Francis Bacon News
Francis Bacon News
On seeing the Bacon exhibition he had curated in Paris,
David Sylvester discovered something unexpectedly serene
DAVID SYLVESTER | TATE | ISSUE 10 | WINTER 1996
Francis Bacon clearly didn’t spend sleepless nights wondering whether Matisse or Picasso was the greatest artist. "I have never had the strong feeling that many people have about Matisse; I’ve always found him too lyrical and decorative. I think he is less so than usual in some of the late papiers découpés but nevertheless for me there is very little realism in Matisse. I think it’s the reason I have always been so much more interested in Picasso Because Matisse never had the — what can one say? — the brutality of fact which Picasso had. I don’t think he ever had the invention of Picasso and I think he turns fact into lyricism."
In that particular statement of his position, recoded in March 1982, Bacon was more vehement than usual when expressing his preference for Picasso over Matisse: it was as if he had forgotten that he had ever had a positive view of Matisse. This must have been because the conversation had been entirely focused on a problem raised in its opening question: "Michel Leiris speaks of ways in which your work is a form of realism. What do you think yourself that 'realism' means today? Bacon had got involved in talking about realism in Picasso, so that I must have appeared provocatively gratuitous or casually irrelevant when I suddenly asked: "And speaking of realism in the way you do, where do you put Matisse’s late papiers découpés especially those single nudes, one or two of which you’ve told me you admired?" A discussion on realism was not an expected context in which to talk about Matisse, though I would certainly argue that it was a valid one. I could argue too that the marvellous phrase that Bacon came out with, "the brutality of fact", designated a quality that could also be found in Matisse, though in some of the masterpieces of 1970-1917 rather than among the papiers découpés.
In any case, Bacon did admire Matisse more than any other twentieth-century artist apart from Picasso. He especially liked 'Bathers by a River', the canvas two-and-a-half metres high and four metres wide probably started in 1909 and completed in 1916; he often spoke of having seen it in Paris around 1930 when it still belonged to Paul Guillaume. And a number of his pictures could well have been influenced by its wide bands filled with or at least dominated by one colour, the most emphatic of which is a lush black. The first of them was 'Painting', 1950, which presents a profile view of a standing male nude cut off just below the knees — as if he were standing up in a bath flanked on either side by black bands with the same sort of width as the one in 'Bathers by a River'. This was a crucial work in Bacon’s development — only the second painting of a nude that he had completed and allowed to survive. The first had been the 'Study from the Human Body', 1949, which presents a back view, and also cut off just below the knees, of a man departing through a pair of curtains. The figure here may well have been the first of the many painted by Bacon which reflect his fascination with a particular Degas, a back view of a nude woman. "You must know the beautiful Degas pastel in the National Gallery of a woman sponging her back. And you will find at the very top of the spine that the spine almost comes out of the skin altogether. And this gives it such a grip and a twist that you’re more conscious of the vulnerability of the rest of the body than if he had drawn the spine naturally up to the neck. He breaks it so that this thing seems to protrude from the flesh." The protrusion of the spine in the 1949 nude is less emphatic than in many later Bacons, but it is present (though not very evident in reproductions).
There is a huge difference between the 1949 nude and that of 1950. To begin with, there is the format. Whereas the 1949 painting measures 147 by 134.2 cm, the 1950 picture is 198.1 by 132.1 cm and was Bacon’s first completed and preserved work since the great butcher’s shop 'Painting' of 1946 to use a canvas of that size. This clearly influenced everything else: the squarer format — though not all that smaller in terms of centimetres — suited an intimate work, the taller demanded an heroic work.
The 1949 picture is a pure grisaille, dependent on soft nuances of vaporous colour and tone; so the figure is flanked by diaphanous curtains. The 1950 painting presents strong contrasts of colour and tone in its brightly coloured background and flanking bands of solid black And the possible influence upon of of 'Bathers by a River' goes beyond those long black upright rectangles. While the figure, with its heavy musculature and its right arm raised and bent at the elbow, is an obvious homage to Michelangelo, it also resembles the figure with an arm raised on the extreme left of the Matisse. Furthermore, Bacon’s figure has a curious shadow beyond it, perhaps a doppelgänger rather than a shadow, for it bends toward as if it has an identity of its own, and the position of the head is not unlike that of the first figure from the right in 'Bathers by a River'. There is even a resemblance between the tubular rail in the Bacon and the serpent in the Matisse.
One very conspicuous feature of the Bacon is not matched in the Matisse: the red and blue vertically striped wall. It is a regular and polychromatic version of the striations that appear, often as folds in curtains, in most of Bacon’s pictures of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Such striations generally derive from those Bacon found so significant in Degas pastels. But the form they take here, with their close proximity and their bright colours, could easily have been borrowed directly from a device that is always occurring in Matisse paintings between 1919 and 1924, though usually with red and white stripes only.
There is no later work by Bacon that is so broadly reminiscent of Matisse. But there are those which could have been influenced by one of the most distinctive features of 'Bathers by a River'. Every picture by Bacon that has a horizontal format (apart from an oil and a pastel of the late 1930s and a piece of commercial art) is a triptych, meaning that it is very wide and is divided by vertical lines. 'Bathers by a River' presents a single wide canvas firmly divided by vertical lines. These create a series of wide bands, the most assertive of which are black or off-white, each with a figure in front of it. That is to say, Matisse used his vertical lines to separate the figures one from another as Bacon separates them by generally placing one figure (or a copulating couple that has become like one figure) in each panel of a triptych.
Furthermore, the composition of 'Bathers by a River' may well have had a specific influence on the form of two of the greatest triptychs both of them commemorations of George Dyer which show the colours of mourning: 'Triptych, August 1972' and 'Triptych, May-June 1973'. In the first of these the outer panels present a single figure and the central panel a copulating couple, in each case on a background of a black rectangle flanked by off-white rectangles; in the second, where the resemblance is even stronger, each panel presents a single figure on a background of a black rectangle flanked by a narrow band of off-white and then a rectangle in Indian red.
A slightly earlier triptych looks as if it had been inspired by another of Matisse’s most brilliant translations on to a flat surface of a variety of forms in a space — 'The Red Studio', of 1911, where a single colour filling the canvas represents both the walls and the floor of an interior, with some of the objects (mostly paintings and sculptures) solidly realised while others (mostly furniture) are transparent. , depicted by outlines on that ubiquitous ground. In 'Triptych — Studies from the Human Body'. 1970, the entire area of the three canvases is a flat orange ground; the figures in the space, and also a bed in the centre panel, are realised solidly, while the room’s architectural features are depicted by outlines. Also, certain individual figures in Bacon resemble those in painting by Matisse, especially of 1907-1917. Foe example, the man seated on top of a bed in 'Study for Figures II', 1953 and 1955; the first self-portrait, painted in 1956; and the figure in the left-hand panel of 'Study for Self-Portrait — Triptych, 1985-1986, seem echoes of the seated figures in 'Music', 1909-1910, especially the one in the centre. The similarity of pose is only approximate, but it is close enough to point to a recurrent affinity between some of Bacon’s figures and some of Matisse’s. The precise form of Bacon’s figures is, of course, most often derived from photographs by Muybridge — or, with the female nudes, from photographs by John Deakin — while the style tends to come out of Michelangelo or Degas. A source that is surprisingly absent from his treatment of the body is Picasso, whose influence on Bacon’s treatment of the head, his main focus of attention, is so very crucial to his vision. His bodies are often less evocative of Picasso than of Matisse: compare, for example — not only in the drawing of the body but in its relationship to the space — the figure in the left-hand panel of 'Three Figures in a Room', 1964, with 'Bathers with a Turtle', 1908.
There also seems to be a crucial indirect relationship between Bacon and Matisse. It concerns the use of long vertical straight lines, and Barnett Newman is the link. Quite a number of Bacon’s paintings from the mid-1960s onwards suggest that he had looked at Newman, the most striking case being 'Study for Self-Portrait Triptych, 1985-86, where in each of the panels a pale warm ground is vertically traversed on either side by a pale cool narrow band, a configuration that calls to mind such paintings by Newman as 'The Voice' of 1950 and 'Ninth Station' of 1964. Bacon never had a good word to say for Newman, but he was capable of being totally reticent about his sources as he was of being altogether forthcoming about them. Yet it is also possible that, while being vaguely aware of what Newman had done, he never focused firmly on it: it is possible because Newman’s zips were so latent in Matisse’s verticals.
These speculations have not been prompted by a mere desire to play the game of hunt the influence. In the Pompidou retrospective Bacon’s work was seen in monumental spaces of a kind that can easily subdue a painter. It rose to this challenge in a remarkable way, helped by dense grey walls which — especially in the day lit sections gave full value to its colouristic qualities, and revealed a stunning grandeur and nobility and stillness It did not thereby lose its tragic brutality of fact, but it did bring to mind Van Gogh’s words in his last letter to Theo about works that retain their calm even in the catastrophe. Bacon’s art suddenly seemed to have less of the immediacy of Picasso than of the serenity beyond pain of Matisse. But the point is not whether Bacon is more like Picasso or more like Matisse. It is that he contains something of both of them. He described himself as a "pulverising machine": in the process of finding, Picasso is like a crane, picking up individual things and removing them for a treatment which somehow transforms them; Bacon takes a variety of things and incorporates the into a mixture in which their separate identities are glimpsed, more or less changed, sometimes changed hardy at all, but which has a perfectly individual style. It is very like what Eliot did and a consummation that could have happened only in our age, because it depends upon our unprecedented breadth of reference. Fragmentary memories of many times and places, of many myths and styles, are brought to mind, some clearly, some vaguely, as we look. It seems that that all human history is present. The poignancy is that those echoes from the store of common experience are brought to us by a voice that is utterly personal and singular.
"Francis Bacon", Haus der Kunst, Munich, 30 October—31 January
Influence and Inspiration:
Francis Bacon’s Use of Photography
“John Deakin—Photographs” at the National Portrait Gallery, London; and
“Velázquez and Bacon: Paintings of Popes” at the National Gallery, London
PETER HAY HALPERT | PEOPLE & IDEAS | APERTURE | NUMBER 145 | FALL 1996
They were a particularly ambivalent yet strangely
fitting pair of friends. Francis Bacon was one of the pre-eminent post-modernist
painters of our times, while John Deakin, despite a prolific career as a
photographer for British Vogue, remains a relative unknown. Now, a series
of exhibitions in London and a new book are providing an opportunity to reassess
Deakin’s work, in the process shedding significant light on the influence and
inspiration photography had on Bacon’s painting. “John
Deakin — Photographs,” at National
Portrait Gallery, and curator Robin Muir’s accompanying catalogue
(Schirmer/Mosel), represent the most significant contribution towards this
reappraisal, but another Deakin show at the Zelda Cheatle Gallery fleshes out
the picture of his career, while “Velazquez
and Bacon: Paintings of Popes,” at the
National Gallery also contains important clues to understanding the substantial
role photography in general, and Deakin’s photographs in particular, played in
A self-taught painter, with no real formal art education, Bacon made conflicting claims about his use of photographs. In a conversation with Michel Archimbaud which took place in 1991, he said that “Photographs are only of interest to me as records. I know people think I’ve often used it [photography], but that isn’t true. But when I say that to me photographs are merely records, I mean that I don’t use them at all as a model. A photograph, basically, is a means of illustrating something and illustration doesn’t interest me." However, in the same discussion, Bacon explained that “Since the invention of photography, painting really has changed completely. We no longer have the same reasons for painting as before. The problem is that each generation has to find its own way of working. You see here in my studio, there are these photographs scattered about the floor, all damaged. I’ve used them to paint portraits of friends, and then kept them. It’s easier for me to work from these records than from the people themselves, that way I can work alone and feel much freer. When I work, I don’t want to see anyone, not even models. These photographs were my aide-memoire, they helped me to convey certain features, certain details.”
Bacon’s disingenuousness at this stage in his
life (he died a year later, in 1992), seems designed to contradict earlier
statements made in a noteworthy series of interviews with his friend, the art
historian David Sylvester. In those discussions, which began in 1962 and
continued through 1974, Bacon spoke much more specifically about his use of
photography. “The thing of doing series
may possibly have come from looking at those books of Muybridge with the stages
of movement shown in separate photographs. I’ve also always had a book of
photographs that’s influenced me very much called Positioning in Radiography,
with a lot of photographs showing the positioning of the body for the X-ray
photographs to be taken, and also of the X-rays themselves.” Later,
referring to photographs by Marius Maxwell which he admired in the 1924
publication, Stalking Big Game with a Camera in Equatorial Africa, Bacon
acknowledges that "one image can be deeply suggestive in relation to another. I
had the idea that ...textures should be very much thicker, and therefore the
texture of, for instance, a rhinoceros skin would help me to think about the
texture of human skin.” In addition,
Bacon was well aware of Documents, one of the great European magazines of
the late 1920’s and early ’30's; one issue in particular featured photographs of
slaughterhouses, which became a recurring motif in several of his paintings.
He also alludes to different, more oblique role photography had on his approach to looking at things. “Photographs are not only points of reference; they’re often triggers of ideas...I think one’s sense of appearance is assaulted all the time by photography. So that, when one looks at something, one’s not only looking at it directly, but also looking at it through the assault that has already been made on one by photography. I’ve always been haunted by them [photographs]; I think it’s the slight remove from fact, which returns me onto the fact more violently.” From these comments, it becomes clear that Bacon was discussing not just with the influence specific images had on his work, but also the inspiration he derived from the particular regard of photography.
Even when creating works that referred to other paintings, Bacon preferred to work from photographs. The Velázquez and Bacon exhibition at the National Gallery imparts a sense of reunion that is misleading. Bacon’s four studies from Velázquez’ portrait of Pope Innocent X all derive from photographs and reproductions of the earlier masterpiece rather than any first-hand experience with the actual painting. Despite traveling to Rome, Bacon never saw the “Innocent X” in the Doria-Pamphilj Collection. He spoke, instead, of "a fear of seeing the reality of the Velázquez after my tampering with it.” Andrew Sinclair suggests that Bacon’s use of photography in this regard derives from a Surrealist approach to picture-making, in which the artist finds inspiration in the objet-trouve, the random thing or postcard or photograph.
Interestingly, Bacon rarely refers specifically to his use of Deakin’s portraits. Deakin started photographing in 1939 and continued to work intently if intermittently through the mid-1960’s. His heyday occurred during the ’50's when he was under contract to Vogue (where he had the dubious distinction of being the only staff photographer ever fired twice by the same administration). Although his tenure there was short-lived, in a period of approximately 4 years he produced more work than his contemporaries at Vogue, including Norman Parkinson, Clifford Coffin and Cecil Beaton.
Deakin photographed everything for Vogue, including fashion and beauty,
but his forte was portraiture. The poet and novelist, Elizabeth Smart, remarked
that Deakin had “tyrannical
eyes,” and the art critic, John Russell,
wrote that Deakin “rivaled Bacon in his
ability to make a likeness in which truth came unwrapped and unpackaged.
Deakin’s portraits, like Bacon’s, had a dead-centered, unrhetorical quality. A
complete human being was set before us, without additives.” Deakin’s
portraits were characterised by a monochromatic austerity and raw clarity that
wasn’t in keeping with the buoyancy of the work done by Parkinson or Beaton;
indeed, it precedes the nearest thing to it — the photographs of David Bailey
and Richard Avedon — by a decade. “Whoever
the sitter, Hollywood actor, celebrated writer or valued friend,” writes
Robin Muir in his catalogue essay, “Deakin
made no concessions to vanity, his portraits are never idealised or evasive, and
typically contain no pretense to flattery. There is no soft focus, no blurring
or retouching. At their most extreme these images are cruel depictions.
And even now, over forty years later, his prints are still defiantly modern.”
Despite creating a memorable body of work, Deakin remains largely forgotten. His prints were outsized and consequently not easily archived. Deakin himself distrusted their worth. “He really was a member of photography’s unhappiest minority whose members, while doubting its status as art, sometimes prove better than anyone else that there is no doubt about it,” recalls his friend, Bruce Bernard. His greatest undoing, though, is evident in his portraits. Many of his subjects were his friends and drinking companions from the pubs and clubs of Soho; Bacon and Deakin, along with Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, and Lucian Freud comprised a group (virtually a subset of R.B. Kitaj’s “School of London”), that would frequently gather for drinks at Muriel Belcher’s club, the Colony Room, a setting described as “a place you could take your grandmother, and possibly your father, but not your mother.” But while Bacon would regularly return to his studio from a late night out and religiously put in several hours painting, drinking affected Deakin’s work and led to his dismissal from Conde Nast. His career as an independent photographer was not a success and his life devolved into a series of trips abroad.
Deakin’s portraits did have a life, albeit largely unacknowledged, in Bacon’s paintings. Bacon commissioned many of Deakin’s portraits as reference points for his own work. “Even in the case of friends who will come and pose,” Bacon said, “I’ve had photographs taken for portraits because I very much prefer working from the photographs than from them. I think that, if I have the presence of the image there, I am not able to drift so freely as I am able to through the photographic image. This may just be my own neurotic sense but I find it less inhibiting to work from them through memory and the photographs than actually having them seated there before me. I don’t want to practise before them the injury that I do to them in my work.”
Bacon’s studio was notoriously chaotic and cluttered. “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,” he
stated. To see the exhibition of Deakin prints from Bacon’s estate consequently
becomes an experience in watching the figure deconstruct according to the state
of destruction in which the print has settled, much as the figures in Bacon’s
painting appear tortured, convoluted and deconstructed. While Bacon spoke about
the ways in which he used photography, he rarely specifically cited Deakin’s
photography by name. Nor did he comment on the inspiration he drew from these
torn and crumpled prints. However, in the same manner in which photographs of
Velazquez’ portrait of Innocent X had an object quality and presence for Bacon
above and beyond that of the work itself, it is not inconceivable that Deakin’s
photographs, transformed by the damage sustained while in his studio, came to
represent much more than simple aide-memoire for him.
In a different context, Bacon once commented that “his [Deakin’s] work is so little known when one thinks of all the well-known and famous names in photography — his portraits to me are the best since Nadar and Julia Margaret Cameron.” Deakin’s photographic output essentially ended in 1961, yet he and Bacon retained some semblance of a friendship. It was Bacon who was listed as Deakin’s next of kin during his last hospital stay and it was Bacon who paid for his convalescence in Brighton where Deakin died of heart failure in 1972. But the kinship seems strongest in the work. The prints of Deakin’s photographs which Bacon held in his studio, set alongside Bacon’s painted portraits, are evidence of the influence and inspiration photography provided for Bacon. Deakin could have been speaking for Bacon as well when he said “Being fatally drawn to the human race, what I want to do when I photograph it is to make a revelation about it. So my sitters turn into my victims.”
John Deakin, Muriel Belcher, 1964
His life was a commitment to excess. So it’s no
surprise that some portraits had two heads
FRANCIS BACON: ANATOMY OF AN ENIGMA
by Michael Peppiatt
Weidenfeld £20, pp366
BACON: PORTRAITS AND SELF-PORTRAITS
Essay by France Borel
Thames & Hudson £39.95, pp215
JONATHAN MEADES | REVIEWS | BOOKS
| THE OBSERVER REVIEW | SUNDAY, 29 DEC
| THE OBSERVER REVIEW
| SUNDAY, 29 DECEMBER, 1996
Michael Peppiatt’s is the third biography of Bacon to have been published in the four-and-a-half years since he died in Madrid, an atheist wittingly in the care of nuns. This circumstance of terminal hospitality hardly amounts to a request for extreme unction but does, none the less, suggest a softening of his antagonism towards the delusory system whose creed he scorned but whose paramount image was at the very core of his art. It was also, with farcical aptness, present in his early posthumous existence: Francis Bacon was buried with no ceremony in an off-the-peg coffin with a lid bearing a metal representation of Christ crucified. Peppiatt makes nothing of that; whatever else he has learnt from his prodigiously perverse subject, he has quite ignored the compulsion to connect and conflate.
What he has picked up, however, is the elderly Bacon’s insouciant tendency to repeat himself over and over. Peppiatt is actually quite astute about the way he turned himself into a one trick pony, how in the later years his studio was adorned with reproductions of his greatest works, how he cannibalised them as he had once fed on Velásquez and Muybridge and photos of Hitler. The germ of this reductionist programme is there from the start, from the 1933 Crucifixion which was followed by a protracted hiatus and eventually by Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1944. This was the triptych from hell, which was vulgarly assumed to be ‘saying something’ about man’s inhumanity to man, the horrors of the age and so on, but which increasingly appears in retrospect to say nothing at all; its job is not to talk, but to be.
Bacon loathed illustration, a mode which is dependent on an already defined world, and which obviously has a pre-resolved end in sight: it obviates discovery and chance. He was equally dismissive of abstraction, which he considered unexceptionably to be mere pattern making. Peppiatt records the life – theft, screwing for money, lurches between the lower depths and high bohemia, lipstick and gambling, search for a father figure, as though there is some deterministic link between it and the painting. He does not heed the epigraph by Harold Rosenberg which he places at the start of an early chapter: ‘An artist is a person who has invented an artist.’ Bacon’s canon is autonomous.
He is not, in this regard, comparable to such contemporary bottom feeders as Genet, Burroughs or Kerouac whose work is propped up on the dodgy armature of their ‘legends’ and on an audience’s appreciative knowledge of the shooting, the shooting up, the slopping out, the swilling. Bacon’s self-exposure was more oblique, more English; he enjoyed secrecy, compartmentalising his life. He was by no means alone in suffering a nostalgia for an era when homosexual congress was against the law. It is, of course, fascinating to read of anyone with such a commitment to excess. It is no doubt salutary to learn the details of the macerative programme he devised for his liver and synapses. But the gift remains unexplained and so, to an extent does the man.
Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits is mostly pictures with little text: Milan Kundera’s introduction is elegant and tends to take the artist at his own estimate. France Borel’s essay, The Face Flayed is dizzy, delirious and aspirantly synergetic. It hopes to convey the paintings and provide an exegesis of them through rhetoric, hyperbole, truism, verbless sentences and meditative screams. It is of course an exercise in pure futility, and the writer knows it. The portraits which precede them are no more susceptible to such frenzied euphemism than they are to Peppiatt’s dogged plod. Freud (Sigmund, whose later relationship with Bacon is skipped over by Peppiatt) is famously flawed because he attempted to depict dreams in the rational prose of diurnal description. Bacon’s celebrants and critics are similarly flawed. What happens on those canvasses is extra-verbal.
Study for a self-portrait, 1973
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
Censors fail to save Bacon
| THE | SUNDAY, 29 DEC
| THESUNDAY TIME
| SUNDAY, 29 DECEMBER, 1996
YOUR report that the Arts Council has reversed an earlier decision and will now contribute to the film about Francis Bacon, Love is the Devil, is excellent news (Friends of Francis Bacon fail to prevent film of his sex life, News, last week).
Understandably, certain friends of Bacon are possessive but the previous veto smacked alarmingly of censorship, which Bacon would have deplored.
The young director, John Maybury, is an artist in his own right and his work deserve to be seen by a wide public. Admittedly, I am prejudiced because the story is based loosely on my biography: The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon. When this was published Lord Gowrie was gracious in writing to me that he thought Francis might have “bitched” about the book but would privately have liked it. Later, Gowrie opposed the film but I believe that Bacon would have felt the same way about that.
He was fascinated by film-making and anything new.
The film may well be sensational but so was Bacon. He was a fiercely free spirit, resilient and rebellious. His life and work have no need of protection.
Daniel Farson, Appledore, Devon
THE DUALIST: FRANCIS BACON
The late Francis Bacon, the subject of a retrospective now on view in Germany,
was vehement in his disdain for abstraction and illustration.
And yet, the author suggests, these techniques were integral
to his presentation of violent imagery
DAVID COHEN | ART IN AMERICA | WEDNESDAY 1 JANUARY 1997
Francis Bacon offers a strange feast for the eye. Abundant painterly pleasures were to be had at the sumptuous retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (the show which comes four years after the artist’s death, is now at its second venue, the Haus der Kunst, Munich), but such pleasures are necessarily tinged with a frisson of guilt. To marvel at Bacon’s manipulations of material and form, anatomy and perspective, innovation and convention is to delight, at the same time, in the representation of extraordinary states of mutilation and pain. To enjoy – as one is enticed to enjoy – such adventures in representation, one must divorce the form of content. And yet one cannot: to separate them would be like pulling apart Siamese tins, leaving limbs and torsos bloodied as any in the paintings of Francis Bacon. To enjoy Bacon is, inevitably, at some imaginative level, to participate is injury.
Just as there is an aesthetic compulsion to look more and more closely at Bacon’s paintings – especially when they are gathered “in the flesh” at a major exhibition of this kind – so there is a moral exhibition of this kind – so there is a moral imperative to come to terms with Bacon’s violence. In a way, though, these two levels of attention are mutually exclusive. The work’s painterliness enjoins us to estheticize any extremities of depiction, such as the way faces are mashed by unexpected twists of the brush, just at the very moment when we might be groping for psychological or political excuses for such distortions. Pondering Goya’s etchings, “Disasters of War,” Jean Genet describes a similar quandary: “We are so absorbed by the lightness and vitality of Goya’s line that the beauty of the spectacle makes us forget to condemn the war it represents.”
There is a standard interpretation of Bacon as an artist who reflects the violence of his century, but this has come to seem inadequate precisely because it fails to confront the ambiguity of the violence in his work, as well as the fact that the word “violence” operates on different levels in the artist’s own statements. Andrew Sinclair exclaims in his recent biography, Francis Bacon: His life and Violent Times (1995), that the artist “read the entrails of his half-century, pulverized them and vomited his three Eumenides in paint” [see A.IA. , Dec. ’94]. This is a reference to Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), which Bacon identified as a depiction of the furies in the Orestia of Aeschylus. Sinclair is able to draw upon plenty of reserves of violence in Bacon’s life, from his childhood in Ireland during the Troubles and in London during the zeppelin raids of World War I (He was born in Dublin in 1909 to English parents), through an adolescence all the more turbulent because of his homosexuality and his ambiguous relationship to his tyrannical, racehorse-trainer father. He follows Bacon’s more to the seedy Berlin of the Weimar Republic and Paris of the 1920s, where the artist came of age and defined his outlook (it was after seeing a Picasso exhibition in Paris that he resolved to become a painter). During the 1930s Bacon was predominantly a designer of innovative modern furniture; he never darkened the door of an art school, but experimented during these years with current French artistic avant-garde as his models. Sinclair also draws liberally upon the historical calamities that marked the years of Bacon’s public emergence. The artist was excused from the military service on account of his asthma, but World War II nonetheless had a galvanizing effect on him. As he launched his painting career in earnest towards the close of 1944, Auschwitz and Hiroshima were godparents of his painted furies. But Sinclair’s biographically and historically casual view can be countered with Mark Roskill’s contention – ever fresh from his 1963 essay “Francis Bacon as a Mannerist” – that “if both Rosso Fiorentino’s art and Bacon’s look ‘sick’ to us, this is because they play upon our sensations in parallel ways, not because their periods gave them relevant imagery and mood.
Bacon’s use of the word “violent” in his interviews with David Sylvester (who, along with Fabrice Hergott, curated the current retrospective) was not always literal, despite enough blood-and-guts in his images to warrant such use. The “violence” of images – apart from specific scenes of mutilation or torture – can as often mean, to Bacon, the abruptness or keenness with which such images present themselves. He can thus speak of making things “more clearly, more exactly, more violently.” Violence is as much what happens to images as within them. Bacon’s people don’t always suffer from their mutilations; many are quite able to go about their usual business. It is in this sense that he is a mannerist: violent distortion is just his way of doing figures, of painting faces. His stylistic distortions of body or visage – the mangled, lacerated features, the radical contortions or mutilation of limbs – as often accentuate aliveness as portend death.
But Bacon has it both ways with violence: he elevated and sanitizes injury to the level of style, but he also trades on the emotionally charged resonance of injury, exploiting the repulsion and fascination that such wounds – were they real – would elicit. Bacon exhibits an ambivalence toward violence not only in his finished paintings but also in the procedures underlying them. For instance, he said that he preferred to develop his portraits from photographs rather than have a person actually sit for him. The living presence of his sitters would inhibit him, he told Sylvester, “because, if I like them, I don’t want to practise before them the injury that I do to them in my work. I would rather practise the injury in private by which I can record the fact of them more clearly.”
Bacon was famously and consistently disdainful of abstraction. He told Sylvester that “it can convey very watered-down lyrical feelings, because I think any shapes I can. But I don’t think it can really convey feeling in the grand sense.” Elsewhere he insisted that “the image matters more than the beauty of the paint.” Invariably, however, viewers must adopt a point of view diametrically opposed to the painter’s if they are to survive the assault of his art. At some conscious or unconscious level, every admirer of Bacon has to say to himself or herself: the paint matters more than the ugliness of the image.
An anti-epicurean stance comes through in Bacon’s avowed preference for Picasso over Matisse. Matisse was “to lyrical and decorative….he doesn’t have Picasso’s brutality of fact.” And yet Matisse springs to mind on seeing the first painting of the Paris exhibition, Interior of a Room (ca. 1935). When Bacon fully embarked on his painting career in 1944-45 (with the Three Studies) he destroyed his previous output. Those few early pieces which were already in other hands, and thus survived, would be omitted from exhibitions during his lifetime. The exception to this rule was the ghostly Picassoid Crucifixion (1933), which had been reproduced by Herbert Read in his landmark 1934 book, Art Now, marking Bacon’s first official recognition as an artist. (Read had wanted to include Bacon in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition at the Burlington Galleries, but bizarrely his co-selectors deemed him “not surrealist enough.”)
An accurate reckoning of his pre-1944 output within the context of his entire career is now possible, and is one of the things that makes the Paris/Munich show so significant – and the most comprehensive Bacon retrospective to date, even though there were more pictures in the 1985 Tate survey, and at the Grand Palais, Paris, in 1971. Another of the artist’s own myths exploded by this exhibition is that of his not having made drawings. The curators have gathered several revealing works on paper – in gouache, pen and crayon – as well as his paintings over photographs in books.
