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

 

   John Richardson | 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

 

 

 

'I was going to interview Francis Bacon. I was really rather scared!'

 

RICHARD CORK INTERVIEWING FRANCIS BACON | TATE | 3 MARCH 2015

 

        

                               Francis Bacon photographed at the Tate Gallery, 1985

 

What is it like to interview an artist? Writer and broadcaster Richard Cork's new book collects together his conversations with artists from Richard Hamilton to Tracey Emin. Here he recounts some memorable encounters with one of the giants of British painting, Francis Bacon, ahead of a talk at Tate Britain.

The first time I did a recording with Francis Bacon was in [BBC] Broadcasting House. That was in the 1980s, for a radio interview. He didn’t like going in there at all, I could tell. He was very, very nervous and not at all at ease. It was very difficult to get anything out of him.

Some artists enjoy a big audience, but for someone like Francis, you absolutely needed to go to his pad. That’s where he felt at ease, he wouldn’t want to do it anywhere else.

Fortunately the interview I did with him which is now in the book was done in his studio in a mews in South Kensington in 1991.

You’d climb up a narrow staircase and there would be Francis at the top, greeting you. He was the most hospitable, jovial guy when he was on his own turf. Even at 10 in the morning, he’d crack open a bottle of champagne

So it would be very easy to get drunk, even before lunch. Except Francis didn’t seem to get drunk – he was one of these people who seem to be able drink an extraordinary amount without getting smashed. I’m not like that, so I had to be very careful.

The producer and I had a nice chat with him. Then I said, ‘OK, Francis are you ready to do the interview?’ And he said, ‘What? What do you mean? What interview?’

He looked aghast. Whether he was just having a bit of fun I don’t know. My heart sank and we thought he wasn’t going to do it.

And then suddenly he turned to me and said: ‘OK, an interview. But what’s the point?’ in this very vehement voice. So I had to explain that lots of people would be fascinated to hear what he thought about art and how he did it. And he gradually thought about it and came round to the idea.

Whether he was combating shyness or what I do not know. But once we got started, he was absolutely fascinating, because he was incredibly intelligent and articulate. And very honest too. I remember one point in the interview he said: ‘I can’t draw!’ I said, ‘Francis, what do you mean?’ And he said, ‘I can’t, I never could!’ And that’s very interesting, because one rarely sees drawings by Francis, even though he’s a very linear painter.

The first time I interviewed him I was really rather young and hadn’t had much experience of going to artists. I was really rather scared. I imagined he would be this kind of naked figure, sitting in a chair, twisting and turning, with a naked lightbulb hanging over him!

n fact he turned out to be incredibly sweet. On that occasion we did the interview and he said, ‘Lunch?’ and I said, ‘OK, fine.’ Because we’d already had champagne.

And he took me down to the Tube, which surprised me because I thought someone like Francis would just go: ‘Taxi!’ He said, ‘I love the Tube.’ He was really excited by this idea of this metal cylinder rushing through the darkness! We went to Soho as you might imagine and had lunch with far too much wine. And then he said: ‘Colony?’

The Colony Room Club was this place where people like Francis went ran by this extraordinary woman called Muriel Belcher. All sorts of extraordinary people went there – not just artists and writers but also gangsters, particularly from the East End

We went up this circular staircase to this big room, and there was Muriel behind the bar. And she said, ‘Francis!’ And he said, ‘Champagne on the house!’ Before long the whole room filled up. It was just extraordinary. Although it was early afternoon the champagne flowed and flowed. Goodness knows what Francis’s bill was, but he didn’t seem to care. And how I made my way back down the circular metal staircase I do not know, because I was very, very drunk!

Richard Cork was talking to Lee Cheshire

 

 

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

 

 

FRANCIS BACON AND THE LEFEVRE GALLERY

 

 

by MARTIN HAMMER  |  THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE  |  VOLUME 152  |  MAY 2010

 

 

THE LEFEVRE GALLERY in London, founded in 1871, played a significant role in selling modern European art, mostly French, to British collectors and, through its exhibitions, in assisting successive generations of artists to assimilate new directions in art. 1 Between the Wars, it mounted shows devoted to Georges Seurat (1926), Edgar Degas (1928), Paul Cézanne (1935) as well as then current figures such as Matisse (1927), Picasso (1931), Braque (1934) and Salvador Dalí (1936). Multiple-artist exhibitions, containing a work or two by big names, were a recurrent feature of the schedule. The Gallery also dealt in modern British art, and was especially active in this capacity around the end of the Second World War. Duncan Macdonald (Fig.21), a director of the Gallery, sought to seize the initiative in showing marketable British artists as the art world gradually revived, even though cross-Channel communications remained difficult and the cost of importing pictures prohibitive. 2 During the early part of the War, the Gallery had only been open around two days a week, and its holdings were evacuated to the Mendip Hills. This was fortunate as in spring 1943 its long-serving premises in King Street were destroyed in a German bombing raid. Macdonald, who for some time had been in New York working at the associated Bignou Gallery, then returned to London and oversaw the relaunching of Lefevre at 131–34 New Bond Street towards the end of 1944. Thereafter, the Gallery showed modern British art, interwoven with displays of French pictures from stock. The programme included exhibitions of established abstract artists such as Ben Nicholson (1945) and Barbara Hepworth (1944 and 1946), independent figures such as Jankel Adler (1946), Frances Hodgkins (1946) and L.S. Lowry (1945), and the younger Neoromantics such as John Minton (1945), Keith Vaughan (1944 and 1946) and Lucian Freud (1944 and 1947, the latter shared with John Craxton). This story would repay general investigation with reference to the Gallery’s extensive archives, and to the parallel activities of rivals such as the Leicester, Gimpel Fils and Redfern Galleries.

The focus of this article is on the Gallery’s dealings with Francis Bacon, and the light they shed on his biography and work. The Lefevre is probably most frequently cited in relation to the group show of spring 1945 in which Bacon first exhibited Three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion (1944), the mythic point of origin for his mature work. What the archives confirm is that Bacon’s inclusion was a direct consequence of his close personal and creative rapport with Graham Sutherland, which had begun in 1943. 3

Sutherland’s reputation then was extremely elevated, as a result of his dark landscape imagery and his work over the previous five years as an official war artist, featuring images of bomb-blasted buildings, mining and apocalyptic steel-works interiors. 4 With the end of the War in sight, Macdonald had decided to cultivate Sutherland, encouraging him to contribute to a group show that would help to relaunch his independent career and serve as the prelude to a one-man show and a continuing association with the Gallery. Over the coming months, artist and dealer talked also about a show in Paris, where Macdonald had a partnership arrangement, although that idea never materialised. Sutherland’s powerful position is reflected in his communications with the Gallery. He was able to be quite fastidious about which artists’ work his own would be hung alongside, announcing early in 1945 that he would prefer Moore, Hodgkins and Nicholson. 5 When Nicholson withdrew, Sutherland suggested a bold alternative:

 . . . as for the painter to take BN’s place it seems there is not much choice other than Piper. I should really prefer Francis Bacon for whose work you know I have a really profound admiration. It is true he has shown very little; but nowadays with every Tom, Dick and Harry showing yards of painting without much selection or standard this is refreshing, & his recent things, while being quite uncompromising, have a grandeur & brilliance which is rarely seen in English art. 6

Macdonald responded with suitable enthusiasm. On 22nd January he stated: ‘if you prefer Francis Bacon I shall try him’.He took the opportunity to suggest a further possibility, which resulted in another addition to the line-up: ‘what would you think of Matthew Smith being added to the group? He is [. . .] a different generation in work, but [. . .] surely the best painter of his generation’. 7 That same day, Macdonald opened up communications with Bacon: ‘Your friend Graham Sutherland has spoken very highly of your Painting and is very keen that I should see it. May I come as soon as we can arrange a suitable date between us?’. He was, he explained, aiming to bring together works by several artists and ‘Sutherland suggests that you should be one of these’. 8 The following month Macdonald told Sutherland: ‘I went to see Francis Bacon and have asked him to send four or five works to the Show. I shall tell you about his work when we meet’. 9 He subsequently reported to Bacon that he had lunched with the Sutherlands and ‘was delighted to hear from this artist that he had seen some of your new pictures, which he praised highly’. Bacon should telephone him to talk about which pictures to include. 10

The exhibition Recent Paintings by Francis Bacon, Frances Hodgkins, Henry Moore, Matthew Smith, Graham Sutherland ran at the Lefevre Gallery throughout April 1945. Bacon was represented by the Three studies and Figure in a landscape (1945). The catalogue also listed eight works by Hodgkins, fifteen by Moore (including thirteen drawings), nine by Smith and eleven by Sutherland. Macdonald was able to inform Sutherland that all his works had sold. Moreover the Bacons had contributed to the overall success of the show: ‘many people are interested in the Francis Bacon pictures, even though they find them “frightening”. 11 I think myself they are very well designed and painted and I look forward to seeing more of his later oil paintings. I shall watch his new work with interest if I have the opportunity’.

Subsequently, he informed Sutherland: ‘there are now only two Smith oil paintings and two Moore drawings left in the whole Exhibition. You [. . .] would be very glad if you could hear the enthusiasm of many young people for your part of the Show, and indeed for the whole Exhibition’. Macdonald was delighted by the reviews and visitor numbers, such that they had to reprint the catalogue three times. 12 Clearly Bacon benefited not just from the company he was keeping, but also from the current situation in which many people desired to visit galleries, with wartime pressures finally waning but all the big museums still devoid of their contents.

After the exhibition, Bacon asked to be paid for Figure in a landscape, which had been sold to the artist’s cousin Diana Watson. Interestingly, the cheque for £108.6.8 included a deduction of £25 for ‘the three Pictures sold to Mr Hall, owing to the fact that they were sold in your Studio. Do you remember the arrangement we came to on my last visit to your studio?’. 13 Bacon apologised for the tardy sending of a receipt: ‘I have been laid up with asthma and forgot about it. Yes of course I remember about the arrangement over Mr Hall’s pictures and am very grateful to you for only taking half the percentage on them’. 14 Presumably, Bacon had originally intended to show and potentially sell Three studies, but his lover and supporter Eric Hall was able at the last minute, by means of this arrangement with the Lefevre, to acquire the work and prevent it being lost to another collector and possibly even sold as three separate pictures. Hall may have been ahead of Bacon himself in estimating the triptych as a major breakthrough. He eventually presented the work to the Tate Gallery, after the breakdown in his relationship with Bacon.

