on the subject of his gambling habit. The passage, and verbal exchange with Bacon therein, elucidates with remarkable clarity, the cohabitation of intuition, sensuality and paradoxical gregariousness that reverberates from Bacon's work. He was excited by the terrific highs and lows that gambling, like painting, procured.

“You can't understand the tremendous draw gambling has unless you've been in that kind of position where you terribly need money and you manage to get it by gambling”, he told me once, going on to give a most memorable vignette of his experiences in Monte Carlo. I had a really marvelous win at one point I was playing on three different tables and I kept thinking I could hear the numbers called out before they came up – as if the croupiers were actually calling them out, I had very little money and was playing for small stakes. But by the time I'd finished I'd got sixteen hundred pounds, which was a very great deal for me then. And I went out and took a villa and stocked it with food and drink, and invited a lot of people to come and live there... I adore the atmosphere of Monte Carlo. It a has a kind of grandeur, even if you might call it a grandeur of futility. There's something so beautiful about the view you get when you look out on to the bay and the curve of the hills behind. I love that kind of landscape. That, and just desert, I love that feeling of all that space, and nothing in it. It sounds ridiculous, liking a landscape from behind a window, but I actually can't stand the countryside. After a day or two I long for streets and people, and just to be able to walk and see them. Those places like Monte Carlo fascinate me too because of all the odd people who seem to be able to exist there and nowhere else. You know, the curious kinds of doctors with their promises of rejuvenating you who at the same time could only practice in those kinds of places, and all the incredible old women who queue up in the morning for the casino to open.”

A curious and perhaps humourous aside to this passage is that Andy Warhol's diaries, record how in the twilight of his life, Warhol would make regular trips to 'rejuvenating crystal doctors' operating in and around Manhattan. At this point I should flag a future elaboration concerning the curious interrelationship comingling art and medical doctors and or witch doctors.

In a 1984 interview between Sylvere Lotringer and Jean Baudrillard published by Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents as a post face to Jean Baudrillard's essay Forget Foucault, Baudrillard refers to gambling as an 'organized catastrophic apparitional form', as 'coming from elsewhere'. This bares a certain connectivity with not only the appearance and interpretative scope often applied to Bacon's pictures, though also to Bacon's vignette recounting the peculiar abode of the gamblers. According to Baudrillard, 'the secret of gambling is that money has no value'. Does art then harbour the same confidence? Was the secret of Bacon's pictures to convey the secret of gambling? Like a tortured subject in a Bacon painting, wouldn't you too be inclined to scream (!!) on discovering that your life savings were really of no value and in fact, artificial? Would such a sham leave you reeling? In 1995, conceptual art duo, the 'K Foundation' travelled to the Scottish island of Jura and filmed themselves incinerating a million pounds of their own money. The ashes of the fifty pound notes comprising the million pounds were later used in the manufacturing process of a single house brick. By way of contrast, in 58 BC, Julius Caesar in his Commentarii De Bello Gallico, had recounted a very different spectacle (though which also involved flames) occurring in the Scottish highlands. According to Caesar, druids (Celtic pagan priests) would construct large human effigies out of sticks (wicker men) into which a living man would be placed and then publicly burnt alive in tribute to the Gods. On conducting a comparative analysis of the work conducted by the K Foundation with that of the Celtic priests, one might lament that by 1995, art had lost its humanity and become all about money.

 

 

 

Sado-masochism and stolen shoe polish: Bacon's legacy revisited

 

Art historian John Richardson's revelations on the troubled artist he knew as a young man

 

Charlotte Higgins  | The Guardian | Sunday 22 November, 2009

 

        

                                     Francis Bacon photographed in his studio

 

Francis Bacon's was a life lived to extravagant extremes. His drunken excesses in the Colony Room Club in Soho; his carnivalesque, ruinous generosity; the formative occasion on which, as a teenager, his father found him wearing his mother's underwear and beat the living daylights out of him – all this is almost as celebrated as his riotously tortured paintings.

But now the art historian John Richardson, whose multi-volume life of Picasso has been called the best artist's biography ever written, and who knew Bacon from the 1940s, has argued that the best of Bacon's art stemmed precisely from his sadomasochistic sexual relationships at their most intense, which also led directly to the death of at least one of his lovers.

It was that early beating by his father to which Bacon attributed his taste for masochism – desires that were played out in adulthood with his lover Peter Lacy.

Richardson describes Lacy's "most heinous assault": "In a state of alcoholic dementia, he hurled Bacon through a plate glass window. His face was so damaged that his right eye had to be sewn back into place. Bacon loved Lacy even more. For weeks he would not forgive Lucian Freud for remonstrating with his torturer. Mercifully, Lacy moved to Tangier."

Writing in the forthcoming issue of the New York Review of Books, Richardson calls Lacy "a dashing 30-year-old … He owned an infamous cottage in the Thames valley, where Francis would spend much of his time – often, according to him, in bondage".

Richardson adds: "Unfortunately, drink released a fiendish, sadistic streak in Lacy that bordered on the psychopathic. Besides taking his rage out on Bacon, he took it out on his canvases. To his credit, however, he inspired some of his lover's most memorable works, among them, the Man in Blue paintings: a menacing, dark-suited Lacy set off against vertical draperies."

The best-known of Bacon's lovers is George Dyer – partly because Bacon immortalised in paintings Dyer's 1971 suicide in a hotel bedroom lavatory, on the eve of the artist's retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Richardson describes the directness of the relationship between Bacon's desires and his artistic output. "Bacon would goad George into a state of psychic meltdown and then, in the early hours of the morning – his favourite time to work – he would exorcise his guilt and rage and remorse in images of Dyer aimed, as he said, at the nervous system." Richardson argues that these are among his best works.

Richardson describes the evening he spent in New York with the pair in 1968. After a lunch during which Bacon called Jackson Pollock an "old lace-maker" they went out drinking. Dyer left, after an argument, and in the early hours Richardson received a call from Bacon who had found his lover passed out on the floor of their room in the Algonquin hotel, "unconscious from having washed down a handful of his sleeping pills with a bottle of scotch".

According to Richardson: "The goading worsened, the imagery intensified," and finally, after another unsuccessful suicide attempt in Greece, Dyer killed himself in Paris.

Richardson argues that Bacon's art went rapidly downhill when, after Dyer's death, he entered a relationship with John Edwards, which was "seemingly free of sadomasochistic overtones. This may explain why Bacon's work lost its sting and failed to thrill. Paintings inspired by Edwards, as well as a Formula 1 driver and a famous cricketer the artist fancied (fetishism survives in the batting pads), reveal that in old age Bacon managed to banish his demons and move on to beefcake. His headless hunks of erectile tissue buffed to perfection have an angst-free, soft-porn glow".

Richardson is an unusually stern critic of Bacon – who was the subject of a Tate retrospective last year and is revered by such artists as Damien Hirst. The problem, argues Richardson, is that Bacon simply could not draw. "Painting after painting would be marred by his inability to articulate a figure or its space." The critic David Sylvester – who helped cement Bacon's reputation – let him off too lightly for this "fatal flaw", he argues. "His celebrated variants on Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X are either magnificent flukes or near-total disasters. In the earliest of this 10-year series, Bacon famously portrays the pope screaming. He's good at screams but hopeless at hands, so he amputates, conceals, or otherwise fudges them."

Richardson describes his first visit to Bacon's studio in the late 1940s. "Bacon struck me as being exhilaratingly funny … Everything about his vast, vaulted studio was over the top: martinis served in huge Waterford tumblers; a paint-stained garter belt kicked under a sofa … The ramshackle theatricality that permeated the studio also permeated the three iconic mastershockers – scrotum-bellied humanoids screaming out at us from the base of a crucifixion – that were about to make the artist famous."

The sight of Bacon's blind old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, knitting in a corner "came as a surprise". She slept on the kitchen table, and "provided cover for Francis's shoplifting sprees (groceries, cosmetics, and Kiwi shoe polish for his hair)". She also helped provide an unusual source of income for Bacon: when the artist held illicit roulette parties, she would extort huge tips from visitors desperate to go to the loo. According to Richardson: "I remember Francis echoing his nanny: 'They should bring back hanging for buggery.' He was certainly not the only gay Englishman for whom guilt was intrinsic to sex."

 

 

Demons and beefcake – the other side of Francis Bacon

 

Charlotte Higgins  | The Guardian | Sunday 22 November, 2009

             

The territories of Francis Bacon's soul have been explored widely; they have been the subject of a film, books and endless speculation. But the senior art historian John Richardson – who, at 85, is working on the last volume of his acclaimed biography of Picasso, and who knew Bacon from his 20s – has now laid down his views and recollections of Bacon, amounting to a reappraisal of his life and work.

Writing in the forthcoming issue of the New York Review of Books, Richardson argues that Bacon's sado-masochistic relationships lay at the heart of his best work, but with terrible consequences for his lover George Dyer, whose fragile mental state Richardson attributes to Bacon's endless "goading".

Having provoked Dyer into "a state of psychic meltdown" he "would exorcise his guilt and rage and remorse in images of Dyer aimed, as he said, at the nervous system". This "goading" resulted in Dyer's suicide, writes Richardson.

An earlier relationship, with Peter Lacy, was violent to the extent that "he hurled Bacon through a plate glass window. His face was so damaged that his right eye had to be sewn back into place".

