Francis Bacon News









In the eye of; the beholder





What do our eyes and hands say about us?


The French photographer Francis Giacobetti has made a lifelong quest out of anatomising, in brilliant detail,

famous figures and their bodily parts  among them Stephen Hawking, Francis Bacon and Sylvie Guillem.


Report by Jonathan Glancey







 Eyes, we say, are windows of the soul. In the relief maps embedded in the palms of hands we predict future lives. Faces tell the tale of our personal odysseys through good times and bad times, laughter and tragedy. By 50, so people say, we have the face we deserve, unless, like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, we possess a macabre portrait hidden in the attic that wears the liver spots and wrinkles denied by the face we show to the world downstairs.

These three together  face, eyes and hands  reveal what Francis Giacobetti (born in 1939), the brilliant French photographer whose extraordinary triptych portraits you see here, believes to be the anatomy of the personal and beautiful universe that makes each human being special.

Giacobetti has been making these triptychs for the past 12 years. To date, he has photographed 150 famous people from around the world. His subjects, who include musicians and painters, mountaineers and deep sea explorers, have one thing in common: each looks deeply into his or her subject matter with formidable intelligence and great passion. None could ever be accused of superficiality. And, in Giacobetti’s eyes, we see this through the lie of his sitters’ hands, the wear and tear in their faces and, most dramatically, in the startling constellations and unearthly landscapes of their eye.

While Giacobetti’s faces and hands, photographed in black and white, are never less than exquisite and revelatory, it is the eyes, staring so uncompromisingly from the centre of his triptychs, that capture ours.

What extraordinary eyes they prove to be. The eyes of Stephen Hawking, the astrophysicist, resemble a supernova or some new constellation in the infinite reaches of the universe whose workings he has tried to explain to a mass audience.

Giacobetti calls Francis Ford Coppola, director of Apocalypse Now, A Michelangelo of the 20th century, an artist who paints contemporary versions of Heaven, Hell and the Last Judgement, not on the roofs of Roman chapels but on reels of celluloid. Looking into Coppola’s apocalyptic eyes, Giacobetti-style, is like looking into the heart of darkness. Coppola’s is a vision, as his films have proven time and again, with a sure and disturbing take on the demons that struggle for our souls.

In contrast, those of Francis Bacon are a beautiful, electric blue; painterly for sure, yet shot through with fiery coronas. And, then, there are those of Yehudi Menuhin, the virtuoso: peaceful, deep and dreamy

So perfectly, in fact, do the lives and characters of Giacobetti’s sitters dovetail with the images he presents us of the irises of their eyes, that it is difficult not to feel that the photographer is playing some sort of elaborate aesthetic trick on us. Perhaps he photographed the eyes of Hawking and Coppola and then coloured them to match our expectations of their character? It is a tempting thought, but quite untrue.

So how does he do it? I invented my own device for taking photographs of the eyes, says Giacobetti, on the telephone from his studio in Paris. It is a little secret, but what it does, more or less, is to shine light across the side of the eyes rather than directly into them. In this way, we can see the pattern of eyes in relief, which is not possible if you shine light directly into them. Of course, this is not some sort of optician’s device. My pictures have nothing to do with science, medicine or anatomy; my interest is only in their beauty." Anything else we read into these eyes is, it seems, coincidence.

Why the triptych form? “Because, says the photographer, “I wanted my record of special people, deeply intelligent people, to be more than just a sequence of conventional pictures  a single image, snap! — no, I wanted them to be... a meditation.

"Just now I am preparing an exhibition in Paris of the portraits I have made to date. This will be at the new national library. The show is being designed by Dominique Perrault, the library’s architect. Each portrait will be two metres high; the total effect will be meditative, yes, almost hypnotic.

The Paris exhibition will mark a halfway stage in Giacobetti’s pursuit of the hands, eyes and faces of the world’s great originals. I plan to make a total of 300 portraits, he says, and I hope the project will be completed for the turn of the century. It has ended up as a kind of millennium project, although that was not the original intention.

As yet, Giacobetti has produced very few photographs of British talent. “Perhaps,” he says with what must be laughter in his own blue eyes, “this is because I am Corsican, home of your big enemy [by which, of course, he means Napoleon Bonaparte]. But no, this is not true. I will make a plan soon to visit England. There are many people there I hope to photograph.” Any favourites? “Oh yes. I want to see Isaiah Berlin, Stanley Kubrick [American, living in England], Harold Pinter, Salman Rushdie, Norman Foster and Lucien Freud; but, of course, there are others, too.”

To date, Giacobetti has portrayed just six sets of British hands, eyes and faces; these are Francis Bacon (“with the water-blue eyes of a rosbif, like my own”), Yehudi Menuhin, Jack Preger, Lawrence Durrell, Stephen Hawking, and Sir John Vane, a biochemist who won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1982.

His favourite Brit to date is undoubtedly Francis Bacon; he has been working on a book and a film of Bacon’s life and work for some years. “I made a three-hour interview on film with Bacon,” says Giacobetti, “and this will eventually become part of a bigger project.” For now, we will have to make do with Giacobetti’s triptych of the maverick painter.

One of the conditions imposed on magazines publishing Giacobetti’s great work — known collectively as Hymn — is a demand “to respect the spirit of the project, that which intends to be a homage to the intelligence of the 20th century” and to accept that "the role of the images of the irises, as well as that of the hands, is purely aesthetic. In order that the privacy of the personalities participating in the project will be respected, The Independent, under no circumstances, will associate the publication of the subject to diagnostic methods based on the examination of the irises as well as palm reading of the hands."

No, Monsieur Giacobetti, we do indeed see the meditative beauty of Hymn, and we faithfully promise not to ask Mystic Meg or any other astrologer or soothsayer to tell us anything more about the life and times of Francis Bacon or Philippe Starck. Your eyes, your lens and your magic light tell us more than we could ever have known before.

Francis Bacon Born Dublin, 1909. “I don’t understand why we were so close. I love women — they are the most intelligent animal on the planet — and he loved men. As a painter, his lucidity is very rare.” These images were captured in London a few months before Bacon died in Madrid, 1992.






Soho’s days of wine and poses and whisky galore




Dan Glaister on club habitué Francis Bacon’s portrait of a singular hostess











IT MIGHT be the title for a new work by Damien Hirst: Mother and Daughter Reunited. Yesterday Mother, as Muriel Belcher was called by Francis Bacon, and Daughter, as she called him, came together when Bacon’s portrait of Belcher was shown at one of Soho’s legendary drinking clubs, the Colony Room.


Bacon was a regular at the club, which Belcher founded in 1948 and ran until her death in 1979. Bacon’s portrait of Belcher, Head Of A Woman, is to go on sale at Christie’s on June 27. The picture, painted in 1960, is expected to sell for between £550,000 and £750,000.


I don’t know if she ever saw the picture, said the club’s present caretaker, Michael Wojas. She was interested in painters, not paintings. They had a very special relationship.


Other regulars at the Colony Room during Bacon and Belcher’s heyday included Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, and John Minton. Today’s luminaries include Jeffrey Bernard, artist Marc Quinn, and singer Lisa Stansfield.


Regulars crowded the tiny bar yesterday to pay tribute to Bacon and Belcher.


Bacon, according to Soho legend, worked behind the bar at the club. He was recruited by Belcher the year after it opened: she paid him in champagne in exchange for introducing new clients.


You’re asking us to remember Muriel and none of us can bloody remember anything, said Eddie McPherson. After drinking here for 36 years, I can only remember back four hours.


Belcher was known for her ferocity toward her clients. Bacon first painted her in 1959 as an aggressive figure. The painter, who died in 1992, once said: If they were not my friends, I could not do such violence to them. The portrait on show yesterday shows a more haunted figure, features blurred and distorted.


Clem Crosby, an artist, said he did not think the portrait was one of Bacon’s best. It is interesting because it is transitional, he said. It is one of the first examples of Bacon distorting and stretching features.


Crosby is a member of the younger generation which now frequents the Colony Room. When I started coming here nine years ago, people used to talk about the fifties and how good they were. Now we talk about the seventies, he said. It used to be taboo to mention success here, which is why Bacon liked it, I think. Above the bar, a picture by another of the Colony Room’s young habitués, Damien Hirst, looked down.


Steven Lees said that Belcher made the club unique. Muriel was able to mix the gifted with the ungifted, the famous with the infamous, artists with businessmen, gays with straights. The club is the total sum of its members.


The writer Zinovy Zinki recalled how he had first come to the club. I interviewed Bacon at the Marlborough Gallery. We sat down with a bottle of whisky and he didn’t say anything interesting at all. When I turned my tape recorder off, he started talking. I realised we had drunk a bottle of Grouse in 90 minutes. Then we came here. Do you want another drink?







     Colony Club proprietor Michael Wojas holds Francis Bacon’s portrait of Muriel Belcher while the regulars carry on drinking






 Back Bacon











THE GHOST of Soho matriarch Muriel Belcher returned to the Colony Room yesterday in the shape of a Francis Bacon portrait. Christie’s chose the bohemian venue, founded by Belcher, to publicise its contemporary art auction later this month at which the painting is estimated to fetch up to £750,000.


It was the first time that a picture by Bacon, who called Belcher “Mother”, has been on the premises and the present manager, Michael Wojas, was keen to organise a whipround to buy it. Certainly, Colony Room member John Edwards, and the main beneficiary of Bacon's £11 million estate, could afford it.


Other members present were aghast at the elderly security guard provided by Christie’s. “Such a shame,” said Marsh Dunbar, a member since 1949. “Francis loved handsome young men in uniform. ”


















  SLICE OF BACON: This 1960 Francis Bacon portrait of Muriel Belcher, former owner of the Colony Room, Soho,

  is expected to fetch up to £750,000 at Christie’s on June 27. Bacon was given a weekly salary of free drinks at

  the art world watering hole in exchange for bringing in new customers













Bacon & Giacometti: Likeness and Difference







David Sylvester introduces the exhibition in which he brings together two relatively isolated artists









Outstanding artists are not as a rule isolated figures. Think of their situation since the time of Impressionism only. Some have been members of a major group — the Nabis, the Cubists — which has included several figures of consequence; others, like Mondrian, have been acknowledged leaders f a narrower school, even an artist as separate as Duchamp had useful allies. This has continued in our own time. It is possible to find a context  whether a professed group, like Cobra, or a widespread trend, like Pop Art — for most of the leading artists of the period — and finding a context becomes a necessary game when works by different artists have to be distributed among the spaces of a museum.


The exceptions, the mavericks, in this half-century, mostly turn out to be artists working to capture appearance — artist such as Bacon, Balthus, Antonin Artaud, Lucian Freud. In the nineteenth century that activity was a common pursuit. Artists of consequence took part together in the enterprise, sometimes in close conjunction and always with mutual awareness and rivalry. Something of that has survived into our own time in cases like like that of David Bomberg and his pupils Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, and that of William Coldstream and his pupils Michael Andrews, Euan Uglow and Patrick George. But by and large trapping appearance has become a lonely activity, against the grain. It is significant that Giacometti’s work of the first half of the 1930s is readily classifiable as part and parcel of a movement, Surrealism, but that, when he turned away from invention towards the re-creation of his sensations of reality, he became an isolated figure.


Works by two of these isolated artists are brought together in the present exhibition. It is not at all unusual for groups of works by Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti to be juxtaposed. They often appear in the same room — and the same eyeful — in installations of the permanent collections of museums. And in Jean Clair’s important polemical anthology of modern figurative art, 'Identita e Alterita', at the Venice Biennale of 1985, a long row of bronzes of standing women by Giacometti stood facing a long wall of paintings by Bacon. The present exhibition, it seems to me, takes a more constructive approach in placing the works so that, while both groups are in the same space, they are not visible simultaneously. It is like a concert the first half of which is dedicated to one composer, the second half of another, rather than a concert in which works by two composers are heard concurrently.


Bacon was a painter, Giacometti a sculptor and painter and a prolific draughtsman and a print-maker. Bacon worked from life for a few years in the 1950s, but for the most part from memory and photographs; Giacometti did almost all of his drawing and painting and a good deal of his sculpture from life (though his greatest sculptures were probably some of those done from memory between 1945 and 1955 — and also some of his abstracted figures and heads of 1927-29, and surrealist sculptures of 1930-34). These are certainly good reasons for putting them with each other rather than with anyone else among their contemporaries. For one thing, Balthus and Freud work, as did Giacomettis friend Francis Gruber, within a treatment of form and space that is traditional, whereas Bacon and Giacometti both felt that there was no point in making art that used idioms already explored. On the other hand, Dubuffet, while also creating an innovatory figurative art, conveyed a human presence without trying to achieve a likeness to its appearance.


With regard to Bacons position on this map, he often described his artistic practice as a tightrope-walk between illustration and abstraction That could be said of Giacometti’s too. And also of de Koonings, with the difference that his tightrope ran along a middle route between those extremes, whereas with Bacon and Giacometti representation given priority over abstraction. Consequently, their figuration, while rich in ambiguities, is more specific than de Koonings: their human images, whether of heads or bodies, whether clothed or nude, are closely based on particular individuals — mostly friends or relations or partners — in short, are more-or-less portraits.


A further resemblance was that they were both acutely self-critical and given to destroying a large part of their production, and another was that their sense of failure came not so much from agonising about about a personal insufficiency as from a realisation that they were trying to do something that was near enough impossible — in other words, it came from high ambition rather than from modesty. It was their ambition, indeed, that made them go on and on working on paintings in an attempt to take them further, thereby often ruining them irretrievably. That didn’t matter to them; they would try again. They both thought of their individual works as members of a series of provisional attempts to solve ongoing problems, not as definitive statements, and the works were presented and promoted in ways that made this attitude clear. By the same token, and also because both artists were obsessional in the pursuit of their aims, they tended to work over and over again from the same models — whether they were working from life or memory or from photographs.


They were also repetitive and limited in the types of work they produced. Giacomettis sculptures, from the time he became involved in appearance, are mostly either a woman standing still or a walking man or the bust of a man or a combination of these types (say, four standing women in a row or a single standing woman with four men walking here and there); his paintings are mostly frontal views of a single seated or standing figure, nude or clothed or a bust. Bacons paintings are mostly either small canvases with a single head, or big canvases with a single figure — nude or clothed, reclining or seated or standing, or, indeed, crucified, or moving around — or a couple having sex — so that the postures and gestures at least have a wide range. But the scale could not have a narrower range: form 1945 on the images are always about  three-quarters life size, whether the pictures are big or small. (One notable exception is a beautiful painting of 1952-53 which is in this exhibition a back view of a male nude posed like a diver that is one eighth life size.) And the works, with two or three exceptions, are invariably upright in format. They acquire a landscape format when Bacon has put together three canvases, big or small, separately framed, to form a triptych. There are nearly 30 big triptychs extant and the best of them are probably Bacon’s greatest claim to fame, along with his few surviving works of the 1940s.


And then both Bacon and Giacometti were deeply indebted to Picasso. Giacomettis surrealist works, such as Suspended Ball and Slaughtered Woman, had a formal vocabulary that came straight out of Picassos pictures of the late 1920s presenting assemblages of bone-like shapes. Bacons crucial 1944 triptych was a homage to Picassos pictures of the late 1920s in which biomorphic figures turn tiny keys in the doors of bathing huts. Bacons subsequent work often borrows forms or devices from Picassos of various periods, from the time of the Demoiselles d’Avignon to that of Dora Maar; Giacomettis subsequent work was a comprehensive rejection of Picassos values. Except for one value, also subscribed to by Bacon — namely, that an artist did well to borrow freely, eclectically and blatantly from existing art. Giacomettis most visible exemplars are certain Egyptian, Sumerian and Cycladic sculpture, certain Oceanic sculpture, mostly Melanesian, Byzantine mosaics and paintings, Tintoretto’s drawings and Cézanne; Bacons are Egyptian sculpture, Michelangelo, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Degas, and a wide variety of photographs ranging from the action shots of Muybridge and of newspaper and magazine photographs, especially of sport, to photos in medical books.


The likeness between the two artists touched on so far are all very concrete evident in the work itself or in methods of working or of exhibiting. A more intangible affinity is that their work seems to hare a certain mental atmosphere — the atmosphere of post-war Europe, full of menace, guilt, disquiet, doubt, a sense of nearness to death.


Their personal lives had several important things in common. They were both childless Bacon was homosexual; Giacometti was left sterile by an illness in his youth. They were both creatures of habit, living their lives out in shabby surroundings with tiny studios long after they could have afforded luxury, space, or both. Neither possessed a car. Neither accumulated art or other chattels. Both lived very expensively and handed out huge tips. Giacometti haunted brothels and, in their absence, bars frequented by prostitutes; Bacon, homosexual bars. Both had a taste for good restaurants, though Giacometti could take o leave them, while Bacon really cared about food and drink; indeed, he was a good coo himself, whereas Giacometti  was probably incapable of boiling an egg. Giacometti, who was extremely handsome, tended to dress shabbily; Bacon, who had an attractive but odd face, dressed well. Both were free of any hankering for respectability or official honours. Both were entertaining talkers and good listeners, with a love of gossip as well as sustained intellectual discussion. Both were exceedingly generous friends, materially and spiritually. Both were deeply attracted to Isabel Rawsthorne (Giacometti was in love with her and for a short time they lived together): the exhibition examples of the several portraits each of them did of her. Neither took drugs, contrary to report. Bacon was a very heavy drinker, which Giacometti was not, but Bacon kept in close touch with his doctor, which Giacometti did not: Bacon died at 82, Giacometti at 64.