Macdonald now viewed Bacon as one of his stable of rising artists. Towards the end of 1945, he told Sutherland that he hoped to include Bacon, Craxton, Freud, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde and probably Julian Trevelyan in an exhibition of ‘good contemporary painters’ in February 1946: ‘naturally your last canvasses would have the centre of the show [. . .] If in the New Year you see B, F or C, I hope you will encourage them to do their utmost to make this next show a fine one’. 15 In the event, Bacon contributed Figure study I and Figure study II to the show. His advance commentary suggests that other pictures had seemed possible at one stage: ‘I am afraid I have only been able to send 2 pictures. The one I sold I have not been able to get a frame for and the new one you saw I am not satisfied with yet . . .’. 16 Perhaps the former was the picture Bacon sold to Peter Watson, but later took back and destroyed. 17 Regarding the two works that were dispatched, Bacon remarked: ‘These paintings are studies for the Magdalene and the smaller of the two was the first studie [sic] and I would like them entitled as such in the catalogue’. 18 The association lingered, and Figure study II was entitled Magdalene in the catalogue for Bacon’s 1962 Tate Gallery retrospective. The artist was at pains to refute this; according to Alley’s catalogue raisonné of 1964, ‘the artist says he never thought of the figure as the Magdalene and never associated it in any way with the Crucifixion’. 19 The allusion in the letter seems to contradict this, and has been discussed elsewhere in the context of Bacon’s extraordinary fusion during this period of references to religious imagery and to Nazi propaganda photography. 20 Nevertheless in the catalogue for the Lefevre Gallery show, as it appeared in February 1946 (Fig.22), the pictures were listed as ‘Figure Study (No.1)’and ‘Figure Study (No.2)’. Indeed, Bacon generally opted hereafter for neutral titles, such as Painting (1946), even though the latter picture too alludes to Crucifixion imagery. He may have carried on improvising the pictures after writing the letter, and introduced changes that rendered the titles he originally had in mind inappropriate. But the shift may also capture Bacon’s realisation, for reasons unknown, that evocative titles could be counterproductive, encouraging over-literal or reductive readings. 21

The gallery succeeded in selling both pictures, resulting in a further cheque for £183.6.8. 22 Figure study I was purchased by Brenda Bomford on behalf of her husband, James, who collected French Impressionist and modern British art and proceeded to acquire a significant quantity of Bacons over the coming years. 23 Figure study II was acquired by the Contemporary Art Society, the charitable body that bought works of art for onward distribution to public galleries. The purchase is likely to have been contentious, given the picture’s disturbing imagery and the artist’s obscurity, and several years elapsed before it found a home in the Bagshaw Art Gallery, Batley (subsequently transferred to Huddersfield Art Gallery). The initial acquisition was supported, one imagines, by two figures active in the C.A.S. who became friendly with Bacon around this time. One was John Russell, whose enthusiasm for the artist can only have been reinforced by his recent contacts with Sutherland, documented in the Lefevre Archive, in connection with Russell’s forthcoming book From Sickert to 1948, a survey of British art based around C.A.S. acquisitions. 24 Russell went on to write the first monograph on Bacon, incorporating vivid recollections of first seeing Three studies for figures at the base of the Crucifixion at the Lefevre Gallery. 25 The other was Sir Colin Anderson, the wealthy collector and patron, a new member of the C.A.S. committee and the recipient over the following few years of letters from Bacon that have recently been published, providing a valuable complement to the exchanges with Sutherland, and the Hanover and Lefevre Galleries. 26 Like the Lefevre correspondence, the Anderson letters lay bare Bacon’s acute and persistent financial disarray, including an apparent threat of bankruptcy for what sound like gambling debts, and they indicate his somewhat unscrupulous attitude towards wealthy individuals who could easily afford to help him out.

In April 1946 Macdonald was eager to sustain the connection with Bacon, who was planning to leave London: ‘I hope you will come and dine with me, one evening before you leave for the South of France, so that we may make any arrangements possible, regarding the sending of pictures and the exhibition of same in the Lefevre Galleries. We shall do our utmost to find a good home for the large picture which is now here’.27 The latter must have been Study for man with microphones (Fig.23), which the Gallery showed that summer. This and Painting (1946) were evidently carried out in quick succession during the first half of 1946. The latter has often been seen to descend from a tradition of butchery images as epitomised in Rembrandt’s Carcass of beef (1657) in the Louvre, Paris. The variations on this theme by Chaim Soutine, an artist much admired by Bacon, can also be seen as a more immediate catalyst for Painting (1946).28 He could certainly have known the versions by Soutine in which the suspended Crucifix-like carcass is rendered with the artist’s characteristic heightened palette and painterly touch. It is worth noting that one such Soutine had been in Britain for several years, in the collection of Sutherland’s friend Eardley Knollys, and was in fact included in the Lefevre’s exhibition School of Paris (Picasso and his Contemporaries) that immediately followed the group show which launched Bacon.29 In this atypical variation, Soutine focused rather on one slab of beef, with its rich colouration, textures and formal structure. Memories of the picture may have informed Bacon’s ribs of beef suspended to such compelling effect on the tubular metal podium in front of his generic fascist dictator. It was the sale of Painting (1946) to the Redfern Gallery that made it possible for Bacon to leave a still-dismal, post-War Britain for the sunshine and hedonistic pursuits of the South of France. His life and artistic activities in Monte Carlo are conveyed in communications to Macdonald and others. In August he wrote:

I have been meaning to write to you for ages. I have found a flat here, not really what I like but it will do until I decide what I am going to do. I do not know how long I want to stay here. I may go to Paris after the winter if I can find anything there. Life is curious here very expensive in some ways and in others cheaper than England. I am working but afraid the things are still very large & it is unfortunate for me financially but there is nothing to be done at the moment. Everything in the way of food can be got here from Cumberland hams to caviar if one chooses to pay. The really difficult thing even on the black market is canvas but I have been able to get some very good coarse linen sheets which turn into very good canvases. Nobody down here has ever heard of painting except the extraordinary lesbian affairs they concoct out of the landscape and the bougainvilleas which have to be seen to be believed but perhaps their ignorance is no greater than the knowing ones at home. 30

Bacon’s preference for working on a large scale was deemed to be imprudent, with Macdonald ruefully noting: ‘If you do not feel like shrinking your sizes, I fear there is nothing to be done about it’. 31 Nevertheless he encouraged Bacon to consider showing work in France: ‘If you are still there in January, we may meet, and between us we might devise a scheme for putting British Painting (via Francis Bacon) on the map, dans le Midi’. In the meantime, he had seen Figure study II in the show of C.A.S. acquisitions at the Tate, as well as Painting (1946) at the Redfern: ‘the colour was certainly startling and for me quite brilliant but I suppose the size militated against its sale’. In the Gallery’s own exhibition British Painters, Past and Present in August, Study for a man with microphones ‘had a whole wall to itself, and looked very well but alas it did not find a purchaser’. Bacon for his part felt that the South of France was unlikely to produce buyers, and that everything was becoming too expensive:

I am going to Paris on the 1st of November for two or three weeks [. . .] I am looking for a large room in Paris to work in. I have heard of a room and am going up to see it. I do not feel I could stay here permanently, not because of work, because as long as it is fairly quiet I can work anywhere, but I do not care for its sort of village life after a time. I am working on three studies of Velasquez portrait of Innocent II [sic]. I have almost finished one. I find them exciting to do, and of course always hoping it is going to be the real thing. 32

That December, Macdonald reported to Bacon about further showings of his pictures in London: ‘I am sending you the catalogue of an Exhibition of British Painters at the Anglo-French Centre, which is later going on to Paris. He [the organiser] borrowed the three studies, I think, from one of your friends [Eric Hall], and from me he borrowed the one illustrated [Study for a man with microphones], but found he had not the space to hang it . . .’. 33 Macdonald also commented that he had been deeply impressed by Sutherland’s Crucifixion, having attended the unveiling at St Matthew’s church, Northampton: ‘I believe it is the finest thing he has done’. The affinity with Bacon struck Macdonald: ‘I keep wondering how it would affect you, who have already done so many studies for a similar subject’. He was also keen to see the Velázquez studies, also described in Bacon’s letters to Sutherland from late 1946, although the earliest such variation to survive is Head VI of 1949. 34

During 1947 Macdonald maintained his contacts with both Bacon and Sutherland, judging by scattered reports of his sightings of the one in letters to the other. That spring he expressed regret at missing Bacon on his last visit to London, and asked for photographs of recent works completed in France to show James Soby of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, who he clearly hoped might buy a picture. 35 Meanwhile Soby himself needed reassurance in relation to Bacon’s eccentric titling of his works: ‘I think I told you that Francis Bacon’s “Man with Microphones” is really a highly finished picture, and any new one he makes will probably be called a “study”, in spite of its finality. He has a large imagination, and always hopes that another picture will turn out to be 12 feet by 15 feet’. 36 The correspondence with Soby suggests that Macdonald was responsible for galvanising the American critic and collector’s enthusiastic interest in Bacon, culminating in his unrealised work of the early 1960s on what would have been the first book on the artist. Soby wrote about Bacon and reproduced Study for a man with microphones in his 1948 survey of the current state of painting. 37 By his own testimony, Soby also played a key role in the Museum of Modern Art’s decision to purchase Painting (1946) from the Redfern Gallery in 1948, and in the commission to the young critic Sam Hunter to produce what turned out to be an exceptional article on Bacon and his immersion in photography. 38

Bacon’s next letter to Macdonald in May took into account the dealer’s recent six-week visit to New York. Notwithstanding the wonderful weather and light in France, the cost of living was proving oppressive, and America was starting to look an attractive alternative. Of late he had ‘been acting as nurse as there is someone rather ill in the flat’, but would send Soby some photographs in the next few weeks:

I had not finished anything, but in the last few days have been able to finish a large one I like at the moment, and a smaller one. I was so pleased to see Graham and Kathy, and I am sure the change here gave him a good rest, as he looked so well when he left. If I sent you over two or three pictures at the end of June, do you think you could do anything with them? I am getting nearly completely broke. If I am going to try and go to America next year to try and live there for a bit, and if I can’t sell anything or haven’t anything to sell, I will get a job as a valet or cook. I can do both well, so if you have any rich friends who want a good English slave, do let me know, as I can always make an arrangement over these sorts of jobs so as to evade the permits for work which are so difficult to get. 39

Bacon had perhaps been inspired by the accounts of life in the United States by his friends Cyril Connolly and Peter Watson, both of whom had recently crossed the Atlantic and encountered a culture richer and more vulgar in every sense than in Britain. Their discoveries and contacts resulted in a special double-issue of Horizon magazine in October 1947 devoted to contemporary America. 40

In response, Macdonald indicated that he would certainly try to find buyers given the chance, and notwithstanding current difficulties in the commercial art world:

The selling of pictures has slowed down somewhat in England, and a good deal in America, while Paris is worse still. If you can get a few of your new pictures that are not too large [. . .] we will all do our damnedest to find purchasers. Would you have any difficulty in getting them out of France? I am sure you would have to give me warning when you are sending them, how many, and the prices, so that I could get an import licence from the Board of Trade. I wonder whether it would not be wiser for you to bring them yourself and settle all your other affairs at the same time. 41

He further indicated that he could indeed help Bacon to get to America, given his connections with the likes of Soby and James Johnson Sweeney, until 1946 a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Bacon’s financial concerns come to the fore in his next letter that summer, where we encounter descriptions of new pictures:

I think your suggestion of bringing the painting back will be better. I will come back at the end of September or beginning of October. I shall have a group of 3 large paintings about the size of the one which went to the CAS. Is there any chance of your having an exhibition in the autumn in which you could hang them? They want to be hung together in a series as they are a sort of Crucifixion. I am finishing the 2nd now. I think they are the most formal things I have done and the colour is a sort of intense blue violet. I think they are better than what I have done up to now. I hope so at any rate. If you think there is a chance of your being able to show them, as I really need the money desperately, I will write to the framer I go to and see what they can do about framing them. I want £750 for the set. It is not a quarter of what is has cost me with gambling etc; if you think you can get more, it would be tremendously welcome. Or perhaps your gallery would speculate in buying them directly, or would they have to be Scottish darning for that. I do not mean this bitterly [. . .] I am sure the Bonnard Exhibition must be very interesting. I would love to have seen it.42

The idea of a direct gallery purchase did not bear fruit. However, Bacon resumed his campaign to sell the same or related pictures through the Lefevre early in 1948:

I have done a set of three paintings I would like to show. They are about the same size as the Contemporary Art Society one or a little smaller. Have you an Exhibition this spring or summer in which you would show them? I could get them to you by the end of April or beginning of May. I am glad to say I can work a lot now. A friend of mine, Eric Hall, is coming in to see you, and could give you some idea of them, as he is coming back here, perhaps you could tell him if there is any chance of showing them. They are things I have tried to do several times before, but I have never been able to bring them off, but this time I think it is much nearer.