The 1935 Interior of a Room is richly prophetic on a number of counts. It already announces Bacon’s love for spatial ambiguity and somewhat nauseating colour. Structurally, the composition is probably too ambitious for its own good, but it is telling that t here is (loosely speaking) a tripartite division, anticipating his adoption of the triptych format. And there is evidence of another consistent trait, the desire to do subversive things with paint, smudging and smearing it to gain disconcerting effects. But with all the cubistic complications of space and the intrusions of both oddly biomorphic elements ad irregular rods, there is an unfamiliar decorative intensity in the lozenge shapes we can read as wallpaper in the center of the image, and in the luscious red and purple stripes to the right. The way the lozenges – yellow and green on green- are “written” in a pinched, abbreviated, uneven handwriting seems pure Matisse. What would happen in subsequent work is that a dualism of living matter and inanimate surroundings would sharpen: the dog at the bottom right is the only living thing depicted, but it is passive and inert; there is more life in the ambiguous forms in the opposite corner. The vitality invested in these lozenges will be reinvested in organic forms (the dog will spring into action, so to speak). Backgrounds will become exactly that – background, consigned to a secondary role – and they will be forced to take on an intentionally deadpan quality, creating all t he more heightened contrast with the main event, the concentrated, centered living form. Sometimes the background will be painted in “dead” acrylic, the figures in “fleshy” oil, to intensify the dichotomy.
The decorative element, so joyously bodied forth in the painting of the young interior designer, would be subordinated, once he relaunched his career, but not expunged. The stripes of the top right corner of Interior reassert themselves in Painting (1950). Here they look more Bonnard than Matisse, perhaps because the nude – of uncertain gender – is standing in a bathtub. The stripes are the second subject, but only just. Although they and the blue and red rectangles topping and tailing the composition can be read as depicting the wall and the side of the bath, there is an unnerving consonance between this figure painting and then-contemporary American abstraction.
Various considerations conspire to block appreciation of the decorative aspects of Bacon’s work: his disdain for abstraction; his status as (apart from Giacometti, whom he much admired) quite probably the greatest reinventor of figuration after Picasso; the sheer brutality of his subject matter. And yet, the abstract qualities are an indispensable component of the paintings. However compelling the central figure in Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho (1967), however intriguing the ambiguous animal-cum-automobile form behind her, the first and last memory of the work is of the rich blue flapping shapes at the top of the composition and the swerving spiral that arcs below. Of course, these can be “read” – as awnings and road respectively – but this does not distract from their autonomy as abstract shapes, their right to be regarded as flat shapes on the canvas. Likewise, the brushwork m the decorate flooring/plush carpet of the 1973 triptych Three Portraits: Posthumous Portrait of George Dyer, Self Portrait, Portrait of Lucian Freud (1973), with its gay abandon, is too involved in its own lyricism to be explained away in descriptive terms. Often in Bacon one senses an abstract painting bursting to escape from the figurative space it is enlisted to describe.
But this is to discuss abstraction as if it is a quantifiable state apart from figuration. Bacon’s argument with abstraction is not that he despises the abstract, but that he takes it to be inextricably linked to other facets of painting. “I think painting is a duality,” he explained, “and that abstract painting is an entirely aesthetic thing. It always remains on one level. It is only really interested in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes.” The patterns and shapes in the two paintings just mentioned, admired for their abstract, “esthetic” qualities, can also be absorbed within denser, more multifaceted readings of the images they serve. The billowing awnings in the Isabel Rawsthorne painting rhyme with the swelling of Rawsthorne’s skirt, the voluptuous tightness of her clothing. The very involvedness of the ground in the triptych intensifies the isolation of three figures depicted within the same space. That the pattern arises from undisciplined doodles, with colors that are loosely flesh tones, lends to it a sexual suggestiveness.
Bacon’s suspicion of the “entirely aesthetic thing” and his plea for another level of meaning recall Ruskin’s famous distinction between “aesthesis” and “theoria,” between “mere animal consciousness of the pleasantness” and “exulting, reverent and grateful perception.” Of course, Ruskin’s moral universe is turned upside down by the time this dualism reaches Bacon: his outlook is so imbued by a Nietzschean sense of vitalism that “mere animal consciousness” is actually the “exulted” condition he seeks. Ruskin’s projected state beyond the aesthetic, with its overtones of moral rectitude, would have smacked to Bacon of “illustration,” to which he was just as hostile as he was toward “decoration” and “abstraction.”
Illustration, according to Bacon, transports imagery along a cumbersome route through language, association, meaning. His ideal was to bypass such laborious stages of cognition in a brutal assault directly upon the core of our physical being: “Some paint,” he said, “comes across directly into the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain.” He is ever the inverted Cartesian, rooting for the body in its dualistic struggle with the mind. (“I masturbate, therefore I am,” as Donald Kuspit once put it apropos of Bacon’s men.) To Bacon, the physical being is more real, more true than any more or social being. A line from Andre Gide’s The Immoralist making similar Nietzschean plea for the authentic in raw physicality suggests itself as almost prophetic of Bacon’s art: “The layers of acquired knowledge peel away from the mind like a cosmetic and reveal, in patches, the naked flesh beneath, the authentic being there.”
Bacon the dualist is as prone to play form against meaning as meaning against form. He is even capable, at times, of talking like a true formalist, as when he came to justify his use of a swastika armband in the right-hand panel of Crucifixion (1965). This motif, appearing in a work, moreover, belonging to the Staatsgalerie in Munich, naturally gave rise to fanciful historical and political interpretations of precisely the kind Bacon preferred to avoid for his work. Pressed on the matter of the armband in his second interview with David Sylvester, Bacon disconcertingly replied that he wanted to “break the continuity of the arm and to add the colour …. You may say it was a stupid thing to do, but it was done entirely as part of trying to make the figure” work – not work on the level of interpretation of its being a Nazi, but on the level of its working formally.” The swastika happened to present itself to him, he claims because he had just been studying photos of Hitler and his entourage.
When Bacon made his distinction between illustrational and nonillustrational form, his preference was obviously for the latter, for the form which works upon the nervous system, bypassing memory and expectation. And yet he is a realist in the sense that he paints immediately recognizable objects and forms from the observed world in a pictorial language that is predominantly accessible, and when ambiguous, deliberately and contrastively so. The dichotomy of real versus illustrational has one status in his statements, another in his work, for it is in fact the distorted, ambiguous forms – usually the figures – which are the more vital and urgent forms, the more “real.” As with the way Bacon paints background very differently from foreground, so in this respect his work presents a duality of different kinds or degrees of realism. There are the moments of radical distortion and painterly spasm, but these are offset by surrounding passages of blandness, in which the mode of depiction is as deadpan as the paint-handling. Everyday objects – furniture, baseboards, mirrors, roller blinds, fight bulbs, door knobs, etc. – are often achieved with the studied simplicity of a commercial artist, of a cartoonist or (dare one say it) an illustrator. This makes all the more forceful the explosions of flesh, the deformative smudges, or the onanistic ejaculations of paint which are allowed to intrude upon and puncture this otherwise innocuous surface. Opposite in execution as in appearance, these heightened moments stand apart from the calculated banality of what surrounds them – the real as in the actual substance of paint is pitted against “realism” as in pictorial representation.
“I want a very ordered image, but I want it to come about by chance,” Bacon once said. Chance, with its risk of spoiling everything, is a sort of violence committed against Bacon’s own meticulousness, a rude interruption of the smooth, measured surface. His infatuation with chance has none of the idealism of Surrealist or Abstract-Expressionist notions of automatism, which link spontaneity to freedom or truth. Instead, his chance is imbued with a nihilistic, existentialist sense of the arbitrary. Flung and frenzied marks declaim the violence of their moment of becoming.
It would be a mistake, though, to think of the miraculous splurges as the authentic Bacon, and the rest as the painter marking time. This is not just because the distinction between the two modes is frequently blurred. It also has to be stressed that the background Bacon is often Bacon at his most lyrical; that his design is capable of compelling compactness (as with the blue in the Rawsthorne portrait); that even the shorthand details and illustrational passages can have the sort of mesmerizing hold of such masters of the deadpan as Hopper and Magritte. But there is another reason not to overrate the chance effects, namely that they are not as “chancy” as they might appear. Bacon was in actual fact a compulsive gambler, losing large sums at the roulette wheel, but in the act of painting, the wheel can be said to have been weighted. Through his studio risk taking, he could simulate the thrill of the wheel knowing that each “gamble” would eventually pay off: time and an unlimited supply of paint and canvas were on his side. He could keep working until he won.
In a painting done toward the end of his career, Jet of Water (1988), life is seen to imitate art: a burst of water from a faucet in an anonymous street provided Bacon with a perfect subject to pursue his connection of the fluid, the violent and the effects of chance. In general, Bacon’s work of the last 20 years had neither the disturbing power of the paintings of the 1940s and 1950s nor the compelling design quality of the 1960s canvases. Relative to his earlier work, a diffuseness bordering on sterility began to set in; the sharpness of contrast between figure and ground was a casualty, even as the dead-centered figure became almost ubiquitous, making the contrast especially needed. But, with a burst of the old energy, Jet of Water – and several other quietly sumptuous works from the last years gathered in the Paris/Munich exhibition – defied the impression of talent going to seed. This image redramatizes the dichotomy between an almost fey and punctilious background – actually very reminiscent of Pittura Metafisica, with its pale blue sky, delicately drawn architectural elements, characteristic dry-brush fines and edges – and a vigorous foreground, here very literary a ‘splash’ of paint.
Bacon, who rightly insisted that he was not an expressionist, is arguably at his most canny when the materials seem most freely handled and invested with personal feeling and surprised response. It is telling that these qualities should emerge so forcefully in one of the numerous works done in homage to Velazquez, that master of control: Study for Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1965), with the brushiness of the flame- and limb-like folds of the backcloth, the diaphanous whiteness of the pontiff s frock, the unfinish of his oddly misshaped throne, the bravura economy of his cape. An almost love-hate ambivalence towards the very stuff of paint comes through in Study for Portrait of Van Gogh (1957) with its voluptuous yet disdainfully fluid dollops of red and white, and blue and black, mixed as much on the brush as on the sickly yellow ground.
There is actually a sort of violence in the way Bacon cannibalizes historic sources; his attitude toward the old masters mixed awe and contempt. As with his depictions of contemporaries, he was more comfortable working from photographs of past art than from the originals. (Numerous creased, paint-splattered art reproductions and photographic portraits recovered from the floor of Bacon’s studio are included in the Pompidou catalogue.) Just as the 16th-century Mannerists subverted the classical perfection of Raphael so Bacon repeatedly took up artists of calm and measure in seeming contrast to his own sensibility – the unaffected naturalist Velazquez, the restrained classicists Poussin and Ingres, the rationalist pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge – twisting their images around for his own expressive purpose. (The contrast in sensibility was admittedly less when he borrowed from van Gogh.) Idealism and positivism are turned on their head when a pair of Muybridge’s male wrestlers, for instance, naked for the purpose of documenting movement, metamorphose into male lovers. “Bacon’s compulsive emotion would break Poussin’s precious, porcelain mouth to pieces” says Donald Kuspit, referring to Bacon’s appropriation in countless images of the aghast mother’s expression from Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents.
Bacon’s willful misreading of the old masters can border on the deconstructive as he homes in upon unconscious lesions and incongruities which make the images so alive for him. Citing Degas’s After the Bath in London’s National Gallery, he delight in the way “the top of the spine almost comes out of the skin … this gives it such a grip and a twist that you’re more conscious of the vulnerability of the rest of the body than if he had drawn the spine naturally.” But there is no arrogance in his exploitation of the masters. On the contrary, talking with David Sylvester he wonders, looking at a favourite Rembrandt, why any modern should bother competing with such an image. Logically speaking, his actual connection with the old masters is tenuous: he never trained academically, after all, never drew in life-class or copied in museums. And yet his relationship with them is more profound than the staginess of his appropriations would at first allow, and more meaningful than that of most self-conscious traditionalists: experience of Bacon’s work puts one in mind of great paintings of the past. I have often detected in my own response to Bacon a marked discrepancy between attitudes in the presence of actual works and memories of them. In memory, as indeed in photographic reproduction, the image out-balances its conveyance, and one thinks of the paintings in iconographic or narrative terms. Seeing an immaculately hung and judiciously selected retrospective such as the Paris/Munich show restores the extraordinary sense of design and scale, the sheer painterliness, of Francis Bacon. But still, the images come across even more strongly. His estheticized violence, like that of Titan’s Flaying of Marsyas or Rape of Lucretia, of Goya, Delacroix, of Manet’s Execution of Maximillian, genuinely invokes what Bacon called “feeling in the grand sense.”
(1.) A fragile work belonging to the Tate Gallery which is rarely allowed to travel, it is included in the Paris/Munich show.
(2.) The Listener, London, July 25, 1963, quoted from Art International, September 1963, p. 44.
(3.) Conducted between 1962 and 1986 and collected in a third edition as The Brutality of Fact (1987). Reviewing an earlier edition, the novelist Graham Greene reckoned that these dialogues "rank with the journals of Delacroix and the letters of Gauguin." All the quotes from Francis Bacon in this article come from the Sylvester interviews.
(4.) Donald Kuspit, Francis Bacon: The Authority of Flesh, Artforum, Summer 1975, p. 50.
(5.) From the translation by Richard Howard, New York, Knopf, 1970.
(6.) This triptych was only exhibited in Munich; the Guggenheim’s Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962) was its substitute in Paris.
(7.) The painting is at Chantilly and was actually seen by Bacon (unlike the Velazquez portrait of Pope Innocent, in Rome, which he only knew from reproduction) when he was living in Chantilly as a language student in 1928. Another acknowledged source for the gaping mouth form which so fascinated him was a still from the scene of massacre on the steps from Eisenstein’s movie Battleship Potemkin (1925).
The Francis Bacon retrospective appeared at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris [June 27-Oct. 14, 1996], and is currently on view at the Haus der Kunst, Munich [Nov. 4, 1996-Jan. 31, 1997]. It is accompanied by a 335-page catalogue with contributions by the exhibition’s curators, David Sylvester and Fabrice Hergott, as well as Jean Louis Schefer, Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, Herve Vanel and Yves Kobry.
Jacobi tipped to save Bacon
MARK INGLEFIELD | MANDRAKE | THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH | SUNDAY MARCH 9 1997
A FILM about the artist Francis Bacon, described by one of his biographers and friends as “lurid”, has run into problems. The man who was to play the painter, Malcolm McDowell, has pulled out.
"He was into it at first, but when he read the book, which includes passages about a young Bacon being horsewhipped by stable lads on the instruction of Bacon’s father, he went off the idea,” I am told by one involved in the film, called Love is the Devil, loosely based on Dan Farson’s brilliant biography of the artist. “I think he also got worried when he discovered the film was going to concentrate on one of the artist’s homosexual relationships.”
This is a shame. McDowell, famous for gunning down teachers and sundry boys in If, Lindsay Anderson’s pleasing survey of English public school life, would have made a fine Bacon. But a replacement, as yet unconfirmed, has come forward. Sir Derek Jacobi, who, by way of compensation, bears a likeness to Bacon. He seems to have the stomach for that sort of thing.
So louche, lush and loveable
BY PETER LEWIS | BOOKS | DAILY MAIL | SATURDAY, MARCH 15, 1997
MANY men contrive to be the hero of their autobiography, however modest they are careful to sound. It takes special courage to present yourself in the role of the fool, the reprobate, the victim of your own life, which is what Dan Farson does with unsparing candour.
Never apologise, never explain — and never feel sorry for yourself: that is his demanding motto. He lives up to it to the very last page. “I should not be taken too seriously,” he declares both at the beginning and at the end. This strikes me as true, not false modesty.
We are invited to relax and enjoy the mess he has made of so much of his life without a reproving dear-dear or tut-tut. What a huge relief.
The book begins in mid-hangover. Alcohol runs through it as his never failing companion and undoing. As he entertainingly describes, he has wrecked several promising careers with its help — in journalism, photography, television, in the Merchant Navy and even running a famous pub. Not that he lets himself off by blaming the demon drink: he simply acknowledges it.
Most alcoholics, I hear you say, are bores. Not Farson. On the page he never fails to be intoxicatingly good company. You can’t write this well out of a bottle, so I suspect that he must have spent many lucid intervals of hard application.
He had the fortune, both good and ill, to be the son of a well-known writer, Negley Farson, a gifted American foreign correspondent who was also a Hemmgwayish traveller, adventurer arid big-game hunter as well as a drinker whose binges sometimes landed him in hospital.
“The trouble was, my extrovert father eclipsed everyone around him.” Who knows whether being eclipsed by an overwhelming father might have brought about the son’s ceaseless binges and the homosexuality which he never dared acknowledge to him?
HIS FATHER haunts the book. Nearly 40 years after his death, Farson forces himself to climb an arduous mountain in the Caucasus in order to follow in his father’s footsteps. His father’s best-selling autobiography was called The Way Of A Transgressor. This would have made an ideal title for his son’s chronicle — but once again, father got there first.
The book is rich in cameos. Somerset Maugham entertains the young Dan meanly and chillingly for Christmas at his villa, then, when he is leaving, stammers how sorry he is — so unhappily that Farson wants to hug him. He enters the House of Commons as a humble Press Agency reporter aged 17 — younger than Dickens was — after the 1945 defeat of Churchill. Wonderingly he conjures up its roughhouse atmosphere in three or four brilliant pages. Watching Churchill and Ernest Bevin strolling arm in arm smoking cigars only moments after a slanging match in the Chamber, “I realisecflt was all a game”.
As a Picture Post photographer he obtained privileged glimpses of such lions as Orson Welles, Noel Coward, Salvador Dali and Brendan Behan. It is curious how the celebrated let their hair down to a photographer in a way they would never do to an interviewer.
He became a star television interviewer in the early days of ITV — but, as usual, just when he could have gone on to become a national figure, he left under a cloud.
He espoused the East End of the Krays, living on the river in Limehouse and acquiring the Waterman’s, Arms, a run-down pub on a derelict stretch of the Isle of Dogs. Under his tenancy it blossomed briefly into a fashionable night out for music hall artistes and visitors, such as Judy Garland, who would entertain for nothing.
Needless to say, it all ended in financial disaster, which any landlord more businesslike and less inclined to tipple might have avoided.
The other leitmotiv of the book is Soho. Not the Soho of Paul Raymond but the Soho of the Fifties, when it was London’s only true bohemian village, a free society where age, class and money counted for nothing — so long as someone could buy the next round.
Farson is the ideal guide to the disreputable denizens of the French pub, the York Minster, followed by lunch at Wheelers in Old Compton Street, where his friend, the painter Francis Bacon, ran up an astonishing bill of some £1,500 with the owner’s permission.
The liquid afternoons would be spent at the Colony Room, known as Muriel’s, where Muriel Belcher ruled the revelry with a cruel wit and a line of unprintable putdowns for those who displeased her. In this mostly male atmosphere she insisted on calling everyone “she” and awarding them such nicknames as Kate or Clara.
SOME of the regulars in the Soho village were rapacious, treacherous and prepared to do anything for another drink while others were delicate, faded blossoms heading for sad ends. Farson sees them all with clarity and charity. His tolerance is total — and for someone who passed so much time in a haze, his memory is piercingly vivid.
It was an artists’ Bohemia whose stars included Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, and John Minton as well as the ever-genial enigma of Francis Bacon, the genius who confided his strange views on life and art to Farson. Despite having already written Bacon’s biography, he has more fascinating observations to offer us here.
Everyone seems to have confided in Farson because he has the charm as well as the eye of the innocent. “I have not done well,” he admits. No. You cannot write such a book without having lived an unruly, drunk and disorderly life. Somehow such lives are more human and absorbing to read about than tales of steady achievement. And, after all, Farson has done well by making this tale of what might have been despair so insightful, funny, hugely enjoyable to read and, despite everything that went wrong, ever hopeful. How Chekhov would have loved him.
NEVER A NORMAL MAN by Daniel Farson (HarperCollins, £25)
Francis Bacon with Daniel Farson at the first Soho Fair in July 1955
Priest of a dark cult
Anatomy of an Enigma
TIMOTHY HYMAN | ART | THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT | FRIDAY APRIL 4 1997
If Francis Bacon was in his lifetime an “enigma”, it was because he very deliberately made himself so, constantly suppressing even the most basic biographical information, and discouraging all interpretation. “Slowly”, Michael Peppiatt writes, “an effective barrier of non-elucidation grew up around the work.” The two lurid biographies which appeared shortly after Bacon’s death are now joined by a much more substantial book, part of whose project is to break that barrier.
“I have had the most extraordinary life”. Bacon once declared. “The life is more extraordinary than the painting.” At sixteen, after a childhood hood spent mostly in Ireland, a brief spell at an English boarding-school, Dean Close, where he soon ran into boy trouble, and his father’s discovery of him, back at home, trying on his mother’s underwear, Bacon was free of his family, “tossed out into the world”. An allowance of £3 a week failed to match the boy’s already expensive tastes, and we glimpse him in the London of the late 1920s as intermittent prostitute and thief. Then, after some crucial months in Berlin and Paris, he sets up as an interior designer By 1933, at the age of twenty-four, he has emerged as a painter, whose central subject matter is — already — the crucified self,
The mainstay of Bacon’s childhood, Nanny Lightfoot, rejoined him almost as soon as he settled in London and proved invaluable, “advising him on his choice of lovers and helping him out with a little shoplifting.” She became a kind of parody mother, alongside Bacon’s long-term “father”, Eric Hall — Justice of the Peace, director of Peter Jones, a well-established family man. But their ménage was only occasionally productive, and Bacon exhibited nothing for seven years prior to completing his first substantial work (the Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion 1944). Hall finally renounced his own family in 1947, but Bacon no longer needed him; he retired to the Bath Club, where, aged sixty eight, he died alone. (He had meanwhile purchased chased “Three Figures” and presented it to the Tate). Nanny Lightfoot’s death in 1951, aged eighty, devastated Bacon; he abandoned his studio, and Eisenstein’s image of the screaming nurse from Battleship Potemkin immediately entered his paintings.
Many of Bacon’s subsequent lovers were dangerous He recalled his liaison with Peter Lacy as “four years of continuous horror”:
Of course, he hated my painting right from the beginning, and he said, “You can leave your painting and come and live with me.” And I said, “What does living with you mean?” And he said, “Well you could live in a corner of my cottage on straw. You could sleep and shit there”“ He wanted to have me chained to the wall . . . . And then he liked to have someone bugger me, and then bugger me himself right after . . . .
But out of this inferno of rhino whips and fishnet stockings, with Lacy destroying most of his work, came Bacon’s most compelling pictures, the sequence of “Van Gogh on the Road to Tarascon”. (Despite his denial of any special identification with Van Gogh, we’re told that he constantly read and reread the Letters.) Bacon sought out dangerous milieux — such as that of the Kray brothers — where he believed people “behaved closer to their own instincts”; and it was, Peppiatt writes,“almost a point of honour for Bacon to take whatever drugs he was offered in bars or nightclubs”. But in 1971 the police were tipped off by a vengeful ex-lover, George Dyer, cannabis was found in the studio, and Bacon needed Lord Goodman’s help to gain an acquittal.
Once Peppiatt’s own friendship with Bacon gets under way, the tone becomes more intimate, and we have a stronger sense of him — his generosity and wit, as well as his vanity and cruelty — as as they pass together through the nightworlds of London and Paris Peppiatt is especially useful at mapping out the French connection: Merleau-Ponty, Michel Leiris and Gilles Deleuze all play their parts in his rising fame. (Leiris, who wrote an exceptionally feeble monograph on Bacon, is told by him, “You are the greatest writer of our time.”) There are many anecdotes of the bottle, some of them very telling:
And if the sommelier tried respectfully to explain that he was drinking the dregs Bacon would rear back in mock astonishment and say loudly “But I love the dregs The dregs are what I prefer.”
Peppiatt s interpretation of Bacon hinges on his crucifixion imagery. “In choosing the agony on the cross as his central subject matter Bacon was surely driven to express a wound at the core of his being.” Peppiatt traces his lifelong involvement with Picasso’s most tormented Dinard phase. He quotes convincingly certain lines from the Oresteia which Bacon said “bred” images in his work such as “the reek of human blood smiles out at him”. T S Eliot, especially Sweeney Agonistes, was also important — and having, like Eliot, much to hide, Bacon latched on to that dishonest doctrine of the impersonal voice, regularly disparaging all mention of narrative in his painting. Yet Peppiatt sees Bacon’s entire life-work as embodying a narrative of the self; hence the intimations of “something thing unspeakable repeatedly spelt out”, of a “dreadful secret”. At one point he asks, but does not quite answer, the obvious psychoanalytical questions. When we come to the 1962 Three Studies for a Crucifixion (in my view Bacon’s masterpiece), Peppiatt bravely essays a detailed “elucidation” of the narrative - but one which I find unconvincing and which is not helped by the reversal of the relevant illustration.
Predictably, then, the “enigma” remains uncracked. We may have to be content with more modest speculations: that Bacon’s use of the triptych was based less on medieval, or modern German, exemplars, than on Abel Gance’s three-screen Napoléon, which he saw on his first trip to Paris; or that his carcasses may relate less to Rembrandt and Soutine, than to his wanderings in Harrod’s food halls. Since Peppiatt’s book was written, new evidence has emerged of Bacon’s working procedures and no doubt much more will eventually become clear about his sources. But the most acute questions, largely unlaced by Peppiatt, relate to a widely perceived falling-off in the quality of Bacon’s work in his last twenty-five years.
Part of Bacon’s modernity was his equalization of all imagery; in the “ankle deep strew” of photographs covering his studio floor, his “compost”, Michelangelo carried no more weight than Muybridge. But by the 1960s, he had become not so much an artist as an emblem, especially in Europe, signposted in Pasolini’s transgressive Theorem of 1968, and in the titles of Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. This satanic Bacon was a deliberate creation; Peppiatt calls him “the priest of his own dark cult”.
“I’ve worked on myself a great deal”, explained Bacon. “I’m probably the most artificial person there is.” The late triptychs project an elaborate composite design, a steel-and-glass self, smeared with Flesh, spattered with Blood, etched with graphic signs — arrows, gun sights. They seem to me, nearly always, hollow formulaic kitsch — as though someone had read a particularly melodramatic and glamorized account of Bacon’s life, and were now providing images for it. And the difficulty in Peppiatt’s Francis Bacon is that he both challenges and eventually succumbs to that dark legend. The lucid, self-critical voice that is so admirable in David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon (1975) is mostly absent here, as is the quiet, solitary Bacon I sometimes times glimpsed sitting at — of all places — Cranks Healthfood Restaurant. To separate the work from the life, the life from the legend, may be impossible for many years ahead.
Nowt so queer as an old queer
BY IAIN FINLAYSON
NEVER A NORMAL MAN: An Autobiography
by Dan Farson, HarperCollins £20
IAIN FINLAYSON | LIVES | BOOKS | THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY | APRIL 6 1997
THERE is a dour old Scots saying, honed to a double edge: “I kent his faither” Implicit in this gnomic statement is the dilemma that the son is judged by the old man’s reputation, for good or ill. Dan Farson is the son of the distinguished journalist and writer Negley Farson (about whom he writes with affection and understanding). His own journalistic and authorial career, therefore, is shadowed by that of Farson senior And it is also overshadowed by his own reputation as a sexual reprobate and spectacular drunk.
If “sexual reprobate” strikes us nowadays as offensive, particularly in terms of homosexuality, it is justified by Farson’s tide for his autobiography – Never A Normal Man – which seems particularly incongruous in the aftermath of The Normal Heart, the Larry Kramer play which helped to close perceived differences between gay and straight life and love. But Dan Farson is an old-fashioned, unreconstructed queer – even though that word, since its rehabilitation by gay activists, makes him sound too modern. Farson is not ideologically or actively part of the post-Stonewall generation of gay men. Rather, he is a hangover from the Victim Generation, a bit-part player in the demi-monde of pre-Wolfenden West End homosexuality. The tendency then was for toffs and haut-bohemian punters to pick up bits of rough, sailors, Guardsmen or gangsters, mostly heterosexual, and to idealise their drunken violence and sexual opportunism in a romantic haze of alcohol and sentiment.
Though he was one of the first to colonise Docklands, before low-life loft living became fashionable, Farson’s attitude was, and remains, one of winkle-picking gaiety, a Joan Littlewood knees-up jollity, in Limehouse or on the Isle of Dogs, where he ran of one of the last pub music halls – built it up and ran it into the ground. This is the autobiography of a Nearly Man – nearly a distinguished documentary-maker, nearly a music-hall impresario, nearly a famous journalist, nearly a best-selling author, nearly a brilliant photographer, but in the end a dilettante. Being an artistic all-rounder can occasion? ally pay off, though: note the coincidence of Farson’s being once a neighbour of Cecil Beaton in Pelham Crescent. Beaton, far from being a dilettante, was the antithesis of Farson – always narrowly focused, ruthlessly ambitious, prepared to ditch love in favour of career. But the result was much the same: both end up disappointed in old age, in lonely, remote retreat from London and metropolitan life and gossip.
Farson’s autobiography is a jar of pickles. Put in a hand and pull out that old meanie Somerset Maugham; the doyenne of the Colony Room, Muriel Belcher; the journalist Beverly Nichols; that prissy queen Godfrey Winn, disrespectfully known as “Winifred God”; Brendan Behan, perpetually in his cups; Caitlin Thomas playing up on live television and being faded out; Henry Williamson in sad old age; Kenneth Tynan at his most dandyish; John Osborne, both mild and bitter; and just about everybody else from Sloane Square to Soho, from the French Pub to the Ivy.