Continuing with their differences, I begin with their politics. Giacometti, an extreme Leftist in the 1930s, always remained firmly on the Left, while Bacon was simply cynical: I just want the best kind of atmosphere to work in,, 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. His unabashed pragmatism was sometimes a stumbling-block in his relations with French intellectuals.


The two artists were poles apart in their points of departure. Giacometti cam from a family of distinguished painter, was highly precocious as both a painter and a sculptor, was given every encouragement and help to devote himself to art, including a long academic training. Bacon came from an upper-class English family and grew up in grand houses in Ireland and the West Country. In Paris when he was about twenty he saw an exhibition of Picasso, and at that moment thought, well, I will try and paint too, an ambition which provoked the strongest parental discouragement. He started designing furniture and rugs and immediately showed a mastery of these edis; teaching himself to paint was rather more difficult — though as images his paintings were interesting from the start. It was surely difficulty that led him to give up trying to work from the model and become entirely dependent on photographs and on reproductions of past masters, for these provided him with ready-made translations of the three dimensions of life into the two dimensions of a picture. Giacometti, on the other hand, had, from an early age, an exceptional facility in working from life — as well as from memory — as a draughtsman, as a painter and as a sculptor, and this was enhanced by years of practice in his father’s studio and in art schools. Indeed, his addiction to creating difficulties for himself, his tormented scrupulosity, could well be interpreted as a reaction against the boredom of easy mastery.


The most obvious difference in their actual work is that Giacomettis art is quiet, while Bacons is loud, even in its silences. It is bigger in scale, has far more contras in colour and tone, and is much more express of specific emotions. Giacomettis art, while pervaded by an elegiac mood, does not eek to convey emotions: he used, indeed, to say that he felt it was a shortcoming in his work that, whereas the brothers Le Nain were able to communicate particular emotions while achieving a likeness to reality, he himself was too focused on getting a likeness to be able to do more. Bacons art, in contrast, is dramatic, dealing intensely with death and copulation and other convulsive forms of action. He none the less tended to play down the idea that his work was saying something. Im not really saying anything, because Im probably much more concerned with the aesthetic qualities of a work than, perhaps, Munch was.' Moreover, he was always anxious not to fall into the trap, as he saw it, of telling a story, so that the story talks louder than the paint' and 'the boredom sets in. And he certainly didnt tell a story in the explicit sort of way in which Munch or Kirchner or Kokoschka or Beckmann did. This distinction, however, did not occur to Giacometti when in 1955 he saw Bacon’s work for the first time and dismissed it as expressionist. By 1960 he was becoming more sympathetic towards it, and a year or two later he met and became friendly with Bacon. Their liking and admiration for each other as human beings was boundless. But Giacometti still used the label 'expressionist' to distance himself from the work, while saying wryly that his own work must seem very old-maidish to Bacon. The word Bacon did in fact apply to Giacomettis sculptures was arty. On the other hand, he wrote in 1975 that for him Giacometti was not only the greatest draughtsman of our time but among the greatest of all time.


 The question of how expressionist Bacons art is, of how far it has meaning, remains extremely tangled. For example, it has to be asked whether his insistence that his work did not have meaning was compatible with his use of subjects such as the Crucifixion and the Orestia, or with his stated belief that the greatest art always returns you to the vulnerability of the human situation. One the other hand, there are examples o his working attitude which demonstrate that he was much more mindful of formal qualities than of meaning. In one of his triptychs of the Crucifixion he put a swastika on the arm of a figure, and this, understandably, was widely interpreted as indicating that the figure was a Nazi. But this had not been in mind. I wanted to put an armband to break the continuity of the arm and to add the colour of this red round the arm. 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 its working formally. And when he made paintings of a particular girl lying on a bed with a hypodermic syringe stuck in her arm, it was not because she was a drug addict (though she did become one later). Ive used the figures  lying on beds with a hypodermic syringe as a form of nailing the image more strongly into reality or appearance. I dont put the syringe because of the drug that’s being injected but because it’s less stupid than putting a nail through the arm, which would be even more melodramatic. I put the syringe because I want a nailing of the flesh onto the bed.


Giacomettis work, for all of its greater affective neutrality, was also subject to melodramatic misinterpretations, especially in the sculpture. When the extremely attenuated figures which he started making around 1946 emerged from the studio in 1948, they were taken to have an intended relationship to the emaciated prisoners at Belsen and Buchenwald. Even after this wave of fantasy had passed, they continued to be seen as incarnations of isolation and despair and alienation of post-war mankind. This was assumed to be the reason for their thinness, rather than the formal considerations that had made Giacometti  whittle them down. It was forgotten that similar degrees of attenuation are to be found in a wide range of antique and tribal sculpture. A liking for such sculpture was one of the causes of the unconventional proportions of Giacomettis figures. Another was an instinctive fastidiousness that compelled him to fine things down. Another was his response to the conclusions he reached through thinking about the problem of representation in art. Giacometti was a philosophical artist who pondered on the semantics of sculpture as deeply and radically and to as much practical purpose as Cézanne on the semantics of painting. For example:


Even Rodin still took measurements when making his busts. He didn’t model a head as he actually saw it in space, at a certain distance, as I see you now with this distance between us. He really wanted to make a parallel in clay, the exact equivalent of the head’s volume in space. So basically it wasn’t visual but conceptual. He knew it was round before he began: that’s to say, he started from the conventional idea of a head that had prevailed in all European sculpture since the time of the Greeks, and made a volume in space  unlike anything he actually saw, because in the ordinary way it would never occur to me to get up and walk around you. If I didn’t know that your skull had a certain depth, I wouldn’t be able to guess it. So, if I made a sculpture of you according to my absolute perception of you, I would make a rather flat, scarcely modulated sculpture that would be much closer to a Cycladic sculpture, which has a stylised look, than to a sculpture by Rodin or Houdon, which has a realistic look. I think we have for so long automatically accepted the received idea of what a sculptured head should look like that we have made ourselves completely incapable of seeing a head as we really see it.


The effect upon the work of that sort of thinking was what gave Giacometti’s art its originality. And that sort of thinking was deeply rooted in the experience of working from life. Perhaps Giacometti could have reached the same conclusions purely from memory, but there is no way of confirming that because in fact his spells of doing it from memory followed on or coincided with doing it from life. Working from life was the foundation on which all Giacometti’s art was built. Working from life was a method tried for a time by Bacon and abandoned. That must be the most fundamental difference between them.


The exhibition does, however, include three trophies which have survived from a unique sustained effort by Bacon to work continuously from a particular live model. They are portraits of Lisa Sainsbury painted in a room in Battersea and completed respectively in October-November 1955, May 1956, and early 1957; five others were started and destroyed at some stage or another in their progress. There were other sitters during and around this time, including Robert Sainsbury and the present writer, but most of the work was painted from reproductions and photographs, among them photographs of a life mask of William Blake. What is interesting is that Bacon got Lisa Sainsbury to sit regularly over a period of eighteen months, rather like a Giacometti model, even if it was only once a week as against everyday. And the pose, most unusually for Bacon, has the frontality that was almost  de rigueur for a Giacometti painting. Unlike Giacometti. Bacon habitually went on with the picture  when the mode; was not present. The fist of these three portraits is a masterpiece, one of Bacon’s very finest paintings of the 1950s. It resembles the sitter faintly; it strongly resembles Queen Nefertiti. Here, like Giacometti in some of his sculptures of standing women, Bacon made the head of someone he knew coalesce with that of an ancient Egyptian sculpture in all its formal rigour and monumental grandeur.


‘Trapping Appearance, Portraits by Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti from the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection’, 25June-15 September, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich.






Bacon for sale: as ugly as a picture












ART aficionados are slinging verbal pastels and palettes over a portrait by Francis Bacon (detail left), expected to raise £750,000 at Christie’s this week. The auction house contends that the picture is of the late Muriel Belcher (above left), who founded the Colony, the notorious Soho dive.


Both Dan Farson, Bacon’s biographer, and critic Brian Sewell insist that it is not of Belcher, who kept Bacon in champagne in return for finding customers.


How it could ever be taken as Belcher is quite beyond me, says Sewell. It is a cruel and spiteful portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne (above right), one of Bacon’s favourite subjects. Rawsthorne was a big-boobied woman, and this is a woman with enormous breasts. She also had a thick and rather ugly nose.


This is rejected by Christie’s: It’s a moving, very private and sympathetic portrait of Belcher. They had a very intense relationship, and it’ obviously her.


Sewell surely has a point about the painting’s beauty. I wouldn’t hang it above my four-poster bed at Mandrake Towers. It’s enough to frighten the chambermaid.













                      notes on











Francis Bacon was an old-fashioned militant atheist who always seemed to be looking for pretexts to issue a reminder that God was dead and to bang a few nails into his coffin. Nevertheless, Bacon’s paintings — especially the big triptychs — tend to have a structure and an atmosphere which make them look as if they belonged in churches. Within the tradition of European religious painting God appears, of course, in numerous guises — as creator, as vengeful judge, as merciful father, as the son sacrificed and reborn, as king of the universe, and here as dead and gone. So Bacon’s art has a momentous quality that has won him a widely perceived role as something like a successor to Picasso; it’s not his formal qualities that have given him this exalted place but his creation of images that are seen as apocalyptic.

He himself said: "Really, I think of myself as a maker of images. The image matters more than the beauty of the paint . . . I suppose I’m lucky in that images just drop in as if they were handed down to me . . . I always think of myself not so much as a painter but as a medium for accident and chance . . . I think perhaps I am unique in that way, and perhaps it’s a vanity to say such a thing, but I don’t think I’m gifted; I just think I’m receptive. . ." This extremely sophisticated, intellectually acute man, with a deep realism about life, saw himself as a prophet.

While allowing that "the image matters more than the beauty of the paint", Bacon felt that painting tended to be pointless if the paint itself were not eloquent. He aimed at the "complete interlocking of image and paint" so that "every movement of the brush on the canvas alters the shape and implications of the image". All sorts of ways of putting paint on and taking it off were used to bring into being something unforeseen; it was a question of "taking advantage of what happens when you splash the bits down". Painting became a gamble in which every gain made had to be risked in the search for further gain. Winning, as always, was largely a question of knowing when to stop. For many years Bacon hardly ever stopped in time.

We walk into a bar or a party and suddenly people are there occupying spaces we might have moved into. They surge up in our field of vision and every movement they make seems to set off vibrations that impinge on us. They are expansive, anarchic presences, and we cannot avoid paying attention to them.

A similar raw immediacy emanates from the figures in Bacon’s paintings. And with it a smell of mortality. But also an easy grandeur which suggests that they are demigods or kings.

These epic figures are mostly depictions of individuals in Bacon’s life — his erotic life or his drinking life. Bacon had something of Picasso’s genius for transforming his autobiography into images with a mythic allure and weight.

Was Bacon an expressionist? He didn’t think of himself as one: "I’m just trying to make images as accurately off my nervous system as I can. I don’t even know what half of them mean. I’m not saying anything. Whether one’s saying anything for other people, I don’t know. But I’m not really saying anything, because I’m probably much more concerned with the aesthetic qualities of a work than, perhaps, Munch was. But I’ve no idea what any artist is trying to say, except the most banal artists."

At the same time, he was convinced that "the greatest art always returns you to the vulnerability of the human situation".

FB: I was thinking about your bedroom — that just to have Holland blinds would be better aesthetically but that curtains make sex more comforting.

DS: Well, I’m sure curtains go very well with sex because they’re there so often in pictures of sexual scenes. You yourself used to have curtains in your earliest pictures of having sex but now the backgrounds are starker and the sex seems just as good.

FB: Yes, but in the more recent pictures it’s pure sex. You know, I don’t really like the billing and cooing of sex; I just like the sex itself. Do you think that’s a homosexual thing?

DS: No. I think it can go right across the board.

His choice of art: Egyptian sculpture. Masaccio. Michelangelo — the drawings above all, perhaps. Raphael. Velasquez. Rembrandt, mainly the portraits. Goya, but not the black paintings. Turner and Constable. Manet. Degas. Van Gogh. Seurat. Picasso, especially where he is closest to Surrealism. Duchamp, especially the Large Glass. Some Matisse, especially the Bathers by a River, but not wholeheartedly: "he doesn’t have Picasso’s brutality of fact." And Giacometti’s drawings, but not the sculpture.

His choice of literature: Aeschylus. Shakespeare. Racine. Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Boswell’s Johnson. Saint-Simon. Balzac. Nietzsche. Van Gogh’s letters. Freud. Proust. Yeats. Joyce. Pound. Eliot. Heart of Darkness. Leiris. Artaud. He liked some of Cocteau but generally had a positive dislike for homosexual writing, such as Auden and Genet.

Bacon was almost the only important artist of his generation anywhere who behaved as if Paris were still the centre of the art world.

Even today Bacon is widely thought of as an artistic leper. People like to say complacently that they are afraid to go near the work. They decline to cope with its "violence". Well, of course, Bacon’s work is violent, in the sense that a Matisse or a Newman is violent in the force and incisiveness of its impact: it is aesthetically violent. ("I think that great art is deeply ordered. Even if within the order there may be enormously instinctive and accidental things, nevertheless I think that they come out of a desire for ordering and for returning fact on to the nervous system in a more violent way.") But the main objection that seems to emerge from the muddy controversy about Bacon’s violence is that it is something more specialised — that it’s a "morbid" taste for real violence.

There is certainly a very convulsive quality in many of Bacon’s figures, and convulsion is a sign of violence. But not necessarily of a horrific violence. Convulsions of sexual pleasure are something most of us undergo as often as we can.

In the monumental spaces of the retrospective at the Centre Pompidou the balance of power in Bacon’s work between convulsion and order seems remarkably different from what it has previously seemed (and will no doubt seem again in other installations). Here the dominant attributes are grandeur and calm.

Some peculiarities of Bacon’s paintings:

(1) They are intended to be seen through glass — always, not just when they are partly in pastel.

(2) All the extant canvases are upright in format, with two exceptions; all others with a landscape format are triptychs.

(3) There is normally a single mass on a canvas unless it depicts a couple coupling and coalescing into a single mass.

(4) Human beings are always shown on roughly the same scale: the small canvases depict heads and these are about the same size as the heads on the figures which the big canvases depict — about three-quarters life-size.

(5) Even when the space is a perspectival stage in the Renaissance tradition, there are often elements such as arrows or dotted lines which are clearly not meant to be read as parts of what is depicted but as diagrammatic signs superimposed upon the image. Another indicator of the work’s artificiality is a dichotomy between the handling of figures and that of settings: the figures are realised with highly visible brushmarks, the settings with a flat layer of thin paint.

(6) The paintings have titles like Study from the Human BodyStudy for PortraitStudy for Crouching NudeStudy of a Figure in a Landscape, Study after Velsquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. So there are studies from, studies for, studies of, studies after, as if to say that at least some of the works were preliminary sketches for more definitive statements. What is in fact being said is that the artist wishes all his works to be regarded as provisional.

According to a curator’s wall text at the Tate, "Bacon’s view of existence strips life of purpose and meaning". So much for wall texts. Bacon’s view of existence was that life was not empty merely because it was bereft of an afterlife and a deity. "We are born and we die, but in between we give this purposeless existence a meaning by our drives." The paintings are a huge affirmation that human vulnerability is countered by human vitality. They are a shout of defiance in the face of death.

"And what about the great silent figures of Aeschylus?" he suddenly said one day, apropos of nothing.

The Aeschylean menace and foreboding, the feeling — despite the humanism — of the immanence of higher and decisive powers, are there all of the time.


Francis Bacon, organised with the collaboration of the British Council, continues at the Centre Pompidou, Paris (00 33 1 44 78 12 33), to 14 Oct (not Tues).

On 28 Oct, the exhibition will open at the Haus der Kunst, Munich (00 49 89 21 12 70), to 31 Jan 1997.





          Prophet and maker: Francis Bacon, top left, in his studio,

                 created images that have been seen as apocalyptic









Scrambled heads and Bacon




Shocking, unpredictable, patch but brilliant—there’s more to the

 Francis Bacon exhibition in Paris than heads and tales









We cannot but be struck by the way images are routinely abused by Francis Bacon for their greater good. A normal reaction is to come out with synaesthetic jargon, to talk about the horror that he so graphically felt and the pain expressed in painterly wince and slapdash.

These people are gutted. Quite literally devastated, some might say. But what struck me last week, during a preliminary look around the tremendous Bacon exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, was something I’d not noticed before. The heads are all the same size.

Heads were Bacon’s forte. For all his failings in later years (stock paroxysms and gold-framed triptychitis), with heads he never lost his touch. Yet, whatever the scale of the painting, any head involved could only be so big, it seems: as big as he felt it to be, or took it to be, defying him in the mirror.

Unexpected constraint, inhibition even, or at any rate a sort of detachment, runs through the exhibition. The paintings — selected by David Sylvester — are installed in calm grey halls and cells. This brings out their solitude. The heads, strongest in close-up or when treated as soft targets, are persistently vivid, though eventually they degenerate into quick-fits. Towards the end it’s debatable whether Bacon considered that his new-found slickness represented profound despair or not.