Bacon’s preoccupations were yet again financial:

There is another thing. Is it possible to make me a small advance? I am quite broke, and canvas and paints are terribly expensive. Would it be possible to advance me £150. You can speak to Eric Hall about this, as if you could make me the advance, I would be grateful if you would let him have it on my behalf. I would be terribly grateful if you could possibly do this.

Finally, Bacon raised the issue of a picture that he wished to take back and rework: ‘Some time when you have a van passing in the Kensington area, could you send back that awful picture of mine

Here [Monte Carlo] the weather is lovely, and wonderfully isolated. There is no-one here. Now that I think I can produce the things much more rapidly, I hope I will become perhaps a better money-making proposition. If you know of anyone who will take the risk and supply me with paints, canvas, and the minimum of vittles think of me. I might make them money. 43

The ‘awful picture’ in question was presumably Study for man with microphones, which had not sold at the Lefevre Gallery and which Bacon did indeed significantly rework around 1949, although the revised version in turn fell victim to Bacon’s sacrificial knife after being exhibited in 1962. Equally, the blueviolet ‘sort of Crucifixion’ pictures, mentioned earlier in his letter, seem not to have survived Bacon’s culling.

In late 1949, the year in which he turned forty, Bacon finally had his first one-man show, which turned out to be an immense critical and commercial success. 44 However, the venue was not the Lefevre but the Hanover Gallery, which had opened the previous year and had made an early splash with new pictures from the South of France by Sutherland. The Gallery, backed by Arthur Jeffress and run by Erica Brausen, formerly of the Redfern Gallery, emerged as probably the most lively venue for innovative British art over the next decade. The shift in power was undoubtedly hastened by the death of Duncan Macdonald in 1949. For a period the Lefevre Gallery had undoubtedly been one of the first points of call for anyone wishing to keep abreast of developments in British art. That prominence had been relatively short-lived, however, and the mantle was now passing to younger rivals.

 

I am grateful to the former owners of the Lefevre Gallery for giving me permission to study the Gallery’s papers at Tate Gallery Archive. Abbreviations used in the notes are: LGA: Lefevre Gallery Archive, TGA: Tate Gallery Archive; FB: Francis Bacon; DM: Duncan Macdonald; and GS: Graham Sutherland.

1 D. Cooper: ‘A Franco-Scottish link with the Past’, exh. cat. Alex Reid & Lefevre, London (Lefevre Gallery) 1976, pp.3–26; for historical background, see F. Fowle: exh. cat. Impressionism and Scotland, Edinburgh (National Galleries of Scotland) 2008, p.141. After a 1926 merger it became the Alex Reid and Lefevre Gallery, although the shorthand version was more often used, as it is here.

2 See M. Garlake: New Art New World, New Haven and London 1998, p.25.

3 For the relationship between the two artists, see M. Hammer: Bacon and Sutherland, New Haven and London 2005. The reciprocal nature of their admiration is further suggested in a remark inserted by J.T. Soby into his early 1960s text for an unrealised monograph on Bacon, based on a ‘recent interview’: ‘all his life he had been looking for some help to find a theoretical background for his painting [. . .] Once in his life he hoped Graham Sutherland might provide him with it’; New York, Museum of Modern Art Archive, J.T. Soby Papers, typescript draft of book on Bacon, p.4

4 On Sutherland’s work in the 1940s, see M. Hammer: Graham Sutherland: Landscapes, War Scenes, Portraits 1924–1950, London 2005

5 GS to DM, n.d. [mid-January 1945], LGA; the P.S. to the letter rammed home the message: ‘Do see F. Bacon’s new works’.

6 GS to DM, n.d. [mid-January 1945], LGA.

7 DM to GS, 22nd January 1945, LGA.

8 DM to FB, 22nd January 1945, LGA.

9 DM to GS, 1st March [1945], LGA.

10 DM to FB, 12th March 1945, LGA.

11 DM to GS, 11th April [1945], LGA.

12 DM to GS, 19th April [1945], LGA

13 DM to FB, 14th May 1945, LGA.

14 FB to DM, 25th May 1945, LGA.

15 DM to GS, 27th December 1945, LGA.

16 FB to DM, n.d. [?January 1946], LGA.

17 Hammer, op. cit. (note 3), p.55.

18 FB to DM, n.d. [?January 1946], LGA.

19 R. Alley: Francis Bacon, London 1964, p.39.

20 M. Hammer and C. Stephens: ‘“Seeing the story of one’s time”: appropriations from Nazi photography in the work of Francis Bacon’, Visual Culture in Britain 10 (2009), pp.315–52 (issue devoted to Francis Bacon).

21 A parallel move away from mythic and evocative to neutral titles is encountered in the contemporary work of American Abstract Expressionists such as Clyfford Still.

22 DM to FB, 9th April [1946], LGA.

23 See the provenances provided in Alley, op. cit. (note 19).

24 DM/GS correspondence from November and December 1945, LGA; indicating that Sutherland knew Russell quite well and liked his writing.

25 J. Russell: Francis Bacon, London 1979, p.10.

26 A. Clark: ‘Francis Bacon’s correspondence with Sir Colin Anderson’, The British Art Journal 8 (2007), pp.39–43; Hammer, op. cit. (note 3), pp.234–40 (letters to GS); and M. Peppiatt: Bacon in the 1950s, New Haven and London 2006, pp.141–53 (Hanover Gallery letters).

27 DM to FB, 9th April [1946], LGA.

28 On Soutine’s importance for Bacon and his fellow ‘School of London’ artists, see the present writer’s forthcoming article; ‘Soutine in English Translation’, Modernist Cultures (October 2010).

29 M. Tuchman, E. Dunow and K. Perls: Chaim Soutine (1893–1943): Catalogue Raisonné, Part I, Cologne 2002, pp.470 and 473, no.99.

30 FB to DM, sent from Hotel Ré, Monte Carlo, 20th August 1946, LGA.

31 DM to FB, 1st October 1946, LGA. A year later Bacon announced to Anderson that ‘at the moment I can paint much smaller pictures which I am glad to be able to do’; Clark, op. cit. (note 26), p.41.

32 FB to DM, 19th October [1946], typed copy, LGA.

33 DM to FB, 4th December 1946, LGA; see exh. cat. Seventh Exhibition: Adler, Bacon, Colquhoun, Hubert, MacBryde, Trevelyan, London (Anglo-French Art Centre) November to December 1946, nos.6–8, as ‘Studies for figures at the base of a crucifix’.

34 Hammer, op. cit. (note 3), pp.237–38.

35 DM to FB, 23rd April 1947, LGA.

36 DM to J.T. Soby, 21st April 1947, LGA.

37 J.T. Soby: Contemporary Painters, New York 1948, p.151.

38 At the time that his planned monograph on Bacon was running into difficulties with a typescript found wanting by Bacon and his London associates, Soby protested his credentials: ‘I was the one who persuaded the Museum to buy its first Francis Bacon, I commissioned Sam Hunter to do his excellent article. I myself wrote the first article in America about his extraordinary talent’; Soby to Erica Brausen, 27th July 1962, document cited at note 3 above. The article in question was S. Hunter: ‘Francis Bacon: the Anatomy of Horror’, Magazine of Art 95 (1952), pp.13–14.

39 FB to DM, 26th May [1947], LGA. He was still toying with the idea of going to America for a while in the following February; see Clark, op. cit. (note 26), p.41.

40 Horizon 93–94 (October 1947).

41 DM to FB, 10th June 1947, LGA. 42 FB to DM, Friday 20th [June 1947], LGA. ‘Scottish darning’ may refer to the Gallery’s commitment to the Scottish painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, as suggested by Richard Shone.

43 FB to DM, 23rd January 1948, LGA. 44 Hammer, op. cit. (note 3), p.42.

 

               

                      Francis Bacon Study for a man with microphones, 1946 (subsequently overpainted)

 

 

 

Interviewing Francis Bacon

 

SANDRA KISTERS | KUNSTTEXTE.DE | Humboldt-Universitaet zu Berlin | 20012

 

                               

                                                              Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944

 

 

British painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was known for the eloquence with which he talked about his art. He was easy to talk to, and was interviewed countless times by numerous critics. However, when studying Bacon's paintings one soon comes across the published interviews with art critic and curator David Sylvester (1924-2001), who interviewed him as many as 18 times between 1962 and 1986. Art historian Sandra Kisters argues that Sylvester's interviews with Bacon are carefully constructed and not very reliable as a form of oral history.

I will argue that the interviews with Francis Bacon are carefully constructed and not very reliable as a form of oral history. However, they are very interesting material from the point of view of the representation of the artist and his strong influence on the interpretation of his work.

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

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

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

In this paper I will argue that the interviews with Francis Bacon are carefully constructed and not very reliable as a form of oral history. However, they are very interesting material from the point of view of the representation of the artist and his strong influence on the interpretation of his work. In order to illustrate this, I will discuss several themes that reoccur within the interviews, such as the mythological beginning of his career as a painter with the triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.

(1944), his working methods and the role of his studio. Further- more, I will discuss the interviews as a marketing tool, and Sylvester’s own reflection on the interviews, which he discussed with art historian Andrew Brighton at the London Tate in 2000. In the last few decades, artists’ interviews have become an important source and tool in art historical discourse and research, but their usefulness and reliability can differ significantly, as can be demonstrated with the Bacon interviews.

The Interviews

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

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

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

The First Work

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

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

Subsequently, Bacon always claimed that he did not paint between 1937-1944, but it is more likely that he did paint, but was not satisfied with the results and destroyed the paintings, as was his habit; being a severe critic of his own work.12 Only when he was confident enough about his new work, supported by artist Graham Sutherland and his new lover Eric Hall, did he exhibit again; in a group show at the Lefevre Gallery in London in 1944, where his work was noticed by several art dealers and collectors such as Erica Brausen of Redfern Gallery (she later owned the influential Hanover Gallery) and Colin Anderson.13

From then on, Bacon kept pointing to Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion as the starting point of his career as an autonomous artist, and increasingly managed to influence both publications and exhibition displays into showing no works previous to the triptych.14 By focusing on the triptych as the start of his career, he presented himself as a radical post-war painter, and not as an artist who had been struggling to find his own style.15 By starting the edited interviews with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, Sylvester supported Bacon’s claim.