Everyone has a terrible friend – some of us have several, and some of us are someone else’s terrible friend. Farson had John Deakin, the sometime Vogue photographer, referred to occasionally as his “evil genius”. That seems to be pushing it a bit, since there is no Mephistopheles without a corruptible Faust. Not that Deakin offered Farson anything – it is interesting to note that the Devil never pays for his own drinks.
There is a faint smell of must, of the dead, sour grape, about these reminiscences; though, to his credit, Farson in this book manages to maintain the tone of Archy the cockroach, amanuensis and soda-water sermoniser to himself in his earlier persona, the Farson who adopted Mehitabel the cat’s high-stepping attitude when she comes home bedraggled with her tail between her legs, given the bum’s rush from her high-tone ambitions. “Toujours gai, toujours gai,” Mehitabel would say, tottering along the back alleys in search of a fish head or a dish of cream after another disappointing night on the tiles.
After too many disappointing nights on the tiles, Farson gives us a number of lively set-pieces, but many – particularly those featuring Francis Bacon – are spent fireworks, reconstructed from previous writings. One would rather have had more of the interview with James Baldwin, say, referred to but not pursued, than the regaling of Bacon’s gutter life (though it was worth telling the story about Margaret Thatcher at a Bacon private view). We could also have done with more, please, about Farson’s private life: he skates too lightly over his last substantial relationship, with a young blond named Peter Bradshaw – with whose widow he has remained close friends in retirement.
Farson’s has been a life measured in bar-room optics, a rattle-bag of gossip, entertaining and lively. Thankfully, he has taken his cue from Mr Song, the Chinese chef at Wheeler’s who, when Lucian Freud made a point of always asking him how he was, invariably replied, Mustn’t grumble”.
Bacon film hit by dispute over who owns artist’s words
Dalya Alberge in Cannes reports on a copyright wrangle over Francis Bacon’s spoken phrases
DALYA ALBERGE | NEWS | THE TIMES | FRIDAY MAY 9 1997
A FILM being made about the artist Francis Bacon, starring Derek Jacobi may be halted by the administrators of his estate. The film’s director says they are claiming ownership not only of his images but also his spoken words. Bacon; widely considered to be the greatest British artist since Turner, died in 1992 aged 82. Filming has begun in east London on Love is the Devil – which is being publicised at the Cannes Film Festival the British Film Institute.
John Maybury, the director, said that a year ago he showed a draft of the screen-play to the estate administrators, who objected to the entire script. “They claimed they owned everything in the script, meaning all my creative writing. They were saying you can’t use them. (Bacon’s words).”
Maybury said the administrators — his lover John Edwards and the Marlborough Gallery in central London, which was the aitists dealer — told him that he would be taking a risk if he went ahead with the project. The director is receiving legal advice from the BFI, which is co-producing the film with the BBC.
Ben Gibson, the head of BFI production and executive producer of Love is the Devil, said: “We are about to have a meeting with the estate’s lawyers on Monday. They have no grounds for an injunction. The estate has never been keen on the project. They have seen the script, and dialogue has begun.”
The estate administrators have asked to see the finished screenplay. Much of it is based on interviews with Daniel Farson, Bacon’s friend and biographer. He owns the copyright to the interviews and is an adviser to the film. He removed direct quotes the artist had made to another interviewer.
A British copyright expert said yesterday that Bacon’s literary and artistic works were protected by copyright, but not his casual conversations.
Robin Fry, a partner with the solicitors Stephens Innocent, of central London, which specialises in intellectual property law, said: “There is no copyright in a life, only in artistic works for 70 years after death. So the film-makers would have to have the consent of the Bacon estate to use imagery depicting his works in a film, as was the case with the recent film about Picasso.”
When it came to spoken wends, there was no copyright in short sentences, he said. Public lectures, prepared talks or long discourses on a particular subject might be protected in the same way as literary works.
“So, if you listen to a prepared speech and write it down, then the copyright is still with the author. The same applies if Daniel Farson had asked Bacon his views on various matters and Bacon had held forth for some time without interruption.”
Interviews were a moot point. “But if the film script is based on m Farson’s recollection of what Bacon said, rather than specific tape recordings in which Bacon sat down and extemporised or dictated his views, then I would say these were not protected.”
Mr Fry added that such legal disputes were generally not about copyright but about censorship. “What they usually represent is the wish of one person to protect a reputation, or the views of one person of another’s life.”
Mavbury, whose Remembrance of Things Fast was acclaimed at the Berlin Film Festival in 1994, said that, while other film biographies had attempted to rewrite history, his script did not. “This is the first film about Bacon. I really don’t think it will be the last. He is far too significant to be left untouched.”
The film focuses on the 1960s and 1970s and the Turbulent relationship between Bacon and his lover George Dyer, who committed suicide on the eve of Bacon’s triumphant retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. Maybury emphasised that it was not a gay film and that there were no raunchy sex scenes. Nobody from the Marlborough Gallery was available for comment.
Bacon, Francis (illus.) & Milan Kundera & France Borel (text).
Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits. Thames & Hudson, dist.
by Norton. 1997. 216p. tr. from French by Ruth Taylor & Linda Asher.
illus. filmog. bibliog. LC 96-61101. ISBN 0-500-09266-4. $60.
Peppiatt, Michael. Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma.
Farrar. Jun. 1997. c.368p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 0-374-10494-8. $32.50.
HEIDI MARTIN WINSTON | BOOK REVIEWS | ARTS & HUMANITIES | LIBRARY JOURNAL | MAY 15 1997
These two books enrich the already substantial Bacon bibliography with different but equally successful approaches. While Peppiatt’s biography fleshes out, with lucidity and scholarship, biographical and contextual details heretofore unexplored, Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits is a lavishly produced treat with a sharp focus, carefully chosen reproductions, and inspired writing. Peppiatt (editor of Art International) brings both a critical and a personal perspective to his subject, as he was a close friend of the artist. Bacon’s haunting images almost beg for psychological exploration; likewise, one is tempted to search for elements of the artist’s hidden, exceptional life (and lifestyle) in his work. The new information Peppiatt provides about Bacon’s early years enlarges the already complex portrait of the artist, and the interplay of persona and paintings adds up to a compelling and readable study.
Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits is composed of Bacon’s representations of people-ranging from Lucian Freud to Mick Jagger-with many details and photographs that unveil the remarkable likenesses retained in studies that on the surface are gross distortions. Kundera’s essay explores links with Picasso and Beckett and is wonderfully perceptive, while Belgian art historian Borel’s prose is provocative-albeit a bit ponderous, possibly in part because of the translation. Both titles are highly recommended for 20th-century art collections, although the latter is more of a luxury.
— Heidi Martin Winston, NYPL
Students who brought home the Bacon
NEWS IN BRIEF | UK NEWS | DAILY MAIL | FRIDAY, MAY 16, 1997
A PAINTING bought by Oxford students for £150 may make £700,000 at auction.
The undergraduates at Pembroke College acquired Man in a Chair (pictured) by the then little-known Francis Bacon in 1953 shortly after it was painted.
It will be sold at Sotheby’s in London on June 26 with the money going to revive the college art club. About 150 students had paid £1 each to buy pictures for the junior common room and the Bacon purchase came after advice from the late Sir Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery.
The students were so impressed with the picture of a male nude in a throne-like chair that they spent a year’s money on it.
University art club saved by its Bacon
By Kate Watson-Smyth
KATE WATSON-SMYTH | NEWS | THE DAILY TELEGRAPH | FRIDAY MAY 16 1997
A GROUP of Oxford undergraduates hope to make more than £500,000 by selling a painting which ha belonged to their college Junior Common Room for nearly 40 years.
Man in a Chair, by Francis Bacon, was bought by Pembroke College’s Junior College Room in 1958 when the artist was relatively unknown. It has been housed in the university’s Ashmolean Museum for the last seven years.
It will be sold at Sotheby’s next month and is expected to fetch between £500,000 and £600,000, which will make the JCR the richest student body in the country.
It plans to use the proceeds to preserve and revitalise its collection of contemporary art and to set up a new “acquisitions fund”.
The decision to sell the painting, described as “really horrible and not very attractive” by Richard Janoo, the JCR president, was taken in a student ballot.
Elena Geuna, head of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Department in Europe, said: “We are honoured to be asked to sell such a fine, early example of Bacon’s portraits.
“His psychological intensity, which has made him one of the greatest British artists of the 20th century, gives this portrait its tremendous impact.
“It is remarkable that a committee of undergraduates had such a refined eye to acquire this work nearly 40 years ago, long before Bacon was generally recognised in the art world.”
Pembroke’s art collection was started in 1947 by Anthony Emery, an undergraduate of the college, and the sale of the painting is part of the 50th anniversary celebrations.
Bacon portrait could fetch £500,000
HOME NEWS | THE GUARDIAN | FRIDAY MAY 16 1997
A Portrait bought by Francis Bacon which hung in a student common room for nearly 40 years ago is expected to sell at auction for more than £500,000.
The 1952 painting — Man in a Chair, (right) — was bought for £150 the following year by undergraduates at Pembroke College, Oxford.
The art committee spent its entire annual acquisition budget on the painting although the artist was unknown at the time. It hung there until seven years ago when it was lent to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford for safekeeping.
It is included in Sotheby’s, contemporary art sale on June 26. Proceeds from the portrait will be used to buy more works of contemporary art for the common room collection.
Elena Geuna, of Sotheby’s said: “Sotheby’s is honoured to be asked to sell such a fine, early example of Bacon’s portraits. Bacon’s psychological intensity, which has made him one of the greatest British artists of the 20th century, gives this early portrait its tremendous impact.
“It is remarkable that a committee of undergraduates had such a refined eye to acquire this work nearly 45 years ago, long before Bacon was generally recognised in the art world.”
Painting bought in 1953 may earn students £700,000
Sale price vindicates undergraduates who blew year’s cash to acquire an early Bacon
PETER FOSTER | HOME NEWS | THE TIMES | FRIDAY MAY 16 1997
A PAINTING bought by a group of art-loving students or £150 more than 40 years ago is expected to fetch up to £700,000 at auction next month.
Man in a Chair, a portrait by Francis Bacon, was acquired by undergraduates at Pembroke College, Oxford in 1953, when Bacon was establishing his name. About 150 students each paid £1 into a kitty to buy pictures for the junior common room art society which was founded in 1947.
The shrewd investment was made after a visit to a Bacon exhibition in the basement of the Beaux Arts Gallery in London’s West End. The student buying committee was so impressed that it spent an entire year’s acquisition money on the canvas showing an unknown male nude slouched in a throne-like chair.
The picture is to be auctioned in London on June 26 by Sotheby’s, which says the £150 price is equivalent to about £5,000 today.
The purchase was not simply an impulse buy by lucky students. They were advised by Sir Kenneth Clark, the former director of the National Gallery who later won acclaim for the BBC series Civilisation. It was Sir Kenneth who suggested the students see the Bacon show.
The painting hung in the junior common room until 1990 but, with Bacon by now internationally famous, the college could not afford the insurance. It gave the painting to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford for safekeeping.
It is now recognised as a fine example of Bacon’s early work which looks forward to similar paintings such as Study for a Portrait and the major series of works based on Pope Innocent X after Velázquez. “It was a pretty sharp buy,” said Elena Geuna, head of Sotheby’s European contemporary art department. “Ii is remarkable that a committee of undergraduates had such a refined eye to acquire this more than 45 years ago.
“Bacon’s psychological intensity, which made him one of the great British artists of the 20th century, gives this early portrait its tremendous impact.” she added.
Richard Jannoo, president of Pembroke junior common room, said the proceeds of the sale would go towards cataloguing and restoring the remainder of the JCR’s big collection, which includes modernist works by Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Victor Pasmore. The committee also hopes to set up bursaries to help less well-off students studying fine art at Oxford. Mr. Jannoo said: “Our aim is to continue the work of founders of the collection who wanted to enhance the education of students.”
It is not uncommon for the junior common rooms of Oxford colleges to own large and valuable art collections. In many colleges students rent out pictures for a small fee and hang them in their rooms. In one memorable case s student at New College was rooting through a cupboard in the early 1980s for a vacuum cleaner. Instead he found a Singer Sargent watercolour.
The painting was dusted off and exhibited for several years and was sold recently in New York for £60,000.
The sale of the picture comes at the end of two years of often fraught deliberations by the college which is one of the least wealthy in Oxford. In 1995, when students went on a rent strike after a 21 percent increase, college authorities advised the undergraduates to sell their painting. Students resisted at the time and are adamant that the proceeds of next month’s sale will be spent within the spirit of the art society rules.
Move to save Oxford’s Bacon
R. G. ALTON | LETTERS TO THE EDITOR | THE TIMES | FRIDAY MAY 24 1997
From Mr Reginald Alton
Sir, No one ran fault die taste and rustic acumen of the undergraduates of Pembroke College, Oxford, in the decade after the end of the Second World War.
Not only did they purchase a Bacon painting in 1953 (report and photograph, May 16) but their subscription and loan scheme was the model and inspiration fur many other colleges. Nor can we doubt their generosity and community spirit in 1990. when they solved the problem of security by lending the Bacon to the Ashmolean Museum where it could be seen and valued by all citizens of Oxford as well as by members of the university.
However, the sale — originally proposed in order to mitigate a likely rise in college charges — will inevitably be interpreted by the public as yet another example of Oxford University’s embracing a culture of self interest rather than of the public good.
No amount of talk about bursaries for poor students of the fine arts will disguise the impression that, for gain, the present-day undergraduates of Pemhroke College are about to deprive the city, the university and themselves of access to an important work of art whose purchase exemplified the cultural aspirations of a generation emerging from war.
Is it too late to hope that some resource may be found to keep the painting in the Ashmolean?
Yours faithfully, R. G. ALTON, St Edmund Mall, Oxford, May 17.
Move to save Oxford’s Bacon
P. R. MILLEST | LETTERS TO THE EDITOR | THE TIMES | FRIDAY MAY 24 1997
From Mr P. R Millest
Sir, I was secretary of the Junior Common Room at Pembroke College. Oxford, in 1947 when the “kitty” scheme for buying paintings was initiated, by a huge majority, under the inspiration of one Tony Emery who had access to Sir Kenneth Clark. Tony was an enthusiast for contemporary British paintings and persuaded Clark to select the First half dozen for us.
Over the years the collection has had no easy ride. Some years ago a heathen generation of undergraduates threw out the paintings and they were relegated to a cellar to rot.
However, a few years ago they were rescued by a more enlightened generation and" a selection was beautifully exhibited during Eights Week.
By this time the collection had come again to the notice of the Senior Common Room, at a time when the college was in dire financial straits. There was a suggestion that the collection should be sold for the benefit of the development fund, but this was scotched by Sir Frank Cooper, my contemporary and by then an honorary fellow, who convinced the SCR that the paintings belonged to the undergraduates.
Needless to say the eminent legal eagles from amongst us have been concerned with the legal rights of ownership by a shifting population (ie. of undergraduates).
But, with the forthcoming auction of the Francis Bacon, all, by the grace of God, appears now to have been resolved.
I am, Sir, your obedient, P. R. MILLEST, The Old School, Hogshill Street, Beaminster, Dorset, May 17.
ROBERT STEVENS | LETTERS TO THE EDITOR | THE TIMES | FRIDAY MAY 24 1997
From the Master of Pembroke College, Oxford
Sir, No doubt there are two views of the Pembroke Junior Common Room’s decision to sell its Bacon. Mr P. R. Millest’s letter (May 24), however, contains inaccuracies and I feel obliged to respond.
In addition to the Bacon, which was on loan to the Ashmolean, the JCR collection also included a number of excellent examples of paintings by a remarkable generation of post-1945 English artists. These were displayed in a modest room reserved for that purpose in the college itself. Those not being exhibited were kept in a specially designed area which, while far from perfect, was certainly neither neglected nor forgotten.
Some of the paintings from both groups were exhibited, together with paintings that belong to the college, at Eights Week last year. That was a joint effort between the Senior and the Junior Common Rooms.
At no time has the SCR suggested the collection belonged to the college or should be sold for the benefit of the college’s endowment. Certainly in the four years since I have been Master no one has queried the ownership being in the JCR, and indeed the fellow responsible for the college’s art collection, together with the law fellows, has worked closely with the JCR as they have thought through the future of their collection.
Faithfully yours, ROBERT STEVENS, Master, Pembroke College, Oxford
Small revelations only on lives of Duchamp, Johns, and Bacon
The recent biographies of these art-world giants promise much but
aside from anecdotes little is shown of the subjects’ inner lives
JAMES MALPAS | BOOKS | THE ART NEWSPAPER | SATURDAY 31 MAY 1997
Duchamp, Johns and Bacon are significant modern masters, by any account, which leads to wonder that so much of what is written about them here is inconsequentiality.
All three books point up the perils of being friends with the subject of the biography. At least Mr Peppiatt’s in-the-know account of Bacon rounds out knowledge of the subject rather than the author and is particularly moving towards the end. Its direct, robust narrative is engaging, despite repetitiveness (a shared feature in all three)—but why the portentous subtitle? It only serves to underline that Mr Peppiatt does not really close in on the Baconian enigma (thankfully) but there is plenty of entertainment on the way in grand guignol tales of the artist’s Soho scrapes—such as fleeing from a violent lover into the street wearing only fishnet stockings—as well as portraying the legendary slipperiness of a character who moved with consummate ease through different social worlds.
The genesis of Bacon’s will-to-artistic-power is charted through dysfunctional family life, the lure of the theatrical (more Marat/Sade than Greek tragedy perhaps) and most effectively, a vivid understanding of mid-twentieth-century existential solitude perhaps beyond that of any of his British contemporaries.
Nothing like the same balanced approach prevails Miss Johnston’s serio-comic dealings with Jasper Johns. She is snooty about the fact that he had fled his loft to dine with the rich and famous, which leads us to query why it is only business people who should be allowed to gorge themselves and remain morally undamaged?
The author has not been allowed to reproduce Johns’s work and so has to provide extended descriptions, a cruel task, making the text woefully overwritten. Grim latinisms like “exsanguinate” puncture the meaning, which is sometimes hard to discern; “For Johns himself between 1954 and 1958 or any time later, there was perhaps no sense whatever of a ‘perpetual waiting...(for something) to be turned.’”
The so-called “Privileged Information” (whatever that means) would seem to be that the hidden “text” in Johns’s work deals with various identity crises: of names and sexuality; repression in Fifties America; national and racial gulfs dating back to the Civil War; the meaning of heroism, all of which can be charted behaviourally.
Doubts as to whether the pursuit has been worth it are temporarily allayed in effective sections on Hart Crane’s poetry and suicide as well as on Johns’s contemporary and friend, the poet Frank O’Hara. Miss Johnston’s flair for literary criticism ironically shows up her turgidity when the paintings are evoked.
Calvin Tomkins, our third biographer, has a bit part in Miss Johnston’s run-through and-down of the American art-erati, while his friend Duchamp is very much the ghost in the machine-like thought of late-1950s and early-60s American artists. The problem for Mr Tomkins is that Duchamp’s life was, no so much uneventful, as oddly undirected. Too much Ready-made perhaps. There is no titanic struggle, no Baconian lapse of taste embellishing or tarnishing the passing years
Oozing Gallic charm, Duchamp glided and hovered with elegant restlessness, ever witty (though few bons mots survive) while maintaining discreetly vampiric relations with elderly American heiresses (who so wanted to be vampirised!). Apart from one, calculated and short-lived, marriage, and that urinal, there was little to shock the bourgeois or anyone else. This reticence leaves a void at the narrative’s centre and there is in relief for Mr Tomkins cameos of the supporting cast: lusty playboy Francis Picabia, or equally lusty, less rich, playgirl Peggy Guggenheim, who always made dramas out of crises and vice versa, in contrast to Marcel, whose motto seems to have been “it’s of no importance.”
Again, as with Miss Johnston, the writing is pitched schizoidly, veering between the dense analysis of the “Large glass” with which the book opens and subsequent Hello-like accounts of New York 1920s parties. Nevertheless, Mr Tomkins’s hatred of the Freudians is amusing and he also manages the enviable feat of making André Breton, so apparently lacking a sense of humour, appear sympathetic among all the Duchampian acolytes for at least believing in something, as Duchamp himself recognised. “He was the lover of love in a world that believes in prostitution.”
The enigma of Duchamp resides in the monklike abstinence that governed so much of his life, areligious though it was. In America, land of consumers, this must have seemed both touching and weird, as did his refusal to be “packaged” for art consumers there. That sense of distance does have something exemplary about it, but in their hugger-mugger ways, all these books err on the side of being, as Poe said of Duchamp’s great passion, chess, “complicated without being profound.”
Anatomy of an Enigma.
By Michael Peppiatt. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 384 pp. $30
CLIVE DAVIS | BOOK REVIEWS | ARTS & LETTERS | THE WILSON QUARTERLY | VOLUME 21 | NUMBER 3 | SUMMER 1997
“I have had the most extraordinary life,” the British painter Francis Bacon once remarked to his biographer, Michael Peppiatt. “The life is more extraordinary than the paintings.” Quite so. Bacon (1909–92) is conventionally viewed as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. But his ironic pronouncement on his own life and work has a way of echoing through the pages of even this sympathetic biography.
If Bacon’s canvases seem to be populated by mere slabs of meat, his most intimate relationships suggest why. To Peppiatt’s credit, he provides glimpses of Bacon’s turbulent and bloody sexual adventures, most of which had all the romance of a gruesome bareknuckled boxing match, without indulging in prurient sensationalism. Though his prose lacks the vigor and lowlife relish of John Lahr’s study of that other homosexual extrovert, the playwright Joe Orton, Peppiatt diligently outlines the philosophical and erotic impulses that nourished (if that is the right word) Bacon’s impossibly bleak vision.
The editor of Art International, Peppiatt has the advantage of having been for 30 years part of Bacon’s notoriously broad social circle. (Even by the standards of bohemia, the painter moved in mixed company; as Peppiatt notes, here was a man who would dine with a duke before going off to be beaten by a bruiser.) And while it is obvious that Peppiatt remains an unabashed admirer, he seldom lapses into hyperbole or opaque curator-speak.
Given the paucity of documentary evidence—Bacon appears to have preferred saloon conversation to letterwriting—the book persuasively hints at such formative experiences as a disastrous relationship with a distant upper-class father and a youthful foray into the sexual maelstrom of Weimar Berlin. Pablo Picasso was a dominant artistic influence, but Bacon also found inspiration in a less likely source: Nicolas Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents (1626–28).
How will Bacon’s work fare with posterity? As might be expected, Peppiatt regards him as a modern master. More revealing is Peppiatt’s quotation from a 40-year-old review by another of Bacon’s champions, the distinguished critic David Sylvester: “Many of the things that make Bacon exciting today may render him laughable for future generations.” Five years after his death, Bacon’s reputation still stands, especially in France. But for how much longer? Despite its scholarship and reasoned advocacy, this book may ultimately be most valuable for the light it throws on the spiritual exhaustion of the mid-20th century.
SOTHEBY’S | LONDON | THURSDAY 26 JUNE 1997
LOT NUMBER 16
Francis Bacon (1990—1992) Man in a chair
Oil on canvas 60.5 by 50cm., 23⅞ by 19¾ in.
Painted in 1952
The Art Collection of the Pembroke Junior Common Room, Pembroke College, Oxford.
New Paintings by Francis Bacon, Beaux Arts Gallery, London, 12 November 1953—09 December 1953.
Pictures and Sculptures from some Oxford Junior Common Rooms, Leicester Museums and Art Gallery, December 1962—January 1963.
Francis Bacon Gemälde 1945-65, Kunstverein, Hamburg, 23 January 1965—21 February 1965.
Francis Bacon: Målningar 1945-1964, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 27 February 1965—04 April 1965.
Francis Bacon, Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin, April—May 1965.
Francis Bacon: Paintings 1945-1982, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 30 June 1983 — 14 August 1983.
Ronald Alley, John Rothenstein, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, Thames & Hudson, 1964.
Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon,Vintage, 1994.
Art windfall for students
NEWS FOCUS | EVENING HERALD | DUBLIN | THURSDAY 26 JUNE 1997
A PAINTING by Francis Bacon bought by far-sighted Oxford University students to hang in their common room before the artist was famous was expected to fetch £500,000 at auction today.
Man in a Chair, which depicts an unknown sitter, was acquired by Pembroke College in 1953, after members attended Bacon’s one-man art show in London on the advice of Sir Kenneth Clark, and were so impressed they spent an entire year’s acquisition money on it.*
*In 1953, the Junior Common Room, Pembroke College Oxford, acquired Francis Bacon’s Man in a Chair. Peter Triffett, Chairman of the 1953 Art Committee, said of the purchase: “On the verge of exhaustion, after we had visited many unsatisfactory exhibitions, we went into a basement gallery off Bond Street [New Paintings by Francis Bacon, Beaux Arts Gallery] where a man called Francis Bacon had a small one man show. The impact of the painting was immediate and powerful, so powerful that we decided to spend the entire fund for that year on the one painting.”
However, the purchase was not well received. A remembered comment was: “Who on earth would want that sort of painting in their rooms!” Remarkably, the JCR actually censured the Art Committee for “wasting” its funds. In 1997, the JCR decided to transform the Art Collection into a registered charity known as The Pembroke College JCR Art Collection Fund.
The Francis Bacon Man in a Chair that was bought in 1953 for £150 was sold at Sotheby’s for £518,000 to endow the charity and facilitate its mission of relieving student hardship, supporting student charitable endeavours, acquiring new works of art, and maintaining the existing Collection.
Bacon painting fetches £518,000
WORLD NEWS AND ANALYSIS | IRISH INDEPENDENT | FRIDAY, 27 JUNE, 1997
A PAINTING by Francis Bacon, which hung in the common room of an Oxford college for 45 years, was sold at auction last night for £518,500.
Man in a Chair was acquired by students at Pembroke College in 1953 — when the artist was a virtual unknown — for just £150.
Bacon went on to become one of Britain’s leading 20th Century artists with the value of his work spiralling.
Bidding at Sotheby’s in London opened at £300,000 but soon climbed to above the expected asking price of £500,000.
The powerful portrait, which depicts an unknown sitter, was purchased by a telephone bidder.
Art for art’s sake
Buy what you love, and don’t expect to make money, advises Antony Thorncroft
Unless you have surplus cash coming out of your ears, an intrinsic eye for art and antiques honed over many years, and can tell a Titian from a Tintoretto at 20 yards, never, never invest in art.
There are hundreds of shrewd Japanese bankers sadly contemplating indifferent paintings by Renoir, Marie Laurencin and Utrillo, among other “big name” artists, which they paid excessive prices for in the late 1980s and which are now worth less than half what they cost. There are even more modestly affluent British collector-investors who were persuaded to buy artists of the Newlyn School, Scottish “Colourists” and other fashionable coteries in the same period, which have suffered similar deflation.
In the last few months, after more than six years of recession, art prices are rising again – or rather, good works in fine condition by the top artists are increasing quite steeply in value. And, once again, stories appear in the newspapers of shrewd purchases of paintings, bought for a few pounds and now sell6ng for thousands. A speculative bubble is forming which should be burst before it causes financial pain to many.
In 1953 the students of Pembroke College, Oxford, bought Man in a Chair, a panting by Francis Bacon, for £100 or so to decorate their JCR; at Sotheby’s last week it sold for £518,500. But the students had been advised by Sir Kenneth Clark – and Bacon is regarded internationally as one of the three great British artists of the past half century, the others being Lucian Freud and David Hockney. All three sold works for less than £500 30 years ago; all can now top £500,000 for a painting. The pictures they sold a generation ago went to keen collectors who loved art and recognised talent. It is only committed art lovers, who buy with no thought of investment, who are likely to end up making good. investment decisions.
A handful of the young hopefuls leaving the top art schools this summer will end up as commercially successful artists, commanding ever rising fees. These are the likely success stories of the future. So people buying the work of prizewinners at institutions such as the Royal College of Art improve their chances of emulating the students of Pembroke College. However, just as many bankable artists, like Francis Bacon, never went to art school.
There are problems buying at art college summer shows. Students tend to dislike the market, and rarely paint decorative works with popular appeal.
Indeed, the most fashionable young British artists, recent winners of the annual Turner Prize such as Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and Douglas Gordon, create in media – dead animals stored in formaldehyde, concrete, and videos – that are not naturally designed to last, or fit into homes, or give endless pleasure. Their creations are basically museum pieces, or aimed at a small group of very rich private collectors.
Although the prices of major works by Hirst and Whiteread now exceed £100,000, and they have international reputations, they hardly look like good investments. On the other hand, the even younger generation artists such as Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin are even more conceptual, less saleable. Already Hirst and Whiteread are becoming staid and predictable. But if you fall in love with their creations – buy.
There is no link between artistic reputation and value in the art market. The most durable investments in recent years have been the creations of artists with no critical reputation whatsoever. The wildlife pictures of David Shepherd, the marine scenes of Montague Dawson, the demure nudes of Sir William Russell-Flint have all maintained their value over the last seven difficult years. Some artists such as L.S. Lowry, who appeals to a small number of committed collectors, have risen steadily in value: a good Lowry now sells for more than £150,000.
Anyone who wants to buy art to decorate a home, or to give pleasure, but would like the work to at least hold its value, should contact a reputable dealer, preferably a specialist in a certain fled, who will often guarantee to buy back a painting at its sale price. Anyone trusting their own judgment should go along to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, where over 1,000 works of art are for sale, both by Royal Academicians, in theory the best of the bunch, and by the top weekend artists.
If you want the advice of an expert, Julian Agnew of Agnews, which has just celebrated 180 years in the business, points out that Italian Old Masters now seem cheap compared, with Dutch, and that 18th century British pictures are underpriced compared with those of the 19th century. Indeed, Old Masters are remarkably inexpensive, at least when set against the Impressionists and Modern Masters. Last week in London a Van Gogh watercolour sold for £8.8m, and a Freud portrait set a record of £891,500. You could buy a considerable number of excellent Old Masters, and even more works by interesting contemporary artists, for these sums. But whether they will appreciate in value over time should not affect your critical judgment.