Sylvester includes, perhaps out of a desire to plumb the dregs, one Bacon so grotesquely bad it could be the winning entry in a spoof Bacon contest: the prehensile squidge that was his design for the 1990 Chateau Mouton Rothschild label. It can be seen as a neat representation of a rule of thumb. That’s to say: headless Bacons, or Bacons in which heads don’t feature are inferior.

Bacon’s sensationalism, the flowering of his intuitive greatness, was triggered, surely, the image of the head. With him it’s not that the eyes follow you round the rooms but that the paintings are headstrong. This is so even in the the melee of lines and wallpapers in Interior of a Room, one of the few pre-war paintings that survive, It’s not a trashed Vuillard. Given the dog, bottom tight, the attendant shapes and hints of easel and nether spaces, it must (I guess) be Bacon’s take on Las Meninas. The interrogative spook at the easel has to be Velázquez.

Bacon’s phantom Velázquez, and the X-ray traces of Picasso in a crucified wishbone of 1933, are terrific false stars. Then, in 1944, comes the orange hell with vile bodies of Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, the first triptych, the first synchronized outburst. This remained Bacon’s constant hell, right through to the Club Class version of 1988 which he presented to the Tate, thinking it an improvement on the first.

Flashes of brilliance start appearing. The scalp of grass, trodden by the baying runt; the suffocating tweed coat; the nasty pistons and acid hydrangea. Things begin dissolving. Safety-pin shower curtains become raging torrents. Teeth gleam in thick grey paint, possibly Himmler’s teeth (taken from a photograph of the corpse) but also fetishistic.

It’s not necessary to identify the heads. The death mask of William Blake, eyes closed like a shower victim, is powerless. That differentiates him from the businessmen with their headaches. Velázquez’s Pope, sprung from a trap and shoved into a confessional, is brainwashed, whoopee-cushioned and flattened against the glass.

Bacon’s figures are easily characterised and their actions readily described. Bertie Wooster synonyms slot into place. These men are intrinsically tipsy, blotto, smashed and sloshed. A papal arm reaches across to pull the light-cord. Goodnight World.

Stray dogs, roving Van Gogh, the poses of men from Muybridge photographs, gave Bacon fresh targets for impetuosity during the Fifties. I tend to prefer his earlier images to the more Punch and Judy (or more Judy than Punch) set-tos that developed, the heavier curtainings and wider floor areas, and arm-jerk reactions drawn from a repertoire of startling denouncements.

Popes on trolleys remained viable well into the Sixties. Rubbery profiles and bent shadows now cupped the images. George Dyer, riding a bicycle, fails to perform a tight turn and is caught teetering, splattered with the ejaculatory streaks - cream de passion, so to speak - that his friend used again and again to denote spontaneity.

Pop-up mannerisms, figures tagged and ready-pierced for crucifixion, began emblazoning themselves on glam showroom decors. Often this worked and occasionally masterpieces occurred. In one of these Isobel Rawsthorne, former mistress of Giacometti, stands befuddled in a blue Sixties Soho, amazed to see pre-war traffic.

Compositionally, Bacon found it easiest to arc the foreground and set things centrally, as in theatre in the round. That way he could go for the planted instant of surprise or, alternatively, the visual buzz of the spinning top. For epic, or cinemascopic, projects there was the triptych format.

Triptych Inspired by T..S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes’, 1967, is a key work. In ambition and assurance it’s the end of the beginning; the souped-up production values the beginning of the end. What once had been achieved with a few rasps of the brush in a blackout was now given the five star treatment Rutting couples, to left and right, copulate in a hotel suite while someone tries to get through on the phone. In the centrre, violence occurs on the Blue Train, blood spreads across the shoulders of a jacket. It’s black outside.

Dyer retching and flinching, Dyer lost, Dyer encountering the ruffian on the stairs, Dyer finishing himself off; for a while  after Dyer’s death in 1971  triptychs were right for Bacon. With them he could enlarge on his misery and enfold his guilt. The repetitive devices — the bared neck, the cocked leg, the lick of forelock and white-collar beefcake  served as refrains. But they became a kit of parts. The bare light bulb, the lilac flesh, umbrellas hoisted on airless sands, lost their novelty and potential.

On the back of his triptychs Bacon was apt to write ‘Keep Under Glass’. This was for conservation reasons (his use of pastel with oils meant fragile surface). Also he liked glazing because it gave a photographic gloss to the images and reflections of the onlooker added ghostly movements. He even tried painting glass doors behind the glass and behind that (in Sleeping Figure, 1974) himself gasping on a bed. Hospitalisation, sex and dentistry, spittle or sperm, rinse, spew and flush, were tried: every permutation, plus flecks of peppery Letraset cultivated under glass.

Even as the triptychs expanded from Soho to Knightsbridge proportions, ever more blandly Baconian, there were occasional flexings and spasms of invention. The cricket pads strapped to stumpy bodies (lower halves only), on orange ground, are to tap-dance what tea-dances were to his more camp crucifixions. Bacon's power of derision faltered, though. The image of  Woodrow Wilson in a top hat descending a step is illustrative only, a reaction perhaps to the  Larkin line, ‘Postmen like doctors go from house to house’.

In a triptych from 1986, Bacon takes the stage alone, seated on a bar stool, himself as a trio. All for one and one for all, with red arrows pointing to his jaw to indicate pain or silence, this is Me Me Me facing the final curtain. Thankfully, there's no pathos. There is instead the impression that the game is up, that this same head that thought Velázquez and thought Picasso, that thought up such showdowns, has nothing more of consequence to show.

Francis Bacon to 14 Oct, Centre Pompidou, Paris (0031 44 78 1233)





A Mystery Livens London Art Auctions





A mysterious German-speaking collector went on a wild shopping spree at Sotheby’s last week, buying approximately $22 million worth of paintings by Chagall, Renoir, Klee, Miro, Dubuffet, Freud and Bacon, among others. She bid by telephone to Agnes Husslein, Sotheby’s Vienna representative, who was here for the Impressionist, modern and contemporary art auctions. Since the buyer asked that the auction house not reveal her identity, Sotheby’s would say only that she was a woman who lived in Europe.

While there has been frenzied speculation among experts as to who she is, the name that has surfaced most is that of Heidi Charmat, the widow of Helmut Horten, a Viennese owner of a department-store chain, who died in 1987, leaving her a reported $3 billion.

One of the sale’s highlights was Francis Bacon’s Head of Woman, a 1960 portrait of Muriel Belcher, the proprietor of the Colony Room, a famous Soho drinking club, which sold to an unidentified telephone bidder for $832,370, just above its low $800,000 estimate.






Evolution of a maverick genius





       A major Francis Bacon show in Paris








After major artists die, their reputations often suffer an eclipse. Unwieldy memorial exhibitions are held, burying the kernel of their achievements in an excess of repetitive images. Impatient with the aura of pious pomposity, critics recoil and puncture the veneration with relish. So the Francis Bacon show at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the first full-scale retrospective since his death four years ago, is a testing occasion. It could easily have been an indulgent affair, battering the viewer with a wearisome urge to overwhelm through sheer bulk But the selector. David Sylvester, has refused to bombard us. Restricting the exhibits to a well-judged total of 95 images, including a surprising duster of little-known works on paper, he concentrates on presenting the essential Bacon alone.

The outcome is enormously powerful and moving, a triumphant exhibition which establishes Bacon beyond doubt as the finest British painter of the 20th century. Each canvas is given plenty of space, often hanging isolated on a waU. But the rooms themselves are never so large as to diminish the paintings’ impact. Bacon’s pictures draw us into an intensely private realm, a world of disclosure and often painful intimacy. We are confronted, above all by recurrent images of solitary human figures. Marooned within clinical interiors, they seem at once exposed and trapped by their surroundings. However violently their bodies may twist and writhe, they cannot burst out of the boundaries enclosing them. The wonder is that they retain so much animal energy. Even at their most desperate, when they scream, the convulsive heads possess formidable latent strength.

Why did Bacon take so long to develop such’ a single-minded vision? The earliest exhibit in the Paris show, a small Crucifixion painted when he was only 24, proves that the young Bacon already knew what his imaginative priorities would be. Christ is more like ectoplasm than a solid body. White against a nocturnal ground, and clasped by an equally blanched mourner, this attenuated figure seems lost in the void. Only months after it was painted. Crucifixion was reproduced by Herbert Read in his 1933 book Art Now. But this precocious recognition proved stillborn. Only two other paintings from the 1930s are included in the exhibition, and Bacon did not establish himself as an artist until the late 1940s.

Perhaps his lack of conventional training made him uncertain of his abilities before then. Perhaps, too, he was mortified by the gulf between his lack of success and his ambition to become an outstanding painter.

Just how prodigious his talent really was emerged, with sudden finality, near the end of the Second World War. The triptych he exhibited in. 1945 has lost none of its searing power. Taking the crucifixion as his theme once again, he decided this time to concentrate on three disconsolate figures at the base of the cross. In a Renaissance altarpiece, they would bewail the suffering of the martyr above them. But he is nowhere to be seen. Bacon dearly could not bring himself to acknowledge Christ’s existence any more. The protracted brutality of the war years had reinforced his conviction that the world was godless. So the three lurching figures, each stranded on a parched orange panel, can only yell out at the savagery of a universe without meaning. Half human and half reptile, they deplore their plight. And the hybrid in the centre, eyes covered with a cloth, rails against the cruelty of those responsible for blinding him.

Like the 1933 Crucifixion, this triptych awed a debt to Picasso’s alarmingly deformed bathers of the late 1920s. But Bacon had by then established himself as an artist of harrowing individuality. During the next few years, he elaborated his vision with awesome eloquence and conviction. Although die figures remain isolated, they gradually move towards the contemporary world. The hybrid becomes human, wearing a 20th-centuiy hound’s tooth overcoat and burying his face in flowers. Bacon’s fascination with the scream persists, and yet it erupts now in curtained bedrooms redolent of anonymous hotels. The first face based on Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent appears, proclaiming against the masters of the European tradition. But this Pope is just as agonised as all the other yelling mouths, and he finds himself imprisoned within an ominously modern cage.

By 1949, Bacon is prepared to disclose something of his erotic infatuation with the male body. In a superbly confident and subtle painting he shows a pale, bull-necked nude passing through grey curtains towards blackness beyond. Compared with Hockney’s lyrical images of tanned Californian men in the shower 15 years later, this nude seems sinister. He could easily be aggressive, and the white safety-pin painted so surprisingly on the curtains adds to the sense of unease.

At this stage, Bacon stops short of confirming these implications. He prefers to hint at than, just as he suggests in a-tall 1950 canvas that the figures glimpsed through a door or window might be caught up in a crime. His reliance on photographic sources helps to account for this feeling for snatched, unexplained events.

By this time, he must have come to regard his lack of art-school education as an advantage. The exhilarating willingness to improvise gives these early paintings a terse sense of danger. Bacon takes extraordinary risks, often leaving ample expanses of canvas bare and disdaining all conventional notions about “finish”. He makes most. other British painters of the period look timid. Often the brush is dragged raspingly across the picture, like chalk ona blackboard. But Bacon is now just as able to invest other areas of the same painting with sumptuous, seductive brushmarks. His readiness to veer between these two extremes gives his work its unique quicksilver tension, and helps to explain why this retrospective is so enthralling.

On occasions, he paid the price for his audacity. Bacon’s aversion to “finish” can look scrappy, while his innate sense of theatre sometimes looks melodramatic. As the 1960s though, he gains a greater breadth and assurance. His fascination with the triptych format grows, leading him towards a heightened grandeur. However anguished his figures may become, their suffering is offset by a vivacity even more irrepressible than before.

When I first met Bacon in 1971. just before his retrospective at the Grand Palais, he told me that “after the Paris show. I’m going to deliberately set about painting an autobiography”. He never fulfilled this ambition, but the gruesome death of his partner, George Dyer, on. the eve of the Grand Palais exhibition, did trigger a profoundly impressive sequence of grieving triptychs. The autobiographical impulse takes on a confessional character in these great lamentations. Dyer is seen, successively, as a clothed and silhouetted figure pushing a key in a door-lock, naked on a chair in front of a black opening, and slumped in the hotel bathroom where he died. Bacon removes the simplified surroundings from any narrow fidelity to recognisable places, but Dyer’s face remains unmistakable and so does the elegiac emotion behind the paintings.

An awareness of mortality had always been evident in Bacon’s work, even when his figures were at their most vital. At this juncture, however, the presence of death is inescapable. After the Dyer threnodies end. the bodies in Bacon’s work gradually shed their solidity. Signs of tiredness are detectable in his late canvases, yet I also believe that the ageing artist was searching for a way to convey a new obsession: corporeal disintegration. Even a sitter as youthful as John Edwards seems about to dissolve into the encircling darkness.

The prospect of extinction must have been especially galling to someone with Bacon’s inexhaustible appetite for life. But he did not flinch from defining the dissolution of himself and his friends, just as he had exposed the final fragility of Christ in that spectral little Crucifixion more than half a century before.



• Francis Bacon is at the Pompidou Centre, Paris  until October 14





Closer look at Bacon




William Packer visits an important retrospective exhibition in Paris






Francis Bacon died four years ago at the age of 82, though by the apparent vigour of his work to the last, he hardly seemed so old. Yet he had been a central, if singular figure in British art for almost 50 years, and already a marked and coming man for some time before that.

Such people are well able to sustain their own myth, and Bacon evidently relished and cultivated that singularity. He was clearly the most famous and internationally successful British painter in his lifetime but, more than that, he was defiantly the odd man out — a figurative painter, symbolist, surrealist and expressionist in a world of cooler abstraction and conceptualism, and living a life to match.

But as time goes on, so we begin to see his oeuvre from first to last, despite its contradictions and shifts of emphasis, as all of a piece. He may have destroyed most of his early work and stopped painting for a while: he may seem consciously to have set his mature career and reputation on the still extraordinary triptych of 1944, “Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion”, by which he marked the moment he began to paint again and first came before a wider public. Even so, enough of the earlier work survives and, piece by piece, comes back into the light, to qualify that self-presentation.

Artists have their own position, which is not necessarily ours. They are not always the best judges of their own work, standing so close to it, perhaps, as to see the trees but not the wood. The true artist will always do more than he knows, let alone intends, and Bacon himself insisted upon the primary importance to the painter of chance and intuition and pure luck. “That is why real painting is a mysterious and continuous struggle with chance," he wrote in 1953.

Three years ago at Venice the critic David Sylvester effectively reintegrated Bacon’s work after 1965 with that of the previous 20 years or so, testing the view that Bacon’s greatness rests on that earlier work. Now in an ampler selection for the Centre Pompidou, he throws that question open again, and makes if anything, and perhaps unconsciously, the further point that Bacon was never at all the eccentric and isolated figure of received opinion.

Which brings us back to the young Bacon of the 1930s and his work of the time. Few as the examples are, they are more prominent here than ever before. Here is the Bacon of the avant-garde circles of Moore, Sutherland, Pasmore and de Maistre, the Bacon who turned down Roland Penrose’s invitation to show in the Surrealist Exhibition of 1936. And here is the small “Crucifixion” of 1933, that Herbert Read reproduced alongside a surreal and grotesque Picasso “Baigneuse” in his book, Art Now.

Here then, in the common stock of 1930s surrealism, lie the origins of that “Crucifixion” triptych of 1944, and all the disembodied figures, gaping mouths, bared teeth, screaming Popes, that were so soon to follow. But there are also two quieter, more ambiguous paintings of about 1936, an “Interior of a Room" and “Figures in a Garden”, that are no less significant. For already they describe the shallow, angular pictorial space that was to be Bacon’s device of a lifetime — the open space-frame, the enclosing screen. And with as yet no idiosyncratic horrors to register, they sit happily at the centre of cosmopolitan modernism, looking to Matisse and Braque on the one hand, and to incipient British neo-romanticism on the other, to Sutherland — with whom a creative association lasted throughout the 1940s — Ceri Richards and Eileen Agar.

Thus primed, the comparisons come thick and fast, and not necessarily one way. The crouching and sitting figures of the later 1940s summon up Magritte; a grey figure study (1957) suggests Giacometti; a mountain landscape (1956), David Bomberg. And such current luminaries as Penke, Baselitz, Clemente and Salle are all prefigured in the images of the 1950s. To say as much takes not a whit away from Bacon’s interest, originality or importance as an artist, but only from that supposed isolation.

Bacon remains unquestionably a remarkable and major artist, and the better for the loss of his splendid isolation. His faults we can live with — his feeble drawing more than made up for by the often exquisite delicacy and subtlety of his touch as a painter. The later works remain for me a problem, more for the over-blown scale on which they are too often set, which exposes the drawing and overextends the paint upon the surface, than for their actual imagery. The sets of small portrait studies, close and intense, early or late, are as strong as ever. And the heavy cloud of his bleak, dark, despairing humanism hangs over it all.

Francis Bacon Retrospective: Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, until October 14, then on to the Haus der Kunst, Munich: exhibition organised by the Centre Pompidou in collaboration with the British Council.