Studio Practice

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

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

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

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

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

Bacon always was very persistent in denying the making of preliminary sketches. Although he said to Sylvester in the first interview that:

“I often think I should, but I don’t. It’s not very helpful in my kind of painting. As the actual texture, colour, the whole way the paint moves, are so accidental, any sketches that I did before could only give a kind a skeleton, possibly, on the way the thing might happen.”19

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

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

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

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

Using Interviews as a Marketing Tool

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

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

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

 

       

                                                            Francis Bacon in his studio by Cecil Beaton, 1960

 

 

Editing the Interviews

David Sylvester interviewed Francis Bacon as many as 18 times between 1962 and 1984-1986. The first four interviews were first published in 1975 as Interviews with Francis Bacon, followed by expanded editions in 1980 and 1987. These expanded editions of the interviews contained first seven and than nine interviews in total, so the material of the 18 interviews has eventually been condensed into nine texts. It is common knowledge that Sylvester edited the interviews, and he mentions it himself in the introduction the first edition of Interviews with Francis Bacon (1975).28 to Bacon and on which Bacon filled in some of the answers.37

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

Sylvester: “Why do you feel it useless to use drawings or oil-sketches?”
Bacon [hand-written]: “Directness of statement” [and crossed out] “fact emphasising not xxxxx”
Typed: “The brutality of fact”.38

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

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

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

Sylvester: “But you say there is a subjective and an objective realism.”
Bacon: “No, I don’t say ….” Sylvester: “Sorry.”
Bacon: “…. I don’t think there are two different realisms.”
Sylvester: “Ah, right. Sorry.” Bacon: “I think realism incorporates the subjective and the objective.”
Sylvester: “Yes.”
Bacon: “No, I don’t for a moment think there are two realities.”39

The end result of the written interviews gives the impression of two amiably talking art professionals, who both appear to be very eloquent and articulate. This is a great accomplishment of Sylvester (and co- editor Shena Mckay) and not unimportant for his own image of an insightful art critic.

It is interesting though, that Bacon apparently got to see several draft versions of the eighth interview before it was published and got a chance to comment on it. The corrections in the manuscript seem to focus in particular on how Bacon wants his work to be described, such as his vision on realism, which in the published interview is connected to the work of Picasso and Van Gogh. 40

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

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

Interviewing David Sylvester

In 2000, Andrew Brighton, an art historian and at the time senior curator of public programmes at Tate Gallery, held a public conversation with Sylvester to celebrate the publication of his book Looking back at Francis Bacon (2000).43 Sylvester had just gotten out of the hospital, and was still very fragile – he would die a year after –, but he was very candid and willing to talk about the process of interviewing Bacon. Brighton was curious to know whether he felt that Bacon had learned how to formulate his ideas about art through Sylvester, but he denied this forcefully. Looking back, he regarded the first interview with Bacon as the best one. Bacon’s personal language was already there. According to Sylvester one could argue that Bacon did not really develop his ideas after the first two inter- views, since he kept on drawing from them. One should also note, that in 1962, at the time of the first interview, Bacon already was in his early fifties and had formulated a strong vision about his own art.

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Endnotes

1. David Sylvester, Looking back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p.8.
2. David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, (1987) New York 2004, ‘Editorial Note’, p. 202-203. The original interview can be listened to on the BBC archive website – Francis Bacon at the BBC.
3. Sylvester 2000, Looking back at Francis Bacon, p. 8. They met in 1950.
4. ‘David Sylvester on Francis Bacon in conversation with Andrew Brighton’, Tate Modern June 6, 2000, TAV 2217 A. Tate Audiovisual Archive, Hyman Kreitman Research Centre, Tate Gallery, London, hereafter referred to as TAV.
5. A similar analysis of the painting process, not as a static form of intention, but as a “numberless sequence of developing moments of intention”, is given by Michael Baxandall in Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures, (1985), New Haven and London 1986, p. 63.
6. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 14.
7. See for a discussion of the Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion as ‘primary work’, Sandra Kisters, ‘Orchestrating the beginning – Francis Bacon’, in Véronique Meyer and Vincent Cotro [eds.], Le Première Oeuvre, Universities of Tours and Poitiers, forthcoming 2013.
8. See Martin Harrison, In Camera: Francis Bacon, Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, New York 2005, p. 38. Harrison refers to Roy de Maistre, Bacon’s mentor and lover in the 1930s, who painted Bacon’s studio at Royal Hospital Road in 1934. In the painting Bacon’s studio is clearly filled with semi-abstract paintings.
9. As Martin Hammer, Andrew Brighton, Anne Baldassari and Martin Harrison already have shown, Bacon was influenced by Roy de Maistre, Pablo Picasso and Graham Sutherland, amongst others. See Martin Hammer, Bacon and Sutherland, New Haven and London 2005, Andrew Brighton, Francis Bacon, London 2001, Anne Baldassari, Bacon-Picasso: The Life of Images, Paris 2005, Martin Harrison, In Camera: Francis BaconPhotography, Film and the Practice of Painting, New York 2005.
10. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 70.
11. Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: The Anatomy of an Enigma, New York 1996, p. 67-68.
12. He for instance told this to John Rothenstein, the director of Tate Gallery at the time of Bacon’s first retrospective exhibition at the Tate. See John Rothenstein ‘Introduction’, in John Rothenstein and Ronald Alley (eds.), Francis Bacon, London 1962, exh. cat. Tate Gallery.
13. The importance of the friendship with Graham Sutherland for the development of his career as a painter has been described thoroughly by Martin Hammer, Bacon and Sutherland, New Haven and London 2005. See for instance, p. 14 and 30.
14. In the catalogue of the 1962 retrospective at Tate Gallery, four works from before 1944 were included, while in later catalogues, such as the catalogues for retrospectives in respectively 1971 Grand Palais in Paris and 1985 at the Tate all start with the Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion as the first (colour) plate. A more detailed discussion of the growing influence of Bacon on his retrospective exhibitions at Tate Gallery in 1962, 1985 and even the posthumous exhibition in 2009 can be found in Kisters, ‘Orchestrating the beginning – Francis Bacon’, in Meyer and Cotro (eds.), Le premiere Oeuvre (forthcoming 2013).

15. Op. cit 9.
16. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 38.
17. See Harrison 2005, In Camera, Barbara Dawson and Martin Harrison [eds.], Martin Harrison, Francis Bacon: Incunabula London 2008 and Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty, exh. cat. Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane, Dublin 2009.
18. See the analysis of Bacon’s studio contents in Margarita Cappock, Francis Bacon’s Studio, London 2005.
19. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 21.
20. Ibid., p. 194-195.
21. Matthew Gale researched and described the collections of poet Stephen Spender and Bacons friends Peter Pollock and Paul Danquah in Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, London 1999. Other collections, such as Barry Joule’s, are still the topic of debate.
22. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 189.
23. Ibid, p. 191.
24. Ibid, p. 189,
25. Brighton 2001, Francis Bacon, p. 75
26. See for instance the catalogue Francis Bacon. Recent Paintings, London 1965.
27. The Marlborough Fine Art Gallery did all kinds of other promotional activities, such as initiating retrospective exhibitions, like the one in Tate Gallery in 1962. This is discussed in my dissertation Leven als een kunstenaar. Invloeden op de beeldvorming van beeldend kunstenaars. Auguste Rodin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Francis Bacon, VU University Amsterdam 2010, p. 321-326.
28. He edited the interviews together with Shena Mackay, see Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p. 203. In an ‘Editorial Note’ at the end of the edition of 2004 he gives additional information about the sources for each edited interview.
29. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, p 6-7.

30. Ibid.
31. Ibid, p. 7.
32. Sylvester 2000, Looking back at Francis Bacon, p. 8. In part 3 ‘Fragments of Talk’ Sylvester included leftover material of the 18 recordings, which is grouped in themes.
33. I would like to thank Margarita Cappock, Head of Collection at Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane, for bringing the manuscripts of the interviews that were found in the studio to my attention.
34. Stephen Spender, ‘Armature and alchemy’, Times Literary Supplement, March 21, 1975, p. 290-291.
35. Sylvester 2000, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, p. 191.
36. They were found during the relocation of the studio from London to the Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane, and can be consulted through the database of the Francis Bacon Studio Project, Dublin under the numbers F1A:122A, F1A:122F, F1A:122G, F1A:122J, F1A:122K and F1A:122M. 36. I would like to thank the Francis Bacon Estate for their permission to include a few quotations from these manuscripts.
37. Francis Bacon Studio Project, F1A: 122A. The answers are partly typed, partly handwritten and partly crossed out.
38. Ibid.
39. Ibid. p. 5.
40. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, in particular p.170-71.
41. Francis Bacon Studio Project, F1A: 122G. Typed manuscript of an edited interview of Sylvester with Bacon entitled ON REALISM: Interview with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester recorded in 1982, 15 pag.
42. ‘The personal and professional papers of the curator, writer and art historian, David Sylvester, 1940s–2001’, purchased from the Sylvester’s Estate, 2008. Tate Gallery Archive, Hyman Kreitman Research Centre, Tate Gallery, TGA 200816. The Sylvester papers are currently uncatalogued and are therefore difficult to consult.
43. TAV 2217 A.
44. William Feaver, ‘All flesh is meat’, The Listener, May 15 1975, p.
652-653.
45. TAV 2217 A.
46. Sylvester 2000, Looking back at Francis Bacon, p. 8.
47. The Francis Bacon Studio Project has a large amount of books covered with drawings or paintings in their archive.
48. Sylvester in Matthew Gale, Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, London 1999, p. 9.
49. TAV 2217 A. This superimposing of images; the combination of several inspirational sources within one work has been analysed in depth by Martin Harrison. Op. cit. 17.
50. TAV 2217 A.
51. Sylvester 2004, Interviews with Francis Bacon, Interview 2, p.
30-67, p. 44.
52. Ibid, p. 46.
53. Recently, a new study has appeared discussing this very theme: Rina Arya, Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World, London 2012.
54. For instance, the ‘Artist Interview Project’ of the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art.

 

Sandra Kisters is assistant professor in modern art at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. She defended her unpublished thesis Leven als een kunstenaar (Living the life of an artist. Influences on the image making of modern artists. Auguste Rodin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Francis Bacon) at the VU University Amsterdam in 2010.

 

 

Late Francis Bacon: Spirit & Substance

 

Colm Tóibín | The New York Review of Books | November 19, 2015

 

           

                                                           Painting March 1985   Francis Bacon (1985)

 

 

In his book On Late Style, published after his death, the critic Edward Said ponders the aura surrounding work produced by artists in the last years of their lives. He asks: “Does one grow wiser with age, and are there unique qualities of perception and form that artists acquire as a result of age in the late phase of their career?” He considers the idea that some late works possess “a special maturity, a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of common reality.” Yet he also questions the very notion of late serenity: “But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction? What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?”

Said further ponders, as must anyone who thinks about this subject, the sheer strangeness of Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets and his last piano sonatas, their insistence on breaking with easy form, their restlessness, their aura of incompletion (especially the piano sonatas), the feeling that they are striving toward some set of musical textures that have not yet been imagined and cannot be achieved in Beethoven’s lifetime. In other words, it is that these late pieces wish to represent the mind or the imagination not as it faces death but rather as it faces life, as it sets out to reimagine a life with new beginnings and new possibilities but also with the ragged sense that there might not be much time.