Bacon’s Man in a Chair, bought for £100 in 1958, fetched £518,000 at Sotheby’s last week
A CRITIC AT LARGE
BY ANTHONY LANE
ANTHONY LANE | THE NEW YORKER | SUNDAY, JULY 6, 1997
All of which is enough to confirm John Deakin as one of the best scouts of the century; he mapped out a certain territory and prepared the way for someone more formidable than he was. Where, after all, do the rounded and wounded features of Deakin’s subjects — his victims — return to haunt us, their flesh thickened into aggressive swipes of paint, if not in the mature work of Francis Bacon? It is a matter of record that Bacon turned to Deakin’s photographs as source material for his own creations, in the way that other artists employ sketches. How serious, let alone sober, Deakin was in these crucial transactions is another matter. Having taken some nude shots of the model Henrietta Moraes, a prominent figure in Bacon’s painting, the photographer was discovered hawking them to sailors in a London pub. When Deakin needed a drink, the history of art could go hang.
Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma
Francis Bacon is an artist whom viewers have strong feelings about: His work is love-it-or-hate-it kind of stuff. His powerful signature compositions of gnarled, tortured flesh against backgrounds painted in lush, queasy tones aren’t exactly pretty. It’s difficult, however, to deny this British artist’s skill.
Despite the often controversial nature of his work, Bacon’s startling paintings have earned him a place as one of the great artists of this century. He was also openly gay. Still, Bacon, who died in 1992, was never the type to flaunt his inner feelings. Particularly not in his art. “Bacon insisted that his painting be viewed in a kind of biographical vacuum,” writes Michael Peppiatt in Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, his engaging and often dishy new biography.
Bacon’s veiled strategy of distancing his personal life from his art is not surprising given that he was part of a generation of gay men who faced legal persecution for their sexuality, But though his public persona may have been shrouded in secrecy, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t enjoying himself in private, The book presents him as a generous, erratic, and appealing character with contradictory tastes. Bacon led what he called a “gilded gutter life” — one that included swank gambling sprees in Monte Carlo, lavish art openings, and quick sexual encounters with street studs.
As a longtime friend of the artist, Peppiatt had access to intimate personal details regarding Bacon’s life, and he balances them with art historical readings of Bacon’s work. The artist’s early years are particularly fascinating because his development as a painter was tied to his budding sexuality. At 16 he was expelled from home after his tyrannical military father caught him in his mother’s panties. After drifting through London’s homosexual underworld, he was sent with an uncle to late-’20s Berlin, where the young artist found an even more vibrant gay scene. As Bacon ended up with various sex partners — including his uncle — he also witnessed the kind of economic inequity and social injustice that may have sparked some of his raging images.
Although Bacon encountered tragedies and low points throughout his life, here his history seems richly layered with experiences of joy and artistic triumph, In his preface Peppiatt quotes Bacon saying, “It would take a Proust to tell the story of my life.” It’s a daunting message to any biographer, but Peppiatt approaches his subject confidently. If not exactly Proustian, the book is an intimate portrait of the artist as a brilliant and complex gay man.
Francis Bacon is undoubtedly one of the most important painters to emerge from post-World War II Europe. As a young artist I didn’t like his work as much as I do now. I didn’t get it. I thought it was too expressive, too theatrical, too narrative, too illustrative, too Catholic, too European. Not to mention too figurative. My particular historical affinity was toward artists who were more transcendental, more American. Artists like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman — artists who were trying to break their way out of the fragmentation and claustrophobia of (European) easel painting to make their way toward a new (American) abstraction with all the freedom and expansiveness that it implies.
What I don’t get now is why I was so doctrinaire about it. I mean, what was it that I really didn’t like? Why should abstraction serve as another mental hegemony for somebody whose work is barely even formed? The point is to be open, to be messy, to make the game a little more complicated. That’s what Bacon did. That’s also what made his work a little scary to me. I couldn’t separate the mental picture of him that was in my head — drunk and bloated and ugly-from the pictures of his paintings that were in my head — explicit, sadomasochistic, bloody, scatological — from the paintings themselves — raw and powerful. Bacon’s work is intensely human in a way that makes us confront and deal with things and feelings that are often repressed — especially for me, when I first encountered his images in the early 1970s.
In Edmund White’s lecture at the AIDS and Literature Conference in Key West, Fla., last January, he made the point, which I agree with, that one doesn’t have to choose between the idea of art being a "promise of happiness" or an "idea of pure 'disinterested contemplation.' " In other words, Bacon’s "messiness" collapses the dichotomy between the transcendental and the real. It seems more appropriate to think of art as a wayward mirror: convoluted, multiple, inverted, simultaneous, continuous, distorted, like life.
The immediacy and beauty of so many impulses and images recorded together and operating simultaneously as if a mind were opening outward is what makes Bacon such an important artist. That opening outward is what I understand today to be the truest accomplishment possible as an artist.
That there was a book to be written about the life of Francis Bacon (1909-92) was never in doubt. No one who had seen Bacon in the street, let alone in a crowded room, could forget his spring-heeled tread, his pink, pulpy and most often convivial features, and his cannonading diction. Quite apart from the paintings that made his name, and eventually his very large fortune, he was one of the great English originals of this century. As such, he was talked about, argued about and speculated about.
The problematic element was that ever since he had been banished from his father’s house at the age of 16 — reportedly for trying on his mother’s underclothes — Bacon lived a layered life. Secrecy, make-believe and a flamboyant mischief were fundamental to it. From adolescence he referred to himself as ''completely homosexual,'' and at 17 he learned his way around two great cities — first Berlin and then Paris — in which appetites of every kind could be satisfied. ''To find yourself,'' he said to his biographer, Michael Peppiatt, ''you need the greatest possible freedom to drift.'' Bacon enjoyed that freedom. But how, where, when and with whom?
The answers to these questions were as if written in the sand dune of which Bacon was to paint an amazing picture late in his life. But almost all of them could have been washed away by the equally amazing jet of wild water he painted in 1979.
Among those who knew Francis Bacon most vividly — some for half an hour, others for half a lifetime — many were never known by name to anyone but him. Almost all those who were known have lately died off, one after another. Others, still living, have refused to speak about him and are not going to change their minds now. Than that there is no greater compliment.
So there is a huge disparity between the recorded and the unrecorded. Bacon handled these matters to perfection. In what passes for formal society, he had beautiful manners (inherited from way back) and appeared to give his whole self to any company he was in. But there almost always came a moment at which other people elsewhere had priority, and he was suddenly gone. Few men have been at home in so many worlds, or so adroit in adjusting from one to another.
When talking about himself, he could dazzle and confuse, seduce and stun. But when he was bored or provoked, he could carry on like an intelligent windup toy whose every word torched the air. His friendship, once given, was so irresistible, inventive and generous in spirit that when he withdrew it, as he sometimes did, the loss was very hard to bear. These were private matters, but they make life difficult for a biographer.
All this notwithstanding, Michael Peppiatt’s Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma is pleasurable reading on the whole. It has a good, steady beginning, in which the reader learns that one of Bacon’s maternal great-great-grandfathers founded a small steelworks in Sheffield that grew into ''one of the world’s biggest suppliers of castings for guns.'' (It was, in Bacon’s view, the prospect of a residuary fortune from Sheffield steel that persuaded his father to propose to his mother.)
His great-aunt Eliza married the heir to a shipbuilding fortune, and Bacon as a boy spent summer holidays in her mammoth neo-Gothic mansion near Newcastle. From his mother’s mother he inherited a sense of fete and a gift for cosmopolitan and open-handed hospitality. Peppiatt also reminds us, though Bacon himself never did, that Byron dedicated ''Childe Harold'' to one of Bacon’s paternal great-grandmothers.
He gives a good account of Bacon’s early career in London as a designer of furniture, rugs and other domestic incidentals, some of which had a second life in his paintings. Much of the story told here about his life after that is already familiar — and not all the gossip reported is substantiated. But the story is skillfully sewn together and rebuttoned (or, in some cases, unbuttoned), even if a little too much comes inevitably from memoirs that are malicious or self-serving.
Peppiatt first met Bacon in 1963, when he was editing a student magazine called Cambridge Opinion, and they got on well. In 1966, Peppiatt went to live in Paris, where he eventually became editor and publisher of Art International. In the 1970’s, when Bacon decided to live in Paris and see how he liked it, Peppiatt was always at hand. He therefore had a 30-year acquaintance with his subject and made good use of it. (Bacon’s late-night soliloquies in Paris ring particularly true.) His book is also enriched by echoes, all of them duly credited, of the many tributes to Bacon that were printed after his death. (In many of these, one can sense a feeling of relief that Bacon would never read them.)
Peppiatt has also been able to draw on what will from now on be an indispensable biographical source. It is unique in its kind, consisting of the sumptuous mulch of photographs, newspaper cuttings and leavings of every kind that Bacon had trodden into the floor of his studio. It has since been taken apart, piece by piece.
Among the treasures on the floor was a long series of beat-up photographs by Bacon’s friend John Deakin. When rescued not long ago, these were shown at the National Portrait Gallery in London. In those battered images, Bacon himself lives again, as do his favourite subjects — Isabel Rawsthorne, Muriel Belcher, Henrietta Moraes, Lucian Freud, Peter Lacy, George Dyer and others from intellectual, social and artistic circles in London.
Without Deakin’s photographs, Bacon’s portraits of those same people could seem weird, perverse, even hostile. But as he said himself: ''I terribly don’t want to make freaks, though everyone seems to think that that’s how the pictures turn out. If I make people look unattractive, it’s not because I want to. I’d like them to look as attractive as they really are.''
Also — and unlike most of Bacon’s boon companions — Peppiatt has done some original work. He tracked down, for example, the daughter of a French woman of the world, a pianist and connoisseur of the arts called Yvonne Bocquentin, who had taken the 17-year-old Bacon in hand in 1927 — a daughter with an excellent memory. Not only did Mme. Bocquentin invite Bacon to lodge in her house in Chantilly; she made sure he made the most of all that Paris had to offer in the way of high culture.
When it comes to the art, neither Bacon nor Peppiatt is well served by the boilerplate jacket copy of this book, in which we read of Bacon’s ''canvases of screaming popes,'' which are said to be ''defining images of 20th-century anguish.'' ''Get real!'' is the only answer to this phrase, which is the equivalent in marketing to friendly fire in warfare. These ancient fallacies do no honour to the publisher.
Where are these ''screaming popes''? Anyone who looks with a fresh eye at the Head VI of 1949 or theof 1953 — classic pieces, both — may conclude that the Pope figure is not screaming at all. He may be singing along, in full-throated Italian style. He may be yawning after a long day at the office. He may also be roaring with laughter. Bacon left his options open, no matter how often others preferred to ignore them.
After all, what did he actually say? ''I am not a preacher,'' he said. ''I have nothing to say about 'the human situation.' '' What he wanted, among other things, was to reinvent the language of portraiture in ways that summoned the rest of us to reinvent the language of criticism.
Peppiatt does not quite do that, but he has one or two enviable inspirations. One of them is to quote at the end of his book a passage from Marcel Proust that might have been written with Bacon in mind. ''People do not die immediately for us,'' Proust said, ''but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life. . . . It is as though they were traveling abroad.''
Anatomy of an Enigma. By Michael Peppiatt. Illustrated. 366 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30.
John Russell writes frequently about art and culture for The New York Times.
After Henry Moore, Francis Bacon (1909-1992) is the most celebrated British artist of the 20th century. But whereas monumental bronzes by Moore decorate public and corporate plazas all over America, Bacon’s grotesque paintings of human beings disfigured by passion or suffering still meet with critical and popular ambivalence.
Michael Peppiatt’s "Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma" may spark a reassessment of Bacon’s art, which is sparsely represented in American museums. (The Berkeley Art Museum owns a painting, shown here, which is currently on display.) Peppiatt’s unwavering conviction of the greatness of Bacon’s work is less persuasive, though, than his portrait of the man himself.
As editor of the magazine Art International and a longtime friend of Bacon’s, Peppiatt has critical credentials. His characterizations of Bacon’s art are perceptive and sympathetic, but before long his rhetoric of appreciation starts to sound too well matched with the mannerism that eventually afflicted Bacon’s own work.
Ironically, the most vivid account of a Bacon painting in Peppiatt’s book is given by Cecil Beaton, who rashly commissioned a portrait. In the finished picture, Beaton saw "an enormous coloured strip-cartoon of a completely bald, dreadfully aged — nay, senile — businessman. The face was hardly recognizable . . . for it was disintegrating before your eyes . . . a swollen mass of raw meat and fatty tissues. The nose spread in many directions like a polyp but sagged finally over one cheek. The mouth looked like a boil about to burst."
What leaves the reader wanting a fresh look at Bacon’s painting is Peppiatt’s portrayal of him as a man gripped by self-destructive compulsions that he was singularly fit to withstand. Bacon’s daredevil life authenticated his art’s grim vision, Peppiatt argues.
Bacon’s seriousness about art and life are never in doubt, although he was self-taught and almost suicidally devoted to what he called "frivolity": drinking, gambling and sadomasochistic homosexual adventure.
"Bacon revelled in living beyond the pale," Peppiatt writes. "In addition to his punishable sexuality, in which he had left no vice unturned, he had engaged in prostitution and theft of various kinds, as well as a range of other illicit practices, such as keeping a gaming house and assuming a false identity. As for drugs, Bacon would have tried most things at one time or another, out of curiosity or bravado."
Although capable of the most outrageous behavior, Bacon was strangely reticent about sharing the story of his life with critics or would-be biographers. The reason, Peppiatt believes, is that he did not want lurid personal anecdote to dilute the "enigma" or impact of his art, which he saw as something quite objective.
Yet when Peppiatt discussed with Bacon the inevitability of shocking biographical revelations, the painter said, "Well, yes of course, you must be as indiscreet as you want. . . . After all that’s what people are most interested in. The more indiscreet you are, the better the book will be." Peppiatt took him at his word.
The son of a tyrannical military man, Bacon spent much of his childhood on the stud farm in Ireland to which his father had retired. Bacon’s father disowned him in his teens when he was caught trying on his mother’s underwear. "Women’s underwear and, notably, fishnet stockings, were part of the artist’s wardrobe for most of his life," Peppiatt notes.
Before he was 20, the young Bacon had already lived by his wits and his looks in Berlin, Paris and London, learning how to charm and how to con. He followed his curiosity whether it led to transvestite bars or to reading Proust and Joyce.
While in Paris, he had been thunderstruck by the work of Picasso and the surrealists, but Bacon made his first career as a decorator and furniture designer. His reputation flourished briefly in London before it succumbed to his restlessness and profligate habits.
He made a run at painting, but gave it up for seven years of "drifting," after which he settled into an odd household comprised of a rich older lover, Eric Hall, and Jessie Lightfoot, his childhood nanny, who would live with Bacon until her death in 1951.
From the mid-1940s until his death, Bacon enjoyed a slow ascent to world fame and riches that enabled him to indulge his vices — and his generosity — to the fullest.
Bacon loved extreme states — of intoxication, pain, pleasure, danger and concentration — both for their own sake and because they erupted in images he could paint, images he claimed were as mysterious to him as to anyone.
Peppiatt is very good on the influences interpreters have seen in Bacon’s work, from his memories of London during the world wars to the art of Velázquez, Picasso and Titian.
Peppiatt tells a wealth of stories about Bacon’s life and delicately overlays the art with them, but never pretends to have the key to the man or his work. His Bacon is both extraordinary and completely believable.
Francis Bacon professed never to read the reviews of his work.
"If I did," he said, "I’d probably never paint again."
Bacon may have sought attention with a passion (he talked about himself and his work as much as any artist has), but if he ever cared about what people thought of him, he rarely showed it. Seen in this detailed biography by his friend and longtime admirer, the critic Michael Peppiatt, Bacon was a thoroughgoing contrarian. Born in Ireland to an English family, he was an avowed homosexual who rejected bourgeois propriety for a life anchored in London’s pubs. Peppiatt’s tour of Bacon’s travels through those haunts is vivid. Too vivid, perhaps. After providing Peppiatt with most of the material in the book in the 1970s, Bacon forbade the author to publish. Now, five years after the painter’ s death in 1992, the truth has come out.
Toward the end of his life, Bacon, not one to minimize his own importance, declared that only Proust could do justice to his colourful biography. With a touch more modesty, Peppiatt calls himself the Boswell to Bacon’s Samuel Johnson, the amanuensis who tags along just about everywhere and records his mentor’s every word. Overblown as it might sound, this is just what Peppiatt has achieved. The result is not a critical biography, but a closely observed account of what Bacon thought of himself. Readers eager to learn about Bacon’s art or about the evolution of the London art scene of this century will not be disappointed.
Largely self-taught, Bacon rejected modern art’s glacial drift toward abstraction by painting the human figure, which he in turn disfigured with a vengeance. He would have been delighted to witness the art world’s current vogue for grotesque figurative painting and no doubt would have claimed paternity.
The author calls Bacon an enigma. Paradox is a better word. An esthete and fastidious dresser, he would nonetheless roam the public lavatories for rough trade. He fell into art largely by accident. A magnanimous host and drinking companion who visited sick friends and paid their hospital bills, he spoke derisively of most of the artists who got his career going. The man later acclaimed as the world’s greatest living painter placed ads in the 1920s seeking work as a "gentleman’s companion" on the front page of The Times. At the same time, the elderly nanny who had raised him was living with Bacon and a male companion in London, in bohemian quarters so cramped that she slept on the kitchen table. She would live with him until she died. Artists with glaring contradictions are nothing new, yet even by the standards of artists’ lives, Bacon’s life was an odd one. It’s no surprise that a movie is being made of it. If that movie, now in production, includes even half the detail presented in this biography, it could be a nonstop orgy.
Born in Dublin in 1909, Bacon spent most of his unhappy childhood in sprawling Irish country houses. His mother’s family made a fortune from a colliery in northern England. His father, retired from the British cavalry, was a failed horse trainer, loathed by Francis. The father banned alcohol from the house (Bacon grew to be a prodigious drinker), threw angry fits over trivial details and sought to toughen up his frail eldest son by having Irish grooms horsewhip the boy. Bacon got his revenge by inaugurating his legendary sex life at an early age with the same grooms.
As Bacon would often recall, he saw himself from an early age as "completely homosexual." In fact, his adult life began when his father, upon discovering this truth about his son, expelled Francis from the family home. Sex, as much as anything, came to rule Bacon’s life as a young man. Convinced by his father that he was ugly, Bacon learned that in a city such as London, all sorts of men found him attractive. Prostitution supplemented his low wages from odd jobs. In pre-Nazi Berlin, where he visited an uncle, that uncle became one of many sexual encounters. In Paris, Bacon found his element among the artists and hangers-on in Montparnasse’s demi-monde.
Bacon began his art career as an interior decorator, an activity for which he displayed an innate flair despite a complete lack of training — the same as it would be with painting. His room designs, published in 1930, pointed to the vision that would turn up in his paintings: cagelike spaces, sparse furnishings, severe curtains. It was as if he were already defining the background against which he would paint, Peppiatt argues, "the interior in which he would later set his drama of mid-century man caught in an animal awareness of his futility and despair."
Later in life, Bacon spoke only reluctantly about his decorating, because he thought that the experience would detract from his respectability as a painter. That design work did put him in a milieu with painters such as Ben Nicholson and Roy de Maistre, who helped nurture his drawing skills. Eventually, he would surpass all of them.
After he became a celebrity, Bacon was mysterious about the influences on his work. One transfixing visual experience was his first sight of Poussin’s 17th-Century Massacre of the Innocents at the Chateau of Chantilly outside Paris in 1927, where the 17-year-old Bacon had been taken in by an older, worldlier woman. What struck Bacon in the image of a frenzied mother fighting to keep a soldier from killing her child was her mouth in a scream, "probably the best human cry ever painted." Bacon would spend his life trying to better it.
Yet Peppiatt makes it clear that Picasso was the prime mover behind Bacon’s style, "Bacon’s first and most important father figure." It was Picasso’s bone-like grotesque exploration of the human figure in the late 1920s, including his Crucifixion of 1930, that inspired Bacon’ s notorious 1933 Crucifixion, the first of many crucifixions that he would paint, which Peppiatt calls "an image strung like a bat on a primitive cross." That kind of figure, and other morbid fixtures of Spanish painting, would haunt Bacon, a steadfast atheist, until his death on a trip to Spain.
The prospect of death also haunted him. As a weak, asthmatic child, the only one of his parents’ four sons to survive past the age of 30, Bacon was made to watch an uncle torture and kill animals. Also, during his childhood in rural Ireland at a time of violent anti-British upheaval, his family lived in fear of attacks from the Irish nationalists who regularly burned estates owned by the English. And for the rest of his life Bacon remembered hearing the cries of Irish prisoners as they were whipped by British police. Yet death retained a special allure for him. Slaughterhouses were among his favourite places to visit.
In literature, as well as painting, Bacon was an accomplished autodidact. He knew Shakespeare well and loved the Oresteia so much he could quote it from memory, but much more elementary drives ruled his life. The word "anatomy" in the book’s subtitle is crucial. "Total abandonment to instinct, above all sexual instinct, was an idea which Bacon maintained with astonishing vigour to the end of his days," Peppiatt writes. "If he had a sustaining belief, it was in the supremacy of instinct as the only guiding principle in life. And when he said he 'painted to excite himself,' he surely meant: to recreate certain extreme sexual sensations."
This biography has already been attacked for failing to make connections between Bacon’s jam-packed personal life and his chilling art. The critics are not entirely wrong. Not all of those connections have been made. Yet Bacon’s art has been published and scrutinized over decades, while the events of his life have never been presented so extensively or systematically. If Peppiatt has not gone far enough in drawing life and work together, readers now have Peppiatt to thank for the raw materials to do so.
Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma
This biography has a lot going for it: an urbane, insightful author and a famously flamboyant, risque subject who simultaneously is and isn’t one of the signal forces in twentieth-century art. Michael Peppiatt, to his credit, does not fully conceal a certain ambivalence about the masochistic and controlling Francis Bacon, who lost two lovers to suicide — each just before the opening of a major exhibition — and kept house with his old nanny until he was forty-two, nor about the sometimes contrived-seeming terribilita of the Baconian oeuvre. The leitmotiv of Dorian Gray, invoked either to emphasize the artist’s remarkably enduring if rather pickled boyishness or to conjure up the splenetic wonders of the portraits, serves Peppiatt well on both scores.
Even Bacon’s detractors might agree that the artist at his best succeeded brilliantly in realizing his goal of getting 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." There has been much less consensus, however, about the passing importance of that accomplishment, never mind its profound resonance. Peppiatt does not exactly bring the gavel down on this issue. Instead, he plea-bargains, in a sense, emphasizing the single-mindedness of an artist who so powerfully declared his loyalty to the human figure during the postwar decades — a period Peppiatt himself seems to identify almost exclusively with abstraction. (The cameo appearances in this book of the painter Lucian Freud, one of Bacon’s frequent sitters, do little to cloud his view.)
Certainly, Bacon was a bit of a one-note trombonist. The mood of existential futility and ferocity so thoroughly associated with his work was pretty well in place from the very start, around 1930, which is when the artist, barely in his early twenties, gave up a promising first career as a self-styled interior decorator and furniture designer. (He largely stopped painting for nearly a decade soon after he began, however, and for the most part acknowledged only work dating from this second beginning, right before World War II.) Bacon seems, in general, to have been one of those people who were hatched fully formed. At fifteen or so, he was already well into women’s underwear, a lifelong preference that in the short run proved to be a fast one-way ticket out of the house of his sclerotically hotheaded father. Once he returned to London from more than a year’s sojourn abroad — on the loose in Weimar Berlin and prewar Paris, between the ages of seventeen and nineteen — he remained as out as out can be. There is indeed a hint of irony lurking about the notion that a man who spent hardly any time at all finding himself could be responsible — along with, say, Beckett, Sartre, and Camus — for some of the most widely recognizable symbols of postwar angst and doubt.
At times, Bacon’s trademark flick-of-the-wrist-and-blur-of-the-brush facial distortions seem merely to be tricks, effective formal gimmicks, with a dash of Surrealist horror a la early Bunuel, derived from Picasso’s Marie-Therese portraits, de Kooning’s liberated licks of paint, and from the artist’s longstanding skill at applying makeup to his own face. Many of his figure-ground relationships, in turn, seem to have evolved out of the combined principles of Muybridge’s photographic studies of wrestlers and of AbEx gravitas as delivered by painters such as Motherwell, Newman, and Rothko. Yet we learn that the erstwhile decorator dismissed abstraction as "decorative" pattern-making and was witheringly snooty about its practitioners, referring to Pollock as "that old lacemaker" and comparing de Kooning’s "Woman" paintings to "playing cards." According to Peppiatt, however, Bacon "also understood that taking a figurative image to the verge — but just short — of abstraction gave it a mysterious and compelling tension."
Something about the central emotion conveyed — the career-long fixation on themes of nihilism, carnal decay, and the primal sexual combat of males - screams adolescence. So did the artist’s cloaked and cultivated aura — he played down his more or less upper-class background and was attracted to working-class men — and his society-flouting, sex-rebel stance. It appears that I am not alone in having first discovered and embraced this artist while still in my teens. By the ’70s, Bacon had become a cult hero second only to Warhol among alienated youth all over Europe and the United States, but nowhere more than in Paris, where, as Peppiatt informs us, "These groupie-like followers had been building up . . . ever since Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais," in 1971. (Bernardo Bertolucci — that connoisseur of raffish chic — also saw the exhibition, just before he started shooting Last Tango in Paris, and "was so impressed by the paintings that he went back to the Grand Palais to look at them with his leading man, Marlon Brando." Thus, the film not only features Bacon images in its opening credits, but has a main character directly inspired by the classic Baconian physiognomy — "faces," as the director put it, "eaten up by something that comes from within.")
For a show at Galerie Maeght Lelong more than a decade later, in 1984, the groupies "turned out again in almost unmanageable force, with a strong punk addition that made them look more threatening. . . . His status was neatly confirmed when the words 'ONLY FRANCIS BACON IS MORE WONDERFUL THAN YOU' appeared on the graffiti-covered house where Serge Gainsbourg, the anarchist poet-cum-singer, lived."
Peppiatt met Bacon in Paris in 1963, while on assignment for a Cambridge University student magazine, and remained a friend until the artist’s death in 1992. He is a remarkably unobtrusive observer. Although writing intimately and knowledgeably about an artist whose importance and popularity are inextricable from the ’70s zeitgeist of sexual, especially homosexual, liberation — Bacon, in this respect, plays Lucifer to Hockney’s happy angel — Peppiatt reveals nothing, even through his dedications, about himself. What he does offer are wonderful, pithy descriptions of louche as well as luxurious living in Berlin and Paris during the late ’20s, the time of Bacon’s defining wanderjahren; of Bacon’s bizarre London menage, which for many years consisted of the artist, his older lover, and the memorable Nanny Lightfood, who did a bit of shoplifting for the household and had a vociferously expressed penchant for capital punishment (she wanted to see the duchess of Windsor hanged); and best of all, of that indiscriminate deployer of the pronoun "she," the artist. Bacon can be heard loud and clear in this keenly pitched book. No mean feat for a dead queen.
Lisa Liebmann writes frequently for Artforum.
F R A N C I S B A C O N:
anatomy of an enigma
In a 1985 interview with Melvyn Bragg for British television’s South Bank Show, the painter Francis Bacon said, “We are born, and we die, and that’s it.” There’s less torment in those words, though, than there is acceptance that life can be a pretty bleak proposition. If you don’t see much point in worrying about what awaits you in the next world, or if you don’t even believe there’s a next world, chances are you’ll be able to get on with things free of the anxiety that hounds so many. In Michael Peppiatt’s new biography, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, Bacon’s acceptance translates into a weird capacity for enjoying life. Among friends and drinking acquaintances, he was spontaneous, generous, engaged in a hunt for the next pleasure that nightly took him from fine restaurants to seedy Soho drinking clubs to rough streets in search of rough trade. That he could also be cruel and cutting spoke not only of the sudden mood shifts induced by his large and lifelong capacity for alcohol, but of his refusal to blunt his opinions, even if it meant hurting or jettisoning people who had been his friends for years.
Peppiatt met Bacon in the early ’60s when he interviewed him for a student newspaper. He stayed friends with Bacon for the rest of the artist’s life, and his account benefits from clear-eyed fondness. Given the details Peppiatt makes public here, we can be grateful that he hasn’t written a sensationalistic book, though many of the details are juicy. In addition to the most complete view to date of the upbringing that Bacon referred to only obliquely (even to close friends), Peppiatt fills in the details of the young Bacon’s travels through ’20s Berlin and ’30s Paris. (Bacon was kicked out of his home at 16, after his father caught him trying on his mother’s underwear.) We find out that the only person from his upbringing with whom Bacon stayed close was his nanny, Jessie Lightfoot. When she couldn’t find work, he took her in, and she lived with him and his various lovers until her death, in 1951. When money was really tight, Jessie shoplifted food or scanned the offers Francis received after advertising himself in the Times as a “gentleman’s companion.”
Nothing is presented moralistically here. Peppiatt doesn’t gloss over the way Bacon took advantage of some lovers or the sharp-tongued remarks that left even longtime friends wounded, any more than he sentimentalizes the generosity that led Bacon to press large sums on friends who had hit hard times. Best of all, Peppiatt doesn’t present Bacon’s fondness for drinking or masochistic sex as sad or self-destructive. (Perhaps that’s because he recognizes Bacon’s extraordinary discipline.) And he doesn’t shortchange the grief in Bacon’s memorial triptychs to his lover George Dyer, who committed suicide on the eve of Bacon’s 1971 retrospective at Paris’ Grand Palais (among living artists, an honour that had been accorded only to Picasso).