Bacon's art went rapidly downhill when sado-masochism ceased to be a part of his life, argues Richardson, who describes the "angst-free, soft-porn glow" of his later work.

Richardson, who has hitherto held back from revealing his full memories of Bacon since the artist's death in 1992, also pours scorn on critics, such as the late David Sylvester, who attempted to defend the self-taught Bacon's "inability to draw". He calls the celebrated Screaming Popes series "either magnificent flukes or near-total disasters" and refers to Bacon's failure to convey "subjects that call for graphic skill, subjects, for instance, that include hands". Richardson also refers to Bacon's early adventures as a rent boy; his shoplifting, using his elderly nanny as an accomplice; and the vividly bohemian life around him, including a three-day party in 1950, whose guests "included members of parliament and fellows of All Souls, as well as 'rough trade', slutty debutantes, cross-dressers, and the notoriously evil Kray brothers".

 

 

Gaping Mouths and Bulging Bodies: Beckett and Francis Bacon

 

PETER FIFIELD

Journal of Beckett Studies, Volume 18 (1-2): 72., Edinburgh University Press, September 1st, 2009.

 

 

    Dr Peter Fifield

 

Embodiment and abstraction are a potentially problematic mix. Beckett’s statement that ‘Perhaps like the composer Schoenberg or the painter Kandinsky, I have developed an abstract language’ (Gruen, 210), sits uncomfortably with, say, the important contrast in the builds of Vladimir and Estragon or the audible mass of Mrs Rooney’s 200lbs of fat. With Beckett’s taste for abstraction and embodiment in mind we might consider an oeuvre of contemporary painting that acts as a guide with which to consider Beckett’s rendition of the body, particularly as it is performed in the television version of Not I, first broadcast by the BBC in1977.

Rather than consulting Kandinsky, however, we would do much better to examine the resolutely fleshly example of Francis Bacon, the proximity of whose papal images after Velāzquez’s Pope Innocent X to Beckett’s Hamm are briefly noted in the Faber/Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett (Ackerley and Gontarski, 36). When asked if he ever considered painting abstract pictures, Bacon admitted only of an interest in those Picassos, which, he says, use an ‘organic form that relates to the human image but is a complete distortion of it’ (Sylvester, 8).

On the more conventional model of abstraction, when asked his opinion of the Rothko paintings in the Tate, he said, ‘I think they’re the dullest paintings in the world’ and complained that the American had not used brighter colours (South Bank Show, 1985). As such, it is in the OED’s sense of abstraction as ‘drawn, derived, extracted,’ or ‘distilled to its essence’ that we might call Bacon an abstract painter. He confirms this when he tells Melvyn Bragg that he seeks to make ‘not [an] illustration of reality but to create images which are a concentration of reality and a shorthand of sensation’ (South Bank Show, 1985).

The methods of that concentration, which include contortion, mutilation and containment, bring the corporeality of Bacon’s distorted bodies to the forefront of his paintings. On show, then, is an abstraction based not on an abandonment of the subject but on an adherence to a central property of its being – that of its embodiment. If we are to take seriously Beckett’s claims for the abstract we must also give account of his irrepressible attachment to the human form. The space occupied by Bacon’s work stands to bequeath to us not an archaeology of imagery, but a painterly model that speaks eloquently to Beckett’s sarcoid figures.

It is a notably organic plasticity that fleshes out the figures of Beckett’s writing and Bacon’s painting. Rather than use the sort of geometric fragmentation of analytical cubism, which can only depict the sinuous curve of, say, a violin’s sound-hole by not dissecting it – by forsaking its very method – in Bacon and Beckett the human form is given through emphasis and exaggeration of the curved, the swollen and the bulbous. It is this attention to the arc that gives to the subject its fleshy roundedness; related to the masculine voluptuousness that Bacon so admired in Michelangelo’s drawings (Peppiatt, 225). We might recall the narrator of The Unnamable who, despite being unsure of the precise nature of his embodiment, stresses its tendency towards a featureless sphere. At one point he proclaims of his head, ‘no, no beard, no hair either, it is a great smooth ball I carry on my shoulders, featureless, but for the eyes, of which only the sockets remain’ (Beckett, 1994, 307).

Later, in a sort of attendance register of physiological truancy the narrator says, ‘I don’t feel a mouth on me, nor a head, do I feel an ear, frankly now, do I feel an ear, well frankly now I don’t, so much the worse, I don’t feel an ear either, this is awful’ (Beckett, 1994, 386). Removing all that seems excessive or merely incidental in physicality, it is the spherical form that cannot be discarded. So, while embodiment is compulsively placed in doubt, if it does prove to be the case, its apparent form will be curved. Clearly, it is not the case that all the subjects painted or written by Bacon and Beckett are on the tubby side, or indeed are large cranial spheres; rather there is something about embodiment–any embodiment–that seems to elicit from both artist and author an account of voluminous roundedness, rather than flat, if precise, line. This is surely related to the fact that embodiment is what makes three-dimensionality into an experiential condition, that brings sense and sensation to the idea of spatiality. It is our bulging into 3-D–even of the slimmest figures – that is evoked with Bacon’s scoops and smears of paint and the unnamable’s gravitation towards roundness.

Moreover, the most basic form of the head and its necessary curvature, are repeated for the rest the body. Beckett writes, ‘For of the great traveller I had been, on my hands and knees in the later stages, then crawling on my belly or rolling on the ground, only the trunk remains (in sorry trim), surmounted by the head with which we are already familiar’ (Beckett, 1994, 329). Removing limbs with abandon, the condition of becoming a mere torso is specifically referred to as the trunk, evocative of a tree as well as a body. Consequently, it is given the characteristic motion of roundedness: it rolls. Whilst all of these profess a lack, there is, precisely because of this distorting focus, a gross emphasis on the fact of three-dimensional embodiment, like the bulbous view through a fish-eye lens. Indeed, it is the loss of limbs that uncovers and foregrounds the natural curvature of the body’s trunk. Like many of Bacon’s distortions of the human form, drawn from vivid photographs of invalids or bent and pinned photographs, the embodied form in Beckett’s work is thus pushed to the extremities of the humanoid. When we look at the Eumenides of Bacon’s 1944 Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, we see a grossly distorted human embodiment, rounded and limbless but not dissimilar to The Unnamable’s humanoid monster. In both, then, there is an emphasis not on the fixed form of the whole as constituted by its individual parts–limbs, hands, feet and so on–but on its underlying fleshliness; the essential meat of the matter.

Bacon draws particular attention to the practice of embodying a figure by distorting–by breaking–its body. He said to an interviewer, ‘You must know the beautiful Degas pastel in the National Gallery of a woman sponging her back. And you will find at the very top of the spine that the spine almost comes out of the skin altogether [...] He breaks it so that this thing seems to protrude from the flesh. Now, whether Degas did this purposely or not, it makes it a much greater picture, because you’re suddenly conscious of the spine as well as the flesh, which he usually just painted covering the bones’ (Sylvester, 46–47). For Bacon the broken body is a striking, multi-textured body, the artist stating, ‘I’m always hoping to deform people into appearance’ (Sylvester, 146). The shiver one has at the sight of a vivid mutilation is surely an extension of that ‘shorthand of sensation’ sought by Bacon in his paintings. Without the blood and gore so characteristic of the artworks, Beckett’s figures are, of course, notably distorted by injury and bodily malfunction as well as the sort of strange embodiment seen in The Unnamable.

In Beckett et le psychanalyste which the artist himself read on the comparison (Archimbaud, 119)–Didier Anzieu aligns Beckett’s broken bodies with those of Bacon: ‘Bacon peint des portraits oų les yeux, l’ouïe, la bouche, le nez, la marche, la peau, la posture sont dévastés’ (Anzieu, 151). Several characters, such as Watt and Clov, have the stiff-legged gait of an ataxic, as if malady had lent them their very substance. Molloy finds himself crawling through the woods, Hamm cannot stand, Nagg and Nell are again trunks, in cylindrical containers. The posture of May in Footfalls, over which Beckett laboured for so long with Whitelaw (Haynes, 43), is as contorted as many of Bacon’s figures. This brief list of pathological specimens recalls us to what James Knowlson calls Beckett’s ‘long-standing curiosity about medical matters [. . . whereby] Anything abnormal or macabre fascinated him’ (Knowlson, 668). This preoccupation with oddity is shared by Bacon, who also repeatedly turned to the clinically strange to establish the common, and so ‘at one time haunted medical bookshops in search of an ever greater precision in the portrayal of extreme states’ (Russell, 56). Michael Peppiatt confirms that the artist ‘loved to talk to scientists and doctors [...and] at one point he was a regular reader of The Lancet’ (Peppiatt, 221), whilst Russell records Bacon’s possession of the unpromising-sounding sourcebook Positioning in Radiography, which illustrated the advised poses for successful medical x-rays (Russell, 113). For both Beckett and Bacon the medical exception often provides the physiological exemplar; the distortion stresses the everyday condition of being clothed in tissue.