Said quotes Theodor Adorno on late Beethoven: “Touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form; its tears and fissures, witnesses to the final powerlessness of the I confronted with Being, are its final work.” As Said would have it, Adorno does not see late style as a departure. Rather, “lateness includes the idea that one cannot really go beyond lateness at all, cannot transcend or lift oneself out of lateness, but can only deepen the lateness.” Finally, Said demands that we read late work with due subtlety, noting continuity as much as rupture, noting a deepening of something rather than a new departure. “As Adorno said about Beethoven,” Said writes, “late style does not admit the definitive cadences of death; instead, death appears in a refracted mode, as irony.”

Two weeks before he died, as his heart was failing, the poet W.B. Yeats wrote a poem he titled “Cuchulain Comforted,” which begins with a set of clear statements free of metaphor, tonally stark, sharp, and pointed almost like the arrows that appear in some of Francis Bacon’s work. The poem was written in terza rima, a form new to Yeats. Unusually for his work, this poem did not need many drafts. It seemed to have come to him simply, easily, almost naturally. In earlier Yeats poems and plays, Cuchulain, a figure from Irish mythology, had appeared as the implacable and solitary hero, prepared for single combat, free of fear. Now he has “six mortal wounds” and is attended by figures—Shrouds—who encourage him to join them in the act of sewing rather than fighting. They let him know that they themselves are not among the heroic dead but are “Convicted cowards all by kindred slain//Or driven from home and left to die in fear.”

Thus, at the very end of his life, Yeats created an image that seemed the very opposite of what had nourished his imagination most. His heroic figure has now been gentled; his fierce and solitary warrior has joined others in the act of sewing; instead of the company of brave men, Cuchulain seems content to rest finally among cowards. This poem, then, is not a culminating statement for Yeats but a contradictory one; it is not a crowning version of a familiar poetic form but an experiment in a form associated most with Dante. Instead of attempting to sum up, it is as though Yeats wished to release fresh energy by repudiating, by beginning again, by offering his hero a set of images alien to him that served all the more to give the hero ambiguity, felt life, unsettlement.

In this way, late work becomes itself unsettling. And in the late work of other writers this example of an imagination refusing to lie down and sum up can be seen. It would be easy to imagine, for example, that Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was written toward the end of his life. In fact, it was written in 1911, when Mann was thirty-six. It is a young man’s book; its images of desire, decay, and death could not be so easily entertained by a writer facing into late or last work.

Mann’s last work, in fact, was a comedy, a book filled with trickery and amusing, almost throwaway parodies. It was begun when Mann was in his mid-thirties and continued when he was seventy-five and prone to illness, around the time when he would return from America to live in Switzerland. The book is titled Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. In its use of a heavy style to convey light material, in its episodic structure, in the sheer roguishness of Felix Krull, the novel represents a rueful commentary on its author’s own past seriousness, as well as a way of proposing a fresh start for him, narrated by a trickster. But more important, perhaps, is the fact that Mann completed volume one with the suggestion that subsequent volumes would follow. The picaresque story that Felix told of his exploits was open-ended. It left room for Mann to continue as though there would be no end. Its very lightness set about defying death, even if Mann died a year after the book’s publication.

“Every piece of work,” Mann wrote, “is a realization, fragmentary but complete in itself, of our individuality.” Perhaps the writer whose individuality seems to intensify the most, becoming in his late work both more mysterious and more apparent, is Bacon’s close contemporary Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s work in the 1980s—he died in 1989 at the age of eighty-three—pares down form and language to a minimum in both fiction and drama.

Two of Beckett’s very last works throw interesting light on the work of Bacon, especially the late paintings. Both are concerned with the figure or the self as protean, uncertain, unsingular, ready to be doubled or shadowed, poised to move outward into a second self, or another self, or into a figure hovering near, waiting for substance.

In Nacht und Träume, for example, written for German television in 1982, a figure known simply as A dreams a second figure, B, into being. Two hands then appear as part of the dream. There are no words, merely snatches of the Schubert lied “Nacht und Träume.” The dream fades when A awakens, only for the sequence to repeat itself more slowly as the music is heard once again. The short play is not concerned with death so much as with the fluidity of the self, or the way in which night and dream and indeed ghostly music allow the self to move into another realm, a shadow realm, or a realm made possible by the imagination itself in which another figure waits.

Nacht und Träume is Beckett’s penultimate play. In prose, the very last piece he wrote was Stirrings Still, conceived toward the end of 1984 and completed three years later. This short text starts with the same idea as Nacht und Träume. It questions the autonomy, the singleness of the self. It begins: “One night as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go.” The opening of the second paragraph repeats this with a minor variation. The figure is not, however, moving toward death, but toward another place in life. He will disappear only to reappear. The piece ends with: “Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end.” The very core of the process of fiction—the idea of self—is questioned here and undermined. This is fundamental to the drama that Beckett created as last work.

In this context, it is useful to look at Bacon’s grave triptych Three Studies for Self-Portrait (1976), with its three faces fluid against a black background. As the eye moves from left to right, the face in the first section appears like a mask. It is fully visible in the center panel, gazing outward. In the right-hand section, the face is already in another realm, some of it having merged with the blackness. What little of it remains has an aura of enormous suffering. It is not nothing, just as Beckett’s “Oh all to end” emphasizes the fact of utterance within a continuity rather than an actual end. Nothing has ended. Instead of nothing, there is “all,” or the irony surrounding all.

As with Beckett’s Nacht und Träume or Stirrings Still, it would be too crude to suggest that Three Studies for Self-Portrait is a way of prefiguring death. In late work, no artist is concerned directly with death but rather with creating new form—often jagged, disturbing form, and often form that plays stillness against some deep and energetic stirring within the self, as though to emphasize that art is made only by the living.

In Beckett’s Nacht und Träume, then, the self lives with its dream-self, its shadow-self. In some of Bacon’s other late work, the figure, filled with painterly substance, is shadowed by another shape, a shape that has elements of the human form. In Still Life: Broken Statue and Shadow (1984), for example, it is interesting to see Bacon confronting the same problem faced by Beckett when dealing with the human presence, the human figure. In some of his late work, Beckett could not see the figure as single or self-contained, or simply moving toward death; instead he saw it as being able to extend beyond its own boundaries, finding what Joseph Conrad called a “secret sharer,” even if the secret sharer was just the next sentence.

Bacon in this painting makes the shadow figure more ghostly, stronger in outline than in positive space or texture. It is not a shadow of the statue itself, having a different shape, which suggests that it has its own leftover presence. It is, oddly, substance as well as shadow.

This happens, too, in a number of other late works by Bacon, such as Study from the Human Body and Portrait (1988), in which the face is filled with substance only to give way to the fleshy torso and legs that have less solid presence. And they in turn give way to their own shadow. This happens again in Figure in Movement (1978), as the writhing, suffering sexual figure, filled with energy and life, has a shadow almost like something the police might chalk on the pavement at the scene of a crime to mark the outline where a body had been.

In both Beckett’s and Bacon’s work, this idea of the figure as fluid rather than, say, single or inert has its origins in necessity as much as in philosophy. There is a sense in the late work of both artists that they are too busy seeing and working with form to be bothered thinking about or burdening us with philosophy. There is something deeply exciting and dramatic about a second self, a figure waiting for the transfer of energy that will allow it to come to life, however flickeringly. Beckett was a dramatist even at his most minimal. He wished to create excitement even at his most restrained. And so he made such doubles. Bacon made clear in interviews how much the very imperatives of image-making mattered to him.

Thus these shadows, this blurring of self, at its most intense and magisterial—for example, in Bacon’s Self-Portrait of 1987—created a force and energy in the pictures that would strike the nervous system of the viewer more powerfully than any single, stable figure.

It is important to remember that playing with the ghostly or the shadowy, using them to create pictorial mystery and excitement, makes its way through Bacon’s entire body of work, just as the idea of a double or an alternate self will appear in earlier Beckett plays such as Krapp’s Last Tape, written in 1958. So, too, does Yeats use the same sort of clear, chiseled statements of “Cuchulain Comforted” in poems as early as “Adam’s Curse,” published in 1904. And Mann was interested in parody and trickery throughout his life.

Therefore when we think about late work we need to bear in mind connections as much as distinctions, continuities as much as departures. Nonetheless, if we look at Bacon’s Sand Dune (1983), Painting March 1985 (1985), and Blood on Pavement (1988), all three filled with mysterious shapes, layers, and presences, hovering toward and then resisting abstraction, set in a sort of aftermath, a place where the body has been, it is possible to feel that Bacon was not content merely to find images that would deepen what he had already done, or would distill his vision, or would totalize it. Instead, there is a restlessness here that we also find in Beethoven’s late chamber music—a feeling that Bacon might begin again, that he is searching for some way to make images that he knows will only be possible for artists of the future, if they are even possible at all.

Working is a way, in any case, of keeping such knowledge at bay at least for the time being, a way of confronting the material world, of outfacing it, as though time might actually relent or the spirit might gain more substance than anyone has ever before imagined.

 

 

 

'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’.

 

 

Francis Bacon and The Colony Room

 

Richard Calvocoressi in conversation with Neal Slavin

 

COLONY ROOM PHOTO SHOOT WITH FRANCIS BACON | THE GAGOSIAN QUARTERLY | FEBRUARY 2016

 

The Colony Room was a private drinking club on Dean Street in London’s Soho, founded in 1948 by Muriel Belcher. Feared and revered in equal measure by her clientele, the lesbian Belcher’s foulmouthed, camp wit was legendary. The club’s earliest and most celebrated member was Francis Bacon, but other regulars included the painters Lucian Freud, Michael Andrews, and Frank Auerbach, and the jazz singer George Melly. The writer Daniel Farson, another member, explained the club’s attractions for Bacon.

“The name of the Colony Room had suggested something grand, but this was belied by the dustbins below and the filthy, ill-lit stairs. The club proved to be little more than a small and shabby room with a battered upright piano and a telephone and a lavatory at the back, but Miss Belcher was grandeur personified. Chin tilted upwards, cigarette in raised hand, she gave an impression of haughtiness, an eagle surveying the carrion of her membership…. Why did Francis go there so often? ‘Because it’s different from anywhere else. She has a tremendous ability to create an atmosphere of ease. After all, that’s what we all want, isn’t it? A place to go where one feels free and easy.’”1

When she died in 1979, Belcher was succeeded by her former barman and business partner, Ian Board. On Board’s death in 1994 the club was run by his barman, Michael Wojas. Faced with having to find money to renew the lease, Wojas decided to close the club in 2008, amid fierce opposition from its members.

On September 1, 1983, the American photographer Neal Slavin photographed the habitués of the Colony Room in their cramped watering hole as part of his project to document groups of various kinds, which was published in his large-format book Britons (1986). In addition to Bacon, Board, Wojas, and a framed photograph of Muriel Belcher keeping a watchful eye, the company immortalized that day consisted of the actor Tom Baker, of Doctor Who fame; the interior decorator and fashion designer Thea Porter; John McEwen, art critic of The Spectator magazine; Michael Clark, a young artist friend of Bacon’s; the club’s pianist, Mike Mackenzie, who played also at the Savoy hotel; Bacon’s boyfriend John Edwards; Tony Panter, a banker; Jeffrey Bernard, whose dissipated Soho life was later dramatized in Keith Waterhouse’s play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell; his brother Bruce Bernard, author of illuminating books on photography and the subject of memorable portraits by Bacon and Freud; an unidentified man; an unidentified woman; and the bare legs of Kate Bernard, Jeffrey’s daughter. As McEwen recalled, “It was still the summer holidays so Ian Board scraped together one or two regulars and irregulars who were around as a support cast to Bacon.” McEwen also confirmed that Bacon’s “well-known toast: ‘Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends,’ was a frequent refrain.”