Peppiatt’s judgment of how the events of Bacon’s life played out in his paintings feels very sound, if at times a bit too Freudian. The problem he faces is similar to the one Bacon said figurative painters face in the age of photography. With photography taking over the function of illustration, it is up to figurative painters to find a reality beyond literal representation. Peppiatt does an admirable job of laying out the facts of Bacon’s life, and a superb job of painting a portrait of the man with both affection and perspective. But the facts cannot alone account for the shock and the mystery of Bacon’s work. Peppiatt’s real accomplishment is that he makes you feel Bacon as a living presence. Like any biography worth its salt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma makes you grieve for its subject.
Charles Taylor is a regular contributor to Salon.
Striking a violent chord
Striking a violent chord
THE ECONOMIST | THURSDAY JULY 10 1997
PEOPLE have been moaning for ages about violence in the movies, and for even longer about violence in art (Hieronymus Bosch’s horrific fantasies preceded Damien Hirst’s mutilated cows by more than four centuries). Violence in classical music has a long history too, but it has been given vicious new twists by Mark-Anthony Turnage, one of Britain’s most highly-regarded young composers.
Britain’s influential Aldeburgh Festival opened this summer with the première of an opera he had composed. It was inspired by the killing of an abusive husband: his wife stabbed him, in the words of the title, “Twice Through the Heart”. Now only 37, Mr Turnage first came to international attention in 1988, when his opera “Greek” (Argo CD 440 368-2), was premièred at the Munich Biennale. A visceral version of the Oedipus story, it is set in London’s East End, where yobs sing football chants, bash each other and are bashed by the police, and yuppies claw their way to fortune.
Since then, Mr Turnage has concentrated on orchestral works. As composer-in-association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1989-93, he produced “Three Screaming Popes”, which was inspired by Francis Bacon’s angst-ridden painting of the same name, and “Drowned Out”, which was based on William Golding’s novel “Pincher Martin” and its hero’s death by drowning.
Mr Turnage is a great artist, capable of depth and richness in his compositions. Consider his most recent orchestral work, “Blood on the Floor”, first performed in London last year and scheduled to be presented at the Salzburg Festival in August (when it will be released on Argo CD 455 292-2). Again inspired by a Francis Bacon painting, its first movement was described by Mr Turnage as “probably the nastiest thing I’ve written”. But the nine-movement whole is also full of gentler sounds, containing such pieces as a moving “Elegy for Andy”, in memory of Mr Turnage’s younger brother, who died of a drug overdose.
Initially trained in the 12-tone system of classical music, Mr Turnage abandoned its strictures when he discovered such free-spirited jazz musicians as Miles Davis, a trumpeter, and Gil Evans, a composer-arranger. Now he freely combines the textures and procedures of jazz and classical music; and in his pieces the two really do cohere, instead of jostling unconvincingly as in the work of so many composers. “Blood on the Floor” featured three jazz musicians and included space for improvisation. Though “Twice Through the Heart”, left no room for improvisation, its hovering, bitter-sweet sonorities had a jazz flavour.
Mr Turnage’s blending of violence, emotional depth, and catchy music is no better illustrated than in “The Country of the Blind”, his companion première opera at the Aldeburgh Festival. Based on a short story by H.G. Wells, it tells the tale of a mountaineer who discovers a land inhabited by sightless people, falls in love and is invited to join them—at the cost of his eyes. Though much of the score is compelling, its high point is a poignant duet between the hero and the blind woman he loves. One critic called it “ravishing”; another said, wryly, “while I don’t want to destroy Turnage’s reputation, you really do come out humming the tune.
NICHOLAS FOX WEBER | BOOK REVIEW | LOS ANGELES TIMES | SUNDAY, JULY 27, 1997
"The more indiscreet you are, the better the book will be," Francis Bacon counseled Michael Peppiatt about this biography. The English painter believed in laying things bare. The bold brushwork of his canvases presented screaming popes, anguished figures crouched on toilets, nude male wrestlers in a frenzy of violent sex. Discretion, clearly, was not the better part of valour for the octogenarian who, after more than the usual accord that most artists enjoy in their lifetimes — blockbuster exhibitions at the Grand Palais in Paris, the Tate in London, the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the sale of one of his paintings at Sotheby’s for more than $6 million dollars — told Peppiatt, "My life hasn’t changed much, you know. I still masturbate."
Yet for all of Bacon’s license with him, and licentiousness in life, Peppiatt has been remarkably restrained in Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. Five years after the painter’s death, and some 20 years since that initial discussion in which Bacon advised indiscretion, the editor of Art International and writer on modern European art has produced a balanced, intelligent book that illuminates Bacon’s paintings with an objectivity and perceptiveness for which the work cries out.
Bacon’s art will never seem the same to us if, instead of thinking of its violence as gratuitous or imposed—as the twisted bodies and howling mouths sometimes seem — we consider the human suffering a result of "the tension that plagued Ireland throughout his childhood." Peppiatt supports the point well. Bacon was Anglo-Irish. His family and his beloved nurse were Protestant, while "their domestic staff and seven of their nine grooms were Irish and Catholic." Bacon’s maternal grandfather, a police officer, was a likely target for IRA violence at the time of the Civil War. One evening when Bacon was about 10 years old, the two were driving home when their car got stuck in a bog that conveniently trapped such vehicles for local rebels. Bacon and his grandfather scrambled to a large house whose owners cross-examined them with guns before taking them in. "An awareness of life as a perpetual hunt—the stalker and his prey, the aggressor and his victim — was to be fundamental to Bacon," Peppiatt tells us. That sort of insight helps clarify the art.
The theme of aggressor and victim was crucial to Bacon’s sexuality as well. Nearing the age of 50 and living in Morocco, he would periodically be found "beaten up on some street in Tangier in the early hours of the morning." And it wasn’t only toward Bacon’s person that Peter Lacy, Bacon’s lover of the mid-’50s, was brutal. Lacy slashed most of the artist’s work of the previous six months with a knife. The assaults prompted the British consul-general in Tangier to ask the police chief to increase the patrol of the city’s dark alleys. But after a few weeks, and several more beatings, the police chief- came back to the consul-general with the explanation that there was nothing he could do; Bacon liked this state of affairs. That self destructiveness clearly showed up in his work.
Bacon cherished artifice as well as outrageousness. These tastes permeated his statements, both verbal and artistic; his personal appearance as well as the look of his art. There were no boundaries. "All life is really ridiculous—ridiculous and futile," the artist declared. So he willingly invented, or reinvented himself, just as he developed a hitherto unknown world in his work.
To demonstrate Bacon’s "uninhibited love of Original effects," Peppiatt provides a description from one of the artist’s close friends, the painter and writer Michael Wishart;
"I enjoyed watching Francis make up his face. He applied the basic foundation with lightning dexterity born of long practice. He was more careful, even sparing, with the rouge. For his hair he had a selection of Kiwi boot polishes in various browns. He blended these on the back of his hand, selecting a tone appropriate for the particular evening, and he brushed them through his abundant hair with a shoe brush. He polished his teeth with Vim. He looked remarkably young, even before this alchemy."
As for lipstick, we hear of another observer "wondering whether she should tell him he must have sucked his paintbrush and got red paint all over his mouth." Peppiatt’s skill is that he does not just provide such vivid descriptions but connects them accurately to Bacon’s art, "The array of idiosyncratic cosmetics he used to change his appearance was not unlike the variety of personally adapted techniques he came to employ in his paintings."
Sometimes, however, Peppiatt’s detached approach and his scholarly art-historical tone are inappropriately clinical for Bacon’s deliberate lack of restraint. Time and again "Francis Bacon, Anatomy of an Enigma" meanders from accounts of the artist’s preferred perversions to tales of his lavish lifestyle, as he hosted dinners with vintage wines at Lucas-Carton in Paris and the Ritz and the Connaught in London, to descriptions of his paintings-all without either, the slightest change of pace or any sense of Peppiatt’s own reactions. Peppiatt’s account too often sounds like a lab report. "Women’s underwear and, notably, fishnet stockings were an essential part of the artist’s wardrobe for most of his life. He also ’became well-versed in the literature’ of sadomasochism, but theory was the least part of his interest, and at one point he owned a collection of 12 rhino whips." One longs for a bit more style, some Wildean irony, instead of the implicit throat-clearing of words like "notably." And how does Peppiatt get from that description, so lurid in content if dry in tone, to the observation that "Bacon’s own preferences ... can be sensed with such immediacy in his own paintings"? I do not consider myself naive for having known Bacon’s paintings for many years without ever before having deduced that he liked to wear fishnet stockings and collect whips.
Given the boldness and directness of his subject, Peppiatt is sometimes far too obtuse. He proffers too many statements of the sort that weigh down art history journals, "Slowly, an effective barrier of non-elucidation grew up around the oeuvre." If you take the time to translate and dissect the claim, it means something, but Peppiatt had already far more effectively made the simple point that Bacon refused to explain his work.
Bacon has been the subject of many books and articles, as well as of some excellent interviews, and this book contributes significantly to the literature. While covering some of the same ground as Daniel Farson’s The Gilded Gutter, Life of Francis Bacon, which appeared in 1994, it is more thorough and informative. But there is still something missing in Peppiatt’s effort. It provides ample knowledge of Bacon’s life and artistic . growth, his tastes and distastes, but nowhere do we adequately feel passion-either the writer’s or his subject’s. Just as Bacon preferred, strangely, to see Velazquez’s work in reproduction rather than in actuality, this book keeps its material one step removed and emotion too distant.
The lacuna is not a flaw one can readily pinpoint; it is not as if Peppiatt has made errors or hazarded risks for which we might call him to task. In fact, unlike Bacon, he has taken few chances; nor has he adequately uncovered the layers. (Why did the artist never want to look at his favorite Velazquez, even When, in 1954, he was minutes away from it in Rome?) This is an interesting, well-ordered biography, but it’s too stolid; the writing is too leaden, especially given the vigor of the subject. "Anatomy of an Enigma"? Perhaps, but where is the celebration or dismay, the courage to evaluate, the engagement and imagination essential to a great biography?
Nor have we yet had ample consideration of what Bacon’s work unleashed in modern English art. Bacon, Peppiatt conscientiously informs us, was fascinate with "photographs of all kinds of disasters, from a car accident with bodies lying in pools of blood to a huge crowd fanning out m terrified flight as soldiers fire into it." He also loved gazing at meat on display in Harrods’ Food Hall. Since then, Damien Hirst has exhibited dissected cows and sharks in formaldehyde; Marc Quinn has incorporated his own frozen blood into his sculpture; and Mona Hatoun has videoed the inside of her body. Most recently, the British sculptor Anthony-Noel Kelly has been using dead body parts, from corpses allegedly acquired from the Royal College of Surgeons, to make plaster casts.
The explanation for the development of this morbidity in the art of our times may lay in an morbidity in the art of our times may lay in an understanding of both the shortcomings and the power of Francis Bacon’s work—and a real probing of the mind behind it. Such a penetrating analysis has yet to be written.
Nicholas Fox Weber, executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, is currently writing a book about the painter Balthus.
Bacon’s cleaned-up gutter life
Geoffrey MacNab goes on the set of a film that will feature a lifelike
portrayal of the artist — and bowdlerised language
& BOOKS |
AUGUST 2 1997 |
I T IS LATE at night in the Colony Room, a private drinking club in London’s Soho. Muriel Belcher, the owner, is sitting at the bar blowing smoke rings. East End boy George Dyer is two or three stools along from her, his head buried in his hands. Dyer’s lover, the painter Francis Bacon, lurks in the shadows behind him.
"Feelings?" Bacon is whining. "Feelings? I prefer to show two men fucking, the fact of it, cut out all the talk and go straight, so to speak, to the action."
I’m on a small film set in London, watching the shooting of Love is the Devil. The movie, about Bacon’s life, captures the sordid, boozy atmosphere of the clubs.
But what really impresses everyone on set is Derek Jacobi’s resemblance to the artist. Whether through make-up or mannerism, the actor has acquired precisely the same rounded cheeks, soured half-smile and doleful, disdainful eyes that stare out from the famous photographs of Bacon by John Deakin.
Besides Bacon and Deakin, the film portrays other postwar London bohemians, such as the journalist, Daniel Farson, and that Sixties icon, Anita Pallenberg. Oddly, there are cameos, too, from contemporary fashion designers (Stella McCartney, Paul Smith) and from some leading young British artists, Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume among them, even though the script covers only Bacon’s life from 1962 to 1972. "The anachronism works because we want atmosphere, not historical detail," says John Maybury, the writer-director of Love is the Devil.
Back on set, the camera is trained on Tilda Swinton as Belcher. "Oh, you are a piece of cake, daughter!" she cackles at a joke from Bacon, in what sounds like a grotesque parody of Joyce Grenfell. She was supposed to say, "Oh, you are a cup of tea, daughter!" So the scene is reshot, this time to the director’s satisfaction.
Although Maybury has an easy rapport with the actress, Swinton does not seem an automatic choice as Belcher. She is younger and more elegant than the tyrannical, foul-mouthed middle-aged woman depicted in Farson’s colourful memoir, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon. But Farson approves of the casting: "Muriel was very attractive, very beautiful, when she was young."
Love is the Devil (coproduced by the BBC and the British Film Institute) is having a troubled gestation. Last year, when Maybury was trying to raise finance, the Arts Council said it was "too soon" to be making a film about Bacon, and turned down the application for funding. Then, claims, Maybury, Lord Gowrie, the Arts Council chairman, insisted that Belcher’s filthy language was toned down before the film received £250,000 of Lottery money Bacon’s cleaned-up gutter life, goes on the set of a film that will feature a lifelike portrayal of the artist — and bowdlerised language, Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume among them, even though the script covers only Bacon’s life from 1962 to 1972. "The anachronism works because we want atmosphere, not historical detail," says John Maybury, the writer-director of Love is the Devil.
"The complaints I’ve had from the establishment have all been about facts. They’ve asked me to remove facts, because they were offended. I do feel that somebody like Bacon would be horrified to know that such gatekeepers of the culture were trying to pretty up his work. Belcher was a monster, but then all these people were monsters," says Maybury.
Script changes were made, but, just as they were to begin shooting, Malcolm McDowell, Maybury’s original choice to play Bacon, pulled out. Derek Jacobi, one of Britain’s most distinguished stage actors, was drafted in as the last minute replacement. "Initially, I hadn’t even thought about approaching him. I thought he was way too grand and important for something like this."
JACOBI’S performance had a startling effect on the Colony Room regulars recruited as extras. One was so astounded by the likeness to Bacon that she burst into tears on her first day on set, hugging Jacobi and refusing to believe he wasn’t Bacon come back to life.
Even Bacon’s old friend, Farson, describes the similarity as uncanny: "It’s not just the physical likeness, which is amazing — but the movements, the mannerisms, the alertness of Bacon... the way he quickly turned and walked — aspects of him I had almost forgotten about."
Love is the Devil focuses on the artist’s romance with Dyer (Daniel Craig, best known as Geordie Peacock in Our Friends in the North). Dyer was a minor East End villain who hung around on the fringes of the Kray gang before meeting Bacon in the early Sixties.
Through this apparently unlikely love affair, Maybury casts light on a murky aspect of British society. "Until recently, there was a strange camaraderie between the upper classes and lower classes which excluded the middle classes, certainly in homosexual culture."
Bacon was always one of the most socially mobile of artists, somebody who could slip from the Ritz to a Soho dive in the course of an evening spent in pursuit of young men. This was a man who would dress formally and then dye his hair with black shoe polish.
Back in the Colony Room, Belcher and her chorus are bitching about Dyer, and Bacon is whining away about his fascination with other people’s misery. It’s a scene of drunken desolation. How, I ask Farson, did anyone ever manage to do any work in such an atmosphere?
"Some of us never did any work," he laughs. "We dreamt and drank the afternoons away. But Bacon had this incredible stamina, helped by a hangover..."
This is an edited extract of an article that first appeared in 'Sight and Sound' magazine.
THE INDEPENDENT |
6 SEPTEMBER 1997 |
Jeffrey Bernard was his own Boswell. From 1976, when he was taken on at the Spectator by Alexander Chancellor, he wrote in hundreds of columns, week after week, ostensibly about low life in Soho and on the racecourse: but all the time he was writing about himself. He had the rare gift of making the reader, once he had begun a column, want to go on to the end. And his writing was funny.
He wrote a spoof obituary of himself in 1978, which is acute but unfair, being self-deprecatory, presumably from motives of self-defence. "In 1946 (aged 14) he paid his first visit to Soho and from that point he was never to look upward. It was here in the cafes and pubs of Dean Street and Old Compton Street that he was to develop his remarkable sloth, envy and self-pity."
On any day in the mid-1980s Bernard would arrive in the Coach and Horses public house, in Greek Street, Soho, a few minutes after opening time. He would be grey and trembling (his shakes amplified by the broadsheet of the Times in which he checked the racing). He would ask for a paper serviette to blow his nose into and take his seat on a tall stool at the deep end of the bar, near the lavatories. Then he would begin to converse. Latterly it seemed sometimes a rehearsal for his column, though most of the run-throughs were forgotten.
One day in September 1987, a Soho eccentric, now murdered, known as the Red Baron came up to him and asked, "Do you know what Randolph Churchill said when he first read the Bible?" Jeff said, "No, and I don’t fucking want to know. Why do you treat me like I don’t know anything or anybody?" His voice rising to a shout, he continued, "I knew Dylan Thomas, I knew Ian Fleming and Anne Fleming . . ." and, turning to the stage-door keeper next to him, "I even know Gordon Smith.!
All his stories have to be understood within the context of Soho, which had been dying at the same rate as Bernard for 40 years or more. Within that little world a dramatis personae of a few hundred characters collided with each other. One day someone used the word "collate". Bernard said, "Don’t use that word. The collator from Vine Street once arrested me in here. He was sitting down there just behind us and just said, ’You’re under arrest.’ He was very nice about it, just doing his boring job.
"I knew they knew a lot about people in Soho, but I didn’t realise how much. We were walking past the Swiss on the way to the station and he said, 'You’ve been knocking off the landlord’s daughter there.' Now how did he know that? I thought the landlord would kill me or break my legs or something, but all he said was, 'I’ll give you pounds 150 to marry her.' I said, 'No, it’s not on.'
" 'All right,' he said, 'make it pounds 300.' He must have been pretty desperate to get rid of her."
He liked people to talk back and carry the conversation on, and he was good at providing openings. He once said to Graham Mason, a former television journalist, "You know those fish in Richard’s in Brewer Street, haddock particularly. You can tell if they’re fresh by the eyes. Well, if you were a haddock I’d leave you on the slab."
Sometimes the openings could be startling. "When I went to the lavatory this morning, the bowl was full of blood." He had been diabetic for many years and once said, "My thigh’s like the triple 20 on a dart board." Or, when a friend and doctor came into the pub, "Oh, there’s Neil. I’ll ask him to come into the lavatory with me and look at my cock. I think I’ve got thrush." On that occasion there did indeed seem to be something wrong, and he followed it up by getting a prescription from a GP who turned out to be a woman: "When she looked at my cock she said, 'Oh, that’s interesting.' No one ever said that before. I felt like saying, 'Well, it’s been in some interesting places.' "
Oddly enough I do not think that the increasing impingement of medical matters as a topic stemmed from self-pity. One of his great qualities was courage. He was dreadfully ill: his thighs ended up thinner than his knees; he had agonising pancreatitis, neuropathy, failing eyesight, insomnia, eczema and, of course, amnesia. He had an operation to remove two cysts the size of apples from his neck. One leg, gangrenous from the complications of diabetes, was amputated below the knee. He would wave the stump to emphasise a point in conversation. His kidneys finally failed, and he lived until he decided to give up dialysis. But he was constantly fascinated by the strange and horrible things that were happening to him.
Until his fifties he was tremendously good-looking and charming, both to men and women, in his own theory attracting the latter with his "little boy lost'' manner. He always laughed at people blaming their childhood for what went wrong with their lives, but he referred to his own often.
His father, who died in 1939, when Jeffrey was seven, was a self-made stage and interior designer whose work is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. His mother, Fedora Roselli, was an opera singer. Jeffrey had a good voice, but hated singing "Oh for the Wings of a Dove" for her friends. Mrs Bernard also dabbled in Christian Science. Jeffrey went to Sunday school in Curzon Street from their house in Holland Park. At public school he was confirmed in the Church of England, since he was too scared to mention the fact that he had never been baptised. This school was Pangbourne, which he loathed. His brothers went to the intellectual Westminster and the liberal Bedales. Pangbourne was neither, though perhaps there he learnt to be neat about his dress and lodgings.
"I remember school holidays being pretty ghastly. I spent every day dreading the return to school and the anxiety made me feel quite ill. Anyway there was little to do in Holland Park in the Forties apart from trying to destroy it." He sent a rocket down a chimney into a drawing-room where his mother and a bridge club were enjoying a quiet evening. He was surprised and felt betrayed when she immediately surmised the culprit and told the police.
Already at home he was half in love with his mother, "a cross between Maria Callas and Ava Gardner". At school there came smoking, worth the risk of a beating, then racing and drink. He was asked to leave Pangbourne and fell with delight into the haven of Soho, where one of his brothers was an art student. He met Peter Arthy, who nearly 30 years later gave him a room to live in.
Bernard went Awol from military service, but got off relatively lightly thanks to the intercession of his brother Bruce. He worked as a miner, attracting the ridicule of his fellow miners by wrapping his "snap" in sheets of the Times. He was often skint when not working on a building site or washing up in a restaurant. He accepted drinks and money from rich "queers", as they were then known, including Francis Bacon and John Minton, who took him on a tour to Spain. At one time he qualified as a professional boxer.
In place of halves of bitter, whisky became his tipple, taken seriously when he was working for Michael Tobin on the tour of Expresso Bongo in 1962. By 1972 he had been sacked from The Sporting Life and was in St Bernard’s (no relation, as he said) Hospital, Ealing, to "start again". He was dry for two years. But boozing had become his "first loyalty — that’s why marriage is impossible. Drink is the other woman." He turned from whisky to vodka, ice, soda and lime. His doctor advised him to cut out the lime, because of his diabetes. In 1986 I remember a conversation about how much he might drink a day. The consensus was one and a half to two bottles of vodka.
Unless a woman shared his drinking habits, it is hard to see how he could have stayed married. (The last of his four wives said that she thought he would change and settle down.) But he continued to retain the affection of women, not just many old flames, but also generous souls who washed, ironed and cleared up for him. One of his former landladies wrote an article for the Spectator about how depressing it was to have him for a lodger. He was shown it and gave permission for its publication unchanged. Wisely, for the sake of privacy, the editor decided not to use it.
Bernard was moved and momentarily helped, if not fulfilled, to see a successful play about him, Keith Waterhouse’s Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (1989), produced in the theatre where he once worked as a stage-hand. Indeed he could have been an actor. His voice was good and he enjoyed working for Joan Littlewood in his friend Frank Norman’s play A Little Kayf Up West.
Waterhouse’s play did a marvellous job, using extensively the text from The Spectator "Low Life" columns. Bernard had known Peter O’Toole, who played him but did not imitate him on stage, since The Long and the Short and the Tall at the Royal Court in 1959. Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell played best with O’Toole in the title role. Sandwiched between his triumphant runs in 1989 at the Apollo and in 1991 at the Shaftesbury, the season in which Bernard was played first by Tom Conti, then by James Bolan, never had the same appeal.
During the three decades in which he kept up his contributions to the Spectator Bernard began to collect more commissions from other papers. The Sporting Life took him back for a time. He appeared in increasingly alarming picture features in Sunday magazines, and in television documentaries about old Soho. He was delighted to be listed in Who’s Who, like his father, and to be invited to choose his eight favourite records for Desert Island Discs; the programme turned out to be a tour de force of wryly melancholic introspection. He produced two books of racing anecdotes, Talking Horses (1987) and Tales from the Turf (1991).
Although his "Low Life" columns numbered some 1,000 he never wrote the autobiography that publishers invited him to undertake. Matthew Evans, of Faber, tempted him with the promise of pounds 1,000 per chapter, each chapter to be completed in a month, but he wouldn’t take the plunge. Instead, in 1991, Graham Lord, then literary editor of the Sunday Express, began his biography. It was published as Just the One: the wives and times of Jeffrey Bernard in 1992. Though full of facts it was a negative study, seeming cruel in exposing every incident of spitefulness, questioning his virility and clothing all in a cloud of misery.
Bernard did not quite invent Norman Balon, the cantankerous but golden-hearted landlord of the Coach and Horses, who figured in his column. Balon was a Frankenstein’s monster waiting to be brought to life in print. A glimpse of the relationship between them could be gained from that day, 20 September 1986, when the police and Customs and Excise swooped on the Coach to arrest Bernard for acting as a bookmaker and evading betting duty of pounds 31.12. At Vine Street police station where they had taken Bernard, Balon fearing for his licence, said, "Jeff Bernard’s a cunt; he’s stitched me up for life." By half past six, when we were all back in the Coach, Balon bought him a drink.
Balon remained a friend to the end, cloaking his own emotions by glib references to him as a "bastard". He took lobster salads to him at his flat in Berwick Street; he prowled the wards of hospitals, inspecting fellow patients with damning amateur diagnoses. Though Balon said another Soho character would replace Bernard in his pub he knew in his heart that the supply was running low and Jeffrey Bernard was impossible to follow.
Bernard always lived in one room — at someone else’s house, whether Geraldine Norman’s or Peter Arthy’s. Even his last flat was organised round the room where he spent all day. This room always had a few fixed points: a bed, an Anglepoise, an electric typewriter, an overflowing ashtray, a bottle of vodka, a bust of Nelson, but, above all, photographs on the walls.
Bernard was a good photographer himself and chose well. I remember about 50 photographs, mostly black and white, mounted in black frames: Jeffrey with Francis Bacon, Lester Piggott, Bruce Bernard, Terry Jones, Richard Ingrams, Fred Winter, his daughter, Graham Greene; other solo shots of wives, friends and himself. At a party once, a girl asked, "And is this Jeff’s room?" His brother answered, "Well, it’s either his or someone’s who likes him very much."
Jeffrey Joseph Bernard, journalist: born London 27 May 1932; columnist, Spectator 1976-97; married four times (one daughter); died London 4 September 1997.
Jeffrey Bernard, Coach & Horses, 1989
Jeffrey Bernard is dead
|SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 6, 1997
JEFFREY Bernard, Soho’s alcoholic Bohemian and the improbable subject of a hit West End play, has died after years of ill health which he chronicled in his weekly Low Life column in The Spectator.
Family and friends said yesterday that Bernard, 65, and a chronic diabetic, decided last weekend to stop his thrice weekly dialysis sessions at the Middlesex Hospital after discussing the consequences with his doctors.
“He had been very ill for a long time and suffered an awful lot.” his niece, Kate Bernard, said yesterday.
"He didn’t want to go on living life like that any more. “He didn’t want to die being rushed to hospital on a hospital trolley without dignity. He avoided that elegantly by choosing to die at home,” she added.
Bernard, a legend in Soho for his drinking and sexual exploits over the last four decades, died surrounded by members of his family in his small council flat in Berwick Street on Thursday.
He had said his farewells to many friends during the week and, in some contrast to his turbulent life spent in public houses. Miss Bernard said he died peacefully after being unconscious for 24 hours.
Friends said that it was a tribute to his constitution that his life had lasted so long.
The man who had spent his years drinking with Graham Greene, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and hundreds of Soho friends had been seriously ill tor 10 years with pancreatitis and diabetes. In 1994 the lower half of his right leg was amputated.
One of his many doctors once brought a group of students to his hospital bedside, and declared: “This, gentlemen, is Mr Jeffrey Bernard, who closes his veins with 60 cigarettes and then opens them up again with a bottle of vodka.”
In his Spectator column, which he began in 1978, he chronicled his sexual, alcoholic and medical adventures with an honest and generally jaundiced eye.
His notoriety spread outside the small worlds of Soho, journalism and racing. when Keith Waterhouse turned his life story into the play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.
It opened at the Apollo Theatre in 1989 with the actor, Peter O’Toole. playing the self-destructive Bernard and became an instant hit.
Waterhouse gave Bernard a third of his royalties which kept the columnist in his vices for the last years of his life.
Born in Hampstead, north London, the son of an architect, Bernard did not follow life’s conventions. He was variously a fairground boxer, a dishwasher, a labourer, a miner, a forester, a barman, a racing journalist and a columnist.
The broadcaster, Ned Sherrin, who directed Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, yesterday described him as “a brilliant writer” and “a total bum”.
Graham Lord, the author of Bernard’s biography, described him yesterday as “the original Devil-may-care Jack-the-Lad Peter Pan”. He said: “He was utterly irresponsible and utterly selfish. He was also a wonderful writer who made a lot of people laugh.”
Miss Bernard said yesterday that the family planned a private funeral but expected to hold “a big vulgar Soho” memorial service later.
Jeffrey Bernard in characteristic pose at the Coach and Horses, Soho, which featured in many of his weekly columns
Suicide note in instalments comes to an end
Alexander Chancellor remembers the columnist and dedicated drinker whose death is no surprise
|SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 6, 1997
THE death of Jeffrey Bernard yesterday came as no surprise. It was, in tact, the most predictable and the most predicted of deaths — predicted by him in a thousand columns. The only surprising thing about it was that it had not happened earlier.
In 1965, when he was only 35 years old, he was told by St Stephen’s Hospital in Chelsea that he would die if he ever had another drink.
He was being treated then for acute pancreatitis, Despite several more such attacks and several more such warnings in the years that followed, he continued to drink — and to live.
His Low Life column in The Spectator, once described as “a suicide note in weekly instalments”, came into existence by chance. In 1976, shortly after I had been made editor of The Spectator, I hired him to write a television column.
This didn’t last long: he was too busy drinking to watch television.