               Dark humanism: ‘Portrait of George Dyer Riding a Bicycle’, 1966, by Francis Bacon






A vision of the truth behind the mask





Bacon, Giacometti and the Sainsbury family in Norwich









Timed to coincide with, and complement, the Francis Bacon exhibition currently in Paris is Trapping Appearance at the Norwich Sainsbury Centre. It brings together works, mainly portraits, by Bacon and Giacometti from the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury collection and displays the artists in counterpoint. Walking down the aisle of display screens in one direction, ail that is visible is Baron, in the other, all Giacometti.

The immense ceiling height in Norman Foster’s building gives a feeling of space to the Sainsbury Centre’s exhibition area, but no monumentality. The screens create domestic scale settings that have the effect of softening the rawness of the Bacons and. seeing them up close, heightening the quiet intensity of Giacometti. It is a deft juxtaposition which serves to point up the powerfully sculptural quality of Bacon’s art.

Both these great postwar artists were mends of the Sainsburys. who introduced them to each other, and were collected by them in the 1950s and early 1960s. The three portraits of Lisa by Bacon are survivors of two years of sitting for him “as an act of friendship" which produced eight canvases, five of which Bacon destroyed. The portrait of Robert Sainsbury was a commission from Lisa, in 1955. In no sense is this show a survey. Taken as a whole the works are segments of two artistic careers, segments that coincidentally catch the inspirational power of the painter Isabel Rawsthome in a bronze portrait head by Giacometti and a triptych of heads by Bacon — perhaps the most moving works in the show.

Bacon was famously reluctant to paint portraits, fearing complaints from his sitters: achieving a good likeness was not his aim. People were fodder in his search for emotional states of being, generally the extremities of emotions released in sex or death. Trapping appearances was not a primary concern for either artist: both were seeking an emotional or spiritual reality behind the facade. It is this appeal to deeper instincts, present in the work of Baron and Giacometti, that characterises the entire Sainsbury collection across its huge global range.

Robert and Lisa Sainsbury insist that they never originally set out to form a collection. I have never collected. I may be a passionate acquirer, but all by accident. Robert Sainsbury says. The acquiring started in the early 1930s when Robert bought his first piece, the bronze Head of an Infant by Epstein. In about 1935 he saw the African Fang mask in Paris and bought that too.

Picasso. Epstein and other artists also collected primitive, mainly African, art before the Second World War and through their own work gave it a 20th-century context. It was. however, extraordinary at that timer to see a Fang head as art, on a par with Western art and to mix the two cultures together. “We have always been considered quite mad in terms of our collecting, says Lisa. Just as they were considered mad to sit for the unflattering Bacon, or to commission a building from the then almost unknown Norman Foster to house their collection at the University of East Anglia in 1978. The Sainsbury Centre was Nor¬ man Foster’s first public commission and. although there was no brief, the object was to house the collection (which has grown to 1,200 objects) and the School of Art History under one roof. Architect and clients virtually designed the building together. The result was a glass and aluminium box that was entirely unconventional in having very few enclosed spaces but acted as a tent for the collection, a library, teaching areas, offices and a restaurant.

When it came to displaying the collection. Robert Sainsbury explains that “Norman and his staff had very definite rules: no wall cases, all objects should be able to be walked around and the tops of the cases should all be the same height. l wanted chairs and tables in the living area to encourage people to come in and sit down.

Today, walking through the honeycomb-like spaces that group the collection you encounter surrealist artist Leonora Carrington opposite a Zairean dance mask sewn with cowrie shells and beads, or a 1909 drawing by Picasso of a seated nude next to a roughly contemporary housepost figure from New Guinea. “I would love to have done a book of objects from different civilisations comparing objects from different dates and different parts of the world, says Robert. The Sainsburys’ belief in the importance of visual cross-culturalism was behind then gift of £4 million to the British Museum earlier this year.



•Trapping Appearance: portraits by Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti from the Rower and Lisa Sainsbury Collection is at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, UEA. Norwich, until September 15





                                          Bacon’s Sketch for a portrait of Lisa, 1955















The art world continues to neglect our native genius










When Francis Bacon died four years ago the obituaries were unanimous. Here was a painter of towering individuality, one of the greatest that this country has ever produced. Since then, interest in his harrowing but mesmerising canvases has, if anything, increased: witness the extraordinary excitement, and the passion of the subsequent critical debate, over the discovery in February of a supposed early self-portrait by the artist.

So it is disappointing, to say the least, that Paris rather than London should have seized the initiative and mounted the first large-scale retrospective of Bacon’s work since his death. As our chief art critic reports today, the show curated by the art historian David Sylvester at the Pompidou Centre is an immensely powerful survey of 95 of Bacon’s t works. They have been borrowed from collections around the world (including from the Tate in London), and range across the whole of Bacon’s dark and lonely adult existence — from an extraordinary Crucifixion, painted when he was 24, to the sequence of grieving triptychs that he created late in life.

This remarkable show remains in Paris until October then it travels to Munch. Britain will not have it. Britons must either travel abroad after or make do with a small complementary exhibition in Norwich of Bacon portraits from the Sainsbury collection. Though welcome and useful, it scarcely counts as an alternative.

Bacon’s reputation remains high on the Continent; that should be a matter of pride in this country. We have sat back and allowed other nations to take the lead in celebrating his genius; that should be a cause of regret.

When the Vermeer exhibition was seen in Holland but not in Britain, and the Matisse exhibition was put on show in Paris but not in London, we could at least offer ourselves the consolation that these artists were being displayed in countries from which they drew inspiration. But Bacon was a Londoner through and through, as closely associated with the demi-monde of Soho as Toulouse-Lautrec was with Montmartre or Cézanne with Provence.

London’s galleries may argue that only 11 years have passed since the Tate mounted a magnificent show of 124 Bacons. They may also point to plans to put Bacon’s triptychs on show at the Hayward Gallery. But when the foremost British painter of the century dies, those who lead our artistic life have a special duty to mark his achievement in a fitting and monumental manner. They have signally foiled to do that here and British exhibition-goers are the losers.

Coming so soon after the luke-warm and tardy attempt to keep the Becket casket in Britain, this latest instance of art-institution apathy is unwelcome. To lose one superb piece of national heritage in a month may be regarded as a misfortune. To be beaten into third place when it comes to celebrating a modem British genius suggests that a sharp wake-up call is needed.






A British Outsider Embraced With a French Blockbuster







PARIS July 9 
 Like many other cities, Paris now routinely uses blockbuster shows to revive interest in artists ranging from Poussin to Cezanne. But what distinguishes the major retrospective of Francis Bacon that just opened at the Georges Pompidou Center is that the British artist died only four years ago. Already, it seems, his work is considered ripe to be rediscovered.

Not that Bacon lacked for attention in his lifetime. In fact, one of the most important exhibitions of his works was held at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971. France nonetheless always viewed him as something of an outsider, a figurative painter when abstract and then Conceptual Art were all the rage, a man whose distinct visual language seemed to owe nothing to French artistic tradition.

For a new generation, then, the show at the Pompidou Center, the largest Bacon exhibition in a decade, is indeed a discovery. And it has been received here as such, with extensive coverage in newspapers and magazines and the publication of a comprehensive 336-page catalogue. The exhibition, which closes on Oct. 14, has 79 paintings, including 16 of Bacon’s 30 triptychs, and 7 works on paper.

Bacon at last! Jean-Marie Tasset wrote in Le FigaroIf he had not been a millionaire, he would no doubt have been our martyr of contemporary art. For so long he was scorned as reactionary and conventional by the official thinkers of the day. Long excluded, he is now recognized by all. Through his life and work, Bacon showed that individual courage is the best way of fighting prejudice.

Bacon made no effort to reach out to most of his contemporaries. For many years he was a close friend of the painter Lucian Freud, although he disliked being grouped with Mr. Freud, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, R. B. Kitaj and Michael Andrews in a so-called School of London. He also dismissed Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and made no secret of his deep distaste for the whole range of nonfigurative postwar art movements.

What becomes apparent in this exhibition is that from the moment he created his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1944, Bacon found his own tormented vision of art. And until his death in 1992 at the age of 83, he continued to explore the disturbingly deformed images of the human face and body that distinguish his work from anything before or since. His favorite subject in his later years was John Edwards, the friend to whom he left $16.9 million. Bacon liked to consider the 1944 triptych, with its monstrous semi-human figures set against an acid orange background, as marking the start of his career as an artist. In truth, he began drawing and painting more than 15 years earlier, but he destroyed almost everything he did. Of 10 surviving pre-1944 paintings, three are in the show here, including his ghostly Crucifixion of 1933, which was well received at the time.

Bacon was born in Dublin of English parents in 1909 and moved with his family to London in 1914. In 1925, at 16, he left home after a fight with his father and began what became an infamously bohemian life. He began work as a decorator and furniture designer and often went to Europe. In 1928, he visited a Picasso exhibition in Paris that inspired him to start drawing.

By the mid-1930’s, he had given up decorating for painting but had had little success. He showed his work in some collective exhibitions and did odd jobs to make ends meet. The two other early works on display here point the way to his lifelong use of rich, almost garish colours, although their styles are derivative, Interior of a Room (1935) of post-Cubism and Figures in a Garden (1936) of Surrealism. Two of the works on paper, one an homage to Picasso, also date to this period.

In 1944, recognition of Bacon as an original began to grow. His personal life was tumultuous: he was an inveterate gambler, he always drank heavily and he flaunted his homosexuality. But his provocative way of life seemed to inspire him to create. He was an avowed atheist, yet he returned frequently to the theme of crucifixion, always calling his works studies, as if one day he planned to paint a complete crucifixion. The howling mouths or silent screams that characterized much of his work through the 1950’s soon appeared, with a series of isolated heads giving way to his many studies inspired by Velazquez’s majestic portrait of Pope Innocent X. In this series and in his studies for a portrait of van Gogh, his tributes to the artists were direct. Elsewhere, he quoted more subtly from Monet, Michelangelo, Turner and Degas.

In the 1960’s, Bacon began to use friends, among them Mr. Freud, as models, although working from photographs because he liked to work alone in his studio. And even here, the photos were merely to remind him of certain features. What counted was the image they projected to him, and it was this he would paint, often mangling faces or twisting bodies to catch their appearance.

The image is a kind of tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction, he once told David Sylvester, an old friend and distinguished British art critic who organized the Pompidou exhibition. It will go right out from abstraction but will really have nothing to do with it. It’s an attempt to bring the figurative thing up onto the nervous system more violently and more poignantly.

With these portraits, Bacon also began to reduce competing images in his canvases to a minimum, apparently eager to focus all attention on the pain or sex or violence or solitude he was trying to convey. Obsessed with geometric forms, he introduced lines as glass cages to create frames within frames. In Triptych Inspired by T. S. Eliot’s Poem Sweeney Agonistes’ (1960), the flanking panels show two nude women and two nude men on beds inside "glass cages," while the central panel shows a bloody corpse in a train compartment.

In many of his works of this period, he used his lover, George Dyer, as his model, as in Three Studies of the Male Back. And after Dyer committed suicide in 1971 (just before Bacon’s Paris exhibition that year), Bacon continued to paint him, as if anxious to purge himself of responsibility for his friend’s death. Triptych: In Memory of George Dyer is particularly touching, with the central panel showing Dyer holding the key to the door of an apartment.

Bacon’s sense of the continuity of his work was underlined in 1988 when he repainted his 1944 triptych, now somewhat more stylized and with a dark red background replacing the original acid orange. And until the end of his life he continued to probe himself in studies for self-portraits. But he always insisted that his purpose was not to shock or disturb.

My figures are not twisted or tortured by torture, he said in a 1971 interview with a French magazine. I do not deform bodies for the pleasure of it, rather in order to transmit the reality of the image in its most poignant phase. Perhaps it is not the best way, but it is the only way I know of to get to something that is as close as possible to life.






The artist formerly known as British




Paris has taken Francis Bacon as one of its own, a European painter with a vision of the

uncertainties and fragmentation of the twentieth century, says Andrew Graham-Dixon





The Francis Bacon retrospective, which opened a fortnight ago at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, has been attracting approximately 5,000 visitors each day. That is a remarkable figure. Picasso and Matisse apart, it is hard to think of another 20th-century artist capable of drawing such crowds. It is impossible to think of another British 20th-century artist capable of doing so.

As far as the French are concerned, we are to understand that Bacon is not British at all, but European. According to Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the president of the Pompidou Centre, he is one of the quintessentially European artists of modern times. Indeed, Aillagon adds, the exhibition may be counted upon to reveal the "profonde Europeanite"  the profound Europeanness  of his painting. It is very unusual for the French to consider a British artist as one of them, as part of the mainstream, in quite this way.

The desire to recruit Bacon as a "European" is not entirely perverse because, at the level of its technique, Bacon’s art does speak long and lovingly about the art of the Italian, Spanish and Dutch masters he admired (above all Titian, Velázquez and Rembrandt). Yet the Pompidou exhibition and its popularity surely says as much about the the times in which we live as it does about Bacon’s art.

The readiness or the desire to see this difficult, refractory boundlessly vital individual as an emblematic trans-national European figure may be symptomatic of something else; part of a broader quest for some binding sense of European identify, perhaps. But there is a paradox here, because Bacon’s grand subject is the troubled and fugitive nature of identity itself. Bacon’s art teaches us to admit that we do not know quite who we are, nor quite what is going on, nor why. Could it be that modern Europe is prepared to embrace him because it sees in his work a reflection of its own uncertainties and fragmentation?

The images confronting those 5,000 daily visitors to the Pompidou Centre are neither pleasant nor comforting. In Bacon’s art the Pope screams, the newsreader, in his glass box, laughs the laugh of a maniac; while the politician grins, melts and collapses into an incoherent puddle of matter. The dissolved, blurred and otherwise deformed people we see in Bacon’s paintings have lost their coherence and have metamorphosed into projectiles of flesh and energy, going God knows where. They embrace each other. They eat each other. Often, we see them in the process of turning into animals.

Bacon’s is an art of breakdown, meltdown and entropy  a fact he makes plain by taking the classic forms of Western European religious art (the triptych, the icon) and twisting them to his own ends. One of the first pictures to be seen in the exhibition is that with which the artist made his London exhibiting debut, in 1944: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. The writer John Russell, who went to see the painting in an exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery just a month before the end of the Second World War, has left a fine description of the appalling impact it made on the fragile optimism of its first audience.

"Immediately to the right of the door were images so unrelievedly awful that the mind shut snap at the sight of them. Their anatomy was half-human, half-animal and they were confined in a low-ceilinged, windowless and oddly proportioned space. They could bite, probe and suck, and they had very long, eel-like necks ... Common to all three figures was a mindless voracity, an automatic unregulated gluttony, a ravening undifferentiated capacity for hatred. They caused a total consternation. We had no name for them, and no name for what we felt about them."

Yet the mood at the Pompidou Centre is one of reverence. The paintings are hung within spaces and arranged in configurations that suggest the sacredness of the chapel. There is even, perhaps, a sense in which Bacon has now come to seem all too easily accessible an artist. These days Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion does not seem to prompt shock but (and this may itself be shocking in another way) an almost straightforward sense of recognition. On the day when I visited the exhibition, I saw a young couple approach Bacon’s howling, sneering, squatting maenads, consider them for a moment or two in silence, nod sadly and move on. Yes, the choreography of their bodies seemed to say, yes, this is what the world is like. Ghouls like these ones lurk everywhere  in corners of the mind best left unvisited, in the shadow lands of society, in war zones.

Bacon originally seemed a disturbing artist because he insisted on emphasising those aspects of humanity  transgressive, violent, bestial  that most of his audience had spent their lives attempting to suppress or ignore. Once, his work scandalised those who saw it. Now, many seem to find in it cause for consent, even consensus. One generation’ s revelation has become another generation’s given.

Perhaps it is in this sense, then, that Bacon has become a "European" artist. In his visions of the ego perpetually succumbing to the id, of the humane succumbing to the bestial, of the coherent being swallowed up by the incoherent, we now simply see a convincing account of the way things are  especially in central and Eastern Europe. Yet, while the troubled modern European sensibility finds it tempting to see itself and its own predicaments so uncannily reflected in the deformations, apparent violence and the heightened sense of mortality expressed by Bacon’s work, this does not necessarily make it any easier for us to see his strengths and weaknesses as an artist. Bacon himself, it ought to be remembered, passionately disliked overt symbolic interpretation of his work. Indeed, few things horrified him more than the notion that his pictures might be taken for allegories of the political, moral or other ills of the 20th century.

The danger is that our own historical circumstances, and our own sense of history, may persuade us to see Bacon’s work as merely a form of higher illustration; a series of cartoon diagrams depicting such abstractions as the Human Condition or Late Twentieth Century Anxiety. Yet at his very best, and particularly in his earlier work, which looks more impressive with each passing year, Bacon gave expression to his undoubted morbidity and pessimism with a pictorial inventiveness  an originality in the actual handling of paint itself  unmatched in the art of any of his contemporaries.

His paint had a visceral quality, and a perverse beauty, that sets itself against the apparent horror of his imagery. He once said, a propos of the screaming face that so fascinated him as a motif that he wanted to paint the glitter and the life of the human mouth as if he were Monet painting a sunset.

To see Francis Bacon as a great describer of what it means, now, to be a European, may be in one sense to pay him his due. But it is also to risk ironing out the unevenness in his work, and seeing almost everything he touched as a masterpiece  which is almost the same as forgetting what made him great, when he was great, in the first place. The moment when we begin to find Significance in an artist’s work may, also, be the moment when we begin to lose sight of the work itself.