Bacon was a prodigious drinker who nevertheless had a reputation for being up and ready for work by 6 am. This was not the case with Jeffrey Bernard. The Bernard brothers were friends and drinking companions of Bacon’s. From 1975 the rarely sober Jeffrey wrote a weekly column for The Spectator entitled “Low Life.” Whenever he was too hungover to deliver his copy, the magazine would print a brief euphemistic apology: “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell.” This was later used by Keith Waterhouse for the title of his play, which opened in London in 1989 with Peter O’Toole as Bernard. (O’Toole, another notorious drinker, was also a member of the Colony.) Bruce Bernard, though often melancholy through drink, led a more structured life as a picture editor, writer, and photographer. While in New York last November for the installation of the Francis Bacon: Late Paintings exhibition, I discussed the shoot with Neal Slavin over lunch. I was curious to know how his photograph of the Colony Room drinkers had originally come about. The idea for the book, he told me, came from his friend Colin Ford, the Keeper of Film and Photography at the National Portrait Gallery in London, who soon afterward became the first director of the National Media Museum in Bradford, Yorkshire.  

NEAL SLAVIN I wanted every photograph in the book, or in the series, to be an event. There was a camera that came out a few years before, which I had worked with, it was a Polaroid 20-by-24-inch camera, and I decided that would make the most interesting images. So we called Polaroid, and they were enthusiastic about it, because they were a client of mine. They provided all of the equipment. That was the beginning of it. The camera weighed 225 pounds, and I would have to stand on my tippy-toes to look in the back. It produced a Polaroid picture with incredible clarity and detail, 20-by-24 inches. We worked for two years on the book.

RICHARD CALVOCORESSI Who was going to publish it?

NS We didn’t have a publisher, although, after seeing the first two finished Polaroids, Tom Rosenthal at Andre Deutsch enthusiastically agreed to take it on.

RC How did you draw up the list of subjects?

NS We approached the Sunday Times and offered for them to reproduce the pictures if they would do the research. And the art director at the time, Michael Rand, jumped on it, so they put a full-time researcher on the project, Mary Dunkin, and she was incredible. 3

RC So for the Colony Room picture, it was the researcher’s idea to include a group of artists, actors, and journalists?

NS She literally said, “Let’s do the Colony Room.” She knew everybody in the picture. There were four of us who would go out every day, and make one picture, drive to our next location, do another picture, drive to our next—this hap - pened every day for three weeks, with one day off. We’d stop and edit the pictures for a week, then I would return to New York and then come back three or four weeks later after she did the next round of research. And then we’d start up again. RC You travelled all over Britain?

NS Yes, all over the UK—Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland.

RC And one day you all assembled at the Colony Room.

NS Yes, and I remember there was a very narrow hallway. We had to take the camera apart, to drag it up the stairs. Once we had it upstairs, we put it back together again, took the pictures, took it apart, and brought it down the stairs, and put it on the van. So we would take about twelve exposures, more or less, put them up on a wall, wait eighty seconds, and then we would peel them, just like old Polaroids, and there would be this unbelievable image. It’s a little bit like print - making. When you peel it, you can actually see lines in the emulsion that look almost engraved. The resolution and sharpness were absolutely amazing.

RC Did all the characters in the photograph, in the group, have a look and make comments?

NS Yes, absolutely. The presence of the cam - era was very important. You couldn’t ignore it. I wanted their involvement.

RC So had they all assembled before you arrived? Were they all there drinking, or did you meet them beforehand?

NS They all arrived while we were setting up. It takes about three hours to prepare the camera and lighting. Then the picture takes half an hour. I started with a test shot of John Edwards on his own. When Bacon saw it, he said he must have it because he wanted to do a painting based on it.

RC How long would the gap in time be between one picture and the next?

NS The way the camera worked was that there were these pods which held the chemical developer in a rack on the top of the camera. For such an expensive camera, its technology was incredibly primitive. You pull down the negative matrix in the back of the camera with a string, which dropped the chemical developer pod in between the matrix and the paper, put it through a series of rollers, and glue it together. You then cut it with a razor blade, tape it up to the wall, wait eighty seconds, and peel it away to reveal a picture.

RC You had them pinned up—

NS Yes, we had them pinned up. And they were astonished to see the result right then and there.

RC Did you get the feeling that Bacon was the center of the group? Very often he would be buying drinks for everyone.

NS He was, and you can actually see it in the image. Not so much because he’s recognizable, but because there is a proclivity to lean in his direction. No one was looking at him directly, but he was really the center. My preference is to allow the sitters to arrange themselves.

RC So the photos were published in the Sunday Times first before they became a book?

NS They published it twice. Halfway through the project, they did one article that was four or five pages. Then, when we were finished, they published another segment that was also about five pages.

RC And then the book came out a year later?

NS The second Sunday Times piece came out in 1986, in time for the book. And there were two exhibitions, one at ICP in New York and another at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Colin wanted this work to be the inaugural exhibition, but we had no way of finishing in time. So he opened with something else, and I believe it was the second exhibition, right after the museum opened. And then John Russell wrote a piece for the New York Times.

RC He knew Bacon well. He’d written a book on Bacon.

NS He did indeed, yes. Every one of the forty eight pictures in my book has a story. It was amazing. There’s one picture of a Seventh Day Adventist Choir. They wrote four songs for us, the photographers, and we photographed them singing the four songs.

1 Daniel Farson, Soho in the Fifties, with introduction by George Melly (London: Michael Joseph, 1987), p. 40.

2 E-mail message to the author, July 20, 2015.

3 Michael Rand was art director of the Sunday Times Magazine (the UK’s first colour supplement) from 1963– 93. Mary Dunkin became a photographer whose work is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London. She died in 2008. While working on the Sunday Times Magazine, she may have gotten to know Bruce Bernard (who had been its picture editor from 1972–80) and about his friendship with Bacon.

 

           

                                        Francis Bacon and his friends in the Colony Room, London, September 1, 1983.

Left to right: Michael Wojas (barman and later successor to Ian Board), Tom Baker (Dr. Who), Mike Mackenzie (club pianist), Bacon, Bruce Bernard, unidentified woman, Thea Porter (dress designer, at Bacon’s feet), Ian Board (proprietor and for many years Muriel Belcher’s barman), Michael Clark, John Edwards, Tony Panter, Jeffrey Bernard (seated), John McEwen, and unidentified man © Neal Slavin

 

 

   In Search Of The New..... An Interview With Michael Peppiatt

 

     David J Markham  | The Yorkshire Times | 7th April 2016

 

     

                                                                                       Michael Peppiatt

 

In 1963 a Cambridge undergraduate embarked on writing an article for a failing arts magazine called Cambridge Opinion. His piece was to be titled Modern Art in Britain. He knew little about the subject matter but a friend's mother had recently been photographed by John Deakin for Vogue and he suggested that Deakin could be a good contact to get to a new and exciting artist called Francis Bacon.

So it was that an incredible journey was to begin - with one of the most exciting artists of the last century or maybe even any century. In addition to this - Peppiatt relaunched Art International magazine and has written a succession of acclaimed art history books. He's also curated some important international art exhibitions. His pedigree and reputation speak for themselves.

After reading Peppiatt's book 'francis bacon in your blood' I was compelled to make contact with him and he gracefully accepted my request for an interview.

I set off to London from Yorkshire on a glorious spring day - not a cloud in the sky or breath of wind in the air. Four hours later I arrived in a beautiful London square with a communal garden for its residents - surrounded by houses that wouldn't have looked out of place in Mary Poppins. I parked the car and climbed the steep steps to a large front door. A young assistant greeted me and took me through to a tall ceilinged room that was crammed with books, paintings and writing materials. Peppiatt shook me warmly by the hand and without further ado tea was prepared and we were ready to go. It's a fantastic story.

You took a Degree in Art History at University - what was the inspiration?

I suppose it was an odd reason really. My Father who was much brighter than me, certainly academically, received a scholarship to go to either Oxford, Cambridge or London. His parents had a small family hotel just off Piccadilly near the Ritz. Along came the depression and my grandfather's finances were severely dented. While my father wanted to go to Oxford or Cambridge he went to Imperial College London because it was cheaper to live at home. It was understood that because he didn't go to Oxford or Cambridge that I would. In the end it took me several attempts to get in. I wanted to read Languages so although I could speak French I had to learn a second language and was sent to Germany for a crash course in German. I eventually got my place at Cambridge. So I did Languages but after about a year I switched courses to Moral Sciences. I found it very dry though. It wasn't for me so I searched around again and found Art History and I thought well - that sounded like a soft option. So I did that with some interest for a year but the course was limited - it stopped at Rubens. I got very impatient with this. I knew nothing about contemporary art but it seemed to me there must be some contemporary art out there.

So I thought I'm going to find out if there is something out there - I didn't believe it just stopped at Rubens. After about a year or so I changed again to English. At the same time there was a struggling arts magazine called Cambridge Opinion. I thought I'd try and help revive it by doing a piece called Modern Art in Britain. Really in the face of my Professor - to show them there actually was something after Rubens!

You must have been quite a driven young man?

This is the odd thing. I had this idea I was a sort of feckless, aimless and footloose adolescent who couldn't settle on anything and was kind of drifting but at the same time there must have been some drive there. I don't remember it like that I just remember going from one semi failure to another. I suppose underneath all that there must have been some impetus. It opened my world - I met Bacon, I met Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and David Hockney. From all of a sudden being this provincial student I had this parallel life in Soho.

 

      

                                                                Francis Bacon

 

When you met Bacon for the first time what was running through your mind?

He was a relatively big name at the time. He'd had his first retrospective at the Tate and it had put him very much on the map. However everything in those days was much smaller. The catalogue would have been a soft cover - maybe 7" x 5". The art world wasn't gorged with money.

I knew nothing about contemporary art - it's the absolute truth. It was only because I had spoken to my friend at Cambridge that I got in touch with Bacon. His mother had been photographed by John Deakin and he proposed that I go to the French House in Soho (where both Deakin and Bacon drank) and mention his name in a bid to make contact with Bacon. So I rolled up and didn't really know what I was doing. I stood around in the French pub feeling very awkward and then I spotted Deakin - I recognized him from a photograph. John was very camp and he told me all about himself because he had a sense of himself. I listened and then told him I was doing this issue on modern art in Britain and was wondering if there was any chance of meeting Bacon. John sort of went in to his camp mode and said "well I don't know my dear now that she's famous - so incredibly famous - whether she wants to meet a mere student like you". His voice carried across the Pub. I realized later that he did it on purpose to deliberately needle Bacon. Bacon turned around and said "don't listen to that old fool - I adore students".

So I was in. He asked me what I was doing for lunch and of course I wasn't doing anything. I was clutching my return ticket to Cambridge thinking I'll get a sandwich somewhere. He swept me off for this marvelous lunch and then a party afterwards where I got hopelessly drunk. I had a whale of a time. Bacon said I should go back and see him and we could talk as much as I liked. 

You must have had a good memory for those conversations - there were no tape recorders in those days. What were your first impressions?