In conversation with Michel Archimbaud between October 1991 and April 1992, Bacon responds at length to a comparison between his own works and those of Beckett. Betraying an extensive knowledge of Beckett’s work, he nevertheless denies any affinity, claiming, ‘I’ve always been amazed at this comparison between Beckett and myself’ (Archimbaud, 116). He admits to having ‘seen Waiting for Godot which I didn’t by the way find interesting, and some of his shorter plays which were, in my opinion, much better’ (Archimbaud, 117). Unable–or unwilling–to recognise the common attachment to renditions of embodiment and affect, he speculates of Beckett: ‘the idea may have been a good one but I wonder if, in his case, the cerebral didn’t take too much precedence over the rest [. . . ] there’s something too systematic and too intelligent about him, which is perhaps what’s always made me uncomfortable’ (Archimbaud, 118). He goes on to recall that, There was a very good actress here in London who performed in them. Beckett often used to write for her. Unfortunately, I no longer remember her name. They were very short pieces, not more than half an hour long, barely twenty minutes, and they weren’t bad at all. (Archimbaud, 117).

While the name eludes the ailing Bacon, whose death was to cut short this series of conversations, he is clearly referring to Billie Whitelaw. The short works that Bacon may have seen in London thus include Play, Footfalls, Rockaby and, of course, Not I. It seems rather alarming that this artist for whom the mouth means so much would damn the singular vision of Not I with the fain praise of ‘not bad at all’, couched amidst copious denials of any similarity. But examination of other evidence shows this to be at least consistent with a contrary streak that often revealed itself around questions of comparison and influence. Indeed, this might be illustrated by the conflict in opinion given in two of Bacon’s biographies. Andrew Sinclair writes of the painter that ‘Beckett was one of the writers he particularly admired along with Pinter’ (Sinclair, 302), which suggests not only general approval but a special fondness. Pulling in the other direction, however, Peppiatt claims that the artist ‘rejected any comparison between Beckett’s work (“all those ghastly dustbins”) and his own’ (Peppiatt, 341 n1), which indicates not merely indifference but outright hostility. It cannot be disputed that the dustbins of Endgame  another play that Bacon apparently saw–lack the violent sexual charge that characterises many of Bacon’s numerous forays into the seedy and the insalubrious. Even so, it seems likely Peppiatt touches a sore spot in his question, and that the painter’s objection is not to Beckett’s work per se but to assertions of its proximity to his own. Alternatively, Beckett’s may be simply one of the many oeuvres that could elicit from Bacon coos of approval or scornful calls according to his mood. Certainly, Peppiatt recalls the disdain heaped upon respectable targets who would otherwise have been lauded: ‘sweeping statements sometimes turned into venomous outbursts of pique, with Bacon insisting (about Matisse, for instance, whose sculpture he nevertheless admired): “I really hate those squalid little forms of his”, or again (about many people): “So you think he’s good, do you? Then just tell me this: what’s he ever invented? Nothing, you see”‘ (Peppiatt, 301). Just as with Matisse’s ‘squalid little forms’, Beckett’s ‘ghastly dustbins’ may well be the victims of a theatrical tirade, no more than bluff and bluster.

Analysis of Beckett’s awareness of Bacon is altogether more speculative. Indeed, I can establish by inference only one occasion that Beckett would have seen a painting by Bacon. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was among the earliest purchasers of Bacon’s work, buying the striking Painting 1946 two years after its composition (Peppiatt, 118). Beckett visited the museum with Sidney Meyers, the editor of Film, in 1964 (Knowlson, 525) where he would have seen in Bacon’s painting what resembles a sinister re-imagining of Winnie from Happy Days, here turned into the upper body of an umbrella-shaded dictator. Submerged in shadow rather than sand, the figure has an altogether more explicit relationship to death, surrounded not by domestic flotsam but by the fragments of one or many carcasses. Apart from this likely encounter we are restricted to the examination of Bacon’s Parisian profile and the run of exhibitions that  Beckett may have attended.

To be sure, though, neither of these are inconsequential. In a poll conducted by the Parisian magazine Connaissance des Arts in the late 1960s, with Beckett also nearing the peak of his renown, Bacon was voted the most important living artist in the world (Peppiatt, 233). This trend in public opinion was confirmed by Bacon’s full retrospective at Paris’s prestigious Grand Palais in 1971, only the second living artist, after Picasso, to be accorded such an honour (Peppiatt, 232). Furthermore, this was only the most prominent of numerous acclaimed Paris exhibitions held during Beckett’s lifetime. These include shows at Galerie Rive Droite (1957), Galerie Maeght (1966–67) – which owned a significant number of Bram van Veldes (Knowlson, 452)–Galerie Claude Bernard (1977), Galerie Maeght Lelong (1984) and Galerie Lelong (1987). One might also consider the possibility that Beckett encountered Bacon’s paintings in London or in any of many German exhibitions. Although we have no record of Beckett’s attendance at any or all of these exhibitions, the extensive profile of Bacon in Paris could not have escaped Beckett’s notice. Nevertheless, the image, if not the fact, of influence is present in the many shrieking mouths and contorted bodies shown to such widespread acclaim in Paris only the year before Not I was begun.

The mouth is undoubtedly the most prominent fixation shared by both artists, whether it is the jabbering panic of Not I or the screaming gape of Bacon’s numerous popes. The television adaptation of Beckett’s play, starring Billie Whitelaw, was produced by Tristram Powell in February 1975 for the BBC (Knowlson, 1996, 620), who screened it as the third part of Shades – alongside Ghost Trio and . . . but the clouds. . . – on BBC 2 on 17 April 1977. It has a particularly obsessive focus, the omission of the shrugging figure of the auditor leaving only the mouth, whose slick sogginess, lubricating its own mechanism as it runs, is relished by the camera. The effect was so significant, Whitelaw recalls, that it elicited Beckett’s only comment on her work in her entire career. After watching the film, ‘out of the darkness, came one word, spoken with an Irish accent a whisper that just managed to float across to me: “Miraculous”‘ (Whitelaw, 132). Enlarged to fill the screen, the mesmerising motion of the lips as they manage the words, draws the eyes with the suggestive swell of an obscenity. Indeed, the transition to television quite literally bloats the mouth to new proportions, creating a spectacle of magnification that cuts against the manifest smallness of the isolated, spot-lit mouth on stage. Combined with this enlargement, the rhythmic thrusting and opening captures well what Bacon described in portraiture as ‘All the pulsations of a person’ (Peppiatt, 208).

Indeed, that combination of pushing itself out towards its observers, and drawing inwards with that dark central cave is, as Billie Whitelaw notes, ‘strangely sexual and glutinous, slimy and weird, like a crazed, over-sexed- jellyfish’ (Whitelaw, 132). That mixture of protuberance and pull is reinforced by the adaptation for television, which has a valuable serendipity to its manufacture of the mouth’s volume. Although we are likely to forget it in an era of oversized, flattened plasma sets, the play was filmed for a screen that would not only be much smaller than is now normal–albeit larger than life–but curved.

Maintaining that tendency towards the bulge found in both of the corpora, the very medium thus thrusts the image into one’s living room, holding the gaze with its own ocular curve. Indeed, the play’s titular pun thus gains an additional twist in its second format, for now the play makes the television’s dilated image return our stare: our gaze is held by that mesmeric tube whose detractors have bestowed the nickname the ‘devil’s eye’. The sexual overtones of the orifice in Not I are also very much present in Bacon’s many mouths. Many of the rounded mouths in particular, whilst recognisably screaming, are sexually inflected ambiguous holes, both inviting and forbidding penetration. As Michael Peppiatt writes, ‘There can be little doubt that Bacon’s interest in the open mouth was due in large part to its sexual suggestiveness’ (Peppiatt, 142). Quite apart from the multiple functions of any bodily orifice, both Beckett and Bacon were influenced by the same psychologically and physiologically- ambiguous oddity. Amidst his readings in psychology in 1935 (Knowlson, 178) Beckett encountered the folklore notion of the vagina dentata. Otto Rank’s The Trauma of Birth mentions the figure of the toothed vagina in reference to the neurotic male’s fear of intercourse (Rank, 49), a notion that Beckett added to his psychology notes (Beckett, 1930s). Embodying the dread of castration during–indeed by–the very act of coitus, it is the ambiguous orifice par excellence, at once mouth and genitals, site of pleasure and pain, desire and fear. This fundamentally enigmatic figure is also one of Bacon’s key sources. Rather than a psychoanalytic origin, however, Bacon’s source was already transmuted into painting. The vagina dentata emerges time and again in Picasso’s biomorphic paintings, where the head of the victim/subject is morphed into a ferocious, consuming sex.

The Blessed Virgin Mary in Picasso’s 1930 Crucifixion (Richardson, 399) is an early and spectacular example of these cross-bred body parts, which the artist associated with his lover Olga as their relationship soured. They were painted in the middle of that period of Picasso’s work most favoured by Bacon (Archimbaud, 34–35). Whilst this oddity is undoubtedly one root in the genesis of  Beckett and Bacon’s mouths, one must also recognise the specifically oral fixation shown by both. Certainly, Not I makes clear the relish for the peculiarly wide-ranging types of corporeality of this particular orifice, with its combination of wet saliva, hard teeth, fleshy and flexible lips, muscular tongue and non-present hole. This is to say, there is a care not only for ambiguity and curiosity but for specificity and normality; a real captivation with what constitutes the mouth in particular. The fascination with this unique combination of forms–living and not-living, there and not–is also found in Bacon, as if it signifies a property of embodiment that no other feature can. Prominent among Bacon’s sources are photographs featuring, amongst others, the particularly active maw of Joseph Goebbels in full rabid rant; the various shapes, shifts and substances on show as if the extremity and diversity shown cut to the core of the mouth’s essential nature. As in Beckett , the contrast between the part of the mouth is significant, particularly between the flesh and what John Russell refers to in Bacon as ‘the magnificence and purity of the teeth’ (Russell, 56). And, although painting cannot reproduce that significant motion of Beckett’s Not I, it does seek to capture something of the quintessential mobility of the mouth, following Bacon’s statement that ‘I’ve always been very moved by the movements of the mouth and the teeth’ (Sylvester, 1987, 50). Most significant are a couple of distinctly oral mouths captured in artworks seen by both Beckett and Bacon.