But rather than lose him altogether, for he was a marvellously readable and funny writer, we eventually found him a slot in which he needed to do no research of any kind, but could write exclusively about his favourite subject, himself.
Jeff was not an easy contributor. Almost as a matter of principle, he was always nail-bitingly late with his copy and committed to biting the hand that fed him.
When drunk., which he was every day, he could be dreadfully rude; and on several occasions I was woken in the middle of the night by a torrent of vulgar abuse down the telephone.
But there was also much mutual affection between us, and his devotion to The Spectator grew as his column there brought him an unexpected cult status which was crowned by Keith Waterhouse’s play, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, the phrase that was used to announce his frequent absences from the magazine.
When this announcement changed in 1994 to “Jeffrev Bernard has had, his leg off”, I rushed to visit him in hospital and found him irrationally terrified that The Spectator was going to fire him.
There was never any danger of this. None of the four editors under which Jeff served failed to recognise his value to the magazine and he died, as it were, in the saddle. I last saw Jeff — the first time for ages— on the last day of July when I decided to visit him in his council flat in Soho.
He looked and obviously felt ghastly, but was uncharacteristically cheerful and free of self-pity. When I asked him if there was anything that he needed, he suggested a subscription to Country Life.
He made this sound like a request for something truly wicked.
THE TIMES |
|MONDAY SEPTEMBER 29 1997
AMID much recrimination, scenes of sexual extravagance depicting the homosexual awakening of the late artist Francis Bacon have been cut from the forthcoming film of his life story, Love is the Devil.
Friends of Bacon are furious that the celluloid, portrait, starring Sir Derek Jacobi, has been sanitised to satisfy the sensibilities of the British Film institute. The key sequence, based on an incident in Daniel Farson’s biography, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, shows Bacon’s father walking in on the teenage artist dressing in his mother’s clothes. His father then orders stable lads to horse whip the boy and the participants retire to a stable from where bewildering noises are heard.
All a bit fruity for the BFI and its co-backers, the BBC, both of which are concerned that the young Bacon is played by a 14-year-old schoolboy. “It is extremely louche and irrelevant to the story,” says a spokesman. “I can think of no reason whatsoever to include it.”
Farson and his friends are incandescent. “It formed an essential part of Bacon’s character,” says Farson. “I am very distressed that it has been cut.” Other survivors from Bacon’s circle are less reserved. “It’s outrageous,” says the art dealer, James Birch; “The BBC is being quite hysterical.”
Bacon: whipping boy
Television interviewer, writer and photographer who
turned into a monstrous drunk in his beloved Soho
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH |
NOVEMBER 28, 1997 |
DANIEL FARSON, who has died aged 70, was a talented television journalist, writer and photographer; he was also a nightmare drunk.
Farson was a prime specimen of Soho at its height, the Soho of Francis Bacon. Dylan Thomas, John Minton, John Deakin, Jeffrey Bernard, Muriel Belcher and other strange characters. To Farson, Soho meant home, and he, convinced he was a misfit, never felt at home anywhere else.
From middle age on Farson was a fat man — the solid kind rather than sagging jelly. He never lost his hair, which was fair; in old age he presumably dyed it. In London he dressed in a smart suit with sleeves cut long to cover the tattoo of a fish on the back of one hand that he had had done in the merchant navy.
He was a brave man even when sober and strong enough to make an antagonist think twice. He would go off at night to such places as a pub nicknamed The Elephants’ Graveyard. It was some surprise that, with his alarmingly risky sex life, he had not been murdered.
To meet Farson at nine in the evening in the Colony Room Club, for example, was to witness a transformation that any film actor in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would have thought strained credibility. Within minutes, fuelled by a rapid series of large gins scarcely diluted by tonic, his polite talks about his great uncle Bram Stoker or his interlocutor’s latest book would turn into a rant of increasing volume and decreasing intelligibility: “I loathe you, I can’t stand you,” he would roar, gargling in his podgy throat. “You’re so clever, so patronising.” Sometimes the late Ian Board, the club’s proprietor, would chase him down the steep, dark stairs, belabouring him forcefully with an umbrella.
Often, the morning after. Farson would appear with a cut face, from a fall, a fight with a rent boy or some forgotten tussle with a policeman. But he would return immediately to the alcoholic fray and the never-ending job of seeking work from newspapers or publishers.
Farson could take good photographs. He caught the changing moment and his pictures were often of interest for their subjects — a hungover Jeffrey Bernard, head in hands under the statue of King Charles in Soho Square, or the smoky French pub, with Gaston Berlemont opening another half bottle of champagne for a crowd of overcoated and hatted men and women. Others had poignancy, such as the little boy with a dirty face and a dart in one hand at Barnstaple Fair or the handsome beggar with two peglegs in Barcelona.
Farson, in his books, photographs and conversation, idealised Soho, though he was aware from experience of its destructive power. In Soho in the Fifties, one of his better books, he described the round of drinking: from the French pub to Wheeler’s for lunch — with luck in the company of Francis Bacon — then on to the Colony Room Club during the afternoon (when the pubs were shut from 3pm to 5.30), back to the Coach and Horses perhaps, and on into the night, at the Mandrake or some shabby homosexual club. Farson was fortunate enough usually to have money to pay his way, and was closer to the oysters and champagne side of things than the cadged halves of bitter familiar to the likes of John Deakin.
Farson had an annoying way of claiming intimacy with famous people and writ ing about them on the strength of it. It was not that he did not know them, but that he wrote, often inaccurately, about private conversations from past years. His book about Bacon was called The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon — which sounded silly, though it was a quotation from a joking telegram that Bacon had once sent him. More recently, Farson set great store by his acquaintance with Gilbert and George.
In later years he lived in moderate peace in Devon (though he was barred from all but one pub in Appledore), writing books. Every now and then, on the pretext of an interview, he would make increasingly suicidal raids on London, getting drunk earlier and earlier in the day. He would miss his train back to Devon, and perhaps return to the country two or three days late.
Over and over again Farson’s assaults on London meant drinking all day, picking up a rent boy and very often being robbed by him at his hotel. He was barred from several hotels for trivial offences such as being found with his trousers round his ankles in the corridor. One Sunday afternoon in the Coach and Horses an angry rent boy (aged about 30) came into the pub and tried to shame Farson into paying him for his afternoon’s services. Farson was shameless: “But you didn’t bloody do anything,” he shouted back. “And I bought all the drinks.”
The two most admirable things about Farson were his energy and his determination to start his life again each time he ran into a cul-de-sac.
DANIEL Negley Farson was born on Jan 8 1927. His father Negley Farson was an American-born journalist who would bring the boy an elephant’s tooth or an embryo alligator from his trips abroad. During one trip on which little Dan accompanied him, the boy was patted on the head by Hitler as a “good Aryan boy”. Negley resigned suddenly from The Chicago Daily News in 1935, but then made money from his autobiographical books. The Way of a Transgressor being the best known.
Of Negley, Dan was to write: “He was a stronger man than I am, free from the taint of homosexuality.” But he was also an alcoholic. Daniel Farson described how he set off with his parents in 1935 to drive across Europe: “I crouched underneath a blanket on the floor at the back, pretending to be asleep — impossible with the arguments raging in the front, my father constantly wanting to stop, seizing any excuse for a drink, while my mother implored him not to. Occasionally he lost his temper, sometimes violently, followed by angry silence and the utter desolations of my mother’s sobs, when I did not dare to move. Then there were whispers as they remembered I was there.” Dan lived up to his parents’ tortured example for the rest of his life.
In 1940, Dan’s prep school, Abinger Hill, was evacuated to Canada. During the holidays he was sent to stay with variously unsuitable relations and friends of his father’s in the United States. One day he was collected in a car by Somerset Maugham and his secretary Gerald Haxton. They took him to visit another homosexual. Tom Seyster, who, for some reason, was in fact his godfather. Nothing untoward occurred. The two younger men drank a great deal; Maugham synmpathised with the boy’s loneliness and responded later with a kind letter to some poetry he had shown him.
In 1942 young Daniel sailed back to wartime England, feeling more comfortable amid its dangers and shortages than in untroubled America. He was sent to Wellington, a ridiculous misjudgment. After a year he persuaded his parents to let him leave.
He desultorily set about learning Russian, but soon landed a job at the Central Press Agency. This decrepit organisation was staffed by an aged skeleton staff during the war, but it had the privilege of sending a lobby correspondent to Westminster. The head of the agency, Guy L’Estrange, had not been to the Commmons since the end of the 19th Century, and Farson, aged 17, was sent to cover Parliament. This blond-haired youth was a strange sight in the corridors of Westminster, down which he was pursued without success by the predatory MP Tom Driberg.
For a while, though, his career almost progressed backwards. He served in the American army, during which time he was sent on a journalism course. He went with the army to Germany, where he discovered the possibilities of photography in the ruins of Munich. He then went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge, aged 21. Though he took a degree, he thought he had wasted his time academically. He did learn about the realities of sexual relations, but never found a satisfactory way of accommodating his own preferences.
Farson spent a short time at an advertising agency and then in 1951 joined Picture Post as a staff photographer. At this time he made such friends as the impossible, drunken, annoying photographer John Deakin, who had utterly broken with his Liverpudlian background on coming to London. Deakin, arrested for indecency when a night club was raided, was asked in court if he had not thought it odd to see men dancing together. “How could I possibly know how people in London behave?”, he replied; he was acquitted. Farson was sacked from Picture Post at about the same time Deakin was sacked from Vogue.
In the 1950s, Francis Bacon took to Farson, despite occasional differences. One night in the Gargoyle club, a male friend with whom Farson was infatuated butted in on Bacon’s conversation. Farson apologised to Bacon, only to be met by: “It’s too bad that we should be bored to death by your friend and have to pay for his drinks, but now you have the nerve to come over as well, when you’re not invited.” But next day, Bacon bought Farson champagne in the Colony Room Club: “If you can’t be rude to your friends. who can you be rude to?”
Farson’s next bright idea was to join the merchant navy. He joined the crew of 634 on the 30,000 ton Orcades and sailed 50,000 miles around the world, crossing the equator four times. He thought for a moment that he had got Soho out of his system. He next found work with The Evening Standard and The Daily Mail; he persuaded Colin Wilson, the author of The Outsider, to speak unguardedly, and published the damaging interview in Books and Art. Then he was commissioned to interview Cecil Beaton for This Week on television, and a new chapter opened.
FARSON could have been made for television of that period. He was quick-thinking, still handsome, with enough charm to beguile interviewees. He drew out Dylan Thomas’s widow in a live broadcast which had to be faded out when he provoked her to fury.
Farson went from strength to strength. He caused outrage with a programme, Living for Kicks, about coffee bar teenagers, dubbed “Sexpresso Kids’ ” by The Daily Sketch. He produced a series Farson’s Guide to the British. He was fascinated by misfits. His series Out of Step dealt with oddities from witchcraft to nudism.
Farson was in the middle of filming a programme about lonely old people at Christmas when he was called to the phone and heard that his mother had died after falling down stairs at the end of a lunch with Lady d’Avigdor Goldsmid. A man in a pub told him he had just heard the news on television: “Daniel Farson’s mother dies in fall.”
In 1962. with money left him by his parents. Farson bought the tenancy of a pub on the Isle of Dogs, on the Thames in the Fast End of London. The pub was given a boost by a television documentary Farson made called Time Gentlemen Please! The idea ofthe Waterman’s Arms was to stage old-fashioned music hall, but the scheme also appealed as a chance to play the host, drink and meet attractive men. But whatever money the pub made never found its way into Farson’s pockets.
The venture lasted a year. In all he lost perhaps £30,000 — enough in 1963 to buy a row of houses. His days in television were numbered too. A documentary he made, Courtship, proved “dull”. Farson thought he had gone stale and threw in the towel, though many thought he had been sacked for drunkenness or emotional instability.
He moved to Devon, living in his parents’ house near the sea, and made an income from journalism and books. He also contrived a television quiz show on art called Gallery. He was hit badly when his younger friend, Peter Bradshaw. who lived with his girlfriend in Farson’s house, died in 1992. There was life in Farson yet. He traced his father’s footsteps over the Caucasus and went to Moscow for a show by Gilbert and George. He went frequently to Turkey, always getting drunk and picking up men there.
Farson knew he was dying of cancer when his autobiography Never a Normal Man was published just after his 70th birthday. It begins: “Two nights ago I flew into Istanbul to sort out my life. So far I have not done well,” In it he confessed all — or rather confessed to a larger audience than he had been confessing to for years late at night in Soho.
At the same time he held an exhibition of photographs in a Mayfair gallery and went on Radio 4’s Midweek with such a hangover that his voice sounded as if it came from inside a wardrobe. The title of the book, the reader soon discovered, was a remark made about his father, not him.
On the day of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, Farson went to the Coach and Horses in Soho, straight from a trip to Sweden. He stood at the bar, noisily impersonating a friend, Sandy Fawkes, bursting into tears. Behind him young people told him to shut up because they were trying to hear the speech of Earl Spencer on the television. Such had become the bohemia that he was shortly to leave for the last time.
THE INDEPENDENT |
1 DECEMBER 1997 |
Mythomaniacal, egotistical, and often unable to tell the truth or the difference between it and fiction, the character of Daniel Farson — photographer, writer, and drunk — is redeemed by at least one grace: that of self-awareness: "One of the more bizarre aspects of my life is the way it has veered from triumph to disaster without my seeming to notice the change."
Farson was the son of Negley Farson, a renowned American foreign correspondent, author of the Thirties bestseller The Way of a Transgressor and, like his son, an alcoholic. "My father’s guilt made me guilty," wrote Farson, as much about his sexuality as his addiction to drink. He remained in thrall to his father’s fame, even when his own exceeded it: while Francis Bacon taunted his friend by declaring Negley’s books "second-rate", Farson was proud enough of them to send one as a calling card to the reclusive aesthete Stephen Tenant.
Farson’s childhood was a peripatetic one: he was evacuated to Canada during the Second World War, and spent holidays in the United States. At 17 he became the youngest ever Parliamentary and Lobby Correspondent for "an ancient press agency where no one else was young enough to be mobile". He spent his National Service years in the American Army Air Corps, and at 21 relinquished his dual nationality in favour of Britain, while taking advantage of the GI Bill of Rights to go up to Cambridge.
There he started the magazine Panorama with Anthony West. An article satirising the Picture Post had Farson summoned to that magazine’s offices, only to leave them with the post of staff photographer. He was soon photographing the likes of Noel Coward, who happily struck all manner of attitudes for the blond newcomer’s lens.
But it was at the age of 23 that Farson was launched fatefully into the world of Soho Bohemia, a world of dives and drunks whose tentacles would never let him go. He had been innocent until then, unmoulded: "Soho cast me. All too quickly, I made up for lost time." It became his second home, "often my first", and introduced him to Francis Bacon: "I moved out of my father’s shadow and into Bacon’s." Farson admitted his role of hanger-on; and yet, as a photographer and writer of some talent, his value lies in observations of a world whose habituees were too busy drinking to document themselves. Conversely, he was unable to write a book without putting himself in it; an attempt to render himself as part of the Soho myth. Friends wondered how he remembered in-depth conversations from the night before. He probably didn’t: he was already being barred from the French House for behaviour he could not recall.
From photo-journalism Farson moved via the Merchant Navy (crossing the Equator four times) and newspaper journalism (writing for the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail) to television, joining Associated-Rediffusion "in the exciting early days of TV when no boundaries were set and we were able to explore". Such a brief suited Farson, and explorations included having to cut off a drunken Caitlin Thomas in full flow, and an equally drunken interview with Bacon for The Art Game, filmed on 27 August 1958. During the long delays between changing film magazines, Bacon and Farson consumed large quantities of oysters and champagne, and when the three hours of film was edited to 15 minutes, "the startling effect was an instant transformation, from two sober Jekylls into two alcoholic Hydes".
Farson went on to appear in a series of shows, from This Week to Living for Kicks, ending, as his fame declined, with an art game show called Gallery in which he called upon the talents of old friends such as Michael Wishart. It was bizarre to see such sacred monsters of Bohemia dragged out on afternoon television, Wishart answering banal questions in his catatonic drawl while a studio audience was ordered to applaud.
Television fame made Farson’s half-handsome, prefect-fat face nationally recognisable. It also gave an added frisson to the encounters with rent boys; like Wilde and Coward, Farson was feasting with the panthers of the East End.
He discovered the charms of the sailors and barrow boys of Limehouse — an area which seemed to operate outside the law — and set up home at 92 Narrow Street, to be joined by Bacon and other figures such as the writer Andrew Sinclair and, later, the struggling doctor David Owen. Here not even the Kray Twins (with whom Farson was intimate) descended to "renting", i.e. homosexual blackmail. Like Wilde, Farson saw his East End boys as a race apart, describing them in a letter to Stephen Tennant as having "a real sense of chivalry . . . these young men looked and behaved like true aristocrats".
In 1962, using money left by his parents, Farson set up a "singing pub", The Waterman’s Arms, on the Isle of Dogs; he was, as Colin MacInnes recognised, "realising his own dream". His celebrity summoned an extraordinary mixture of names to this muddy loop in the lower Thames. Bacon brought William Burroughs to join Jacques Tati, Shirley Bassey, Clint Eastwood, Judy Garland or Groucho Marx. "Finally, The Waterman’s Arms was killed by its own success," wrote Sinclair, ". . . in a way, Farson was like [David] Owen, destroying the culture he loved by introducing into it the glamour and power of other parts of other cities".
By 1964 Farson had made his break with London, decamping to the Grey House, Braunton, North Devon, also a legacy of his parents’. There he wrote his books — 27 in total, rather belying his reputation of drunken ineptitude — on subjects ranging from Jack the Ripper and Bram Stoker (his great-uncle) to historical fiction and, well, historical fiction, as many regarded his own memoirs of life in Limehouse and Soho to be.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was his best-selling The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon (1993), originally commissioned in 1982 but delivered ten years later, after Bacon’s death. Farson’s subjective biography is full of Farson, his life blended with that of his subject: the effect is to render the author as an adjunct to the artist’s self, rather than securing his — Farson’s — place in art history. His 1991 book on Gilbert and George in Moscow had a similar agenda, whilst bringing Farson into the modern world of Sohoitis. From Devom he made roaring forays into Soho, lost weekends during which he would succeed in beguiling, and offending, a whole new generation of Sohoites.
Perhaps most extraordinary is a last, almost libellous portrait of Farson in Robert Tewdwr Moss’s posthumously published travelogue, Cleopatra’s Wedding Present (1997), in which the author encounters the apoplectically drunken Farson in a Syrian hotel and is accused of all kinds of calumny — most egregiously, seduction of the local youth, a misdemeanour of which Farson himself was much more likely to be guilty. Cornering Tewdwr Moss in a restaurant over a plate of roasted sparrow, a red-faced Farson splutters, " ’And by Jove, sonny, if I see you again, I shall make it my job to destroy you and your career.’ In between threats he was snatching up the bodies of the birds and stuffing them into his mouth — naked little ornithological corpses, sliding down into the maws of hell."
s guilt made me guilty," wrote Farson, as much about his sexuality as his addiction to drink. He remained in thrall to his father’s fame, even when his own exceeded it: while Francis Bacon taunted his friend by declaring Negley’s books "second-rate", Farson was proud enough of them to send one as a calling card to the reclusive aesthete Stephen Tennant.
Somehow Dan Farson managed to escape the maws of hell by recycling his incontinent life in his books, making a living out of myth. He kept abreast with a sometimes cruel cast of solipsists whose only loyalty was to themselves and their kind; and then not always to be relied upon. What he leaves behind, in photographs and words — perhaps most notably in his book Soho in the Fifties (1987) — is a record of that world which, while doubtless wild, inaccurate and full of his own hyperbole, is probably as close to the truth as we will ever get. His autobiography, Never A Normal Man, was published early this year, shortly after his 70th birthday. It was a final, bloodshot eye-witness report from the edge before he tottered over it.
Francis Bacon with Daniel Farson at the first Soho Fair
IRISH TIMES |
27, 1997 |
There have been numerous books about Bacon in the past decade, most of them ephemeral, but this is on a higher level and is based on a good deal of personal contact.
Though Peppiatt only got to know Bacon in the 1960s, the painter talked to him freely about his childhood in Ireland, and about his early life in general, including much which is unfamiliar.
There is also much of interest about Bacon’s struggle to establish himself as a painter in postwar London, his love affairs, his gambling (unavoidably) and his later world fame.
Written by an art critic and respected journalist, the book is knowledgeable without pedantry, and readable without muckraking.
Francis Bacon: The Human Body
HAYWARD GALLERY February 5 — April 5
RICHARD SHONE | PREVIEWS | ART FORUM | VOLUME 36 | NUMBER 5 | JANUARY 1998
The comprehensive 1996 Francis Bacon retrospective organized by the Pompidou didn’t make it to the painter’s homeland of Britain, but this concise anthology of his works devoted to the figure and the human head at least represents partial compensation.
In works ranging from 1945 to the mid-’80s and from single canvas paintings to triptychs, most of the players in Bacon’s human circus are present—his lover George Dyer, Lucian Freud, Isabel Rawsthorne, and, from his earlier years, the Popes.
David Sylvester has selected the paintings and distilled his long-ruminated thoughts on the artist’s work in the catalogue essay. For those who harbor skepticism over the upcoming biopic on Bacon, here’s the real thing.
Fatum as Theme and Method
in the Work of Francis Bacon
JOHN G. HATCH | ARTIBUS ET HISTORIAE | VOLUME 19 | NUMBER 37 | 1998
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport.”
The elusiveness of Francis Bacon’s paintings to critical analysis are a measure of their success. As much as one is tempted to examine a particular influence on Bacon’s work, and the temptation is great since Bacon has been quite forth-coming in acknowledging sources, it is practically impossible to draw direct and, consequently, revealing parallels. Furthermore, focusing on any single element in one of Bacon’s paintings usually undermines the meaning of the work rather than clarify it. In a sense, though, this was Bacon’s objective. In one of his last interviews, Bacon observed:
Most of the time when one talks about painting, one says nothing interesting. It’s always rather superficial. What can one say? Basically, I believe that you simply cannot talk about painting, it just isn’t possible.2
Yet, Bacon’s paintings have been talked about a great deal with varying success, as one might expect. Part of the problem is that Bacon himself could not refrain from talking about them, fueling an interest in possible links between his work and that of painters like Van Gogh and Degas, or writers such as Aeschylus, Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot. That poets and playwrights are mentioned frequently by Bacon is rather curious since he prefaced the passage cited above by noting: "Painting is a world of its own, it’s self-sufficient."3 In addition, his desire to allow narrative to play only a very minor role in his work seems to preclude any parallels with literature.4 But Bacon stressed his favourite authors too often for them to simply be ignored in the context of his own work.
The key to understanding the influence of writers like Aeschylus or Eliot is supplied by Bacon himself:
...I’ve hardly ever done things directly inspired by particular lines or poems. I admire them and they excite me and they goad me to try and work much more. That is the way they influence me. It’s very difficult to use any poetry for one’s painting: it’s the whole atmosphere of it that affects me.5
In large part what Bacon admired of the writers he read was not what could be appropriated and re-formulated through the language of paint, but rather what could not. Certainly, what the writers had to say was of great importance to Bacon and their message is echoed in his work. However, he was particularly fascinated with the manner in which their message was conveyed. This is made evident in an oft-quoted passage of Bacon’s where he paraphrases the poet Valery: "...I want very, very much to do the thing that Valery said-to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance."6 An important aspect of Bacon’s desire to emulate someone like Valery is that what the French writer says in poetry cannot be translated into any other linguistic form, even prose. In other words, the manner in which Valery conveys what he wishes to say is unique to the medium he is working with: as Bacon put it with reference to music and painting, "they represent two modes of expression which have nothing to do with each other, and that each artist in his field is confronted with very different problems."7 And this is what Bacon sought to emulate, of creating imagery which is unique to painting and cannot, in turn, be translated directly into poetry, for example. Certainly the message itself could be appropriated but the means and manner of its conveyance could not. It is this unusual relationship between the message transcending the medium and its expression as unique to to the medium that has led recent writers, like Ernst van Alphen, to label Bacon as both a Modernist and Postmodernist, illustrating well Bacon’s success in eluding categorization while highlighting the inherent problems of a Postmodernist approach.8
The particular literary references found in Bacon’s paintings are never direct in the sense where one can simply chart the events portrayed in a painting according to the narrative of the text which inspired it. Bacon himself sought to diffuse any such correspondence between text and image; for example, Triptych-Inspired by T S. Eliot’s Poem "Sweeney Agonistes" [Fig. 1], according to Bacon, was given its title by the Marlborough Gallery after he told them he had just been reading Sweeney Agonistes.9 More importantly, though, the very nature of the literary sources Bacon drew upon made it impossible to simply translate text into image. Eliot’s poem, Sweeney Agonistes, which is presented as a fragment of a play, lacks any type of character description or stage direction to allow it to be visually/physically recreated on stage. Even a more traditional Eliot stage work like The Family Reunion saw its 1939 London production soundly criticized for its personification of Eumenides, which fell far-short of the powerful and evocative literary description presented in the text; as one critic of the 1939 production put it: "...it is one thing to suggest an eerie presence in fiction, quite another to present the Eumenides in evening dress in the window embrasure."10 In terms of Aeschylus’ Oresteian Trilogy, the problem is similar. How does one translate in visual terms Aeschylus’ famous line, "the reek of human blood smiles out at me"? This is a powerful literary simile which if one were tempted to translate it in visual terms would certainly appear banal if not ridiculous. This may partly be why Bacon preferred the Surrealist writers to the painters, or William Blake the poet rather than Blake the painter, in that the painters too often tried to literally translate the imagery of the writers.11 Bacon was not interested in translating from one medium to another for the simple reason that any translation involves some sort of interpretation, which Bacon wanted to avoid at all cost:
Explanation doesn’t seem necessary to me, either of painting or of other artistic fields, such as poetry. I don’t believe that it’s possible to give an explanation of a poem or a painting.12
Furthermore, translation involves a loss in terms of the original meaning which, for Bacon, is conveyed in large part by the manner in which a particular language is used.13 He does not dismiss the use of other media as a source of inspiration or stimulus (and one can certainly be affected by the "atmosphere" of a work) but, as Bacon states with reference to music and painting, "to transcribe the language of painting into the language of music or vice versa, to me seems quite impossible... they are two such different fields."14
In stressing that it is not any particular detail of a poetic work that inspired him but rather the atmosphere generated, Bacon was describing his own work as well. In the opening pages of the published interviews with David Sylvester, Bacon remarks: "the other day I painted a head of somebody, and what made the sockets of the eyes, the nose, the mouth were, when you analyzed them, just forms which had nothing to do with eyes, nose or mouth; but the paint moving from one contour into another made a likeness of this person I was trying to paint."15 In other words, meaning emerges in the totality of the image rather than in any one of its constituent parts. But even this is not entirely correct since the seriality of many of Bacon’s paintings and the re-emergence of certain figures and themes indicates that if one is to make sense of Bacon one has to look at the totality of his work and not at a single image; as Bacon himself pointed out: "one image against the other seems to be able to say the thing more."16 This presents a daunting task for anyone wishing to write about Bacon, but it is not an impossible one. What it means is that any aspect of Bacon’s work one wishes to de-contextualize and examine must eventually be re-contextualized to be of any value. In essence, if one is going to examine Bacon’s work one must approach it in a manner similar to how Bacon created it.
The manner in which meaning is conveyed is why Bacon is interested in certain writers and painters; it is an aspect of his own work which he focuses on almost exclusively in his interviews. For Bacon, how one paints is just as important as what one paints; but too often the technical aspects and imagery in his work have been treated separately.17 His interviews often convey an exasperation with questions pertaining to the images used in his paintings, and understandably so, since the imagery is simply a manifestation of the theme embodied in the act of painting itself. When Bacon speaks of how he paints he is equally addressing what is painted and one must examine the crucifixion theme, Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy, or Eliot’s poetry and plays, for example, as painted subjects that are tightly interwoven with how they are painted. As with most of us, Bacon was attracted to certain stories, themes, painters, writers, etc., because what they expressed paralleled in some way his own views on the human condition. These views were inevitably a magnification of his own experience and would be constantly acted out every time he painted.
Painting 1946 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) is the work most often cited in any discussion of Bacon’s working methods. As Bacon has often related, he began with the intention of painting a bird alighting on a field:
but suddenly the lines that I’d drawn suggested something totally different, and out of this suggestion arose this picture. I had no intention to do this picture; I never thought of it in that way. It was like one continuous accident mounting on top of another.18
Here, Bacon describes what became a highly productive interaction between intentionality and accident that dictated his painting technique for the rest of his artistic career. Even as late as 1992, a year before his death, Bacon still approached the canvas with a certain idea of what he wanted to do only to witness this idea transformed with the application of paint.19 At times Bacon toyed with the Surrealist idea of simply letting chance or accident completely determine the appearance of his works, but this would have undermined their essential theme, namely that of "the interaction of... accidents and the will of the artist..."20
Bacon is extremely cautious in using the terms accident or chance and often phrases the dialogue between will and accident in Freudian terms of the conscious and unconscious:
What does finally appear on the canvas, in the best of cases, is probably a mixture between what the painter wanted and... accidents... It seems to me that in painting and perhaps also in the other arts, there’s always an element of control and an element of surprise, and that distinction perhaps comes back to what psychoanalysis has defined as the conscious and the unconscious.21
It is Bacon’s emphatic distaste for metaphysical explanation which accounts for his use of the terms accident or chance; he is quite explicit in dismissing ideas of divine inspiration, muses, or any such other-worldly terms in explaining his working method.22 In a discussion of the combination of will and accident, Michel Archimbaud asks Bacon: "A sort of mysterious alchemy in a way?" To which Bacon replies, in predictable fashion:
No, it’s more chemistry really; it’s the natural phenomenon of substances mixing to give new substances. There’s no mystery...23
Yet, there are times when Bacon’s guard is down, when there is a great deal of mystery involved which Bacon is, more often than not, at odds to explain.24 He comes close to admitting an independent volition on the part of paint itself which the artist interacts with:
When I was trying in despair the other day to paint the head of a specific person, I used a very big brush and a great deal of paint and I put it on very, very freely, and I simply didn’t know in the end what I was doing, and suddenly this thing clicked, and became exactly like this image I was trying to record. But not out of any conscious will, nor was it anything to do with illustrational painting. What has never yet been analyzed is why this particular way of painting is more poignant than illustration. I suppose because it has a life completely of its own. It lives on its own, like the image one’s trying to trap; it lives on its own, and therefore transfers the essence of the image more poignantly.25
One is hesitant to characterize Bacon’s formal technique in terms of a conflict between individual will and fate but the above clearly implies it. In addition, Bacon often remarks in published interviews his pleasure at witnessing the sort of inevitability chance marks can give:
...what so-called chance gives you is quite different from what willed application of paint gives you. It has an inevitability very often which the willed putting-on of the paint doesn’t give you.26
There is, though, an element of control at work in this process which relates to Bacon’s characterization of the interaction between will and accident as one between the conscious and unconscious. The artist does not simply take all the chance marks produced, but only interacts with those which in a very Freudian sense are uncanny.27 Nevertheless, herein lies Bacon’s attraction to such subject matter as the crucifixion of Christ, Aeschylus’ Orestes, or Eliot’s work, each deals in some form or another with the interaction between free will and 'fate.'