Francis Bacon continues at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, until 14 October.






                Above, a portrait of Bacon taken in his studio in 1971.   Photograph: Francis Goodman






High anxiety maybe  not high art




A Francis Bacon show in Paris is drawing crowds, but

  Richard Dorment is repelled by the artist’s work






IN Study of the Human Body of 1982 Francis Bacon presents us with an image of a mutant creature composed of a man’s genitals and buttocks, standing on two bare legs covered from feet to knees in cricket pads. To be frank, the picture strikes me as too silly for words. But the reason it is high camp and not high art has less to do with its subject than its composition.

Bacon is giving visual form to a sexual fantasy, depicting another person not in terms of his humanity but as fragments of his body. Since those cricket pads reek of fetishism, the painting may interest students of abnormal psychology. But artistically it is a failure. Instead of limiting the amount of space around the central motif (as Magritte and Courbet instinctively did in their tightly cropped close-ups of women’s sexual organs), Bacon places the body parts on a pedestal in the middle of the canvas and surrounds them with space, asking us to regard them as objects of aesthetic contemplation, not of fetishistic fascination. The result invites ridicule.

It may be unfair to judge Bacon by a painting done 11 years before his death in 1992. For most people it is the work of the first half of his career that places him among the most important British artists of this century. But is this division between the early and later work really so acute? The occasion of the British Council’s retrospective of his work at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (until October 14) gives us a chance to revise the received view by taking a long, hard look at the career as a whole.

The show has been selected and installed by Bacon’s formidable advocate, the critic David Sylvester. My enormous admiration for Sylvester means that this exhibition represents the best and probably the last opportunity I will have to come to terms with an artist who has always left me cold. Before seeing it, I had always thought that Bacon’s paintings perfectly captured the angst of the post-war period, but that his work did not transcend his own time in the way that, say, Polllock’s has, and Jasper Johns’s surely will. Having now seen the show, I wish I could say it changed my mind. But, though Bacon at his best ranks as the most gifted painter of the School of London, seen from an international perspective he is the most overrated artist since Bouguereau.

Where to begin? Technically, Bacon is such a limited painter. He found it nearly impossible to sustain the visual interest in a picture over the entire surface of a canvas, from the central motif to the edges. A face or figure may contain ravishingly painted passages, but it will typically be surrounded by vast areas of dead, flat pigment. It isn’t that Bacon didn’t try, in works like the Study for a Portrait of 1953, to create space and atmosphere with modulations of light and dark, but that, having tried, he soon lost interest, and eventually gave up. In the later works he simply used a can of spray paint.

As early as the Self-Portrait of 1956 it feels to me as though he was working on too large a scale — too large, that is, for a neo-Romantic artist who was no draughtsman and had no technical training. As the paintings get bigger, they flare into life only in isolated passages, usually where impastoed paint is used to evoke gobs of viscera, spattered brains and smeared bloodstains.

Another problem is Bacon himself, as we know him through his pictures. When Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was first seen by the British public in 1944, the three armless and legless torsos howling with rage or pain were seen as symbols of spiritual despair of suffering humanity. But Bacon was not happy with that interpretation.

When he retuned to the subject on a much larger scale in 1988, he made changes which conveyed a much nastier message: that these were not timeless archetypes, but sado-masochistic fantasies, creatures who, in order to feel anything at all, offer their bodies to be violated and mutilated. You have to conclude that Bacon finds pain erotic. Because his paintings are so often filled with lovely colours, Bacon aestheticises physical and emotional suffering.

There are two outstanding paintings in this exhibition. The pit bull terrier in Man with Dog of 1953 is set against a nocturne of silvery blacks and blues beautifully painted with a dragged brush. Against an uptilted plane, the animal becomes as mysterious and threatening as a Cerberus guarding the entrance to the underworld, here suggested by a sewer. And the Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh III of 1957 is wonderfully voluptuous, colour-saturated painting, demonstrating that Bacon might have been a de Kooning, if not a Van Gogh, if only he had not been so desperate to enter the pantheon of great artists by taking on ever more portentous subjects.

But what are we to make of the succession of enormous triptychs in which men in their underpants defecate or vomit or look as though they’ve just been beaten to a pulp? The answer is: quite a lot if your are a psychoanalyst treating them purely as material for interpretation. I have no objection to this approach if, as with some contemporary conceptual artists, this is how the viewer is invited to respond to the work. But to do that, you first have to set aesthetics aside. Bacon wanted his work to be judged as painting, he was asking us to see beauty in paint and death. This to me is repellent.

But what I dislike most about Francis Bacon’s art is that in both earlier and later paintings he manipulates his viewers. I hate being told what to feel in front of a picture. It is like the difference between Grand Guignol and Chekov. The first is crass and crude and admits of only one possible response: revulsion. Real art is more complex. It allows us to bring our own thoughts and feelings to it. I just don’t understand an artist who pitches the level of anxiety in all his pictures so high that it crowds out anything remotely resembling a real thought or feeling. You can do one of two things in front of an image of unadulterated horror: either you go along with it and scream, or you say this has nothing to do with my experience.

Since 4,000 people a day are pouring into the Paris show, and Bacon is one of the most revered of all British artists, I realise that his work says something to them that I just can’t hear.

The Francis Bacon retrospective, organised in collaboration with the British Council, is at the Pompidou Centre in Paris until October 14. Information: 00 33 1 44 78 12 33.





                                                   Overrated: Francis Bacon





Bacon in Paris






From the Director of the Tate Gallery


Sir, Francis Bacon was, indeed, one of the great painters of the 20th century, as David Sylvester’s magisterial exhibition in Paris confirms.

However, contrary to the views expressed in your leading article of July 9, he has not been a prophet entirety without honour in his own country.

Of the four major exhibitions of his work held during his lifetime, two were initiated by and shown at the Tate in 1962 and 1985.

We expect to celebrate his achievement here in many ways over the next decade.

Yours faithfully,


Tate Gallery, Millbank. SW1.

 July 17.




Cooked up emotions







The Bacon retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris is about the best representation of the artist which can be imagined — intelligently selected and flawlessly hung: no surprise, this, when the curator of the show is David Sylvester, a close friend of the artist, the major expert on Bacon’s work, and a man who has turned the making of exhibitions into an art form in its own right. The question the event raises, and in even more acute form since the exhibition itself is so well done, is whether Bacon is all he is cracked up to be.

Few contemporary artists have attracted the support of intellectuals to the same extent. From the great anthropologist Michel Leiris in Paris to Marta Traba, founder of the Museo de Arte Moderns in Bogota, they have all sung Bacon’s praises. Traba’s book Los cuatro monstruos cardinales, published in Mexico City in 1965 (the other 'monsters' were Dubuffet, De Kooning and Jose Luis Cuevas), was enormously influential in spreading Bacon’s reputation throughout Latin America. It is a major omission from the Centre Pompidou’s otherwise very thorough bibliography. The attitude of these intellectuals towards Bacon’s work is summed up in the titles of two essays by the veteran French poet and critic Alain Bosquet. One, published in Le Quotidien de Paris in 1987, was called 'Francis Bacon ou le terreur de soi'. The other, published in Le Figaro four years ago, was called 'Francis Bacon, le terreur d’être'. That is, the artist is seen as some- one who teaches us about that favourite 20th-century concept, existential fear of the void. A militant atheist all his life, Bacon emerges from the writings of his admirers as a quasi-religious figure. Can one accept this? Equally, can one accept the view that Bacon is a technical wizard, one of the few artists of his generation who actually understood what paint could be made to do on canvas?

At this point, I think it must be said that I already have a fairly prominent place amongst the sceptics. I reviewed Bacon’s first retrospective at the Tate for the Listener in 1962, and I reviewed his work again for the Evening Standard in 1978. On both occasions, if I remember correctly, I compared him to Johann Heinrich Fuseli, painter of that wonderfully hysterical, but also rather comic, near-masterpiece The Nightmare', and central figure in the late 18th-century Sturm and Drang. Bacon, I thought, was technically hit-or-miss, just as Fuseli was. I also felt that, like Fuseli, he dealt in cooked up emotions — rushing around saying boo to any goose he could find.

Has the current exhibition caused me to change my mind? The answer must be 'a little bit, but not as much as I hoped'. This is the first would-be comprehensive survey of Bacon’s work mounted since his death in 1992. Sylvester has not had to consult the artist, and it shows in the choices he has made. There are 88 single paintings and triptychs in the catalogue. Sixty-two of these date from before the year 1972. Thirty-five date from before 1960. Clearly the curator thinks that the early years produced Bacon’s most significant work. Going round the show, it is hard to disagree with this verdict. 'Figure in a Landscape' of 1945, and the two 'Figure Studies' of 1946 — apparitions conjured up from an old tweed overcoat and a few other props — are disturbing, masterly paintings which evoke a state halfway between sleeping and waking, when familiar objects seem sinister and alienated. Some of the paintings dating from the early 1950s based on images made by the Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge are scarcely less good. 

These were also the years when Bacon courageously faced the subject of his own homosexuality, in images whose meaning could scarcely be misconstrued. 'Two Figures in the Grass', of 1954, is present in the Pompidou exhibition. The even more forthright 'Two Figures on a Bed', of the 'Study of a Figure in a Landscape' by Francis Bacon, Phillips Collection, Washington previous year, is absent, but reproduced full-page in the catalogue. Post-Wolfenden, post-Hockney, post-Gay Lib, these paintings have lost a great deal of their original impact. In the repressed climate of the 1950s, they had the force of an explosion. People talked about them, though they were little seen. When the Institute of Contemporary Arts gave Bacon a retrospective in 1955, featuring only 13 pictures, 'Two Figures in the Grass' was included, but prudently not reproduced in the catalogue.

Perhaps because the imagery carried such a serious freight of meaning, this was also the epoch when Bacon’s actual technique was at its most secure. As everyone knows, he was not a trained artist, and the three paintings done in the 1930s which are included here (Bacon destroyed a number of others) are not models of technical refinement. Indeed, it wouldn’t be going too far to call them slightly ham-fisted. His best technical achievements came when he learned to use the 'wrong, unprepared, side of the canvas. This led to the vaporous, dream-like look typical of the series of Popes (paraphrases of Velazquez’s 'Portrait of Pope Innocent X'), the paintings which, more than any others, supplied the bedrock of Bacon’s early reputation. In the 1960s, there is a change, and not for the better. Now only the figures are freely brushed, against linoleum-like grounds of flat, unarticulated colour. As if to compensate for deadness of a large part of the picture-surface, Bacon also elaborated the whole decorative apparatus which already played a role in his works — platforms, transparent boxes, screens, bath- room fittings, distorted items of modernist furniture. Even where the paintings commemorate real, tragic events, like the suicide of the artist’s lover George Dyer on the eve of the triumphant opening of Bacon’s first Paris retrospective in 1971, there is something cooked up about them — a shrill, forced, sensationalist element which would only strengthen as the years went on. Even the most personal works became scenes from a melodrama.

If one considers Bacon’s career as a whole, one is struck by certain things. He relied on a very small store of key images, most of them borrowed — from the Velazquez just mentioned (a painting he never dared to see in the original), from Muybridge, from medical textbooks, from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Equally, he mythicised a small group of friends and lovers, whose likenesses appear again and again — Dyer, Isabel, Rawsthome, Lucian Freud, Muriel Belcher (proprietress of the Colony Room in Soho), Henrietta Moraes. With the exception of Freud, few of these were personalities of general interest, though as anyone who encountered some of them in the flesh can say, they did have a certain arrogant confidence in their own bohemianism, just like Bacon himself. Whether you can actually found a universal myth about the splendours and horrors of contemporary life on such specialised and scanty materials must, I think, remain in question.

It remains to say something, briefly, about the other 'British' show in Paris, A Century of British Sculpture at the Jeu de Paume. Alluding to the exhibition in these pages (6 July), Leslie Geddes-Brown seemed to think it was rather a good thing. Alas, this is not the case. Epstein, Moore, Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Caro, Paolozzi are crammed into small spaces downstairs. Upstairs, in the larger galleries, is a parade of currently fashionable names — Flanagan, Long, Cragg, Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst. It is British sculpture seen through the eyes of leading international art magazines: a hierarchy of what is 'important' which has everything to do with current hype and almost nothing to do with a sense of history or with individual judgment. Better not to publicise national achievement at all than to publicise it in these terms.

Francis Bacon (Pompidou Centre, 14 October)






                                           ‘Study of a Figure in a Landscape’ by Francis Bacon, Phillips Collection, Washington






David Sylvester, connoisseur of life’s sweetnesses




He is a great writer on modern art, as his new collection of essays proves, and

the most sought-after mounter of exhibitions, such as the current Bacon show

in Paris. And to Grey Gowrie, he is a guru and friend






DAVID Sylvester is very much an Englishman and a London intellectual of his generation and background. He likes jazz, cricket, gambling, claret and talented women. He is resolute for the sweetnesses of life which only those of us whose earlier lives were touched by the drab deprivations of war can appreciate without taking for granted. He is also a Russian Jew, increasingly rabbinical in appearance, and a melancholy autodidact with tinges of paranoia and insufficient knowledge of his worth.

He is expert in English and European literature, post-Renaissance music, carpets, the civilisations of France and Italy (both countries have honoured him more than we have done), English furniture, Islamic art and Greek and Egyptian antiquities. He has influenced some of the best postwar acquisitions at the Tate.

He is the best living writer in English about modern art and, less subjectively, the most sought-after mounter of exhibitions. He is himself a very funny man and, if you are patient with the prickles and the paranoia, you can laugh at as well as with him. In cultural matters he is my guru, the person whose judgment I need to overcome even when I disagree with it. He is also my best friend among the generation immediately preceding my own. This cannot be an objective appreciation.

Sylvester’s career rides high at the moment. Perhaps his mildly Eeyore-ish temperament, combined with the generalised pessimism of our eighth decade, will be soothed by this burst of intense intellectual energy. It is bearing fruit in revised and selected essays such as the newly-published About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96; in work in progress, like a book on Francis Bacon; and in two magnificent exhibitions this year alone.

The Serpentine Gallery is, with Charles Saatchi’s gallery, the best place to look at modern art in London. Sylvester’s display of William Turnbull’s paintings and sculptures corrected a puzzling neglect of one of our most intemationa admired artists. If you catch the Chunnel train, you can visit the Centre Pompidou in Paris, lunch well and be back again for supper. The Centre Pompidou is a very successful building for intriguing and attracting visitors. Yet its greatest advocate would be pushed to commend it as a place to consider paintings.

Sylvester’s Francis Bacon exhibition, which President Chirac opened three weeks ago (how unlike the home lives of our own dear heads of state), overcomes the difficulty. It is a masterpiece of concentrated selection of work by a great artist who painted a large number of “dreadful paintings”, in Bacon’s own account as well as Mrs Thatcher’s. Distil Bacon and the effect is wholly liberating and intoxicating. He becomes a humanist master who has looked with existential ferocity at the Renaissance tradition of celebratory grandeur. The exhibition is even better than the Museo Correr show in 1993. Sylvester received an unprecedented accolade in being awarded Venice’s Golden Lion for his criticism. Hitherto it had always gone to artists.

The new selection of essays is mesmerically absorbing. Arterati of my generation first read David Sylvester in our teens and early twenties when he was the regular critic of The New Statesman. A particular fascination was his ability to write like a travel writer, charting the movements of mind and eye. Sylvester did not mind changing his mind or engaging in a continual argument with himself. The reader participated in the debate and extended it.

Here was a writer who met Holden Caulfield’s test of excellence in The Catcher in the Rye: you wanted to call him up the moment you put him down. In this respect, Sylvester echoed the dynamic of modern art itself, its Wagnerian cycles of building up in order to destroy. Here he mirrors especially the career of its greatest exemplar, Picasso:

... Picasso himself is still the question, probably because Matisse is a great artist in the same sort of way as many great artists of the past, whereas Picasso is a kind of artist who couldn’t have existed before this century, since his art is a celebration of this century’s introductions the practice of art. In any event, Picasso is the issue, Picasso is the one to beat, Picasso is the fastest gun in the West, the one every budding gunfighter has to beat to the draw in order to prove himself. And, for those of us who are not involved in the life-and-death struggle of the game of art but only in the sham heroics of the game of criticism, Picasso is again the one to beat. The young critic cuts his teeth on Picasso. He proves his manhood by putting down Picasso, which is quite easy because he is so flawed an artist, is such a colossal figure that he has several parts that are clay. probably including his feet, but not his balls. I started being hostile to Picasso in print in 1948 ...

The passage comes from Sylvester’s introduction to About Modern Art, in a chapter he calls Curriculum Vitae. This constitutes the only disappointment of the book — frustration, rather — because it is a too brief account of Sylvester’s own intellectual journey. It is garnished with so many interesting anecdotes and references that you want it to develop into a full autobiographical banquet.

Sylvester was a close friend of Giacometti, who painted him, and Bacon, with whom he collaborated in a seminal text of postwar art, The Brutality of Fact. These men taught him not to be stuffed or padded: to try to overcome the protective carapace of life beyond the shtetl. Sylvester overcame, too, the very English characteristic of reticent hesitancy where talking about the arts is concerned — our terror of being eligible for inclusion in Pseuds’ Corner. Picasso, after all, was not risk averse.