He tended to repeat himself quite a lot so it sort of got drummed in to you. I started scribbling things down because I realised early on that this was someone out of the ordinary. What did I think of him? I thought he was a bit alarming. He's queer - which is what we called it then. He drinks like a fish. I'd heard he gambled. I hadn't even seen his paintings at this point. If I'd seen the painting's I probably wouldn't have gone. Particularly then - they seemed unusually terrifying. I think I would have turned tail. I think I'd have thought he was a depraved monster and I'm not sure I want to get too close.

The paintings were much more shocking 50 years ago. We've got a bit used to them now. They were fresh and raw. People literally put their hands up to their eyes. They were too much.

I watched the interview Bacon filmed with the eminent art critic David Sylvester - Fragments of a Portrait and you get a sense that he knew he was saying things that were quite uncomfortable. He seems to be pushing it and he knew he was pushing it.

Yes indeed. Of course homosexuality was a punishable offence in those days and his paintings if you think about it are largely about homosexuality - that's his main subject really. The male body or two male bodies - usually naked. He sailed very close to the wind. When I met him - not knowing the pictorial horror as it were - I took him at face value and he was terrifically charming. He had a natural charm. He was fun. He was amusing. He knew how to put young people at ease.

 

      

                                                                                          Bacon and Peppiatt

 

So if you hadn't seen any of his paintings upon meeting him - when did you see some?

I went back to see him maybe a dozen times over a six month period. I got a copy of the Tate catalogue and I was very disturbed. I thought Christ is this what he does? I thought why is it so tortured when he was the life and soul. You know - it was champagne all round. It was dribbling off the back of his hands as he filled up all the glasses. Cheers and off we go.

Most of the time we were just falling about laughing and at the same time you knew there was a very unusual view coming across. I was drawn by the freedom this guy exuded. As a student we used to make a couple of half pints last all evening but with Francis I saw bottle after bottle after bottle of wine drunk. He was always careful to eat well and then of course he drowned it all in gallons of champagne.

Once I'd seen the pictures I realized there was another side. When I got the interview together he gave me so much time. We'd meet at noon and usually go through the afternoon and well in to the night. I'd then get the last train back to Cambridge or on one or two occasions stay the night at Reece Mews where he painted. If my mother and father would have known that I'd been staying the night on the couch of this outrageous queer I don't know what they would have thought but he behaved impeccably. He never made a pass he was with George Dyer. Things could turn nasty at times with all the drink. There were some odd people and we went to some very odd clubs. He was always aware of what was going on around him and I think he was very protective of me. He would have moved in if things had got really ugly.

There was always rogues and con men hanging around London in the small hours. It could easily have happened. I think we got out quite smartly once or twice because things were getting too hot to handle. His lover, George Dyer, was a sort of minor failed gangster. Poor old chap. George on the whole was a rather amiable lost soul. He looked the part because he was built like a boxer but he wasn't an aggressive bully boy - he was rather gentle. A nice man but just a bit adrift.

Did you see much of Bacon's work at Reece Mews?

That was sort of a privilege. His studio was off bounds basically. Sometimes I'd go and meet him for drinks there before we had dinner. Once or twice I had dinner cooked by him. I must have actually been in the studio part half a dozen times over the years. It was very spartan but he loved Reece Mews.

The Colony Room in Soho was quite the place to hang out wasn't it? Didn't Freud and Auerbach venture in there too?

They came in from time to time but they weren't big drinkers. John Deakin and Jeffrey Bernard and his brother Bruce were regularly in there. It was an odd place. It was a kind of England that you wouldn't find anywhere else. It was camp, very free and eccentric. It was run by this strict looking foul mouthed lesbian called Muriel Belcher. You didn't want to get on the wrong side of her.

The relationship between Bacon and Freud was an interesting one but it seemed to cool over time.

I think it was Frank Auerbach who said that friendship's wear out and I think that was the main reason for the cooling off. People also said it was about a gambling debt or something that Bacon had said that was unflattering about Freud's painting. At the time when I came on the scene they were very thick together and I think that Lucian was in awe of Francis. He saw him as the senior figure and I think he admired both the man and the artist. It was only after Bacon's death that Freud started to see his star rise.

Thinking about Bacon's relationship with the Marlborough Gallery - did you ever meet the owner Frank Lloyd?

Yes I did. He was a clever guy - some might say unscrupulous. A good businessman. He didn't mind cutting corners when it suited his purposes. According to Bacon he had a very good eye for painting. Bacon liked him. He accepted on the whole it was a situation that suited him otherwise he would have changed it I'm sure.

Was he given a free hand by the Marlborough Gallery or do you think they tried to steer him?

I don't think so. They may have tried but Francis was a very unbiddable type of person. He was a law unto himself. He was very clever at manipulating his own career. I don't think he would have signed a contract or if he had he wouldn't have towed the line. I think they took what was available. They would have a van waiting when they thought a painting was going to be ready so they could grab it before he worked too much on it and destroyed it.

What are your thoughts on David Sylvester the art critic?

He was quite territorial. When he saw a newcomer like me he became quite protective of Bacon. We didn't get on that well. I don't think he would have a good word to say about me. I quite admired him occasionally and I admired the position he created for himself but it wasn't a cordial relationship.

You moved to Paris and continued to see Bacon - who was a frequent visitor as I understand it. He was very generous when you were relaunching Art International magazine wasn't he?

Yes - he was very generous. He always insisted on paying for things. He looked out for his friends. I tended not to ask him for anything because he was naturally generous. He would understand when he could help and if he could help he would. He allowed me to produce a litho edition of one of his works and that helped pay some bills.

How difficult was it to keep Art International going?

Terribly difficult. We kept it going for about 5 years and then I got married and had two children. My wife helped me but with two young children it became increasingly difficult. We were exhausted with it. It began to suck everything from us. Whatever money was there got completely absorbed by the magazine. It was a crazy life. Good training for me though as I'd avoided all responsibility for quite some time. I'd been brought up with a halt with all this stuff.

How do you reflect on today's art market with all your years of experience? 

Well - I think it's got so huge, so international, so sort of glamorous, so over heated - I don't know. It's been exciting but I think that money is playing too large a role. I can't pretend that it's not helped me make my living but all these fairs, all these magazines, and electronic newsletters pouring out. It's like a stock market with artists going up and down and artists needing retrospectives at a museum and then a book and then a catalogue to promote them. I'm not saying it's all together a bad thing but it's become over swollen and bloated.

I look at Bacon's work today and it still stacks up. Take it out of the context of 50 years ago and it's still quite wonderful.

I guess it's the fact that so many mediocrities get puffed up. You don't know where to turn. In this huge art world some people can't tell the difference and it becomes too much of a market and not enough about quality. The art world has become monetized and things become good because it's made £20m or whatever. I think it's quiet unhealthy. Too many people in the art world are in it to make a quick buck.

It was a fascinating conversation. Peppiatt has a wealth of experience to draw upon. Not only did he play the role of confidante to a complex and talented painter he went on to document his story in the wonderfully written - francis bacon in your blood. I heartily recommend reading this insightful and honest account of Peppiatt's friendship with Francis Bacon.

There's an old school charm about Peppiatt. Correctly spoken and considered - embroidered with a delightful sense of humour. The room was filled with laughter before we began the interview but once we got down to business his recall was assured and he clearly has an excellent grasp of the art world going way back. His is not a romantic view of the scene he experienced in London. Peppiatt's view is more pragmatic. Not matter of fact but simply that's the way it was - for better or for worse.

We shake hands and say we'll stay in touch. From the shade of the hall I am greeted by the remains of a beautiful spring day in London. Children play in the communal garden and I walk back to my car. In 1963 Michael Peppiatt was indeed in search of the new. He beat a path to its living breathing heart and lived to tell the tale. It was my own privilege to be able to hear these stories at first hand on that sunny spring day in London.

 

 

Art as a mirror of this dark moment

 

By SEBASTIAN SMEE | GLOBE STAFF 

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK | THE BOSTON GLOBE | NOVEMBER 24, 2016

 

            

                              Francis Bacon Study for Portrait of John Hewitt 1966

 

Francis Bacon’s portraits capture the human psyche at the very moment when composure breaks down and the animal — adrenalized, alert, ready to snarl — is revealed.

We are, evidently, in an angry moment. The repressed, factored-out, and thwarted sides of our psyches are spilling out, and it isn’t pretty.

The terrible strain of pretending that that other person over there is just as important as I am, that we are equal, that love trumps hate, and all those other platitudes, those feeble fictions, is proving too much to bear.

Taunting is in. A female student in a hijab is surrounded and heckled by fellow students who call her a terrorist. Black students get on a bus only to be told by other students to sit in the back. Swastikas appear in the boys’ bathroom at a school with a high number of Jewish students.

We have columnists and comedians on hand to make sense of this moment. We have edifying teachers and lecturers. We still have a political opposition.

But do we have artists? Of course. And they’ve been speaking to this moment for a very long time.

The artists who feel most in tune with what is going on right now are not, by and large, overtly political artists. Political speech has a strange way of not really applying to anyone. (That, in a nutshell, was Hillary Clinton’s problem.) The same, unfortunately, is true of most well-intentioned political art.

Great art is different. It applies to me, to you. The artists who speak most cogently to the present are interested in something deeper than truisms. They’re not trying to check identity boxes. They’re not trying to preach to the converted. They are interested in conveying what Francis Bacon called “the brutality of fact.”

Bacon is in some ways exemplary. His portraits come out of a dark European tradition that includes Hieronymous Bosch, James Ensor, Pablo Picasso, and Max Beckmann. They dramatize the tension between the psyche’s darker compulsions and the pressure felt in civilized society to conform, to repress emotions, not to lash out.

Bacon invented a whole new visual language for this tension. He drew on those forerunners in art, but also on photographs in medical textbooks, in the films of Luis Bunuel and Sergei Eisenstein, the stop-motion photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, and news images of 20th-century violence.

Think of the pinched and slightly blurred look in the president-elect’s eyes when he is not getting his way or feels hard done by. His micro-expressions — the fleeting twitches, the flash of fury — hint at a mind incapable of composure.They find gorgeous equivalents in the smeared, distended expressions of Bacon’s portraits, which capture the human psyche at the very moment when composure breaks down and the animal — adrenalized, alert, ready to snarl — is revealed.

We are in a divided society. People are on a short fuse. They are looking for — and finding — like-mindedness. In some cases, for the reassurance of platitudes. In others, for permission to make those ugly faces, to express the contempt that burns beneath the scuffed veneer of civility.

In crowds, at protests, at rallies, these people feel an expanded license to say and do things they wouldn’t dare elsewhere. Sometimes they hide behind a political placard or put on a mask. Given the right setting, they might even throw up a Nazi salute.

But it’s good to remember that not all art is there to console us. More than any piece of investigative journalism, art can express fundamental truths about our circumstances and our natures. Very often, we would hesitate to put those truths into words — assuming we even could.

 

 

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.

 

 

Bacon: Painter with a Double-Edged Sword

 

His pictures are ambiguous and among the most expensive ever brought to auction. They easily sell for millions of pounds and maintain a top position in the art market. Bacon is the UK’s most expensive artist at auction. Last week a single painting reached £21.6m ($33.3 million). Bacon's artwork is provocative and perplexing. With a British Council Grant, Argentinean researcher Mariano Akerman investigates the artist's imagery in England and Europe. He discovers a most extraordinary element in his paintings and explores its ultimate raison d'être.