Bacon would never have approved of the use of the term 'fate', especially given how vehemently anti-religious he was.28 But there is no doubt he believed in some kind of secularized notion of fate on a number of different levels, all revolving around conflicts between individual volition and events that appear to be beyond our understanding and control; they become fate when we ascribe meaning to them, or as Bacon put it with reference to life in general: I think of life as meaningless; but we give it meaning during our existence. We create certain attitudes which give it a meaning while we exist, though they in themselves are meaningless, really.29
For Bacon, religion is a system of attitudes which creates and imposes meaning upon life in order to give it some sense or purpose and, not surprisingly, it is one of the first subjects of his work.30 Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion [Fig. 2] is an incomplete work, as Bacon himself admitted, and one which he had intended to complete.31 John Russell has argued that this triptych does not relate specifically to the crucifixion, but it seems inevitable that the death of Christ is the first thing one would think of upon hearing the word 'crucifixion' and Bacon must certainly have known this.32 The story of Christ represented, for Bacon, that of the penultimate tragic hero: an individual who has, as Bacon himself put it, "been forced by circumstances into a unique situation."33 To ensure the fulfillment of Christ’s fate, Bacon has the Eumenides present at the Crucifixion, Greek mythological figures who ensured the carrying out of divine justice.34 What is particular- ly interesting about the Eumenides is that they were specifically enforcers of divine justice in cases of familial murder, and thus are quite relevant for an image depicting the sacrifice of a son by his father.35 Whether Bacon was aware of the specif- ic role of the Eumenides and did not simply look upon them more generally as enforcers of divine rule is difficult to determine. But why should they be depicted as witnesses to the Crucifixion? One would assume that Christ was willing to accept his fate and that the Eumenides need not be present; but Bacon may have had in mind Christ’s rather curious last words, "Father, father, why hast thou forsaken me," introducing an element of doubt which could have required the services of the Eumenides.36 Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was soon followed by the Pope series. These works, inspired by Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X (1650: Galleria Doria Pamphili, Rome) and photographs of Pope Pius XII, also deal with tragic figures in unique situations. The Pope is an individual who must relinquish all sense of self-identity (including his family name) in order to become the representative of a system of beliefs that no human being could ever be expected to adhere to completely. Like Christ, the Pope has very little opportunity to cheat fate because he is such a visible or public figure; as Bacon put it: "He’s in a unique position by being the Pope, and therefore, like in certain great tragedies, he’s as though raised onto a dias on which the grandeur of this image can be dis- played to the world."37 The tragedy of the situation in the Pope images for Bacon, a devout atheist, is that the individual has relinquished himself completely to a stifling system of beliefs and one which is an illusion veiled as an ultimate truth, i.e., a human creation which has been ascribed to some higher order of being which does not exist.38 More importantly, as will be suggested in Bacon’s later works, the system itself denies the basic biological instincts that lie at the heart of human nature. This is the source of the violence Bacon often portrays, one which is mental rather than physical, although it can ultimately manifest itself in physical violence.39
In Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X [Fig. 3] Bacon literally portrays the veil of illusions that mentally traps the Pope and elicits his cry of horror.40 But Bacon had toyed with another visual device that could more successfully convey the message of mental entrapment or isolation, namely his space-frames as found, for example, in Head VI [Fig. 4]. On a formal level, these frames act to isolate the image and minimize any potential narrative.41 However, this formal device does equally serve as a metaphor for psychological entrapment, highlighted by the fact that the skeletal outline of the frame could never function as a physical barrier. A further irony is found with the number of times isolated figures in space-frames are surrounded by a vast, open spatial setting, generating a "perverse space", as David Mellor characterizes it.42 One wonders why Bacon’s figures do not simply walk out of their prison. A similar idea is presented in Bacon’s anthropomorphized images of animals and, specifically, Study of a Baboon (1953: Private Collection) where the primate is fenced in and emits a cry of despair at being trapped, echoing the numerous human cries found in Bacon’s paintings. Yet, the fence only closes-off the top portion of the picture and the baboon could easily make its escape into the open landscape beyond. Again, the point is that the barrier is mental rather than physical.43 The space-frame as a visual metaphor of mental entrapment is used in a number of contexts to comment on the different strictures that are imposed upon us and that, ultimately, we impose upon ourselves. Bacon condemned any establishment which served to stifle individuality or the expression of individual will.44 This was an aspect of Surrealism that appealed to Bacon, as he pointed out in his interviews with Archimbaud: "I think I’ve been influenced by what the movement represented in terms of revolt against the establishment, in politics, religion and the arts..."45 But he also attacked our blind acceptance of society’s rules as outside of our control, i.e., as something which is in the hands of fate. Bacon’s Man with Dog (1953: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo), inspired by an Eadweard Muybridge photograph and Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo), shows a dog on a leash walking by a gutter. It presents yet another comment on the human condition, namely that of the domestication of our basic biological/ani- malistic instincts which are suppressed in the name of civilization, religion, etc. The leash is held by the lower half of a shadowy figure whose identity is unknown, but this oppressor’s shadow suggests a human presence. In essence, the oppressor is ourselves or rather the social structures which we create and endorse.46
There are a number of figures in Bacon’s work which elude the trappings of society’s conventions. In large part, these figures have done so because they have been rejected by society. Vincent van Gogh is one such figure whom Bacon admired and painted in a series of four works based on Van Gogh’s The Painter on His Way to Work or The Road to Tarascon (1888: destroyed during World War II). In Bacon’s Study for Portrait of Van Gogh II [Fig. 5] Van Gogh is depicted walking along a road which is shouldered by a space-frame. Significantly, the Dutch artist is presented outside this frame. What is unusual, though, is that Bacon seems to have toyed with the idea of putting Van Gogh in the space-frame since there is the shadow or pentimenti of the back line of the frame having extended fully to the bottom of the road on the left. This momentary indecision on Bacon’s part may have resulted from the fact that Van Gogh had nevertheless suffered at the hands of fate by simply being rejected by society; in other words, Van Gogh had not made a conscious choice to reject society. What may have tipped the scales in favour of Van Gogh’s placement outside the frame was that he still managed to fulfill his artistic ambitions despite the obstacles.47 A similar ambiguity in terms of figures on the margins of society is found in Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours [Fig. 6]. Based on photographs taken by the nineteenth-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, Bacon depicts a paralytic child who, because of its disability, could never be an active participant in society. That child is presented against a plain, dark back-ground except for an oversized window frame on the right which again does not enclose the figure. The child’s placement against the plain background implies an isolated existence free from the conventions of society symbolized by the window frame, a variant of Bacon’s space-frames. However, its walking toward that frame suggests nevertheless a desire to be part of that society.
The connection between fate and society’s conventions and beliefs is made explicit in Bacon’s paintings inspired by Greek tragedy. The shadow of Greek tragedy looms over most of Bacon’s work in terms of the repeated presence of the Eumenides. Their role and reason is made explicit in Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus [Fig. 7]. In the central panel one finds a seamlessly mutilated figure which may be that of Agamemnon or a composite of the trail of bodies which began with Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia. In the left panel is found a composite figure of the Furies or Eumenides seen emerging through a doorway into a space- frame. In the right panel is Orestes who is attempting to escape out of a space-frame and through a doorway. In this work, the space-frame represents divine order which Orestes transgressed by murdering his mother and that the Fury is attempting to enforce. Significantly, in Aeschylus’ account, Orestes does escape thanks to the intervention of the Goddess Athena, despite an impassioned plea on the part of the Furies. Bacon possibly relished this aspect of the tale since, as he told David Sylvester, he would prefer to find himself in the Christian hell "because, if I was in hell I would always feel I had a chance of escaping.’"48 Perhaps Bacon’s interest in Orestes was that he successfully escaped or finally acted outside of divine or societal structures, a goal which Bacon himself strove for and which he sought out in the people he befriend.
But one must question whether Orestes did escape fate. His assumed exit through the door leading out of the space-frame makes one wonder where that door leads. The blackened doorway found in the Orestes triptych had become a recurring feature in Bacon’s work after the death of his companion George Dyer in 1971. Significantly, in Triptych May-June (1973: Private Collection, Switzerland) we find one of the rare instances of a figure actually placed within the blackened doorway: the three panels depict Dyer’s death in a Paris hotel, with the middle one casting a shadow in the form of a Fury. In a sense, Orestes as well could not escape the ultimate fate we all face, that of death. The goddess Athena may have intervened to save Orestes from the furies but this represented only a postponement of the inevitable.49
As Bacon grew older and more of his friends died, he questioned our ability to escape fate despite one’s best efforts. A couple of years after his Oresteian triptych Bacon painted Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres (1983: Private Collection, California). In this ancient Greek myth Oedipus demonstrates his cunning in answering the sphinx’s riddle, but the doorway he will proceed through reveals the ominous presence of a Fury. The answering of the riddle is but the prelude to the tragic unfolding of Oedipus’ fate (that of murdering his father and marrying his mother) which had been predicted before his birth and which his parents sought to escape. The injury to Oedipus’ foot is a continual reminder of his parent’s failed attempt at avoiding the tragic destiny that befell them. Bacon had alluded to the Oedipus story in an uncharacteristic earlier work, Three Studies from the Human Body (1967: Private Collection). In this painting, two figures are shown falling into a void while a third hangs on to a horizontal shaft. The two falling figures may be acting out the desire for total freedom, one which Bacon had often toyed with in those moments where he wanted to simply throw a bucket of paint at the canvas in the hope that an image would appear,50 but the injured foot of the right figure is a subtle reminder of Oedipus’ fate whose every action was unknowingly predestined.
By the 1960s Bacon began to focus on how we are controlled by our own internal drives. This theme was implicit in a number of earlier works and, especially, those dealing with animal imagery. Bacon uses animal imagery to comment on our basic and fundamental biological nature and how we often try to conceal it under the veil of culture or civilization. Bacon’s images of human defecation, figures crouched in a landscape, even the primal cry, are all directed to illustrating what Sylvester described as "moments of acute awareness of [our] animal nature."51 Bacon views civilization as having domesticated those primal urges that we share with the animal world and which are the root cause of human violence. Like Georges Bataille (whom Bacon was certainly aware of since he owned copies of Documents and was close friends with one of its editors), the English artist admired past civilizations which acknowledged those basic instincts we share with animals.52 This is why he periodically produced images inspired by Egyptian sphinxes, like Sphinx I (1953: Private Collection, California).53
The theme of entrapment and our persistent desire for escape is probably nowhere better summed-up than in one of Bacon’s better known passages which relates the slaughter of animals to the Crucifixion and, in turn, to humanity in general:
I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion. There’ve been extraordinary photographs which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death. We don’t know, of course, but it appears by these photographs that they’re so aware of what is going to happen to them, they do everything to attempt to escape. I think these pictures were very much based on that kind of thing, which to me is very, very near this whole thing of the Crucifixion.54
What is fascinating in all this is that Bacon himself uses traps in his paintings to capture his subject and bring out its true character.55 The geometric structures found in the back- ground of his paintings, as well as the space-frames, are often such traps, paralleling the artificial structures used by the Greek and Classical poets which Bacon admired so much.56 The reason is rather simple for Bacon in that it is only in extreme situations that the reality of the image can manifest itself; where the veils of idealization or rather attitudes, as Bacon would put it, are completely removed.57 However, this does put Bacon in a rather awkward situation as observer and sometimes tormentor of his subjects. Bacon was fully aware of this as is reflected in his inability to paint from a live model and his self-portrait with camera in the right panel of Triptych—Studies from the Human Body (1970: Private Collection).58 As spectators of his work we are accomplices in this voyeuristic world, as Bacon never ceases to remind us, by way of the intimacy of the scenes he publicly displays to us and the manner in which he physically presents his works by the mid-1960s- behind glass and elaborately framed.59
Bacon never sets forth the ideal of a world devoid of artificiality: he would remark: "...all life is artificial: social justice makes it more pointlessly artificial."60 On the one hand, one cannot escape death as the ultimate fate of humanity and, on the other hand, there are those basic instinctual drives which we must struggle with just as Bacon struggled with his unconscious in the creation of a work; as Bacon himself pointed out: "...we are born and we die, but in between we give this purposeless existence a meaning by our drives."61 In Triptych—Inspired by T S. Eliot’s Poem "Sweeney Agonistes" death is presented in the central panel but is framed on each side by eros: pairs of naked figures are shown in bed with the right couple fornicating before us. Sexuality is certainly one of the most instinctual of our drives and also the one which Western society has worked the hardest at suppressing as Bacon would have learned from his reading of Freud. The latter was further magnified in Bacon’s case as a homosexual living in Britain. The figure on a telephone in the right panel watching the scene is society’s judge or the spy who reports on such acts of indecency, while ironically acting out the voyeuristic urge that exists in all of us. But while there is the problem of society’s judgment on sexuality there is also the awareness on Bacon’s part of the destructive nature of letting our instinctual drives act without restraint. Bacon never calls for a complete liberation of our instinctual urges, just as he would never simply fling a pot of paint at the canvas, despite how strong the temptation. For Bacon, there always had to be an equitable dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious, whether in painting or in life. He saw the consequences of the domination of either as destructive.
In the end, the conflict between the social and the individual, for Bacon, is simply an expression of the constant struggle between the conscious and unconscious. The infamous Eumenides which torment so many of Bacon’s figures can be viewed as either enforcers of social justice or as the conscious mind acting to control the unconscious. In fact, there is some ambiguity as to whether the Eumenides in Greek tragedy are not simply an objectification of our conscious mind acting on the unconscious; in T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion this is exactly how the Eumenides should viewed and interpreted. In terms of Bacon’s painting technique, the conflict between our drives and our conscious mind presents itself initially in terms of a preconceived idea of what the painting should look like and then facing the frustration of never achieving that goal because the paint appears to have a will of its own; it also emerges in the contrast between the geometric structures and the figures which populate them, or between the illustrational features of the faces of his figures and the abstracted distortions. Yet, for Bacon, that will of the paint is really a manifestation of the unconscious. The conflict itself is resolved, although never fully, by fine-tuning the conscious mind to be able to respond to the demands of the unconscious in a favourable and productive manner, or as Bacon put it, to be receptive to accident. Bacon never abandons conscious control when painting, but he never gives it absolute control, just as he would never want to give society absolute control over his life. In a sense, Bacon’s critique of society is essentially one of forcing individuals to take control over their own life, mediate their own urges, rather than leaving it completely in the hands of fate.
1 Cited in, David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 3rd ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993), p. 133.
2 Francis Bacon: In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud (London: Phaidon Press, 1993), p. 171.
3 Francis Bacon: In Conversation..., p. 171.
4 Too often, in the literature dealing with Bacon, the assumption is made that Bacon wanted to completely eliminate narrative or storytelling from his work. However, this was never the case. Bacon sought simply to diminish its role in favour of the sensations his works are meant to convey. Even David Sylvester assumed Bacon wanted to avoid telling a story in his paintings, to which Bacon replied: I don’t want to avoid telling a story, but I want very, very much to do the thing that Valery said-to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. And the minute the story enters, the boredom comes upon you. (Sylvester, p. 65) Nevertheless, the myth of Bacon’s anti-narrative stance persists and plays an important part in Ernst van Alphen’s recent book on Bacon. Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of the Self (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).
5 Sylvester, p. 152.
6 Sylvester, p. 65.
7 Francis Bacon: In Conversation..., p. 100. In his interviews with Michel Archimbaud, Bacon notes that context is important for understanding an artist and may explain some of the changes that occur in the arts, but it is also a question, for Bacon, of new techniques being introduced which are crucial in the development of the arts. In essence, for Bacon, the subject matter is always the same and the instincts to which an artist responds are the same, what changes are the materials and images one responds to, or, as Bacon put it: "...the only persistent problem for the artist is to express a subject which is always the same and which cannot be changed, by finding a new form of expression each time." Francis Bacon: In Conversation..., p. 80 & 73-77.
8 Van Alphen, 49-57.
9 Sylvester, p. 197.
10 Rolf Laessoe, "Francis Bacon and T. S. Eliot," Hafnia, Copenhagen Papers in the History of Art (vol. 9, 1983), p. 119.
11 Francis Bacon: In Conversation ..., pp. 121 & 127.
12 Francis Bacon: In Conversation.... p. 74.
13 In his conversations with Archimbaud, Bacon notes his frustration with translation and how it is impossible to regain the power of the original language when translated. (Francis Bacon: In Conversation..., pp. 112-113).
14 Francis Bacon: In Conversation..., p. 101.
15 Sylvester, p. 12.
16 Sylvester, p. 22.
17 In the interviews with Sylvester, Bacon speaks almost exclusively about technique and often diverts any of Sylvester’s questions about themes and subject matter back to formal issues. In the interviews conducted by Archimbaud, Bacon undergoes a barrage of questions relating to influences with Bacon more often than not simply acknowledging his admiration for a particular writer or painter. Archimbaud has little success in drawing out any information beyond this. As with many of Bacon’s contemporaries, technical aspects are the best place to start in order to understand the work; Post-World War II art in general has frustrated critical analysis because meaning is so tightly interwoven with technique (Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti are two obvious examples). The current state of scholarship, which is reeling from the excessive formalism of the recent past, has yet to reconcile itself fully to the possibility of a fruitful relationship with formalism; recent work on European Post-World War II art is beginning to rectify this situation.
18 Sylvester, p. 11. In 1993, Sylvester noted that Painting 1946 had started out as a depiction of a chimpanzee in long grass, then changed to a bird of prey alighting on a field. I do not wish to question Sylvester’s account, especially in light of his long-standing friendship with Bacon, but to my knowledge Bacon’s published accounts of the work make no mention of his intention of painting a chimpanzee. (David Sylvester, "Bacon’s Course," in Achille Bonito Oliva (ed.), Figurabile: Francis Bacon (Milano: Electa, 1993), p. 26)
19 Francis Bacon: In Conversation..., p. 83.
20 Francis Bacon: In Conversation..., p. 86. In the Sylvester interviews, Bacon expresses it in the following terms: "You know in my case all painting—and the older I get, the more it becomes so—is accident. So I foresee it in my mind, I foresee it, and yet I hardly ever carry it out as I foresee it. It transforms itself by the actual paint." Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 16. Dawn Ades clarifies the distinction between Bacon’s use of chance and that of the Surrealists in her essay, "Web of Images," in Dawn Ades and Andrew Forge, Francis Bacon (London: The Tate Gallery and Thames and Hudson, 1985), p. 12.
21 Francis Bacon: In Conversation..., pp. 83-84. The first explicit reference to Freud made by Bacon is found in the Sylvester interviews (p. 170) and it is in the Archimbaud interviews that Bacon actually confesses to being an avid reader of Freud (p. 84). For discussions on some of the Freudian aspects of Bacon’s work, see Ades, pp. 15-17, and Andrew Forge, "About Bacon," in Ades and Forge, p. 26.
22 Francis Bacon: In Conversation..., pp. 80 & 86. See also, Lorenza Trucchi, "The Delirium of the Body," in Oliva (ed.), p. 114.
23 Francis Bacon: In Conversation..., p. 88.
24 Bacon admits as much in a 1973 interview with Hugh Davies: "In my things I’d like them to be in one sense very exact but you couldn’t tell what the exactitude is, mysterious because how they come about is mysterious, images which unlock other images." Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon (New York: Abbeville Press, 1986), p. 110. He makes a similar confession to Sylvester at around the same time as the Davies interview. (Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 100.)
25 Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 17.
26 Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 99.
27 Andrew Forge touches on the possible connection of Freud’s notion of the uncanny and Bacon’s work. See Andrew Forge, "About Bacon," in Ades and Forge, p. 26.
28 Archimbaud, p. 121.
29 Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 133.
30 Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 134.
31 Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 112; Francis Bacon: In Conversation..., p. 166; and, Davies and Yard, p. 16, n. 18. It should be pointed out, though, that Bacon never really considered any of his works as completed.
32 John Russell, Francis Bacon, rev. ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993), p. 11.
33 Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 26.
34 Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 112.
35 Rolf Laessoe proposes a biographical reading of this work based on Bacon’s difficult childhood relationship with his father viewing the The Three Studies... as a secularized projection of Bacon’s personal feelings toward his father. Rolf Laessoe, "Francis Bacon’s Crucifixion’s and Related Themes," Hafnia. Copenhagen Papers in the History of Art (vol. 11, 1987), pp. 19-23.
36 Laessoe, "Francis Bacon’s Crucifixion’s and Related Themes," p. 23 & n. 41. In the Sylvester interviews, Bacon mentions his fascination with a Cimabue image of the Crucifixion (Crucifixion, 1272-74, Chiesa di Santa Croce, Florence), describing it "as a worm crawling down the cross." (Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 14) Implicit in this statement is the notion of escape.
37 Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 26.
38 At this juncture, it is important to point out the probable influence of Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an Illusion (1927) on Bacon’s thoughts regarding religion and civilization. Freud’s text examines the formation and function of religious ideas within culture and condemns religion which he feels should be replaced by a more scientific/materialistic approach to the problems of human society. This line of thought is further expounded upon in Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), which Bacon may have also been familiar with.
39 Attempts have been made to identify the source of the horror which elicits the screams expressed by a number of Bacon’s figures, yet there really is no object or scene which generates such a reaction. The anguish is one of mental entrapment rather than a response to some scene of horror occurring outside the frame of the paintings. Bacon has always defended himself against being a painter of violence in the literal sense of the term. He admits his images are violent, however, the violence he seeks to portray is that of the destruction of the self by the structures which humanity creates and imposes, i.e., a mental or psychological violence. The more confining the system, the more destructive its results, explaining, in part, Bacon’s fascination for the dictators of Nazi Germany. (Sam Hunter, "Francis Bacon: The Anatomy of Horror," Magazine of Art (vol. 95, Jan. 1952), p. 12; and, Davies and Yard, pp. 16-17.)
40 Interview with Hugh Davies (June 26, 1973), cited in Davies and Yard, p. 110; and, Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 82.
41 Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 23. One of the reasons why Bacon may have wanted to minimize the role of narrative in his work is that narrative does involve implicitly explanation or structured meaning, which is what Bacon saw as the main cause of the destruction of self- identity.
42 David Mellor, "Francis Bacon: Affinities, Contexts and the British Visual Tradition," in Oliva (ed.), pp. 100-101.
43 The connection between the fence in Study of a Baboon and the space-frame is made explicit in Chimpanzee (1955: Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart) where the partially enclosed fence is complemented by the presence of a space-frame.
44 Bacon declared himself a conservative in terms of politics because, for him, the Right endorses a less socially interventionist type of government. As he put it: I want my life to be as free as possible... And so in politics I have tended to vote for the Right because they are less idealistic than the left and therefore one is left freer than one would be if encumbered by the idealism of the Left. I always feel that for me the Right is the best of a bad job. (Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 199)
45 Francis Bacon: In Conversation..., p. 128.
46 The few paintings of children Bacon produced also involve this notion of entrapment by the conventions of society, something Bacon himself was quite familiar with given the difficulties he had with his father. The forcing of the child by the parent to conform to the conventions of society is partly the message Bacon wished to convey in such works as Man Carrying a Child (1956: Private Collection, New York) and Man and Child (1963: Louisiana Museum, Humleback). In the Sylvester interviews, Bacon comments on child art as loosing all its spontaneity and vitality once "they’ve been influenced by their environment." (Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 178)
47 There is the possibility that William Blake is yet another of these figures presented outside the margins of society, whom Bacon painted in a series of portraits based on a life mask. But Bacon is rather ambiguous about his interest in Blake. (Francis Bacon: In Conversation..., pp. 120-122)
48 Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 200.
49 In Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, a book which Bacon admired, the author recounts Midas’ inquiry as to what fate is best for humanity to which the seer Silenus replies that the best fate is unattainable, not to be born, second is to die early.
50 Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 107.
51 To which Bacon responded: "But surely any art is always made up of those qualities?" (Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 80). In another part of the Sylvester interviews, Bacon notes how human locomotion in his imagery is continuously linked with animal movement. (Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 116) It may have been this that attracted Bacon to Muybridge’s photograph of the paralytic child. These parallels between animal imagery and human figures are the basis of Gilles Deleuze’s elucidating description of Bacon’s work. See G. Deleuze, Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation (Paris: Editions de la Difference, 1984).
52 Ades, pp. 13-18.
53 On Bacon’s admiration for Egyptian art, see, Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 176.
54 Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 23.
55 Bacon noted: "as an artist you have to, in a sense, set a trap by which you can hope to trap this living fact alive. How well you can set the trap? Where and at what moment will it click?" (Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 57)
56 Francis Bacon: In Conversation..., p. 167.
57 In an interview with Hugh Davies, Bacon observed: Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact, what we know of our existence-a reconcentration... tearing away veils that fact acquires through time. Ideas always acquire appearance veils, the attitudes people acquire of their time and earlier time. Really good artists tear down those veils. (June 26, 1973: cited in Davies and Yard, p. 110)
58 Lawrence Gowing, "Francis Bacon: The Human Presence," in Lawrence Gowing and Sam Hunter, Francis Bacon (London & Washington: Thames and Hudson, Ltd. and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, 1989), p. 18. See also, Trucchi, p. 114.
59 Davies and Yard, p. 115; and, Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 87.
60 Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 125.
61 Sylvester, Interviews..., p. 134.
Bringing home the Bacon
RICHARD INGLEBY | VISUAL ARTS | THE INDEPENDENT | SATURDAY 03 JANUARY 1998
From Augustus Egg to Francis Bacon, from the 17th to the 20th centuries, from painting to sculpture, London’s public galleries are offering arts for all tastes and interests in 1998.
It had to happen. Sooner or later someone had to devise an exhibition to include the 19th-century painter Augustus Egg alongside modern masters Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. “The Art Treasures of England”, as they have called it — I can’t help but think of it as “Freud Egg and Bacon” — gathers some 450 artworks from 100 museums around the country in celebration of the richness of our regional collections and ought to be the first unmissable show of the year. It opens at the Royal Academy (0171-300 8000) at the end of this month and runs through to the middle of April.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty more Bacon at the Hayward Gallery (0171-921 0600) in February and March in the first major showing there of his work for 10 years while at the Tate Gallery (0171-887 8000) from February to May an exhibition devoted to the altogether gentler pleasures of Pierre Bonnard will include several amazing pictures of his wife Marthe in the bath.
1998 is the centenary of Henry Moore’s birth, so we can expect a host of anniversary exhibitions around the country. One of the simpler and more intriguing tributes is at the National Gallery (0171-747 2885) in April where the sculptures by Moore will be placed alongside a selection of his favourite works from the National Collection. Come the summer the Tate swaps the high-coloured brilliance of Bonnard for that of Patrick Heron. He’s 78 this year and as time rolls by he looks like one of the major British artists of the last 50 years.
On a rather different note, if, like me, you missed the once-in-a-lifetime Vermeer exhibition a couple of years ago, there is a small consolation at Dulwich Picture Gallery (0181-693 5254) in August and September in the shape of a Pieter de Hooch exhibition, apparently the first ever devoted to this subtle second master of the 17th century.Other highlights of the autumn include a show of new work by Will Maclean at Art First (0171-734 0386) in October and back at the Tate, an exhibition of the great late 19th-century stylist John Singer Sargent runs from November into January 1999. It looks as if we're in for a good year.
To shock is not enough
Francis Bacon may express 20th-century despair, but does that make him
one of our greatest painters? BRYAN APPLEYARD remains unconvinced
BRYAN APPLEYARD | COVER STORY | CULTURE | THE SUNDAY TIMES | 18 JANUARY 1998
Six years after his death, Francis Bacon’s reputation has begun to take on the lineaments of myth. Here, it seems, is the supreme embodiment of contemporary artistic genius.
The biography is so apt that it reads like fiction. Lonely and persecuted as a child, Bacon drifted aimlessly through the world before finding his vocation. Fleeing his domineering father, he travelled at 19 to Berlin and then to Paris, before returning to London, where he forged references to become a gentleman’s gentleman. Asthma saved him from military service and left him free to frequent private gambling parties, all the while being looked after by his faithful nanny.
He painted sporadically in the 1930s, and also attempted to embark on a career as an interior designer. Then, in 1945, he burst on to the scene with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, a tantalising and, romantically shocking flash of angry genius that seemed to spring directly from the Holocaust revelations emerging at the time — the art critic John Berger said in 1952 that people looked at Bacon pictures instead of going to Belsen. After that his life consisted of an austere, monomaniacal pursuit of a single harsh and disturbing artistic vision, combined with bouts of drink, gambling and violent homosexual debauchery that are still discussed in awestruck whispers in Soho pubs.