The first is Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents, held in the Château de Chantilly, which Bacon thought no less than ‘the best human cry in painting’ (Sylvester, 34). He saw it in 1927 when living near to the gallery with a family whose matriarch had first been fascinated by the flamboyant seventeen-year-old Bacon when in Paris, and who had then proceeded to befriend, house, and instruct him in French (Peppiatt, 32). Beckett also admired Poussin immensely, and spent a good deal of time looking at The Entombment in Dublin’s National Gallery (Knowlson, 58). On the 17 June 1934 he visited the Louvre with his brother to look at the extensive collection of Poussins and various Dutch works, and the following day had an outing to Chantilly, where he would have seen The Massacre of the Innocents (Knowlson, 195). The second prominent source for Bacon was the screaming nurse shot on the steps of Odessa harbour in the 1925 film The Battleship Potemkin, which he saw first either in Berlin in 1926 or the following year in Paris (Peppiatt, 30). A decade later the film’s groundbreaking director Sergei Eisenstein would have received an application from a rather optimistic Beckett asking to become his assistant (Knowlson, 226), an eagerness that indicates a similar enthusiasm. The esteem in which Beckett held both Poussin and Potemkin places some particularly striking mouths in the author’s extensive mental repository of images, either or both of which may have fed into the central image of Not I alongside the acknowledged Caravaggio canvas, The Decollation of St John the Baptist, which Beckett  saw in the cathedral at Valetta whilst holidaying in Malta in 1971 (Haynes, 55; Knowlson, 588).

Indeed, Beckett’s note to James Knowlson in 1973 perhaps implies sources other than Caravaggio: ‘Image of Not I in part suggested by Caravaggio’s Decollation of St John the Baptist’ (Knowlson, 588). Moving on from questions of influence and origin, the better part of comparison lies in a notable agreement in method. In both oeuvres a curved emptiness, undoubtedly related to the cavernous mouth’s curious combination of fleshliness and non-embodiment, becomes a strange sort of non-present prosthetic, stressing the three-dimensionality of the bodies not by extending them, but by containing, restraining and framing them in space. In his book on Bacon, Gilles Deleuze draws attention to the similar settings used by both artists. He writes, ‘Beckett’s Characters and Bacon’s Figures share a common setting, the same Ireland: the round area, the isolator, le dépeupleur’ (Deleuze, 35–6). Evoking both the ‘flattened cylinder’ of The Lost Ones and the notion of a space that strips its occupants of company, the description also points to the curved walls of many of Bacon’s painted rooms, to which one might add the round bed that features so often in the canvases. Indeed, this figure of curved isolation is rarely repeated to better effect than in MoMA’s Painting 1946, which, as Beckett would have seen, contains – and thus gives volume to – its central figure by the use of multiple curved forms. The head is partially obscured by an open umbrella, the foreground is occupied by what look like circular rails, while the figure’s upper body is almost fitted entirely within the cavern of a butchered carcass, opened into a kind of cruciform backdrop. The repetition of such containing forms might even demonstrate a spatial sense to Beckett’s desire to ‘find a form to accommodate the mess’ (Graver and Federman, 219), just as for Bacon, the containers on the canvas contribute to the ‘very, very ordered chaos’ (Kaleidoscope, 1991) he preferred.

Deleuze’s reference, made in 1981, to a specifically Irish space appears to anticipate a comment made by Bacon to David Sylvester in 1986–and again to Michel Archimbaud in 1992 (Archimbaud, 154)–recalling a particularly handsome house his father had bought from his grandmother. Bacon recalls that ‘Farmleigh was a beautiful house where the rooms at the back were all curved: I suppose one never knows about those things, but perhaps this may be one of the reasons why I have often used curved backgrounds in triptychs’ (Sylvester, 184). We might also note that the large Irish house of Beckett’s youth, Cooldrinagh, had curved windows both upstairs and down. One of these upstairs bays may have provided the infant Beckett’s very first light: emerging from his own fleshly confinement into a room illuminated by the arc of an oriel window. To suggest that these glazed curvatures influenced Beckett’s own curved spaces is perhaps to go too far–although of course not as far back as the author’s memories were said to stretch – but his predilection for containing figures in such bowed spaces is repeatedly put to work to figure and figure out his fictional bodies. Nagg and Nell in Endgame are contained in those ‘ghastly’ cylindrical bins, Winnie in Happy Days is trapped in a cone-like mound, Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape is shown in an illuminated circle given by the overhead light, the three figures in Play are in shapely, almost human-esque urns, and The Unnamable’s narrator tries to pass off its embodiment for a while by maintaining that it is propped up in an urn outside a restaurant. To consider the medium of television in this way, the multi-dimensional curvature of the screen – a distinct protuberance with curved edges – might be said to hold and frame the curves of the mouth in Not I, giving an actual volume to the image of the mouth on screen. (The television screen is also, of course, yet another curved window that appears to illuminate the dark confines of its interior.) In a similar vein, the visual persecution of the title character of Eh Joe is as much a product of containment as enlargement, the organic shape of the screen giving substance to both the character and, importantly, the harassment itself. The stronger Joe’s persecution grows, the more uncomfortably he is squeezed into and confined within the television’s box, gaining an increasing fleshliness as his face comes to occupy ever more screen space. Although cubes are present in the corpus, as they are in Bacon’s, it is the organic and swollen arc to which both particularly gravitate. To take an example of where curve and line meet, we might consider how in Imagination Dead Imagine each body lies within its own warped semi-sphere; that is, in a semi-circle on the horizontal plane and a semi-ovoid on the vertical. The position of these pleated creatures is described in the form of vectors, given in relation to the geometry of the rotundas they are placed in. This arrangement suggests strongly that they are embodied by their containment. Thus, after the mapping of one folded frame in the space ACB we are told there is ‘the white body of a woman finally’ (Beckett, 1995, 184), that ‘finally’ suggesting that the efforts of narrating the coordinates within the dome conjures the inhabitant herself. Like cowering or imprisoned versions of Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man, the characters are given substance by their location within the geometry of the circle, albeit by an arrangement consisting of straight lines. This is also an important alteration of the unnamable’s bulbous hypothetical embodiment, as the later human frames are given substance by their points of contact with the curved lines of their circular habitat.

So, while they become less curved themselves, turned into a series of vectors–head to arse, arse to feet–they are conjured, indeed fleshed out, by mapping this geometry within a curved space. As a model for abstraction this is almost certainly not what Beckett had in mind when he compared his work to that of Kandinsky. But there is, even in Bacon’s resistance to analysis, a curious compulsion to place his work alongside Beckett’s, as Jane Hale has argued (Hale, 96). Thus it is with a resistance to classification and explication that the painter’s biographer records an inadvertent Beckettian echo, ‘Bacon reiterated throughout his life that his painting “meant” nothing, “said” nothing, and that he himself had nothing to “say.” “I’m not an Expressionist, you see, as some people say,” he would insist, sometimes adding as a last flourish: “After all, I have nothing to express”‘ (Peppiatt, 98). But the preponderance of bodies within both oeuvres demands an account of what, with their curious shapes and settings, they are doing here, in a space that, both have argued, has abandoned the task of expression. Beckett  and Bacon share a process of modelling the body that includes reference to a broken or distorted model, and a predilection for swooping shapes in both the figure itself and its quasi-prosthetic containment. The repetition of these mutual acts of mutilation and distortion stresses (and distresses) the physical at the expense of conventional bodies and settings, forging a meaty mimesis of the atypical subject. Indeed, it is one of the paradoxes of the television Not I that the use of a medium that, unlike theatre, does not present embodiment itself creates such a striking rendition of substantial embodiment. The enlarged and isolated image displays the meat of corporeality down to the spit and dribble that theatrical scale would dissemble. The very insubstantiality of the medium – constituted of no more than dots of coloured light–becomes the means by which physicality is so strongly and viscerally created. There is, in Beckett’s increased use of television, surely a technological descendent of his call for visible artifice in Waiting for Godot, where acting ‘has got to be done artificially, balletically, Otherwise everything becomes an imitation, an imitation of reality’ (Haynes, 108). In this taste too, his tactics are also common to Bacon, whose portrayal of the subject is rendered by the overt, artificial distortion of illustrative forms: ‘I would like to make my pictures more and more artificial [...] The more artificial you can make it, the greater chance you’ve got of its looking real’ (Sylvester, 146 and 148). The achievement of an art that is effective not despite its artifice but because of it is the talent and taste of both figures.