Sylvester is a man who can wobble and dither in private — if endless calls to his friends, occasions both of delight and misgiving, can be called private. When I worked in politics, he agonised endlessly about voting Conservative, but said he always did so, not least because he would have fallen in love, were he homosexual, with Lord Carrington. Few days goby now without a call wondering where exactly I stand on such matters as Blake, TS Eliot (his master), Palestrina, Count Basie, Bertolucci and Mrs Bertolucci (with whom, like so many of us, he has been in love), anti-Semitism among Jews, Brendel versus Schnabel or the desirability of buying off-year Lafite.

I am reasonably sound in all these disciplines, but a sad disappointment over cricket. I have not yet had the nerve to confess that when my grandfather was President of the MCC, I was given, and have lost, bats signed by Bradman, Hutton, Compton and others. To me, watching or playing cricket is like being made to do alegbra out of doors. Sylvester agonises in conversation. Pen in hand, he is purged and decisive. His ability to write very well, although always painfully, sharpens his concentration into the judgments guiding his pilgrimage.

About Modern Art is contextual rather than definitive Sylvester. It charts his stations along the way. There are founding fathers like Monet, Cezanne and Bonnard; masters like Matisse and Picasso; maverick masters like {&r KIcT S? and S^s tavdylnyestedln the art which followed the last war: in Europe, Giacometti, Bacon and (early) Dubuffet; and in America, the great generation of Rothko, de Kooning, Pollock and Guston. Living in England, and knowing most English artists well, allows him to concentrate on the Englishness of modern English art, to adapt Pevsner’s phrase. Although I happen to loathe almost all Pop art, I can see why it is fun, if a bit too easy, to write about.

I join Sylvester gratefully once more when he describes Barnett Newman as producing “what seemed the most indispensable paintings of twentieth century” — not a common view — and learn from this book, rather than in conversation, the fascinating news that Sylvester’s major work of critical scholarship, his Renée Magritte and the five-volume Catalogue Raisonne of Magritte, co-authored with Sarah Whitfield, was triggered by conversations about Magritte with Rothko and Jasper Johns. Magritte occupied him for nearly a quarter of a century. As he himself wryly puts it: “I still love the work; but the fact remains that I spent years of my life, like Swann, on someone who was not my type.”

People who may be thinking of buying About Modern Art, but who feel there will be names unfamiliar or uninteresting to them, need have no fears. Sylvester neither patronises nor indulges in cultural name-dropping. But he does not talk down. Good writing about cricket could get me interested in cricket and here, above all, is a writer. The book has, too, the priceless advantage of not being illustrated. Your imagination seized by his account of the war, you will have to visit the battlefields for yourself.

About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96’is published by Chatto at £25.






         David Sylvester: ‘a particular fascination is his ability to write like a travel writer, charting the movements of mind and eye’









                           BCANDIA MCWILLIAM




A new collection of David Sylvester’s writings on art demonstrates

an awe-inspiring scope and luminous vision writings





ONE of the pleasures offered by such a collection as David Sylvester’s About Modern Art, with its long range over time, is the opportunity to watch the development of the critic’s relationship with his material. Such is Sylvester’s access to his own and an artist’s vision and so direct and luminous his expression of it that the reader is able to watch a sensibility develop and define itself, as in the miraculous films of Picasso painting on glass, where one sees the fleet thoughts and decisions of the artist without being distracted by his thinking person.

Sylvester in his early pages acknowledges the rare quality of editing he has enjoyed from Karl Miller, first on the New Statesman and later on the London Review of Books, J R Ackerley (“diffident to a fault... I always longed for him to iron out all my clumsiness”) and others. He is spot-on about American sub-editors:

They probe you here, they grope you there, insinuate themselves elsewhere; when you protect yourself in one place, they paw you in another; when you protest, they tell you what to do to give them pleasure and use emotional blackmail till you do; it’s all a long struggle to preserve a shred of your virginity. And yet they’re somehow so endearing in their desire for logic and intelligibility that you feel guilty about your anger. The worst villainy occurs when they bypass consultation. You receive the published work and find sentences totally rewritten, inevitably missing the point, and it’s like having been abused while asleep.

He goes on to say, later in the same essay, that “the attraction of editing is that it is much easier but equally gratifying at the time of a birth to be a father than a mother”. Since he is speaking here of his own editing, in concert with his teaching, committee, and curatorial work, there is a nice self-subversion.

Bold use of metaphor, extended as above like the trailed serifs of thick paint — “those delightful skeins” — he admires in the work of Kossoff, or used locally to highlight, comes naturally to Sylvester. A metaphorical spin in a good writer can be innate; it is how he sees the world, not how he overlays it. A writer born with a metaphorical vision interprets the world as does a painter or sculptor in his characteristic use of his medium. Sylvester’s metaphors have a fidelity and transforming attention that pay implicit tribute to Cezanne’s constantly renewed combination of these qualities. The sense of illumination — lightness, too — achieved by continual inordinate work is common to both.

Sylvester’s peculiar achievement is to interpret one immensely complicated created thing — an artefact or a vision — through another — good prose — and to align and clarify the two for us. This authority is the product of knowledge of the past, a rage for vigilance as well as for looking, and an intolerance of the intervention of veils of theory. In 1949, in a review of an exhibition of Frank Auerbach’s work at the Beaux Arts Gallery, Sylvester listed the qualities that “make for greatness in a painter — fearlessness; a profound originality; a total absorption in what obsesses him; and, above all, a certain authority and gravity in his forms and colours”.

Although it is with Bacon and Giacometti that Sylvester is perhaps most immediately linked in the public mind, the artist of whose work he spent several years co-authoring a catalogue raisonné was Magritte: “more of a painter, less purely an image maker, than his enemies and friends supposed. And I still love the work; but the fact remains that I spent years of my life, like Swann, on someone who was not my type.”

This swoop across the arts recurs rewardingly; he observes in his essay on Anthony Caro that the sculptor’s feelings about the human body did not disappear “merely because he turned from the ‘figurative’ to the ‘abstract’, (any more than the human voice disappeared from Mozart’s voice when he turned from writing an opera to writing a piano concerto)”. And of Cezanne: “In some of the landscapes there is a great silence and emptiness and at the same time a throb, a pulse. It’s like the experience of certain polyphonic music, such as Bach’s chorale preludes — an uncanny equation of relentless onward movement and total stillness.”

While writing a review in January 1953 (of a small Matisse exhibition at the Tate), David Sylvester “made a resolve that my career as a critic was to be dedicated above all — even more than to the promotion of a Giacometti-Bacon axis — to establishing that Matisse was a greater artist than Picasso”. Self-knowledge and moral clarity combine in Sylvester, who declares a preference more than once for “tentativeness” over “patness”. “My standpoint was undoubtedly much influenced by devotion to Giacometti’s work and approach. Picasso was a quintessential finder, Giacometti a quintessential seeker, and it seemed more virtuous to be the latter.” Elsewhere, he refers to Giacometti as the saintly knight without armour who had come to redeem art from facility and commercialism.”

This elegiac prelapsarian note is constant behind these essays, whether they touch on De Kooning’s slithery nudes, the “big machines” of Guernica and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the rich subject of the work of the artist in age, the “strange transcendent note” it has that is, Sylvester observes, surprisingly often present in the late work of those who die young, or on the effect of wars on art.

The entire world of art had the kind of creative energy, in the years before 1914, which is often said to be the prerogative of the genius who is shortly to suffer an early death. It was to be the death, as has often been said, of everything that Europe took for granted — of all kinds of values and beliefs and hopes that were now seen to be ill-founded, presumptuous, and naive. The wisdom that comes from disenchantment is not a climate that suits the growth of art: art, it seems, thrives on innocence. In this it only follows the principle that the more one knows the less one tends to do.

This wide lucidity coexists with an intimate understanding of the small (the “all-overness” of Klee) and even the parochial — “It seems to be the misfortune of British painters to be born with more in them of Shelley than of Keats” — the “reasonableness” that distinguishes Moore from Picasso. The beautiful poise of Sylvester’s consideration lies in that subtly undermining yet Englishly decent adjective. No page is with out at least two such felicities, and the collection is stuffed with aphorisms that are neither stiff nor apt to come to bits when you think about them. “Every clown wants to play Hamlet, no Hamlet would prefer to be a clown”; Miro “feigns a superb spontaneity”; the art of the “wine culture” (Europe) versus that of the “Coke culture” (America); “For a woman, the horror of ageing resides in no longer attracting; for a man, in no longer acting”. There is some toothsome art-critical cattiness evident in the short prologues to the essays, and, once or twice, in them: “To praise [Richard Long] now is to take a food parcel to someone who is in the middle of eating his dinner at the Ritz.” (The thorn may perhaps be retracted by the comparison Sylvester makes between Long and Caspar David Friedrich.)

The different colours of black in Spanish art, the “heroism of the real in Cezanne and Poussin”, the art criticism of Adrian Stokes, the unanimous affirmation of Jewish painters that “art has no business to exist if it does not speak to the onlooker of the miseries and occasionally the triumphs of human existence”, the slippage of Pop into Zen, the truth about Bonnard’s Marthe and her baths, Mondrian’s artificial tulip, each is given its proper weight and attention. Because we come to trust him almost as soon as we open the book we read of Gilbert and George’s more extreme exhibitions or of Warhol or Twombly and see that there are more ways of seeing than we know.  abstract

 About Modern Art by David Sylvester is published by Chatto & Windus at £25










Firing at the nervous system



Animal humanity and private violence in the work of Francis Bacon




                                          FRANCIS BACON


                                                     Centre Georges Pompidou










At the centre a kind of mentula dentata on a mounted block slouches towards us its lips painted its teeth bared suspended pended over the elegant base of a table it is poised on something resembling a pair if compass legs and might be walking or might se perched. Can it see us Is it blind Again we don’t know where the eyes might be a bandage has been attached its ragged edges hanging lamely down. To the left a more muted but no Less unsettling figure likewise mounted leans helplessly across from the formless drapery-like folds in which it is cupped in the direction of its companion it too has a head all but faceless time (only a nose is visible and seems >mothered beneath a wig of hair if the figure in he central canvas is openly aggressive its partner to the left seems paralysed with anxiety as though trying to struggle free of some suffocating morphological strait-jacket The third of the three canvases is equally unrelenting and again presents an animaloid figure with a vaguely human head resting on a single limb that is itself embedded in a patch of bristling spiked scrub is a kind of elongated partly ribbed scrotum from which a conger-like neck juts out the jaw of its head sprung open at right angles like a trap. All three figures have some of the colouring and texture of beach stones are openly sculptural in inspiration and are set off against a rough painted but sumptuous orange background that is lightly traced with grids.

Though not the actual opening to the exhibition “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” is the first thing you see as you approach the ticket-stiles. The inspiration for the figures according to Bacon were the Eumenides the avenging Furies that fell on the land after the long and bloody struggle between Athens and Sparta. Most commentators set it against the background of the war evoking material as diverse as Bacon’s brief spell in the ambulance corps pulling corpses from the rubble or post-war press rumours of a group of Nazi resistants the Werwolf still at large. Anyway, there it is for all its crude picture-play on male genitalia one of the most savage images ever to have survived translation on to canvas by comparison with which Picasso’s “Guernica” seems almost genteel old-worldly, in inspiration.

This raucous little triptych was painted in 1944 and is Bacon’s foundation myth the work he chose to open any major exhibition held in his lifetime It is not difficult to see why. Though all three icons (given their invested religious intensity sity what other term can we use still bear traces of the influence of Picasso their savagery sets the tone for much of Bacon’s subsequent earlier work while the contrast between the actual figures and the rich monochrome background ground looks ahead to the triptychs of the 1960s For this retrospective however Bacon’s first ambassador David Sylvester has decided to move the clocks back ten years and start with the ghostly Crucifixion from 1933. In one sense, it is the more natural candidate, since it was the reproduction of this work in Herbert Read’s Art Now that first brought Bacon to the public’s attention as a painter Once again, though the influence of Picasso is immediately apparent (this time, like the gouaches from the same period further on in the show, by way of Henry Moore), the eerie presence that radiates from this small canvas, as though Bacon had taken an X-ray of the human body and found, not a skeleton, but the proliferating cells of a crucifixion, is quite unlike anything being painted anywhere else at the time. Together with two further works from the 1930s of more scholarly interest, this and the Three Figures make up the antechamber chamber to the exhibition as we prepare for the onslaught of the first ten years of work.

One of the reasons for dwelling at such length on these two works is that they are among the very few early pieces that rival in force and intensity the paintings that make up the heart of Bacon’s achievement nearly all of which in my view were made over a ten-year period starting some time around 1962. The difference between the two periods equally well represented in Sylvester’s selection is striking their only common denominator, it seems, being the violence which shifts away from the subject-matter of the painting to the matter of paint itself and the way it is handled. Judging from the reputation they enjoy and an excellent critical anthology included in the catalogue these earlier works had a resonance for Bacon’s contemporaries that I am far from sure they possess today. Grim they might be  and it is certainly difficult to see the naked figure parting the curtains in Study for the Human Body as anything but an executioner  but there is something too gimmicky and systematic about the contrast between the violence of the thing depicted and the coolness of the composition the pictures are simply too staged ever really to involve the spectator Nowhere is this more evident than in the Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X”, where you seem to be peering in at some deathly papal peep-show yet for all that are left curiously cold Part of the fascination these works held for their contemporaries can clearly be put down to the times as Bacon observes at one point in Michel Archimbaud’s Francis Bacon Entretiens (Gallimard 36fr), I have the impression that people of my generation can’t really imagine a humanity without war. Yet even in the 1950s there were dissenting voices including ing (as the catalogue admirably reveals the young John Berger who compared the kind of fascination exercised by Bacon’s caged popes to that of a puppet in a Punch and Judy show where the spectator can enjoy the violence precisely because he is at a comfortable remove.

Though Bacon’s fascination with the human body, and the male body in particular, are constant throughout his work the jump in style that occurs in the early 1960s is so abrupt that one wonders where it all began. The turning point seems to have been the Van Gogh series of which there is frustratingly only one on show (and not to my eye a particularly interesting one after which we approach the heart of the exhibition  the long run of luck as Bacon would put it  in which nearly everything works in his favour. What sparked off the new interest in colour and the semi-autobiographical focus on portraits of his friends was probably a combination of things his time in the South of France and Tangiers must have played a part as one imagines must feelings of remorse after the death of Peter Lacy. The whole mood of Bacon’s work shifts around this time the influx of warm colour is accompanied by a diffuse but marked sense of pathos (it would be interesting to know at exactly what point that distinctively Baconian adjective poignant”, began to acquire the burden of connotation notation it carries in the recorded conversations).

It was Gilles Deleuze, I think whose compendious Francis Bacon Logique de la Sensation is now in its fourth edition (Editions de la Difference 198fr), who first compared Bacon’s fondness for gambling on three tables at once to his use of the triptych whether this tips the odds in the player’s favour in either case is anybody’s guess but what is certain is that it raises the power of a painting not merely three but three hundred-fold. Not all of these come off the Triptych inspired by T S Eliot’s Poem Sweeney Agonistes is too saturated to breathe properly and feels like three separate paintings while Three Studies for a Crucifixion allusions to Cimabue’s crawling worm notwithstanding standing has too much random interference coming in from strip-cartoons to get within firing range of the nervous system (the Munich leg of the exhibition where this will be replaced by the more provocative 1965 Crucifixion”, will be better served in this respect, though even here the central panel seems much too crude for its intended target. When they do however the results are so splendid that many of his single paintings seem orphaned by comparison. One of the most surprising rooms in the exhibition is that with the series of three studies of heads works I had always found disappointing in photographs and which unlike the large canvases clearly do not reproduce well. Of the five series presented here the studies of Muriel Belcher and Henrietta Moraes (the latter also serves as the model for two surprisingly voluptuous female nudes along with the Three Studies for Self Portraits including Self-Portrait are marvellous examples of the sheer presence that Bacon’s turbulent brushwork creates at its best whereas in his full-length portraits he often seems to be engaged in a furious struggle to shift the locus of the human figure from the face the customary focus for the mystery of human presence to the body in these little series he seems to be concerned not only with investing the face with some of the animal force of the body but with seeing just how unnatural he can make a portrait trait while at the same time achieving a likeness. As Milan Kundera puts it in his preface to Bacon Portraits et Autoportraits (Les Belles Lettres 365fr), Jusqu’a quel degre de distortion un individu reste-t-il encore lui-meme?

The highpoint of the exhibition however must be the TriptychIn Memory of George Dyer. The circumstances of Dyer’s death are well known  his suicide coincided with the opening of Bacon’s first major retrospective in Paris  and the painting may be said to speak for itself Nevertheless a number of observations can be made. First of all though a triptych tends to imply a hierarchy with the eye moving back and forth from the central panel around which the other two revolve I’m not sure that in this case it shouldn’t be read like a printed page from left to right The left-hand panel shows a contorted figure in a boxer’s boots and shorts improbably poised on a rim or bar to which he appears to have pinned himself in some kind of head-lock his body merging at one point with an abstract form that’s vaguely reminiscent of a painter’s palette. This is the most puzzling of the three panels and all the commentaries I have seen on it including those in the catalogue tend to assume that the figure like the other two represents resents Dyer yet turn a reproduction of it upside down and you will see first that the head bears no particular resemblance to Dyer and second that the figure in question appears to be smiling.