 

Mariano Akerman | Blue Chip Magazine | Vol. 8, N° 88 |Islamabad | February–March 2012

 

               

Perhaps one day I will manage to capture an instant in all its violence and all its beauty. — Francis Bacon

 

 

An Outstanding Twentieth-Century Painter

The Anglo-Irish artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was one of the most original and powerful painters of the twentieth century. He was particularly noted for the intensity and paradoxical nature of his pictures. His figurative work is renowned for its boldness and visceral intensity. Bacon achieved fame and notoriety for his disturbing figures and his constant preoccupation with the torment of the human condition, including an unusual interest in bare flesh, wounds, and fluids. His imagery speaks for loneliness, violence and degradation. And it does so in a grotesque manner. Not in vain commentators hold that Bacon seemed quite joyful in his personal life, but the fact is that he also gained reputation for being a perceptive observer of the darker aspects of humanity.

Francis Bacon was born October 28, 1909, in Dublin. At the age of 16, he moved to London and subsequently lived for about two years in Berlin and Paris. Although Bacon attended no art school, he began to draw and work in watercolor around 1927. Picasso’s work decisively influenced his painting until the mid-1940s. Upon his return to London in 1929, Bacon established himself as a furniture designer and interior designer. He began to use oils in the autumn of that year and exhibited a few paintings as well as furniture and rugs in his studio. His work was included in a group exhibition in London at the Mayor Gallery in 1933. In 1934, the artist organized his own first solo show at Sunderland House, which he called Transition Gallery for the occasion. Bacon painted relatively little after and in the 1930s and early 1940s he destroyed many of his works. However, he began to paint intensively again in 1944. His work gained prominence only after World War II. By this time he painted the human figure, subjecting it to extreme distortions that made it look bizarre and disturbing. His first major solo show took place at the Hanover Gallery, London, in 1949. From the mid-1940s to the 1950s, Bacon’s work reflected certain influence of Surrealism. The pictures that made his reputation were of such subjects as an opened-mouth figure bending over and partly covered by an umbrella or a vaporizing head in front of a curtain. These startlingly original works were considered to be powerful expressions of anguish, remarkable because of the grandeur of their presentation and unusual painterly quality

Bacon was interested in suggestion. In 1952 he declared, "I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime." Crucifixion and scream were recurrent two motifs in his work. He wanted to paint a smile, but he never succeeded. "I've always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset." Yet, the mouths he painted convey unprecedented tension. By the 1950s Bacon had developed a treatment of the human figure and based his work on clippings from newspapers and magazines and from the nineteenth-century photographs of humans and animals in movement by Eadweard Muybridge. He also drew on such sources as Diego Velázquez’s famous Portrait of Pope Innocent X of 1649–50 and Sergei Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin of 1925. A combination of motifs drawn from completely unrelated sources was usual in Bacon's imagery. At the same time the contemporary imagery he developed was given a grandeur presentation akin to that of Baroque masterpieces. Bacon's first solo exhibition outside England was held in 1953 at Durlacher Brothers, New York. His first retrospective was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 1955. From the 1950s through the end of Bacon's painting career and life (in the early 1990s), the recurrent theme of his work was the isolation and anguish of the individual. He often painted a single figure, usually male, seated or standing in a windowless interior, and framed by a geometric construction, as if confined in a private hell. His subjects were his friends, lovers, and himself. Working almost without preliminary sketches, Bacon used expressive deformations to convey every possible nuance of feeling and tension. His painting technique consisted of using rags, his hands and whorls of dust along with paint and brush.

In 1962, the Tate Gallery of London organized a Bacon retrospective. Other important exhibitions of his work were held at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1963 and the Grand Palais, in Paris, in 1971. Paintings from 1968 to 1974 were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1975. Although Bacon had consistently denied the illustrational nature of his paintings, the facts of his life led art critics and historians to draw links between the personal life of the artist and the subject matter of his paintings. An example of this was the suicide of his model and closest friend George Dye. One of Bacon's triptychs evokes Dyer’s suicide and shows him shadowed in a door frame, vomiting into a sink and dying hunched fetus-like on a toilet. Bacon admitted that painting to be a most personal work and one which verges on illustration. Yet, he also kept each panel of the triptych framed individually and arranged it so to alter a logical sequence and avoid storytelling. In a period dominated by abstract art, Bacon stood out as one of the greatest figurative painters. Often large in scale, Bacon's works bring back traditional themes, but in an iconoclastic way that involves grotesqueness and the meaningless.

In 1962, he said, "Man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason." And significantly, "all art has now become a game by which man distracts himself." Bacon wanted to make "not illustrations of reality, but images which are a concentration of reality and a shorthand of sensation." His paintings were supposed to be "a deeply ordered chaos.” The artist died of heart failure brought on by asthma in Madrid, on April 28, 1992.

The Grotesque in Francis Bacon's paintings

Francis Bacon's paintings are mysterious and suggestive. They are ambiguous in nature and tend to constitute symbols of multi-leveled significance, being this is conveyed through the artist's manipulation of the Grotesque. In Aesthetics, the Grotesque is a category that comprises ambiguous, abnormal and uncanny configurations, which suggest the monstrous (defamiliarization, abnormality, dehumanization). The Grotesque has a long tradition in the visual arts. Initially this type of imagery was ornamental and playful, but later was to become prevalently distorted, visceral, and unsettling. Significantly, the Grotesque is neither attractive nor repulsive, but both at once. Moreover, as an art critic once put it, the Grotesque involves "certain things that are deformed, and thus please by giving great displeasure." In this sense, the Grotesque is a problematic, double-edged realm where the one aspect always goes hand in hand with the incompatible other thus creating a visual paradox. 

As configurations of the ambiguous, Bacon's mysterious pictures engender both curiosity and perplexity. The often produce mixed feelings such as attraction and repulsion at once. For a well-balanced yet disquieting interplay between fear and desire, vulnerability and cruelty, suffering and apathy is characteristic of Bacon's idiosyncratic imagery. 

Tension and intensity, the combination of incompatible elements, and suggestions of the monstrous or the inhuman abound in the artist's imagery. 

Bacon uses the grotesque as a means of self-expression that enables him to ambiguously communicate not only a fascination with power and violence, but also his haunted condition. The grotesque thus becomes a means of purgation and transcendence. 

Even if extravagant, Bacon's double-edged figures are far from being accessories. It is appropriate to think of them as inalienable personal reports encapsulating a private truth, in other words, the artist's contradictory feelings and sensations, which are neither ornamental nor entirely evasive. 

Through what Bacon has called instinctive painting (1966), he willingly walks along the border of an emotional precipice, suggesting an obsession with sex and death, apathy in matters of vulnerability and suffering, and a fascination with power and aggressiveness. 

The suggestiveness of Bacon's art simultaneously reveals and conceals the artist's ultimate intentions, and in such a blurred way that identity itself becomes problematic in his imagery. By depicting the ambiguously combined and the equivocally suggestive Bacon disorients the viewer, who can establish no precise meaning in his ever-changing images. Various readings are thus possible and they may be all equally valid. 

Considering that instinct implies the abolishment of morals, at the time of contemplating Bacon's paintings, we are to arrive at our own moral conclusions, certainly irrelevant to the artist and his calculated lack of concern. At this point, everything melts under our feet, because in Bacon's paradoxical realm the only safe given is insecurity. 

Besides, Bacon’s instinctive paintings are certainly not the product of accident or chance, as the artist liked to claim from the 1960s onwards. They constitute carefully planned compositions which are inextricably related to the artist's personal life and also function as mysterious, anti-illustrational traps which suggest the monstrously cruel. 

In this context, one realizes Bacon's manipulation of the grotesque and the artist's fundamental intervention in turning it into a useful vehicle for self-expression. Bacon's instinctive images are profound but also problematic—a grand manner of painting that merges the defiantly powerful, the disquietingly extraordinary, the suggestively monstrous, the sarcastically allusive, the theatrically manipulative, and the extremely personal.

As a species of confusion par excellence, the grotesque suspends belief and invites a search for meaning. Pushing one to consider alternative possibilities, the grotesque paralyses language and challenges categories. Grotesque art is thought-enlarging art. This is true in Bacon's peculiar case, whose grotesque art conveys immediacy and suggests multilayered ideas that grant one an active role as spectator and interpreter. This is possibly the ultimate meaning of the artist's pictorial freedom, which he has undoubtedly achieved through an admirable manipulation of the grotesque. 

The ambiguous element that inhabits Bacon's instinctive paintings has an immense capacity to open the valves of feeling. It is this expressive, ever-changing element of Bacon's suggestive art which proves to be extraordinarily rich. For, expressed as paradoxical and grotesque, pictorial freedom becomes a provocative element, one that coherently unites Bacon's truth and our freedom.

Inspiration in a clipping 

Francis Bacon prized intensity and had an obsession with being able to paint a mouth as Monet painted a sunset. In a considerable number of his paintings the mouth seems to be an important element. The snarling mouth of one of Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion 1944 has its referent in a clipping that was found in the artist's studio when he died in 1992. The visual referent, which is part of a bigger plate, was published online as a black and white image in 2000. It was then that I detected a significant formal similarity between the mouth Bacon painted in the 1944 Tate picture and the one in the work document later found in his studio. Showing a strange mouth, the clipping was a fragment of a plate taken from a book the painter said he bought in Paris in 1929. 

He was only nineteen or twenty years-old then. In a 1966 interview with David Sylvester, Bacon recalled that second hand book which had "beautiful hand-coloured plates of diseases of the mouth." It was in 2000 that I detected a significant formal similarity between the mouth Bacon painted in the 1944 Tate picture and the one in the work document later found in his studio. In 2003, the clipping was reproduced once again, this time in colour. 

The coloured fragment suggested that Bacon’s assertions of 1966 were true. Julian Bell referred to that clipping in an article written in The New York Times Review of Books in 2007: "Some 40 percent of a plate has been ripped out of the Atlas-Manuel des maladies de la bouche, a French translation of an 1894 German medical textbook. The torn-away trapezoid shows "Fig. 1": a heavily retouched photo of lips prised apart by forceps to reveal gums disfigured by an abscess, chipped teeth, and froth about the tongue. The chromolithograph with its flesh reds stands as an oval vignette on the creamy fragment of coated paper. But then the scrap has been scuffed by brushes loaded with green and cerulean; there are fingerprints to the right in blue-black and mauve, little splats of yellow and scarlet. The paper’s edges are frayed and nicked, it has a riverine crack where those clutching fingers have bent it: a vertical sever being a further result of decades of overhandling." 

As an invaluable work document, Bacon's clipping is preserved in the Hugh Lane Gallery, in Dublin (F105:140). A copy of the very book the painter bought in 1929 (and to which he referred to in the 1966 interview) is kept in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in Paris. 

The volume was written in German by Dr. Ludwig Grünwald, indeed in 1894, and subsequently translated into French by Dr. Georges Laurens, as Atlas-Manuel des maladies de la bouche, du pharynx et des fosses nasales. The French version was published in Paris in 1903. Among other things, Grünwald's medical manual contains 42 chromolithographs and 106 hand-coloured plates of diseases of the mouth. They are impressive. After having myself examined the various illustrations in that manual (which can be found online), I have no doubt that the much disfigured mouth reproduced in Grünwald's book as "Tab. 5, Fig. 1" cannot be other than Bacon's predictably grotesque source of inspiration.

 

 

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."