If Beckett’s creatures can be thought of as abstract, then, it is certainly not in the sense of being opposed to the concrete. On the contrary, abstraction here seems to mean the condensation of physicality; the obsessive, distorting focus not only on appearance but on the sensations of being clothed in flesh, and of bulging into three dimensions. It is to the notion of sensation, then, that we must finally appeal in this juxtaposition. In a letter to Alan Schneider – and repeated elsewhere – Beckett wrote that Not I is ‘Addressed less to the understanding than to the nerves of the audience which should in a sense share her bewilderment’ (Harmon, 283). Likewise, Bacon repeatedly described his images of faces in neural terms, as ‘an attempt to bring the figurative thing up onto the nervous system more violently and more poignantly’ (Sylvester, 12). As both artists make explicit, then, their depictions of bodies signify not through reference to a bloodless or theoretical notion of physicality but through the observer’s own physical participation. Their aesthetic bodies work not because they resemble a particular person or even present an actual body, but because they depict the condition of embodiment itself, and because they excite through the sparking of our own synapses.

 

WORKS CITED

Ackerley, C. J., and S. E. Gontarski (eds) (2006), The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett, London: Faber.

Anzieu, Didier (1992), Beckett et le psychanalyste, Paris: Archimbaud, Menthe.

Archimbaud, Michel (1993), Francis Bacon: In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud, London: Phaidon Press.

Beckett, Samuel (1930s), ‘Psychology Notes’, Trinity College Dublin, TCD MS 10971/8.

Beckett, Samuel (1986), Complete Dramatic Works, London: Faber.

Beckett, Samuel [1959] (1994), Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, London: Calder Publications.

Beckett, Samuel (1995), Complete Short Prose: 1929–1989, ed. S. E. Gontarski, New York: Grove Press.

Deleuze, Gilles [1981] (2003), Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith, London: Continuum.

Graver, Lawrence and Raymond Federman, eds. (1979), Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Gruen, John (1969), ‘Samuel Beckett talks about Beckett’, Vogue, 154:10, pp. 210-11

 

 

Lynn Brunet

 

'A Course of Severe and Arduous Trials'

 

Bacon, Beckett and Spurious Freemasonry in Early Twentieth-Century Ireland

 

 

    

 

 

Series: Reimagining Ireland - Volume 6

Publishers: Peter Lang (2009)
ISBN 978-3-03911-854-0 br

 

The Author
 

Lynn Brunet is an Australian art historian whose research examines the coupling of trauma and ritual in modern and contemporary art and literature. She was a full-time lecturer in art history and theory from 1994 to 2006 and she is a practising artist. She lives and works in Melbourne.

Book synopsis

The artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and the writer Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) both convey in their work a sense of foreboding and confinement in bleak, ritualistic spaces. This book identifies many similarities between the spaces and activities they evoke and the initiatory practices of fraternal orders and secret societies that were an integral part of the social landscape of the Ireland experienced by both men during childhood.
Many of these Irish societies modelled their ritual structures and symbolism on the Masonic Order. Freemasons use the term 'spurious Freemasonry' to designate those rituals not sanctioned by the Grand Lodge. The Masonic author Albert Mackey argues that the spurious forms were those derived from the various cult practices of the classical world and describes these initiatory practices as 'a course of severe and arduous trials'. This reading of Bacon's and Beckett's work draws on theories of trauma to suggest that there may be a disturbing link between Bacon's stark imagery, Beckett's obscure performances and the unofficial use of Masonic rites.

Contents

Trauma, depression and confusion in the life and work of Bacon and Beckett - Irish initiatory traditions - Francis Bacon, Masonic Royal Arch rites and the Passing of the Veils - Francis Bacon, Men of No Popery and the Irish warrior tradition - Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot: a parody of Royal Arch rites? - Samuel Beckett's plays: ritual movements, subjective states, torture and trauma - Druidic rites in Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable - Bacon and Beckett compared in the light of Druidism and the Gnostic tradition.

Introduction

This study is the product of a developing body of research and a new theory within the creative arts that proposes that particular artists and writers, especially those who appear to express a deep and confusing sense of anxiety and despair, may be representing the traces of initiatory rites found in various fraternities, religious groups, secret societies and cults.

Two of the twentieth century's most important creative figures, the artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and the writer Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), both convey in their work a sense of foreboding and confinement in bleak, ritualistic spaces. Gilles Deleuze has suggested that it is in these spaces that Bacon and Beckett 'have never been so close', as Bacon's figures and Beckett's characters 'trundle about fitfully without ever leaving their circle or parallelpiped'. This book provides a reading of Bacon and Beckett's work that demonstrates the many parallels between the spaces and activities they evoke in their work and the initiatory practices of fraternal orders and secret societies that were an integral part of the social landscape of the Ireland of their childhood. As T. Desmond Williams notes, secret societies were probably more a part of everyday life and politics in Ireland than in most other countries and since the eighteenth century new fraternal orders were being formed in Ireland every decade. Many of these societies modelled their ritual structures and symbolism on the Masonic order.

In the modern era the artist's role has often been interpreted as providing an important link to the subliminal currents that underpin the community, revealing those taboo or repressed issues that the society as a whole is unable to confront. Some artists do this by exploring their own struggles and psychological experiences and then externalising these explorations in creative form. The cliché of the tortured artist accompanies this modern concept. By making their struggles visible artists confront their viewers with unresolved issues that some in the public may share.

Often neither artist nor their audience is fully aware of the implications of their work. Francis Bacon and Samuel Beckett could each be described as driven by a powerful creative force underpinned by a sense of disturbance that has not yet been fully understood. Both have plumbed the darkest levels of their psyches and transferred their responses onto the canvas, be it a literal piece of linen, a theatrical stage or the pages of a novel. Bacon called this process of transference 'the pattern of one's own nervous system being projected on the canvas.' Beckett's realisation that his literary voice needed to be based on the dynamics of the psyche and on the 'big blooming buzzing confusion' of his own inner turmoil was a decision that marked him as a new voice in theatre and one that was to be representative of his time.

This book asks whether the sense of disturbance created in their work could be associated with traumatic exposure to initiatory rites that were commonly practiced by many secret societies in early twentieth-century Ireland. As there is no evidence to suggest that either man ever joined any secret societies this study asks whether they could have been exposed to the rituals in some other context.

As anthropologists explain, the use of initiatory rites applied to children and accompanies by a series of frightening tricks, enacted as rites of passage into adulthood, is a common practice in many cultures. These rites can often be painful and terrifying affairs and are generally conducted by specially appointed ritual elders. Many societies frown on such practices, regarding them as a sign of a backward culture, one steeped in superstition and fear, and claim a more enlightened view where the child is spared such brutal horrors. But what if similar practices lie behind the work of Bacon and Beckett? The reading here suggests that there may be the traces in their work of a clandestine initiation process, one that draws on a combination of Masonic rites, Druidic lore, Irish mythology, and biblical and classical themes, blended together with a liberal dose of cruelty.

 

 

Francis Bacon: Order, chance and the abject body

by Silverman, Jennifer M., M.A., 

State University of New York at Buffalo, 2010.

Paperback: 92 pages

Publisher: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller (3 Sept 2010)

ISBN-10: 3639287088  ISBN-13: 978-363928708

 

 

 

Abstract

This examination looks at the work of British painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and his desire to portray sensation through the human figure. Bacon's utilization of the figure put him at odds with the contemporary art movements of his time, particularly Abstract Expressionism which dominated the art world in the 1950s, when Bacon first began painting.

Bacon's relationship with Abstract Expressionism was complicated. While he often vocalized his dislike of the Abstract Expressionists' work, he also utilized some of their techniques in his work. While Bacon desired an ordered image, it needed to have an element of chance. Therefore he also relied on "free marks" to make his works more spontaneous. While he did not want them to look chaotic, a completely ordered image was boring. So Bacon required a balance between the two, which he referred to as "ordered chance." French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze wrote extensively of Bacon's methods and use of "free marks" in his work Francis Bacon and the Logic of Sensation, which has been a critical text for the purposes of this paper.

In creating figures that teetered on the edge of abstraction, Bacon believed this created a certain tension which he saw as a critical component to creating sensation in his work. In using the body this way, Bacon also crushed his figures, tearing them apart in order to allow the internal forces on the body out. Here, I argue that one can turn to the writing of Julia Kristeva on the abject in order to gain a better understanding of why Bacon's figures inspire such horror. Although there has been much writing on Bacon's figures, there has been no other direct connection with Kristeva's theory of abjection, which I believe sheds new light on the affect of his paintings on the viewer.

About the Author

Master of Arts, Visual Studies, Uni at Buffalo, NY. Concentration: Modernism. Minor Concentration: Feminist Art Theory. Thesis: Francis Bacon: Order, Chance and the Abject Body. May, 2010. Bachelor of Arts, Art History, Wells, Aurora, NY. June, 2006. Thesis: A Trinity of Temptresses: The Conflation of Eve, Lilith and Pandora in Renaissance Art.

 

 

Francis Bacon, Seduced By Madrid

 

By VICTORIA BURNETT | TRAVEL | THE NEW YORK TIMES | FEBRUARY 19, 2009

 

 

   Examining Francis Bacon’s Three Figures for the Base of a Crucifixion at the Prado in Madrid.