In the much-discussed central panel  which as Sylvester observes in the catalogue combines Dyer’s death with two of Bacon’s favourite touchstones Eliot’s The Waste Land (I have heard the key . . . and Picasso’s paintings of bathers before their beach-huts at Dinard  the figure holding a key in a lock, unlike so many of his predecessors in Bacon’s work, no longer drags his shadow behind him but is himself all shadow. Beneath his one foot is one of those illegible fragments of newsprint that litter Bacon’s canvases from time to time, and that one is tempted to read as a latter-day symbol of vanitas, an acknowledgement of the circumstances stances of Dyer’s death at the very hour of Bacon’s triumph. (In Les Passions de Francis Bacon, one of several handsome albums published to coincide with the exhibition, Philippe Sollers notes the irony of Dyer’s name, but not the specific echo it is likely to set up in an English sensibility, namely of Shakespeare’s Sonnet: CXI “. . . And almost thence my nature is subdued/To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand”, with its overtones of responsibility and remorse.)

Though the central panel could indeed be seen to embody the empty enigma of death about which the other two revolve, the force and dignity of the right-hand panel is such that it inevitably draws the other two in its wake. On it we see a bust of Dyer  his head smeared with blue and white markings like some warrior tricked up for his final voyage reflected in an autumn-blue table-top from where it leaks down into the pedestal to form a dark pool at the base  that must be the nearest Bacon ever came to a conventional likeness. The catalogue describes the right-hand panel as a spatial continuation of that on the left which is true enough yet focus on the central panel and you will notice that the bars in the panels to either side appear to dip slightly so that the three together make a wave movement with the central panel acting as a trough from which the right-hand panel emerges.

Finally, all three panels play on the idea of both sides at once; the left-hand figure has one leg wrapped impossibly round both sides of the rim, while, in the central panel, the figure’s head and right shoulder are painted as though placed on different sides of the door; in the right-hand panel, the same conceit is stated twice over, the bust and its reflection being both inside and outside the rectangles by which they are framed That poetry acted on a number of occasions as a catalyst for Bacon’s work is well known Yeats’s The Second Coming for example with its falcon and blood dimmed tide its rough beast and the pitiless gaze of its sphinx seems to have exercised a persistent tent hold on Bacon’s imagination here one is reminded of the closing lines of Auden’s The Secret Agent (parting easily two who were never joined”)  lines Bacon would almost certainly have known, if only because he gave a copy of Auden’s poems to a tenant of his in 1937, Mollie Craven. At the same time, the breadth and serenity that this right-hand panel gives out are all but unique in Bacon’s work; it is as though, for want of a plausible after-life for Dyer, he had concentrated all his energies and sense of dignity on enshrining his friend, with a minimum of facial distortion this time, in a painted paradise.

Inevitably, the Dyer triptych, like so much of Bacon’s work, leads one to reflect on the painter’s rather ambiguous involvement with religion and violence. Given the unusual climate in which Bacon grew up (two world wars and a childhood in Ireland at the time of the Easter Rising and a father who appears to have been an out-and-out sadist (Bacon is said to have been horsewhipped as a boy in his father’s presence it is hardly surprising that so much in Bacon’s vision should read like a lifelong vengeance of the son on the father; Greek tragedy, to which Bacon was so attached, is pre-eminently, of course, a history of family disasters perpetuated from generation to generation (the Eumenides one might also note were notorious for punishing crimes against the family). That for so much of his adult life his sexual proclivities should have been illegal under English law cannot have helped matters either.

What is surprising on the other hand is that he should not only have survived all this but gone on to invent an objective idiom for it in paint In his Bacon (Cercle d Art 19Ofr). Philippe Dagen points up the striking contrast in many of Bacon’s portraits between the manhandling to which the head is subjected and the impassivity of the eyes as though Bacon was constantly rehearsing some private drama of violence and his or the sitter’s resurrection not through but despite the violence Dagens extended essay is also interesting for the parallels it draws between Bacon’s work and certain texts by Adorno and Bataille’s remarks for example on the way in pain or anger the neck will be extended so as to bring the mouth in line with the spinal column throw a very interesting light on the deliberate confusion of animal and human forms in some of Bacon’s more disturbing early works.

As for the crucifixions though Bacon never painted the Crucifixion only crucifixions or studies for a crucifixion and though it would obviously be senseless to interpret his work in any specifically Christian sense one cannot help noticing that the only point in the many interviews views Bacon gave at which his tone departs from its customary lucidity and becomes openly aggressive is when religion is invoked a crucifixion as Bacon liked to insist is indeed a particularly powerful example of man’s cruelty to man but it can hardly be a coincidence that it is also an image of a father who betrays a son like Artaud and Bataille, Bacon is one of those artists who is rather too dependent at times on the worlds they reject for one to feel altogether confident in their work. This doubtless explains why he should have felt so at home with French writers of his generation, such as Michel Leiris, whose Francis Bacon (Albin Michel 58Ofr) has been republished for the exhibition, along with a handsome little pocket book Francis Bacon ou la Brutalite des Faits (Le Seuil 6Ofr), containing four of his essays and five previously unpublished letters to Bacon. It also sheds light on the famous altercation with Auden, in which the latters attitude to religion  as principled and absolute as Bacon’s equally vehement rejection  seems to have touched a nerve in the painter. His obsession with Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X hardly needs comment.

In describing Bacon’s world, Pierre Schneider once borrowed a very striking image from Tettullian that of the refrigerium interim, the glacial three-day gap between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The choice of an image coined by a pagan-bom Christian who first formulated the doctrine of the Trinity is very suggestive if only because so much of Bacon’s work can be read like a resurrection of life from the mutilations imposed by violence By the time we reach the work of the late 1970s and 80s and the closing stages of the exhibition, one cannot help but feel that Bacon’s resurrection through paint was behind him In an interview in 1984 in Francis Bacon Entretiens (Edition Carre 35fr he spoke of wanting to casser les styles a commencer par le mien”, but none of the late works on show here convince me that he did Does it matter. At one point in his book Deleuze asks rhetorically: Qu’est ce qui restera de Bacon selon Bacon Peut-etre quelques series de tetes un ou deux triptyches aeriens et un large dos d’homme Guere plus qu’une pomme et un ou deux vases. Though the culture circus would like us to think otherwise very few artists have left us more And perhaps the last word for once should go to the curator Bacon often bemoaned in conversation the lack of anyone to talk to, a fellow painter whose judgment he could trust or someone who might do for his own work what Pound did for The Waste Land”, and it may be that he never really wanted one; if so many artists grow apart over the years from their friends and contemporaries, it is less a question of vanity one suspects than of aesthetic instinct. Yet in a sense he did find someone to play that role for the editorial montage which David Sylvester made of their fascinating conversations is itself an important landmark in Bacon’s career and begins one notices (the first interview in the book took place in 1962 around the same period that Bacon was to come into his own as a painter .Whatever quarrels one might have with Sylvester’s rigorously even-handed selection for my part, I would gladly have sacrificed some of the earlier and later work to allow room for more paintings on the same theme (the Van Gogh series, for example or the female nudes and Lucian Freud portraits), not least because the importance of taking up the same model time and again is an aspect of modem painting that Bacon shares with Giacometti and Picasso among others  the exhibition is also a homage to the man who has been pondering and defending Bacon’s work for the better part of fifty years.






                                                                                                                  Three Studies of Muriel Belcher oil on canvas 1966




He hung himself on a hook









FRANCIS BACON fills the main exhibition rooms at the Pompidou Centre this summer (until October 14). How many other British artists would be accorded similar prominence in Paris? Turner, and Constable, no doubt, and Henry Moore, and that’s about it. To most art lovers in continental Europe the above is an exhaustive list of significant art from this island, and Bacon is a key element of it: the 20th-century English painter. But, back in his own country, Bacon is not necessarily awarded so much honour.

Several critics have come out over the last couple of months with admissions that, frankly, they can’t see what all the fuss is about. To many people, not necessarily philistines either,  Bacon  what he was to Mrs Thatcher: the man who painted those horrible pictures. This impeccably hung and selected exhibition offers an opportunity for an interim assessment of Bacon’s reputation. How good was he really?

The case against him comes in two parts, one moral and one aesthetic. Let’s take the first first. According to this his view of the world was too warped for his paintings to count as major art. Bacon, this line goes, was a Johnny One-note of art, offering a repetitive Hobbesian diet of visual nastiness and brutishness. Bacon’s vision of human existence therefore requires, in the words of the late Peter Fuller, "a moral refusal". In other words, life simply isn’t like that.

To this Bacon had an answer. In the course of his interviews with David Sylvester he described his aims as an artist thus: "I’ve always tried to put things over as directly and rawly as I possibly can, and perhaps, if a thing comes across directly, people find that it is horrific. Because people tend to be offended by facts, or what used to be called the truth."


This exhibition substantiates Bacon’s opinion of his own work.

Thus Bacon, in his own mind, was by no means a master of modernist Grand Guignol; on the contrary, he was a sort of realist. His work was an attempt to make images which would have the most intense possible effect on his nervous system, images which would affect the viewer "more violently and poignantly". True or false?

It seems to me that this exhibition substantiates Bacon’s opinion of his own work. Bacon was not an expressionist, but a painter who was out to capture how real people looked and, included in the way they looked, inevitably, the feelings that they gave him. He did this, however, in a highly idiosyncratic way. Many great figurative artists of the last century  from Cézanne to Kossoff, Auerbach and Freud  have slogged their way through a fresh vision by working directly from nature. Others have used drawings, or photographs.

Bacon worked from his memories. He used photographs, true, but the resulting image did not look photographic. Bacon looked at photographs, as he explained, to jog his memory  as one would look up a word in a dictionary. It was the memories he was after.

That explains a great deal about his paintings  their slightly dream-like quality, the impression they sometimes give of being not quite there, and at the same time tremendously vivid. There is an ectoplasmic feel, for example, about the Three Studies of the Human Head from 1953, one of his best paintings of the period, which is easily comprehensible as a memory, a powerful, probably drunken memory, rather than as an image of a sitter in front of the artist.

Essentially, he was trying to find an equivalent in paint to his own emotional reactions to people  and he clearly had an overpowering sense of the animal nature of man. Most of us scarcely think of ourselves as made up of muscle, which is meat. Bacon clearly never lost that awareness.


His distortions are no more radical than those employed by many 20th-century artists.

He was always surprised, he said, when he went into a butcher’s shop, not to find himself hanging up on a hook. This visceral sense of the beast in man evidently struck Bacon as both alarming and touching  "violent and poignant"  because it is linked so clearly with mortality.

Thus there is a feral blur  as if of something caught in the act of pouncing  not just about his paintings of animals, for example the Dog of 1952, but also about his pictures of people, such as the Study for Nude from the previous year. Some of his pictures of people have an air of sardonic menace  Study for a Portrait 1953 is an example  which one associates with gangland villains in films. Could Bacon sometimes be humorous? It’s a strange thought.

On the other hand, some of his people - the reclining man on the right section of the triptych Three Figures in a Room 1964  have an air of nobility. But to see that you have to get over the shock value of his idiom. In fact, his distortions are no more radical than those employed by many 20th-century artists.

Thus Turning Figure from 1962 has a good deal in common with the running figure, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, by the Futurist, Umberto Boccioni. His heads are often dissected into curving planes in a way that brings Picasso to mind, or the Russian sculptor Antoine Pevsner.

The difference is that with Bacon there is a far greater sense that his figures are actually made out of living flesh. Indeed, one or two give the impression that the sitter has been rearranged along modernist lines with a chain saw. But that shock  not so much the shock of the new as the shock of the real  was exactly what Bacon was after. To the extent that he produced it, he succeeded.

The other charge against him is that the paintings do not work as art. In the later work there is certainly sometimes a jarring dislocation between the figures executed in meaty swirls of oil paint and the crisply clean, brightly-coloured settings which are close to geometric abstract painting. But that, arguably, is part of Bacon’s expressive purpose. It dramatises the contrast between messy, organic, mortal man and his clean, dead, manufactured environment.


A few years after his death, the best of Bacon’s painting looks sure to last.

It is less easy to acquit Bacon of the charge of repetitiousness. After the early surreal period of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, and the succeeding period of Screaming Popes, the classic Bacon man and sometimes woman  evolved. The format to an extent became standardised. There was a saminess about his work which perhaps resulted from its lack of direct contact with reality.

Towards the end (he died in 1992) there was a clear falling off. Few paintings from the last decade of his life work, with the exception of the moving Study for Self-Portrait: Triptych from 1985-86. Some  especially those that examine the sexual potential of the cricket-pad  are not so much raw and shocking as preposterous.

But repetitiousness is a common fate of late 20th-century artists of all varieties  figurative, abstract, conceptual. Now, a few years after his death, the best of Bacon’s painting looks sure to last. But, as he said himself, it takes 75 to 100 years for a reputation to settle down. "Time is the only great critic."






                                                             Most of us never think of ourselves as made up of muscle, which is meat

                  ‘Triptych Inspired by T.S. Eliot's Poem, Sweeney Agonistes’ shows Bacon’s visceral sense of the beast in man






Francis Bacon


     Centre Georges Pompidou






The retrospective dedicated to Francis Bacon by the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris from June 27, until October 14, is the first organised in France since 1972. It is a gathering of 86 works painted between the 1930s and the artist’s death.

It falls in with an already long tradition. His first exhibition in Paris took place in 1957 at the Rive Droite and was a success as the exhibit held at the Maeght Gallery ten years later. But above all, in October 1972, Bacon benefited from a retrospective at the Grand Palais, inaugurated by the then President of the Republic, Georges Pompidou. The public shared the tastes of the state power, which is unusual in France. In 1977 an exhibition on rue des Beaux Arts provoked the beginnings of a riot. The crowd was so dense that police had to close the street to traffic. But in France his strongest support came from the writer Michel Leiris, of whom Bacon painted several portraits. Paradoxically, this love of the French for the Englishman was not shared by his fellow country men. Two of Bacon’s characteristics offended the British His homosexuality shocked. During Bacon’s youth, it was considered a crime in Great Britain. But the more serious in Londoner’s eyes was probably his painting of absolute pessimism.

Richard Dorment’s article in The Daily Telegraph of February 3, 1989 testifies:  It is a cliché to say that Francis Bacon’s lifelong theme has been despair. But in the light of this latest painting I think we should begin to look back on his work and ask whether the cliché is really true. There is something here more deliberate, more chosen and more willed than despair. Something vicious, and purely evil. Same side of the story for The Times. On the occasion of the retrospective dedicated to Bacon by the Tate Gallery in 1985, Bernard Levin entitled his article: A genius? I say rotten. He hammered it in continuing: "The puffing and booming of Francis Bacon seems to me one of the silliest aberrations even of our exceptionally silly time.

Francis Bacon was born on October 28, 1909, in Dublin. His father bred horses in an Ireland already devastated by the Civil War. Around 1927, Francis Bacon lived for a time in Berlin before settling down in Paris, where he visted a Picasso exhibition at the Paul Rosenberg Gallery Standing before the works of the Spaniard, he decided to become a painter. However in 1929, he returned to London as a decorator. Painting then was only a hobby among others. He nevertheless shone there very early. His Crucifixion (1933) was reproduced by Herbert Read in his book Art Now and purchased by the art collector Michael Sadler. But his first exhibition in 1934 was a total flop. Painting was, however, a serious matter for him. Around 1944, he destroyed almost all his works. Only ten canvases of his first period remain. An autodafé is never insignificant, especially when it is the prelude to a crucifixion. The one he exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery in 1945, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, scandalized. Bacon was launched. The director of the Hanover Gallery, Erica Brausen, had Alfred Barr purchase Painting, 1946. Two years after it was painted, the canvas entered the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During this period, Bacon started his series of Heads, which foreshadowed the litany of Popes’ Portraits.

Erica Brausen organized in 1953 his first exhibition in the United States at the Durlacher Gallery in New York. Most canvases represented portraits of open mouths.

This subject comes from the Soviet film by Eisenstein, The Battleship Potemkin, where a nurse is shot down, letting a baby carriage hurtle down he stairs in Odessa harbor. I hoped to [...] make one day the best painting of the human scream. confided Bacon to David Sylvester. I was not able to do it and it is far better by Eisenstein, that’s all! [...]. Another thing made me think over the human scream, a book I bought [...] on mouth diseases, beautiful drawings showing the open mouths and examinations of the interior of the mouth; they fascinated me, and I became obsessed with them. [...] I love, you may say, the glitter and color that comes from the mouth, and I’ve always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.

The Bathing in Asnières by Seurat, hanging in the National Gallery was one of his favourite paintings.

He confessed to David Sylvester that another work impressed him very much: “You must know the beautiful Degas pastel in the National Gallery of a women 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 it gives such a grip and 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. Now, whether Degas did this purposely or not, it makes it a much greater picture, because you’re suddenly conscious of the spine as well as the flesh, which he usually just painted covering the bones.”

Flesh was again at the origin of his admiration for Velasquez. The eight portraits executed during summer 1953 for his first exhibition in the United States at the Durlacher Gallery in New York are variations of a painting by Velasquez in 1650, representing the Pope Innocent X. When David Sylvester questioned him about the portrait painted by Velasquez, Bacon answered: “I’ve always thought this was one the greatest paintings in the world and I’ve had a crush on it”.