A number of familiar themes emerge from this story: the lonely child, the drifter, the flash of inspiration, the anguished, despairing and yet decidedly relevant artistic vision and the dissident, chaotic life. Tell the story to the man in the street and the response will almost certainly be: “Well , artists are like that.”
This year the myth is to be reinforced . An exhibition at the Hayward Gallery — Francis Bacon: the Human Body — is to run from February 5 to April 5. Soon after that, a film — Love Is the Devil: Studies for a Portrait of Francis Bacon, written and directed by John Maybury — is to be premiered at Cannes. The film stars Derek Jacobi as Bacon and centres on his affair with George Dyer, who died in 1971. This incident again emphasises the almost absurdly dramatic nature of the biography. Bacon heard of Dyer’s death when he was waiting to meet President Pompidou at the Grand Palais in Paris. Fate delivered its memento mori at the very height of his artistic success.
Now Bacon is routinely hailed as one of the 20th century’s finest artists, the “greatest British painter since Turner”. His life and work are viewed as one seamless expression of the contemporary condition. He said he wished to record the human cry, “the whole coagulation of pain and despair”. And this, in our time, is taken to be the truest, deepest thing an artist can do. The truth, it is assumed, leads you to despair; the wreckage of the life legitimises the vision.
The contemporary directness of his message seems overwhelming. Lord Gowrie said he was “unique in this century in his ability to render the indoor, overfed, alcohol-and-tobacco-lined flesh of the average urban male”. The Hollywood director Jonathan Demme drew on Baconian imagery for his film The Silence of the Lambs. In the first Batman movie, Jack Nicholson’s Joker desecrates every painting in a gallery except for a Bacon. And the French poet Michel Leiris wrote: “Francis Bacon expresses the human condition as it truly and peculiarly is today — man dispossessed of any durable paradise and able to contemplate himself clear-sightedly.” The message seems to be that a Bacon picture shows what it is really like to be alive. It is what William Burroughs called “the naked lunch”, the horrible, fleshly reality at the end of your fork.
The problem with all this is that it makes it difficult to say anything remotely coherent about the art. As with Sylvia Plath, Salvador Dali or Ezra Pound, the life always intrudes. Criticism becomes so biographical (Plath’s neurosis and suicide) or so tightly chained to contemporary events (Pound’s embrace of Italian fascism), that it becomes almost impossible to imagine the works standing alone. But stand alone they must if they are to survive. In a hundred years’ time, neurosis, fascism and Soho revels are going to seem pretty marginal considerations. So, for Bacon, as for these other artists, the question becomes: will they survive? The answer is, I think, that Pound will, the rest won’t.
In the case of Bacon, this may seem shocking. There is little room for dissent in the current climate of adulation. In addition, I don’t think there can be any doubt that Bacon’s paintings are immensely effective. People were stunned, revolted, even frightened when they first saw Three Studies, and the visceral charge of his smeared bodies and faces is undeniable. But shock, disgust and ensuing despair are not of themselves aesthetic responses. A work needs to do more than that if it is to be called art. Does Bacon do more?
Understanding his Englishness is crucial in any answer to this question. When he first began seriously looking at paintings in the 1930s, English modernism was teetering on the verge of collapse into ghastly good taste. Abroad, there was the energy and apparently limitless fecundity of Picasso; here, there were the increasingly pallid abstractions of Ben Nicholson and, subsequently, Victor Pasmore. Late modernism in England must have seemed peculiarly bloodless, utterly devoid of sensuality and, when the time came, quite unable to cope with the shocks that were to be administered to the contemporary soul by Nazism.
So Three Studies, when placed in context, becomes an obvious gesture of defiance towards a certain type of English art. Gone was the landscape and pastoral, the cosiness of St Ives, and in their place were howling monsters. And we could not soften our sense of their anguish by consoling ourselves that, on the third day, Christ rose from the dead. At this crucifixion, God really was dead. This was an obvious assault on creepy English gentility and a statement that, as Bacon was to say again and again, painting should act directly on the nerves. “Painting,” he said, “is the pattern of one’s nervous system being projected on the canvas.”
Others also rebelled against Little England. There was John Osborne and the rest of the Angry Young Men. And, from another perspective, there were pop artists such as Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi who imported new content from the rich, mass culture of America. Pop, in fact, was to be the precursor of what came to be regarded as the overthrow — or, if you prefer, murder — of painting by the avant-garde. Increasingly , through conceptualism, installation and “earth art”, painting was discarded as a form of expression that had outlived its usefulness. Now, of course, this supposedly dissident view has become the most solidly Financially underpinned establishment orthodoxy.
Yet Bacon kept on painting. And he did so without, apparently, the slightest flicker of interest in these other developments. Having found his subject matter with Three Studies, he never deviated from his vocation of painting the human cry. His technique broadened into the familiar smears and tortured poses of his mature work. But even that froze at a relatively early stage. Late Bacons are staggeringly similar to early ones.
Oddly for such a radical artist, this made him a very conservative hero. Here was a man who still believed in the power of paint and who — especially in his borrowings from Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X — remained a recognisable heir of the expressive fine-art tradition. When, in the marketplace of the 1980s, painting suddenly became fashionable again, he was redefined as the leading figure of a School of London that included such other “conservative” painters as Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Lucian Freud.
All of which is to say that British art needed Bacon and still does. He fills an essential niche comparable to that occupied by Jackson Pollock in America. Both were modernists with romantically dishevelled lives who flung themselves at the ancient problem of paint and canvas with raw, existential heroism. Both were a type of genius that has become instantly recognisable to modern eyes. And both were held up by their fans as national justifications — Pollock as the creator of an American art that had freed itself from Europe, and Bacon as proof of the continuing vitality of British figurative painting. David Hockney may also be said to have fulfilled this latter role, but his cosmopolitanism and his obvious lack of anguish meant that he did not provide the full, weighty, existential seriousness required of our resident genius.
Bacon was, in short , the right man at the right time, and a good deal of his current reputation depends on this. The rave reviews go beyond the mere contents of the canvases and exude a kind of sigh of relief that here is somebody who stands for this recognisable set of values, this visceral directness of contemporary appeal.
In reality, the paintings do not bear this kind of adulation, though his admirers try very hard to give them real depth.
“The paintings are a huge affirmation,” the critic David Sylvester has written, “that human vulnerability is countered by human vitality. They are a shout of defiance in the face of death.”
Mere vitality, as expressed by the act of bothering to paint at all, becomes the one positive to be discerned in the work. This, I fear, suggests a high degree of critical impoverishment.
It is the kind of view often supported by a comparison with Samuel Beckett. But the comparison reveals the relative thinness of Bacon’s oeuvre. Painting the human cry would have seemed an absurdly inadequate artistic programme to Beckett. His works are spiritual and universal in the deepest sense — even his shortest fragments of prose are replete with comedy, tragedy, poignancy and a profoundly sensitive humanity. They are entirely lacking in the passive, self-indulgent self-obsession of Bacon’s canvases, so well expressed by his often quoted remark: “We live, we die and that’s it, don’t you think?” Well, yes, but, more importantly, no; something happens in between, something more than merely a scream.
So I am afraid I do not see the affirmation Sylvester celebrates. I see rather the morbid repetition of an elementary insight about the decentred, deracinated self trapped in a cage of flesh. This may be the primary inspiration o f much modern art, but it is not enough to make the art itself. That requires a full realisation of the human implications of the insight, not its mere description. There is, in the end, less to Bacon than meets the eye, not more, and the constant critical striving to accredit him with depth, with a reason to linger over the paintings, only draws attention to that fact.
But the myth of the wild genius remains intact and is now set to be inflated even further. This is a problem for our aesthetic health as it reinforces a deeply unhistorical view of the vocation of the artist. Far from being dissolute renegades, most great artists have been highly ambitious, socially integrated individual. Their depth more often comes from a sublimated yearning to belong rather than a rebellious desire to shock and escape from human society — Bach, Mozart, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Michelangelo and T S Eliot all played the social game or aspired to a clear role in society. If we insist that the opposite is the truth, then we shall inevitably miss or suppress the best that our age has to offer
It is probably an even greater problem for painting itself. For Bacon has become the last great British hope for the art, the very embodiment of the idea that the interaction of paint and canvas can still move and deepen us. If he does not fulfil that role, then the very viability of painting is called into question. And perhaps that, finally, is the issue. Is it now possible to paint as Titian and Degas once painted? Or has that wonderful combination of technique , depth and fullness been lost for ever? I hope not.
Bacon: expressing the human condition today?
I can’t draw, said Bacon
Pages from Francis Bacon’s sketchbook bought by the Tate
shed new light on his genius, says Richard Cork
RICHARD CORK | ARTS | GALLERIES | THE TIMES | MONDAY JANUARY 26 1998
Only a year before he died in 1992, I asked Francis Bacon about his attitude to drawing. “I can’t draw,” he said flatly. I found such a sweeping declaration hard to believe, but Bacon refused to qualify his remark. “If you asked me to draw something,” he replied, “I don’t think I would be able to. And very often people have said: ‘Well, he can’t draw, so there it is. That’s why they’re such awful paintings.’ ”
Since his death, though, Bacon’s wholesale denial has begun to be challenged. He wanted his paintings to stand alone, and maintained that drawings played no part in their preparation. But the fact is that both pen and pencil did have a role in Bacon’s art. We will probably never know precisely how many images he executed on paper, nor in what way they helped him to plan his work on canvas. He never wanted them to be displayed in public, and had many of them destroyed. Now, however, the Tate Gallery has acquired for £359,000 some 42 sheets, most of them from a hitherto unknown spiral-bound sketchbook. Purchased with the aid of lottery money (one of several grants to be announced by the Heritage Lottery Fund on Wednesday) and the National Art Collections Fund, they are bound to alter our view of Bacon’s achievement.
Next week an exhibition of his work opens at the Hayward Gallery in London. Just as he would have wished, it will contain nothing but paintings on canvas. But they probably owe more to preparatory work on paper than he cared to admit. Four of the most important Tate purchases can be linked with major paintings of the period. The earliest, freely handled in oil and gouache, shows a figure lurking in tall, wind-blown grasses. Shadowy and sinister, this near-silhouetted presence is akin to Bacon’s 1952 painting Study of Figure in a Landscape, now in the Phillips Collection, Washington. They share a predatory air, suggesting that Bacon had been influenced by his encounters with wildlife on a recent trip to South Africa.
This preoccupation with pent-up aggression never left him, arid in another of the new Tate pictures, Turning Figure, it takes a convulsive form. Executed in oil and pencil, the female nude writhes and shudders on her own. The wall-like lines brushed in behind her indicate a bare room, within which she might be trapped. But the woman retains a formidable amount of energy, and seems capable of breaking free from her confines.
No such vigour can be found in the other two pictures. Closely related to each other, they show figures reclining on beds or sofas. The furniture is difficult to identify, for Bacon has reduced it to an heraldic series of,coloured stripes. Brushed horizontally across the paper, they reveal his awareness of abstract art. But humanity, as ever, is the true focus. Although they recall the Tate’s own 1961 painting, Reclining Woman, the figures are both male and clearly homoerotic.
The men’s languorous bodies are outlined in ballpoint pen, and their contours are deftly played off against the gouache sweeping around them in brilliant hues. The sheer verve of these pictures recalled another re - mark Bacon made in an earlier interview. After agreeing with my observation that “you are, in a sense, quite a linear artist”, he described how “when I paint, I draw directly with the brush”.
Those words apply to 36 newly discovered sheets of paper, torn from sketchbooks and dating from the end of the 1950s. Executed in various media, among them oil paint, ink, ballpoint pen and pencil, they concentrate with obsessive frequency on single figures. Whether crawling, crouching, sitting or lying, they are usually brushed in with an oriental sense of economy. They must have been done very quickly and impulsively. The paint almost seems to have been poured on to the paper at times, giving these isolated men an extraordinary, instinctive vitality. But Bacon does not appear to have looked after the sheets very well. One bears the imprint of a shoe, indicating that he left it on the studio floor.
Another image, of two figures suspended on ropes over a tank, is mysteriously inscribed in Bacon’s scrawled, impetuous handwriting: “Collapsed Image of Christ — Pool of Flesh”. Most of them, though, defy any religious interpretation. The figures seem to be caught in a state of transition, half human and half animal. A book once owned by the artist has been acquired by the Tate as well, and it illuminates this preoccupation. Called Introducing Monkeys, it contains a brief text and a wealth of arresting, black-and-white photographs by V.J. Stanek.
The book’s cover is spattered with paint, and on two pages at the back Bacon has written a fascinating list of “ideas for paintings”. They include, “Chimpanzee standing in middle of carpet” and “Man pulling screaming child in centre of circle”. His scribbled words testify to the pulse of his imagination . Violence, never far from the turbulent centre of Bacon’s work, is openly explored in two pages of boxing photographs. Torn from a book or magazine, they have both been painted over. In one, the full-length figure of Jack Dempsey has been entirely obliterated by Bacon’s alternative, dark against an orange background. He is a Neanderthal apparition reminiscent of the “rough beast” in Yeats’s The Second Coming , a poem Bacon admired.
In the other boxing photograph, the British heavyweight Joe Beckett sprawls at the feet of Georges Carpentier in their 1919 fight. Ignoring the battered Beckett, Bacon brushes a rectangular frame around the triumphant Carpentier and partially replaces him with a writhing figure in blue-black paint.
When the Tate exhibits this astonishing cache of material later in the year, it will throw revelatory light on even the most impenetrable recesses of Bacon’s imagination. While helping to provide a fuller understanding of Britain’s finest 20th-century painter, these largely unknown images also prove that artists should never be expected to tell us the whole truth about the way they work.
The dog-eared sheets torn from Bacon’s book often display an oriental sense of economy or an awareness of
abstract art — yet as in all his work, Crawling Nude (left), and Bending Nude have humanity as their focus.
A slice of lean Bacon
RICHARD INGLEBY | VISUAL ARTS | THE INDEPENDENT | SATURDAY 31 JANUARY 1998
Despite huge exhibitions in Germany and France, the work of Francis Bacon has not received a proper airing in Britain for over 10 years. Yet in just 23 paintings, the new show at the Hayward Gallery has managed the impressive job of summarising Bacon’s complex career.
It is some time since we in this country have had a chance to see a major exhibition of work by Francis Bacon, the man most often billed as the century’s greatest British painter. Recent years have seen several large-scale shows further afield, including enormous exhibitions in Paris and Munich, but there has been nothing of consequence here for at least 10 years.
Whichever way one looks at his work, Bacon could not be called an intimate artist — yet, somehow, a veil of intimacy has snuck into the Hayward Gallery’s current show. It’s partly the scale of the thing (just 23 paintings made over 40 years) and partly the selection, which concentrates on self-portraits and pictures of his friends and familiars such as Lucian Freud, Henrietta Moraes and the tragic George Dyer.
This exhibition, which is titled The Human Body (as if Bacon ever painted anything else) succeeds, surprisingly, in capturing the essence of a complex career in a couple of dozen pictures. It’s a good deal less extravagant than the recent shows in France and Germany, and all the better for it. The credit for this success belongs to David Sylvester, whose excellent selection is accompanied by a pithy catalogue composed of pointed observations about the man and his work. It’s a format which allows Sylvester to touch on all the main themes: on Bacon’s curious androgyny; on the balance between grandeur and grotesqueness in his images; and on the various references which appear and reappear, from Velasquez and Degas to Eisenstein and Muybridge.
It’s one of the best bits of writing about Bacon to appear for many years, but the over-riding sense that emerges from the catalogue, and to a lesser extent from the choice of paintings, is of Sylvester himself growing old with Bacon’s work. It is not an inappropriate tone, as, over the years, Sylvester has done as much as anyone to cement Bacon’s reputation, and it’s his involvement here which defines the unexpected intimacy of the occasion. Don’t miss it.
The Human Body, Hayward Gallery, SE1 (0171-928 3144) 5 February-5 April
AGONY OR ECSTASY?
Francis Bacon’s work has been regarded as gloomy and nihilistic.
Martin Gayford hears a different view
MARTIN GAYFORD | ARTS & BOOKS | THE DAILY TELEGRAPH | SATURDAY JANUARY 31 1998
WALKING round the Tate Gallery, the critic David Sylvester came upon one of those wall texts that galleries like to put up these days. This one announced that Francis Bacon’s work "strips life of purpose and meaning". So much for wall texts, concluded Sylvester. The truth about his late friend, perhaps the most significant British painter of the century, was very different. "The paintings," he retorted, "are a huge affirmation that human vulnerability is countered by human vitality."
A huge affirmation? Can he really be talking about the painter of those screaming popes? The creator of those feral figures copulating in a blur and splatter of paint, those nightmarish creatures who cry out, sightless and appallingly toothy, in the Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion? The portraitist whose subjects’ features seem to dissolve and re-combine in front of our eyes like Dr Jekyll in progress towards Mr Hyde?
A widespread opinion of Francis Bacon has been that he was an unremittingly gloomy and gruesome painter (as in Mrs Thatcher’s unauthenticated reference to "the dreadful man who paints those horrible pictures" ). His celebrated Popes of the late Forties and early Fifties were greeted as visualisations of the agony of existential man beneath the shadow of the bomb. Some of the painter’s most publicised pensées — that we are all, for example, Damien Hirst-style, lumps of meat — add to his reputation as a nihilist.
He was and is, of course, an unavoidable figure in post-war British art. Born in 1909, he did not make his mark until he was in his mid- thirties; from that point, he rose to become the most celebrated living British artist. A film about his life, Love is the Devil, starring Derek Jacobi, is to be premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
All the same, for many he remains, as Sylvester has put it, an "artistic leper" — a painter too nasty, too violent to contemplate.
But there has always been another view of Bacon, a view Sylvester takes. Those who knew him are at one in describing the magical charm of his company, the exhilarating excitement of his presence, his wisdom, his intellectual daring. (Among many other things, Bacon was the presiding spirit of Soho, an outrageous bohemian wit and drinker, and most distinguished habitue of the Colony Room.) Painters discussing his work talk not about grand guignol, but about beauty and classicism.
And who is in a better position to judge Francis Bacon than David Sylvester? He is enormously respected as a maker of exhibitions. As long ago as the Sixties he was dubbed "Mr Art". Sylvester was Bacon’s friend for many years, the Boswell-like collaborator on the famous book of Interviews with Francis Bacon, and the curator of highly acclaimed Bacon exhibitions in Venice, Munich, Paris and now one which is to open next month at the Hayward Gallery.
Before the crates of paintings arrived at the South Bank, and the final arrangement began, I talked to him about Bacon — and how his view had changed since the painter’s death in 1992.
Sylvester continues to reflect on his friend’s character. In a recent essay, to describe Bacon’s character, he uses the images of Tiresias, the Greek seer, who lived as both a man and a woman. The way in which the two sexes met in the painter, Sylvester feels, "did more than anything else perhaps to make his presence so famously seductive and to make him so peculiarly wise and realistic in his observation of life".
ADMITTEDLY, all this coincided with an attitude to existence as unsentimental as it is possible to be. "When I’m dead," Bacon once remarked to the barman at the Colony Room, "put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter." Asked by Lord Rothermere what he did, he replied: "I’m an old poof."
As Sylvester puts it, he "had a marvellously, what you might call cynical, but you might also call simply realistic, view of how people behave towards one another. He went through life enormously aware of the imminence of death. But that heightened his sense of exhilaration at being alive. And I think it’s there in the painting — the sense that life is on the edge, but, at the same time, it’s wonderful to be alive."
In many ways, the painter himself liked to live on the edge — he was a passionate gambler, losing and, less often, gaining large sums at the tables. Famously, he was thrown out of the family house aged 16 when his horsy, Army-officer father found him dressed in his mother’s clothes. From then on, Bacon fearlessly, often outrageously, did as he chose.
He was, as Sylvester puts it, "interested in crisis. He would always tend to consider how people behaved, or might behave, in an extreme situation, when people’s real quality was put to the test. So he was interested in violence and the extreme. But I think violence, as against horror."
This love of extremity was balanced by a fastidious, hypercritical streak — just as important to him as an artist and a man.
"One thing about Francis that I very much disliked was his tendency to dismiss the work of virtually every other artist. He didn’t like much art. He didn’t even like much of the art of the artists he most admired, such as Picasso, Velazquez and Rembrandt. But then he didn’t much like his own work, which was, in a sense, the excuse."
Bacon himself believed that the difference between artists was often not one of talent, but of critical judgment, and he pruned his own work ruthlessly (once, finding a painting of his own he didn’t like on sale in a gallery, he is said to have bought it on the spot for a large sum, taken it outside, and jumped on it).
"He was hard to please. For example, we’d go out to dinner, and he’d pass the wine list to me and ask me to choose. And, not wanting to spend too much of his money, I’d often tend to choose claret from one of the great second growths of a decent year, costing £80 — £100, something like that. And he would always complain, and insist that the next bottle should be Lafite or Latour.
"It’s ridiculous to have a bottle of Latour opened and drink it immediately: it should be decanted some time in advance. But there was none of that: he always left it in the bottle and drank it immediately. He tended to love the good things of life, but, at the same moment, to undermine them."
Bacon frequently said that he would like to paint pictures that affected his nervous system with the raw violence of life itself — what he once called, in a famous phrase "the brutality of fact". "We nearly always live through screens," he told Sylvester. "When people say my work looks violent, perhaps I have been able to clear away one or two screens."
Simultaneously, he wanted his art to have the formal structure of a Michelangelo. A tall order, but sometimes he brought it off. Even when Bacon’s figures seem to have been assailed with a chainsaw, they may be beautiful, and in a strange way calm — just as a grisly old master martyrdom may be, or Poussin’s The Massacre of the Innocents (one of Bacon’s favourite pictures).
A lot of people have missed that beauty. "I think Bacon has been misunderstood, " Sylvester insists. "But, after all, most art is misunderstood because people think it’s like story-telling."
Sylvester takes the case of the paintings which deal with the ghastly suicide of Bacon’s lover, George Dyer, found dead seated on the lavatory. "The thing about them which is so amazing is that even when somebody is being sick into a basin, there’s a kind of serenity in the composition. This is the tradition of great art."
He talks of how Bacon has emerged as a "great colourist" when his work was seen in natural light two years ago in the great exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. In that Parisian setting, Sylvester saw something he had not expected: a serene beauty of form and colour which he calls "Matissean grandeur". "The realisation that there is Matisse there in Bacon, as well as Picasso, has made me admire him more than ever in the last few years."
Just as there are unexpected aspects of the paintings, so too there were unpublicised intellectual depths in the painter himself. In literature, Bacon’s tastes ran to the classical — but a harsh, tragic classicism. The Greek tragedian, Aeschylus, was a favourite writer. But then, as Sylvester asks, "Who was more terrible than Aeschylus? He always tended, when talking about Shakespeare, to quote from Macbeth. He was involved in the tragic."
But, literary parallels and high ambitions aside, how good was Bacon? Sylvester was critical at the time of some periods of his work, and remains so. "But I think, you know, that we mustn’t judge artists by their batting average but by their highest score. If you can make 200 in a Test match now and then it’s worth more than a solid average of 68.2 in county matches."
His final assessment is that Bacon was perhaps the greatest European painter of his generation, but not quite the equal of the great Americans Newman, Pollock and De Kooning.
Bacon gambled with paint, and didn’t always win, but Sylvester admires his nerve. "I like about Bacon that craziness and courage and lack of fear of being absurd. He really didn’t care what people thought. Well, he cared and he didn’t care. I think that’s a tremendous force in an artist." So, as time goes on, Bacon doesn’t get smaller? The answer is clear: "Oh, he gets bigger, for me. He gets bigger."
‘Francis Bacon: The Human Body’ is at the Hayward Gallery, London SEI (0171-960 4242), from Feb 5 to Apr 5.
Photographed on a London street in 1970, Bacon was an outrageous bohemian wit,
despite his work’s reputation for nihilism
Bacon’s diet of oysters and despair
Margret Thatcher called him ‘that dreadful man who paints horrible pictures’,
and even a cursory glance at his art revealed the hidden turmoil of Francis Bacon’s life.
Since his Irish childhood, Bacon’s sexuality had been fuelled by images of brutal abuse by his father’s grooms.As a new film on the artist runs into controversy, Stephen Dodd considers the angst behind the genius.
STEPHEN DODD | PEOPLE | SUNDAY INDEPENDENT | SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 1998
HIS most enduring lover arrived through the bedroom window. Francis Bacon was in bed, alarmed by a sudden noise, when he realised there was a burglar in the house. When the stranger stepped through the door, Bacon was ready with his response. "
Take all your clothes off," he commanded, "and get into bed with me. Then you can have all you want."
There is evidence that Francis Bacon, homosexual since early boyhood, treated sex with the same bleak honesty that he treated life itself. He once claimed that man’s existence was an accidental act, a "game without reason".
He told an interviewer he had an epiphanic moment when he saw a dog defecating on a pavement. "I suddenly realised, there it is," he said, "This is what life is like"
Bacon’s paintings, powerful and confident, filtered by a darkly disillusioned mind. From the outset he had suffered guilt, for his tastes more than anything he had actually done. Brought up with a disciplinarian father in a horsy establishment in Co. Kildare, Bacon was a fragile child, suffering the scourge of asthma and with no liking for the rough games of his contemporaries. He was both repulsed by and attracted to his father. The complex force of the dilemma wrought an inner havoc which he later projected into his art.
Childhood in Ireland was unsettling and occasionally traumatic. Once he was caught dressing up in his mother’s clothes. On another occasion Bacon was horsewhipped and abused by the grooms, while his father oversaw the punishment.
IT HAD been claimed that this single cruelty would torment the painter throughout his life His father’s servants, having carried out their duties with the whip, took the boy into the stables and molested him. The images of the day were indelibly drawn into Bacon’s subconscious, and would later merge with adult horrors to mould the current screams on the faces produced by his brush.
Bacon’s escape from Ireland brought a new freedom, but little in the way of personal deliverance. He had discovered he was resolutely homosexual after having several affairs with the same grooms who had earlier beaten him. Aged 19 he travelled to London and then Berlin and Paris, where he revelled in the discovery that homosexuality could be openly declared.
Francis had always suffered from guilt about his sexual preference. He was afraid both of his father and the law. Oscar Wilde’s prison sentence was still recent history, while one MP openly claimed to hold a blacklist of 47,000 secret homosexuals. The young Bacon saw his homosexuality almost as a curse, a dangerous urge that could not be suppressed. Though he realised his guilt was society’s fault and not his own, the necessary subterfuge of his sexuality turned a frail child into a sometimes devious man.
In Paris the untrained Bacon turned to art after visiting an exhibition of paintings by Picasso. By day he worked, producing pictures that won little critical acclaim and which he later destroyed. At night he threw himself into gay Paris, described vividly in the words of Brassaï, who chronicled the more colourful characters of the time.
"I saw many enigmatic, unidentifiable creatures," he wrote, "floating at the the poorly drawn barrier between the sexes in a sort of no-man’s land. There were long, fragile necks, smooth doll-like faces, peaches-and-cream complexions, platinum hair set off by camellia or a red carnation."
Though he enjoyed his idyll among such company, Bacon returned to London to work, and found a different, repressed existence. He took lovers, often older men. He moved from lodging to lodging to escape paying overdue rent. He stole or borrowed from friends. His contemporaries were now pressing for homosexuality to be legalised, but Bacon shrunk back, retreating into the rougher margins of sexual preference.
As the reputation of his violent, visceral images slowly grew, Bacon’s sexuality found ever more exotic means of expression. On a trip to South Africa he elected to travel in the poorer quarters of the ship: "Far more fun among the stokers," he explained.
He spent time in Tangiers, where he did little work but enjoyed himself in the company of an ex-pat tribe of cultural outcasts, such as Allen Ginsberg and Paul Bowles. Bacon confided to Ginsberg that he had once placed a bizarre bet with a man. If he lost he would allow himself to be whipped, "with a bonus for every stroke that drew blood".
Ginsberg wrote to Jack Kerouac, telling him of Bacon: "He wears sneakers and tight dungarees and black silk shirts and always looks like going to tennis, and paints mad gorillas in grey hotel rooms drest (sic) in evening dress with deathly black umbrellas. He said he would paint big pornographic pictures of me."
BACON could be, by turns, both amusing and belligerent. Once, after he was asked by a fellow painter what he would have been if not an artist, he replied "a mother". Later, when the painter quoted the reply, Bacon denied he had ever said it. He turned to the painter’s sons and asked if they liked their father. When they assured him they did, Bacon said: "Well, I don’t. I think he’s an absolute bastard."
Bacon’s work and life are now being re-examined. A retrospective exhibition in London is about to open, while Derek Jacobi plays the artist in Love is the Devil, a new film based on the biography written by Daniel Farson, one of Bacon’s Soho friends. The movie has already run into controversy; a scene showing the sexual abuse by the grooms has been cut, on the insistence of the backers, who include the BBC.
Though it has been claimed the scene is not vital to Bacon’s story, the opposite appears to be true. Bacon himself admitted that his mixed feelings towards his father continued to affect him. "I disliked him, but I was sexually attracted to him," he said. "It was only later, through the grooms and the people in the stables I had affairs with, I realised that it was a sexual thing towards my father."
Bacon’s later sexual appetites were considerable, though his emotional involvement with his partners has been questioned. One young lover wrote in his diary, after a night in the artist’s bed: "I emerge parched, barren and dizzy from his clutches ... this is not love, not truth, but rotting physicality."
In his later years in Soho, and in the English country house Bacon bought as a retreat, there were further crises that would eventually be consumed by his work. His lover and frequent model George Dyer — the man who had stepped into his life as a burglar — committed suicide in Paris. His body was found slumped on a toilet bowl; his final posture was one in which Bacon has posed him at the beginning of their liaison.