 

ON the afternoon of April 30, 1992, a plain coffin bearing the body of the Dublin-born painter Francis Bacon arrived at the brick and white-stone chapel of the vast Almudena Cemetery in Madrid. The artist then made the quiet exit he had sought. He was cremated with minimal ceremony, with no mourners present; his ashes were sent to England.

Bacon had spent his final six days in a Madrid clinic, wheezing oxygen from a bottle and nursed by nuns. He charmed them with his basic Spanish, but he asked for no visitors and reportedly received none. After he died of a heart attack on April 28, his London dealer sent a Spanish colleague to collect Bacon’s brown suitcase and his leather jacket.

Bacon’s solitary death at 82 in Madrid seems a desolate, slightly random, parting for a London dweller whose foreign playgrounds, over the years, included Berlin, Paris and Tangier. In fact, the Spanish capital became something of a haunt for the artist in his final years, which he spent entwined in an on-and-off relationship with a handsome, young art-loving Spaniard.

So the retrospective of Bacon’s work that opened at the Prado Museum in Madrid this month is something of a homecoming for the painter. The show, which drew hordes to the Tate Gallery  in London over the past few months, runs in Madrid until April 19 and then moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Madrid was quite a late discovery for Bacon,” says Michael Peppiatt, an art critic and biographer of Bacon. “It was very seductive: there was the Prado, which was a summit on his horizon, and, into the mix, a very good-looking Spanish friend who he was completely in love with.”

Bacon’s discreet trips to see his lover rounded off a long-standing interest in the home of the bullfight and of the two painters who, arguably, most influenced him: Picasso and Velázquez. He was charmed by the city, with its late rhythm, its bars that emptied at dawn, its dry, baking heat and narrow, seamy streets.

“He loved the heat, he loved the food, he loved the pictures, he loved the look of it,” said Janetta Parladé, a friend whom Bacon visited in southern Spain.

In the evenings, he and his Spanish friend would stop in for a dry martini — or three — or a bottle of Champagne at Bar Cock, a rather baronial-style bar frequented by actors and artists on a downtown street, then derelict and lined with heroin addicts. From there, a favourite destination was La Trainera, a landmark seafood restaurant whose beamed dining room is decked with nautical gear.

Patricia Ferrer, an owner of Bar Cock, remembers Bacon, immaculately dressed, having a drink just days before his death. “Here he was, a perfect dandy, sitting with his back beautifully straight,” she said. “He certainly died with his boots on.”

Bacon was fascinated by the bullfight, or corrida, a motif that recurs in his work in the form of circling bulls, ringed spaces, thrusting horns, gored legs. He described the corrida as “death in the sunlight” and “a marvelous aperitif of sex” and probably went to see fights in Madrid at Las Ventasbullring.

 “He was captivated by the torero — the sexuality, the elegance, the outfit, the ballet of it,” said José Capa Eiriz, who, as director of exhibitions at the Juan March in Madrid, put on the first show of Bacon’s work in Spain in 1978.

For Bacon, the artistic high point of Madrid was, naturally, the Prado itself, home to a large collection of works by Goya and by Velázquez, whose 1650 “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” Bacon revered and transformed — some would say deformed — in his paintings of agonized, screaming popes. (Velázquez’s pope is at the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome.)

Manuela Mena, the Prado’s curator of 18th-century painting and Goya — and of the Madrid retrospective — remembers Bacon asking to visit the museum on a Monday, when it was closed to the public. He would stand for long stretches before a work by Velázquez or Goya, peering up close, “thrusting himself right into the painting,” she said. “He wanted to see the brush strokes, the texture, the canvas.”

The retrospective offers a rare opportunity to see Bacon’s work in conjunction with some of the Spanish paintings that influenced him, according to Ms. Mena, who said she found echoes of, and allusions to, many of the Prado’s works in Bacon’s paintings.

In the Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho, Ms. Mena sees the self-assuredness of Velázquez’s black-clad Pablo de Valladolid. The stairs in the central panel of Triptych — In Memory of George Dyer (1971) are a reference to the Paris hotel where Dyer, Bacon’s lover, committed suicide, but they are also an allusion, Ms. Mena said, to the stairs leading to a half-open door in Las Meninas by Velázquez.

The purplish blood that soaks the clothes in the middle panel of Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by T. S. Eliot’s ‘Sweeney Agonistes’; the rusty, mottled patch in Blood on Pavement — these surely owe a debt to the sticky crimson smear on the dead man’s face and the blood mingling with the earth in Goya’s Third of May 1808, Ms. Mena said.

Friends and associates of Bacon speculated that he would be excited to see his paintings hanging in the museum that houses some of the painters he admired most. One person who seemed moved by the painter’s return to Madrid was Sister Mercedes, a nun of the Order of Servants of Mary who nursed the sick artist at the Ruber Clinic. She had no idea who Bacon was until the press descended on the hospital after he died.

Standing before the Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X in a crowd of Madrid glitterati, Sister Mercedes looked a little pensive.

“He painted what he felt,” she said, nodding her head. “I could tell he was a tormented soul.”

UNHOLY POPES

The Francis Bacon retrospective runs until April 19 at the Prado Museum, Paseo del Prado; (34-91) 330-2800

 

 

 

Christie's Is Sued After Francis Bacon Painting Fails to Sell

 

THE NEW YORK TIMES | MARCH 20, 2009

 

Christie’s  is being sued by a family trust led by the Connecticut collector George A. Weiss, who says the auction house reneged on a $40 million guarantee when it tried but failed to sell a 1964 painting by Francis Bacon in November.

The lawsuit, filed in the United States Southern District Court on Friday, claims that Christie’s, in competition with archrival Sotheby’s, agreed to give the trust, Weiss Family Art, a guarantee — a sum promised to the seller regardless of the sale’s outcome — of $40 million for the painting. In order to win the consignment from Sotheby’s, Christie’s sweetened its deal and won the business.

An agreement was struck in late July, but by September, after the auction house already had the painting, Christie’s said it would no longer honour the guarantee because of the faltering global economy.

Christie’s was not able to sell the painting. Now the trust is suing for the $40 million it says it was promised, plus interest. The president of Christie’s was travelling on Friday and could not be reached for comment.

 

 

 

The Accelerated Grimace

 

In time for the Francis Bacon exhibition at Tate Britain, Grey Gowrie publishes his introduction for the 1988 Moscow exhibition in English for the first time

 

by  Grey Gowrie | The Alligator | 16th January 2009

 

In September 1988, in the dying days of the Soviet Union, the British Council organised an exhibition of the work of Francis Bacon in Moscow. Bacon (1909-1992) planned to attend the opening but decided at the last minute not to. Grey Gowrie, a Minister for the Arts in Margaret Thatcher’s administration and by this time European chairman of Sotheby’s, was a friend of the painter and represented him. Lord Gowrie also provided the introductory essay to the catalogue of the exhibition which was translated into Russian. It is republished here in English for the first time to coincide with the Francis Bacon exhibition at Tate Britain. Famished for unofficial art, and no doubt bored by Soviet programming, more than 100 million people tuned into the Moscow exhibition on television.

The 20th century has been called the age of anxiety. Certainly it is an age of extremes. Life lived against the edge, the extremity of the human experience is, even vicariously, electric with nervous stress. Scientific progress is double-edged. In the industrialised world people live longer, are better nourished, entertain ideas, at least, of developing their creative potential. Through film and television and the pervasive influence of photography they are bombarded with images of what life can or should be. At the same time they are made aware that this civilisation of cars and central heating and pain killing drugs has entertained more horrors than any since the dark ages. Visual technology transmits the parts of the globe which have been left out of the development race or, worse still, allows people to view skyscrapers and bars and hospitals beside open-drained hovels only a few metres away. Throughout the advanced societies, the great central images which once governed people’s lives have cracked or broken down: the religious icons which reminded them, however briefly, of matters richer than their own concerns. We live in an age of political and scientific materialism which is nevertheless uncomfortably aware of the psychological limits of materialism. We are aware of the physical limits as well, of an earth threatened by tools of peace as well as weapons of war. No wonder that we are an anxious species, or that artists, who hold up mirrors to our condition, are nervous themselves of attempting those images of an idealised experience which art used to provide.

Since the death of Picasso, Francis Bacon has more than any other painter provided the age with an image, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, of its accelerated grimace. The key to his work is its ambition. He has taken on the great masters of the past without their mythological resources or their requirement to record events. At the same time he has turned his back on the abstract artist’s indulgence in decorative introspection: the painting whose principal subject is itself and the fact that someone painted it. Although his subject matter, the visual impulse which triggers his attempts to fashion an image on canvas, derives from his own sensibility and is to that extent egoistic, Bacon is the least narcissistic of artists. He uses some recollection or preoccupation which is at hand, so to speak, as a prompt for an act of painting. But it is the paint alone, and what happens as a result of its being pushed around on the canvas, which can provide an image of great externality and force, influencing the viewer with a life of its own and doing this independently of the artist. Bacon is in some respects closer to being a sculptor than a painter. The background to his paintings, which are applied at the end, act as a kind of plinth for the images poised upon them. It is sad that Bacon’s eminence occasions, as is often the case with major artists, so much photographic reproduction of his work. The physical grandeur, the sensual texture of his paint outweighs the often horrifying imagery it encapsulates. In reproduction it is the imagery that tells.

“He has taken on the great masters of the past without their mythological resources or their requirement to record events”

Bacon is descended from his great Elizabethan namesake, Shakespeare’s contemporary and an ancestor of the English scientific enlightenment. In his late 70’s now, though looking and talking like a man fifteen years younger, he lives alone in two rooms in central London. He works continually at present, sees a few close friends, eats and drinks very well, gambles with less Doskovieskian intensity than before. He is a man of great but narrow erudition, narrow because he is impatient of anything less than masterpieces and impatient also of masterpieces which he cannot harness to his own art. He is an asthmatic who dislikes the countryside: an urban, noctambular spirit. His bleak view of human life does not stop him enjoying it; indeed he has said in an interview that the aim of art – however violent or sad or grim - is to produce joy. He is good company and generous with money in the way of one who has had to hustle for a living in youth and now has more than he needs. Politically, he is an old-fashioned aristocratic liberal with a low threshold of boredom. He has said that in recent years he has supported the Conservatives, because they are marginally less interfering of individual liberty than political groups on the Left; he is savage about the way modern states interfere with citizens’ lives for their own good. He has refused to be honoured. The British admire his eminence but do not know quite what to make of him: an elegant, wealthy, rather conservative gentleman who paints such scary pictures.

“His bleak view of human life does not stop him enjoying it; indeed he has said in an interview that the aim of art is to produce joy”

Nevertheless he is the greatest living painter and the most important Britain has produced since Turner. This is a large claim but it is shared by a remarkable number of people round the world, many of them painters, rather few of them British. To us natives, it is still difficult to recognise how distinct Bacon and the sculptor Henry Moore have made us in the visual arts. Our cultural establishment is musical and literary in outlook; we take our theatrical tradition, and Shakespeare, for granted; since the Beatles we can command a world stage in popular music. Seeing and touching, by contrast, belong to the slightly seditious universe of pure sensation and both our puritan and idealistic strands of thought make us suspect appearances. Happily, these two great men have encouraged more than one generation of artists now to build on their achievements and make international names.

Of the two, Bacon is the more surprising. Henry Moore’s work is permeated with the English love of nature. He gives simple and powerful signals about the correspondence between landscapes and female figures. He reinforces life’s primal effects, as if the poet Wordsworth were working in stone. Francis Bacon is not a romantic artist in this way, although he shares the aristocratic intuitiveness of later romantics like Baudelaire. He has the nihilism and gaiety of certain 18th century minds. Nature, when it appears at all in his work, is both threatening and monotonous: purposeless matter unrelieved by the flicker of civilisation’s match. One of his greatest paintings, Landscape near Malabata, Tangier (1963), is a picture of a tree. It demonstrates the way colour, not drawing, is movement in painting, and how a tree’s sinews suggest muscular movement. But try to people this landscape and you are in the world of Beckett’s Godot or King Lear. A more recent work, Sand Dune (1981), is a picture of sand encroaching a building by the sea. The sand is all movement, dynamic; the building is being eaten and that will be the end of it because nature is in the business of demolition. To fly in the face of nature you need luck and the peculiar courage to stare her down. To adapt a line of the poet Thom Gunn, a few friends and a few with historical names have had the courage. A number of artists – Cimabue, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Degas, Picasso – have looked without blinking. Otherwise, existence is the same as nature: food, drink, territory, sex and status. Bacon is an artist of endgame. His work is a lifespan distant from Moore’s family groups or mothers-with-child.

Classical and romantic are hoary old terms but they provide us with a shorthand, yet to be superseded, for a profound and permanent divide, a creative conflict, within our sensibility. The classical approach represents tradition and training. Its focus is on the human clay and on proportions suitable for the configuration of the body. ‘The lengthened shadow of a man/Is history, said Emerson,’ wrote T. S. Eliot, the great classical poet of our century and one who has always haunted Bacon, in his poem Sweeney Erect. The fascination of the classical artist is the way he bends tradition and training to his own purpose, be that subjective and self-realising, or objective in the sense of realising or trying to imitate a world beyond the self. The permanent things in nature are birth, copulation and death; the ruins of time, man’s time, are what interest the classicist and provide him with his forms. The romantic says, with the 19th century poet Hopkins, that the sensibility soars above its terrestrial confines: ‘O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/, Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed.’

“Nature is in the business of demolition. To fly in the face of nature you need luck and the peculiar courage to stare her down”

This being the case, the classical artist is preoccupied with realism. Bacon is passionate for realism, only he would argue that now photography has made reportage redundant you need realism of another kind: the ability to capture the emotional energy thrown off by any living presence. Added to this is the energy which works of art generate themselves. In a recent interview he said:

‘I have just finished three portraits of a friend and the problem, as usual, was how to make an image and keep the likeness. To combine the two is what creates tension and excitement.’

The Study for Portrait of John Edwards (1988) is as ‘like’ as a photograph but with so much density of form that it has an object-life of its own. Because of the force of his painting, some commentators have confused Bacon with the Expressionists. They attribute to him an unsettling, northern sensibility. Bacon insists this is wrong. He is adamant that he is not an expressionist, believing in truthfulness rather than effects. The disturbing quality of his work comes partly from what Michel Leiris, quoting Bacon himself, has called his ‘exhilarated despair…the painful yet lyrical disturbance felt by all those who, living in these times of horror spangled with enchantment, can contemplate them with lucidity.’ It also comes, more prosaically, from what Bacon would see as his failure to win the fight between the raw material of oil paint and the mind’s eye. When Bacon does win, as in the Edwards portrait, his paintings are both awesome and tender, moving in the highest and most humane way. Yet even in the most violent pictures, the distortions of his figures are implicit in their own flesh. This is where he comes closest to Picasso.

To an existential artist like Bacon, chance is very important, both as a rubric for the universe (his hobby is roulette) and for what it brings about on the canvas. Lying Figure (1969) is one of a number of works painted in the 1960’s in which a naked, usually female figure lies on a bed, the head south to the viewer, limbs akimbo, bed and body seemingly about to slide down a great escarpment of carpet. Facial features are blurred as if they and the pigment from which they are formed had been pummelled into the final image. (This is often literally the case, since Bacon paints with rags and his hands as well as with brush). Stripped of their associations, not least the threat to civilised values and human dignity suggested by hypodermic digging into vein, these paintings have the vibrance – the beauty even – of colour which early in his career Bacon found in a medical textbook about diseases of the mouth. Bacon’s surgeon’s aesthetics and sang-froid take some getting used to. They are worth it because they are bound up with his special lucidity of purpose. Look how close oil paint comes to the stuff of life, he seems to say. You are used to this happening with clouds and hills in landscape painting. Why not discover it with the body as well? If the painter is lucky, impulses of memory and desire may allow him to manipulate the stuff so as to trap elusive and temporal personalities, and our feelings about them. Bacon does not paint from life. His subjects are a few friends and himself, painted over and over, in some cases after they have died, from snapshots and memory. Bacon himself looks very like a Francis Bacon. In this respect he is close to his admired contemporary, the painter and sculptor Giacometti. And as John Russell wrote in his book Francis Bacon (1971), ‘Bacon when he wishes is one of the great painters of human flesh and can give it a kind of creamy resonance, a fulfilled soft firmness, for which both Ingres and Courbet had also been searching.’

Ambition, in art, requires not only high seriousness but sufficient personal confidence and aplomb to take on the masters at their own game. Bacon’s belief in un-accommodated man, his identification during the two decades after the war with London’s low life, his gambling, his generosity with money and caustic wit, his frightening ability to drink a great deal and remain at the height of his powers, his age-cheating appearance – all play their part in his anti-heroic legend. By contrast, his career has been altogether steadfast and determined. He was a late starter. He was born and spent much of his childhood in Ireland, where his father trained racehorses. There is a lot of Ireland in Bacon but it is reasonable to think of Bacon as Irish only in the way of thinking of Camus as Algerian. He was educated haphazardly and travelled about Europe in the late 1920s. Berlin and Paris held his imagination and Paris remains the city which most admires his work.

He made his historical debut about 1930 as an interior decorator and furniture designer; he worked in what is today called the Art Deco style, a popularisation of cubism and geometric abstraction. He studied the art of Picasso, at that time involved in attenuated semi-geometrical figure paintings which were beginning to look haunted and surreal. Inspired, he taught himself to paint. His early work, nearly all of which he subsequently destroyed, gave abstracted hominoid shapes a similarly heightened air – sometimes by little references to the Western religious tradition. His work was not well received and he was turned down for the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936. He himself dates his career from the 1944 triptych Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in the Tate Gallery.

“Bacon’s belief in un-accommodated man, his identification during the two decades after the war with London’s low life, his gambling, his generosity with money and caustic wit, his frightening ability to drink a great deal and remain at the height of his powers, his age-cheating appearance – all play their part in his anti-heroic legend”

At first glance, this work still owes much to Picasso. It is a study, like the paintings and sketches of the Guernica period, of how to assault the nervous system of an onlooker with formal equivalents for pain, mental stress, distortions not of art merely but of daily living and his own hold upon it. Closer acquaintance suggest that here is someone who has looked hard and imaginatively at the Baroque tradition of wrenching the figure until it is, literally, dragged towards that self-extension known as the sublime. Although the triptych is a very strong, even a terrifying picture, one is at least as much aware of the scepticism and control underlying the element of shock. It is as if the artist were playing ‘touch’ with theatrical excess and learning to paint on the dangerous Baroque margin between going very far and going too far.

Bacon then dropped the linear, attenuated style of the triptych in favour of something much more solid. He was discovering oil paint’s correspondence with the density of the observed world: the Bourbet road to nature. Key paintings were Figure Study I and Figure Study II (both 1945-6), the latter also known as the Magdalene. These paintings seem to have inaugurated the interest in clothes (no other 20th century painter has rendered them so attentively) which reflected Bacon’s preoccupation with Velasquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X and led to his own robed and enthroned popes, Head VI (1949) for example. A strong formal understanding of the kind of space clothes are designed to occupy draws shocking, and effective, attention to the absence of any owner – or the presence, in the case of Figure Study II, of the wrong owner. “´What modern man wants,`” Bacon has said, quoting Valéry, “´is the grin without the cat`: the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance.” Throughout his career, he has attempted to combine psychological immediacy – his chamber of horrors side – with whatever formal mechanics are most likely to allow the viewer to retain the pained image until it moves into memory and becomes a way of looking at the world. In the years following the war this search led Bacon to solidity at all cost. The Magdalene has the poise of a Giotto figure, so much presence that the umbrella half-concealing her becomes a convincing frame and not the gratuitous surreal emblem for which it is sometimes mistaken. Thirty years later we see it again, in the left panel of Triptych (1974-77): quarry for Bacon iconographers, along with light bulbs, blinds, plumbing, cricket pads and newspapers.

In the following decade, Bacon juxtaposed violent historical signs of our era with the gravities, hollow maybe, but socially and spiritually well anchored, of earlier epochs of painting. His habit of working from photographs and news clippings is everywhere apparent. Himmler and Goebbels, silent or in oratorical flood; Nadar’s captivating photograph of Baudelaire’s sidelong look; people rushing for shelter during street fighting in Petrograd in 1917; Marius Maxwell’s photographs of animals in equatorial Africa; the screaming nurse from Eisenstein’s film Potemkin; a postcard of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – all appear and reappear as if they were slabs from some lost fresco of devastating formality and scale. There is the same feeling of a civilisation undergoing nervous breakdown that we find in Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin.’) although the prevailing mood is relish rather than disgust. Bacon would bring technical devices out into the open and reinstate them as images. The famous boxes which circumscribe his male nudes, popes, business executives and monkeys start life as methods of containing space and end it as prisons out of Kafka or, prophetically, scenes from the trial of Eichmann. His brush strokes become rapid at this time (he does no preliminary drawing) and blur into one another. So originates the suggestion of the flesh poised, like that of M. Valdemar in Poe’s horrifying tale, on the edge of putrefaction

“There is the same feeling of a civilisation undergoing nervous breakdown that we find in Eliot’s poem The Waste Land”

In recent years the work has in the main turned from public to private scenes, although the image of President Wilson in Triptych (1986-87) must be one of Bacon’s greatest paintings. Bacon’s originality is on as firm ground here, and slightly less susceptible to the aesthetics of shock. It can be said against him, however, that his paintings of men defecating or vomiting lack the grace which Degas found in women’s exercise of natural functions. They look as if their purpose were epater le bourgeois and they do. Memory traces of friends, nudes and the urban interiors which provide a natural setting for all but our least superficial human encounters are recreated, hit and miss, in the large body of work which made his international name. Bacon is unique in this century in his ability to render the indoor, overfed, alcohol-and-tobacco-lined flesh of the average urban male. His painting is how most of us look. Bacon paints beds, platforms, chairs and sofas with the attention Courbet gave to rocks. The effect is a suffocating enclosure: the landscape of hell done as hell’s hotel bedroom; the non-world of Sartre’s Huis Clos and Beckett’s Endgame. The implied theatricality seems to be deliberate. Compositional layout is very much like a stage set; at any moment another figure, bearing hypodermic or ashtray, may enter left or right. Sofas and tables have, like flesh, puffed out and turned flabby, their Art Deco youthfulness long gone. Not surprisingly, the great Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981) discovers a theatricality appropriate to its purpose. The Oresteia plays are an abiding inspiration for Bacon, as they are the most powerful image in literature of mankind trapped by its history and its own sensibility. But in general all these interiors reveal a truism of art impossible to over-emphasize. The function of any artistic medium is to make the recipient work: to offer interchange, metamorphosis, the telescopic sliding-together of our perceptions until they are gathered back to their solitary neural source, there to be stored, reprocessed and used.

Like Eliot’s early poetry, Bacon’s paintings are documentaries of nervous stress. Given the era in which we find ourselves living, this comes as no surprise. What is surprising is the attempt to endow our diminished psychological circumstances with painting which can achieve the formal grandeur and beauty of texture of the very greatest old masters. These characteristics remain, in his best paintings, long after the initial assault on the system has worn off. When things work, therefore, the quality achieved is joy, which is, as Bacon said it should be, the purpose of art.

The Francis Bacon exhibition is on until 4th January and the Alligator strongly recommends going to see it.

 

 

 

Den Mother to the Louche and Famous  

 

By GEOFFREY WHEATCROFT | ART & DESIGN | THE NEW YORK TIMES | MARCH 5, 2009

 

A VISITOR to the magnificent Francis Bacon exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art might easily pass by an alcove filled with photographs of Bacon’s friends. Among them is a tiny, yellowing snapshot of a striking woman gazing at the camera, taken around 1965. But then few Americans would even recognize the name of Muriel Belcher, or know about the part she played in Bacon’s life, as his den mother of sorts, and about the club she ran as his refuge.

She was the greatest of Soho hostesses, from 1948, when she opened the Colony Room Club on Dean Street here, until her death in 1979. The place we all called Muriel’s was a drinking club, a salon, a little community of its own (and one about which this reporter is regrettably well qualified to write, having spent too much of his early life there). What makes the story more poignant today is that not only have most of the players departed, but also the stage itself is dark. Muriel and Francis are no more, and neither is the Colony.

So we’re left with memories, of the kind novelists convey better: “It is an old timetable now, disintegrating at its folds, and headed ‘This schedule in effect July 5, 1922.’ But I can still read the gray names, and they will give you a better impression than my generalities of those who accepted Gatsby’s hospitality.” On another old timetable I can still read the names of those who drank at Muriel’s in July 1972.

Among them were writers, hustlers, shady politicians, decayed aristocrats and petty criminals, maybe more Anthony Powell than F. Scott Fitzgerald. But you could also find some of the most famous painters of the age, and Muriel’s deserves at least a small footnote in the history of art.

In those days Soho was full of clubs, though very different from the haughty gentlemen’s establishments of St. James’s Street and Pall Mall. They existed partly to refresh thirsty “afternoon men” at a time when the pubs were obliged to shut from 3 to 5:30 p.m., but each had its own character. Gerry’s on Shaftesbury Avenue was for actors (more likely “resting” than working). The Kismet, a k a the Iron Lung, on Cranbourn Street, also in a basement, had two bars for two clienteles. Back in the ’60s, in the more bohemian bar on the left, I briefly met “the Roberts,” the inseparable painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, while in the other bar somber men in raincoats and hats stood drinking and talking quietly: this was the London underworld and the plainclothes police meeting on equal terms.

 

         

              The Colony Room (1962) by Michael Andrews, showing, from right, Bacon, with back to viewer; the club’s proprietor, Muriel Belcher; and Lucian Freud, full-face view.

 

But Muriel’s was sui generis. You passed through a door beside an Italian restaurant, climbed stairs smelling of damp or worse, and entered a dark green room with a bar to the left. The walls were covered with pictures, from a cartoon of Muriel by the jazz musician Wally Fawkes (a k a Trog) to a conversation piece set in the Colony by the painter Michael Andrews.

Nothing was more striking than the hostess herself, perched birdlike on her stool, drink in one hand and cigarette in the other, with one eye on the door to block unwelcome visitors and the other on customers to make sure they were spending enough. And all the while she kept up her machine-gun chatter: sarcastic, witty, scabrously obscene.

Her family was Birmingham Jewish, or so I believe. She had made her way to London and the demimonde, and during the war opened her first club, the Music Box, whose core membership seems to have been the better sort of homosexual officer in the Brigade of Guards (not as small a constituency as you might think).

Then she moved to that upstairs room on Dean Street. Although Bacon was already making his name, he needed pocket money, and Muriel paid him to bring in rich patrons. If the word isn’t too far-fetched, she became his muse, while he became one of Muriel’s “daughters.” Most men were “she” to Muriel; it could be disconcerting when some elderly major was introduced with the words, “She was a very gallant little lady on the Somme.”

Before long most of what would later be known as the School of London congregated there, including Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud as well as Bacon and Andrews. That painting by Andrews showed the names on the schedule in effect in the mid-1960s. Clustered around Muriel are her companion Carmel; Jeffrey Bernard (dropout, boozer, wit and later Spectator columnist); Henrietta Moraes (also much painted by Bacon); Lady Rose McClaren (the déclassé sister of the Marquess of Anglesey); and John Deakin, who took the photograph of Muriel, as well as several others in the Bacon exhibition at the Met.

Also Bacon and Mr. Freud, whose friendship had been commemorated years before in another painting, Mr. Freud’s haunting small portrait of Bacon. They could