Besides Ingres, whose Oedipus and The Sphinx he reproduced, Bacon paid also a pointed homage to Van Gogh. In March 1957, he exhibited at the Hanover Gallery canvases of a series of eight inspired by a painting of the Dutchman dated 1888, The Painter on the Road to Tarascon. Its exhibition caused  a sensation, mostly because of the new manner inaugurated by Bacon, the rapid brushwork sweeping across the surface in broad strokes, and high-keyed colors in clearer harmony. The subject, less sulphurous than usual, also was appreciated. Lastly, Alberto Giacometti had a strong influence on Bacon and probably was the only one of his contemporaries to find favor with him. Their paintings share a reduction of space, by means of a kind of cage. To David Sylvester, who spoke about heads or figures painted inside a sort of space-frame and it’s been supposed that you were picturing someone imprisoned in a glass box. Francis Bacon answered: I use that frame to see the image. For no other reason [...] I cut down the scale of the canvas by drawing in these rectangles which concentrate the image down. Just to see it better.” Giacometti used the same process. Asked by Pierre Schneider in 1965, he explained it by putting forward reasons very close to Bacon’s: “Why do I paint frames around the the figures in my canvases? Because I determine the true space of the figure once it is completed. With the vague intention of reducing the canvas [...] and also because my figures need a kind of no man’s land. The smaller the figures are, the larger space around them should be”.

Save cinema and painting, Bacon’s best catalyst was photography. Bacon owned the book Animal Locomotion published in 1878 by a pioneer of movement study, Eadweard Muybridge. He used it as a repertory of forms.

Francis Bacon’s friend, John Deakin, fashion photographer and portraitist for Vogue, had besides built up for him a large gallery of portraits in which Bacon could draw all the more conveniently since his studio floor was littered with these photographs. Visitors regularly trampled them, which according to Bacon "is an addition to the image..."

His models came from all horizons and made up the shady world of Soho in the ’50s: Muriel Belcher, the proprieties of the Colony Room, the bar where he had his lasting habits. Isabel Lambert, wife of the composer Alan Rawsthorne, painter herself and former assistant of Jacob Epstein. Henrietta Moraes, who posed, with Deakin’s intervention for torrid nude figures. Lucian Freud, one of the rare talented painters Bacon admitted into his circle. And his closest friends, George Dyer then John Edwards, pale louts from the East End for some, the only ones to to have known how to love Bacon for the others.

Dyer committed suicide in a hotel in Paris in 1972, at the time of his lover’s retrospective at the Grand Palais. Muriel Belcher died in 1979. These deaths fed Bacon’s natural pessimism: "I’ve done a lot of self-portraits, really, because people have been dying around me like flies and I’ve nobody else left to paint but myself. [...] I loathe my own face and I’ve done self-portraits because I’ve had nothing else to do [...] It is true to say... One of the nicest things that Cocteau said was ’Each day in the mirror I watch death at work.’ " Death worked slowly.

It caught up with Bacon in the spring, on April 28, 1992, in Madrid. He was eighty-two.





Francis Bacon



 Centre Georges Pompidou






On entering this major Francis Bacon retrospective, curated by David Sylvester, one was immediately confronted by the memorably horrific Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944. These weird sisters, phallic in inspiration, ambiguously maleficent in pose and identity, seem to have been inspired by the vengeful Eumenides who, in Aeschylus’ drama, pursued Orestes after Athens lost the Peloponnesian war. Writhing before a stark orange background, mouths either hardly visible or wide open in a vagina dentata-esque howl, these creatures are nevertheless oddly domesticated, more demons of the middle-class parlour than mourners at a crucifixion. With its obvious references to World War II, this triptych initiates the thematic and formal intensities that were to mark Bacon’s career as a whole; it was the work he invariably chose to inaugurate all his retrospectives after 1962.

It is hard to recapture the existentialist aura that surrounded Bacon’s imagery in postwar Europe: the comparisons with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the references to the Blitz and the horrors of Auschwitz; the grandiose overreadings and philosophical generalizations that his work almost inevitably attracted in the ’50s and early ’60s. Yet, another reading of these early paintings is also possible. The first work of Bacon’s that I really got to know well was one in the series of variations on Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650, which was best represented in the Pompidou show by Study for Portrait, VII, 1953. Now generally condemned as "too obvious" or "too illustrative," it seemed at the time that, far from being an image of generalized postwar angst, the papal portrait constituted an exemplum virtutis of sardonic concreteness. Despite the usual reading of the pope’s open mouth as a sign of existential nausea — universal scream on the order of Edvard Munch’s famous image — I always read it, in the Vassar version with which I was familiar at any rate, Study for Portrait, IV, 1953, as a sneeze, which reduced the papal being, or rather, Velazquez’s famous image of Innocent X, to a modern photo-op, the pope’s partially covered mouth agape in a vigorous and nonexistential kerchoo. In Bacon’s portrait, temporal immediacy and mere physical reflex wittily undermine the pictorial effects of hierarchy and permanence. And this not merely in the captured gesture, but in the very transparency of the physical substance of the image itself, its reality as a chance instant enhanced by the neat lines of gold that encase the quivering papal form.

Almost from the beginning, Bacon’s work has been engaged with temporality, making, at the very least, a flirtation with narration almost unavoidable. Or one might say, more accurately, that Bacon’s imagery, his considerable formal gifts and his technical bravura have been harnessed to change - sexual struggle, the metamorphosis of man into meat, or vice versa; the disruption or coagulation of the structure of face and body, the blatant reduction of the dignity of human form to a trickle or a puddle of paint; and, at the end, time’s grimmest depredation, the horror, bestiality, and meaninglessness of death. His whole oeuvre, with rare exceptions, can be seen as a gigantic figure of meiosis, a rhetorical belittlement of the human condition, except that, as Lawrence Alloway pointed out many years ago, it so often makes reference and aspires to the Grand Manner of traditional High Art: Velazquez, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Degas. Yet such references are always ironized, pulled to earth by the intervention of more "factual" imagery — photography, most explicitly Eadweard Muybridge’s series of the human figure in motion, medical illustrations, movie stills, snapshots — and also by the artist’s furious yet controlled will to debasement, his stated wish to create painting which, in its very materiality, its lack of idealism or transcendence might touch the nervous system directly.

As early as 1953, Bacon turned to one of his most obsessively reiterated subjects: men engaged in sex. Although the famous Two Figures of that date, "one of the most provocative homosexual images of our epoch," according to Daniel Farson is not included in the Pompidou show, the equally innovative Two Figures in the Grass, 1954, is. Here, Muybridge’s photograph of two wrestlers serves as the basis of a hallucinatory image of intercourse. The men seem to be going at it in a kind of grass-covered boxing ring (another reference to wrestling, perhaps?), and the fragile and activated substance of the nude figures seems almost to merge with the windblown grass carpet on which they lie. These spasms of passion are bordered by a stark black band at the bottom of the canvas and something that looks like pleated curtains above.

Although Bacon certainly was drawn more frequently to the male nude than to the female variety, he nevertheless created several important paintings of nude women, most notably the 1970 triptych Studies of the Human Body, which featured three sculptural and voluptuously mutilated figures posed on a kind of ramp-armature against a flat, continuous, mauvish pink background, the central, frontal figure incongruously haloed by a large bottle-green umbrella. No less striking, Lying Figure, 1969, was based on a series of photographs depicting Henrietta Moraes naked on a bed. In the painting, the model is presented head down, legs up, her head and face aggressively eradicated by bold swishes of paint, her arm nailed to the bed by an extremely businesslike syringe, whose presence Bacon explains as a kind of formal and iconographic necessity: "I included the syringe not because she was injecting herself with drugs, but because it is less stupid than putting a nail through her arm, which would have been even more melodramatic." The uptilted figure, offered to the spectator as though on a tray, is surrounded on the one hand by a series of sordid, realistic details — an ashtray, cigarette butts, a light switch, a bare lightbulb — and then, as though to deny the reality of the setting, by almost abstract circular forms like that of the striped mattress, the blue appendages of the bed, the yellow oblique oval of the "light" in the background.

It was in the late ’60s and the ’70s that Bacon created his great triptychs, not all of them successful but many of them powerful and disturbingly original. According to Gilles Deleuze, in Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation (Francis Bacon: the logic of sensation, 1981), the triptych form enabled the artist to engage with the human figure without being drawn into the conventional storytelling mode. "It’s not only that the painting is an isolated reality, and not only that the triptych consists of three isolated panels and the fundamental rule that they never be united into a single frame: it’s rather that the Figure itself is isolated in the painting. . . . And Bacon has often told us why: in order to avoid the figurative, illustrative, and narrative character that the Figure would necessarily assume if it weren’t in isolation." In one of the most memorable of the great triptychs of the ’70s, Triptych, May-June 1973, Bacon is, however, less set than usual on staving off demon narrative. Here, contrary to Deleuze’s assertion that the triptych form serves an isolating function, it seems to me that the images beg to be read as a story, from left to right. And the story, at once personal and melodramatic, is riveting: the suicide (right before the opening of a major retrospective of Bacon’s work in 1971-72 at the Grand Palais in Paris) of the artist’s lover, George Dyer, at the Hotel des Saint-Peres. Here, the ignoble furniture of daily recuperation — the toilet, the sink — become the instruments of Dyer’s Passion. To the left, he shits; to the right, he vomits; to the center, he hovers against the black background which is transmuted into a giant shadow, his shadow. In the opaque darkness, death itself assumes the form, however inchoate, of a giant bat, a demon, a revenging angel. Sex, death, and the throes of creation are at one here, as Jean-Claude Lebensztejn points out in his brilliant catalogue essay, an extensive analysis of the recurrent squirt of white paint streaking across the surface of many of Bacon’s most intense canvases of the period. Figured as a kind of materialized sexual spasm, a jet of sperm, the white spurts up in the final, right-hand images of the triptych, in which Dyer, who has overdosed, spews his soul into the hotel washbasin.

One may ask: Why this persistent "fear of narrative," permeating not only Bacon’s own statements about his work, but most of the critical analyses of his work both pro and con? Almost everyone who has discussed Bacon — most prominently Deleuze — hastens to defend the artist from charges of illustrativeness, jumping in with an account of his antinarrative strategies, strategies in which the format of the triptych, the isolation of the human figure, and the patent flatness of the pictorial sitting play an important role. This defensiveness is understandable enough in the heady days of Abstract Expressionism (which Bacon ostensibly hated but which obviously exerted a certain seductive power on his formal language), an era when "illustration" and "decoration" figured as the two sides of artistic failure. Nevertheless, nobody really explains just why illustration and narration are such terrible sins, temptations to be avoided at all costs. After all, British art, from Hogarth to the pre-Raphaelites and later, has had a considerably positive engagement with narration — and with narration in the service of morality at that. Perhaps that is why Bacon and his supporters have been particularly avid to separate the artist from this tradition, to make sure that he is seen and judged as a player in the game of International Modernism, as a painter whose formal inventiveness and up-to-date anguish sever his work completely from all connection with the fuddy-duddy past of pre-Roger Fry and pre-Clive Bell British achievement.

Finally, it would be interesting to compare some of Bacon’s late, kinky, often campy male nudes, such as Study of the Human Body, 1982 — a rear view torso, isolated against a reddish-orange background, adorned with cricket pads, no less — with Warhol’s extensive repertory of the same subject created at almost the same time. The Bacon-Warhol comparison is never attempted, but should be taken seriously. Bacon’s male nudes, though less deadpan, share with Warhol’s an equivocal delight in the body, a fascination with the seductiveness of technical finesse, and with the scars of an incorrigible materialism.







Francis Bacon



High anxiety maybe — not high art



A Francis Bacon show in Paris is drawing crowds,

but Richard Dorment is repelled by the artist’s work 


Pompidou Centre, Paris, 27 June 
 14 October 1996 





IN Study of the Human Body of 1982 Francis Bacon presents us with an image of a mutant creature composed of a man’s genitals and buttocks, standing on two bare legs covered from feet to knees in cricket pads. To be frank, the picture strikes me as too silly for words. But the reason it is high camp and not high art has less to do with its subject than its composition. Bacon is giving visual form to a sexual fantasy, depicting another person not in terms of his humanity but as fragments of his body. 

Since those cricket pads reek of fetishism, the painting may interest students of abnormal psychology. But artistically it is a failure. Instead of limiting the amount of space around the central motif (as Magritte or Courbet instinctively did in their tightly cropped close-ups of women’s sexual organs), Bacon places the body parts on a pedestal in the middle of the canvas and surrounds them with space, asking us to regard them as objects of aesthetic contemplation, not of fetishistic fascination. 

The result invites ridicule. It may be unfair to judge Bacon by a painting done 11 years before his death in 1992. For most people it is the work of the first half of his career that places him among the most important British artists of this century. But is this division between the early and later work really so acute? The occasion of the British Council’s retrospective of his work at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (until October 14) gives us a chance to revise the received view by taking a long, hard look at the career as a whole. 

The show has been selected and installed by Bacon’s formidable advocate, the critic David Sylvester. My enormous admiration for Sylvester means that this exhibition represents the best and probably the last opportunity I will have to come to terms with an artist who has always left me cold. Before seeing it, I had always thought that Bacon’s paintings perfectly captured the angst of the post-war period, but that his work did not transcend his own time in the way that, say, Pollock’s has, and Jasper Johns’s surely will. Having now seen the show, I wish I could say it changed my mind. But, though Bacon at his best ranks as the most gifted painter of the School of London, seen from an international perspective he is the most overrated artist since Bouguereau.

Where to begin? Technically, Bacon is such a limited painter. He found it nearly impossible to sustain the visual interest in a picture over the entire surface of a canvas, from the central motif to the edges. A face or figure may contain ravishingly painted passages, but it will typically be surrounded by vast areas of dead, flat pigment. 

It isn’t that Bacon didn’t try, in works like the Study for a Portrait of 1953, to create space and atmosphere with modulations of light and dark, but that, having tried, he soon lost interest, and eventually gave up. In the later works he simply used a can of spray paint. As early as the Self-Portrait of 1956 it feels to me as though he was working on too large a scale
too large, that is, for a neo-Romantic artist who was no draughtsman and had no technical training. As the paintings get bigger, they flare into life only in isolated passages, usually where impastoed paint is used to evoke gobs of viscera, spattered brains and smeared bloodstains.

Another problem is Bacon himself, as we know him through his pictures. When Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was first seen by the British public in 1944, the three armless and legless torsos howling with rage or pain were seen as symbols of spiritual despair or of suffering humanity. But Bacon was not happy with that interpretation. When he returned to the subject on a much larger scale in 1988, he made changes which conveyed a much nastier message: that these were not timeless archetypes, but sado-masochistic fantasies, creatures who, in order to feel anything at all, offer their bodies to be violated and mutilated. You have to conclude that Bacon finds pain erotic. Because his paintings are so often filled with lovely colours, Bacon aestheticises physical and emotional suffering. 

There are two outstanding paintings in this exhibition. The pit bull terrier in Man with Dog of 1953 is set against a nocturne of silvery blacks and blues beautifully painted with a dragged brush. Against an uptilted plane, the animal becomes as mysterious and threatening as a Cerberus guarding the entrance to the underworld, here suggested by a sewer. And the Study for Portrait of Van Gogh III of 1957 is wonderfully voluptuous, colour-saturated painting, demonstrating that Bacon might have been a de Kooning, if not a Van Gogh, if only he had not been so desperate to enter the pantheon of great artists by taking on ever more portentous subjects.  

But what are we to make of the succession of enormous triptychs in which men in their underpants defecate or vomit or look as though they’ve just been beaten to a pulp? The answer is: quite a lot if you are a psychoanalyst treating them purely as material for interpretation. I have no objection to this approach if, as with some contemporary conceptual artists, this is how the viewer is invited to respond to the work. But to do that, you first have to set aesthetics aside. Bacon wanted his work to be judged as painting, he was asking us to see beauty in pain and death. This to me is repellent. 

But what I dislike most about Francis Bacon’s art is that in both earlier and later paintings he manipulates his viewers. I hate being told what to feel in front of a picture. It is like the difference between Grand Guignol and Chekhov. The first is crass and crude and admits of only one possible response: revulsion.

Real art is more complex. It allows us to bring our own thoughts and feelings to it. I just don’t understand an artist who pitches the level of anxiety in all his pictures so high that it crowds out anything remotely resembling a real thought or feeling. You can do one of two things in front of an image of unadulterated horror: either you go along with it and scream, or you say "this has nothing to do with my experience". Since 4,000 people a day are pouring into the Paris show, and Bacon is one of the most revered of all British artists, I realise that his work says something to them that I just can’t hear. 

The Francis Bacon retrospective, organised in collaboration with the British Council, is at the Pompidou Centre in Paris until October 14. Information: 00 33 1 44 78 12 33.








The making of an artist 

from weakling to an enigmatic master













What makes Bacon’s childhood exceptional, and exceptionally interesting, is the fact that we tend to see it through his eyes — in his occasional references to it, and above all through his painting. The artist’s temperament was fuelled by a need for high drama and extremity to feed his painting, and it coloured everything that came within reach.

At one point or another. Bacon referred to specific incidents of cruelly that had impressed themselves on his mind. Most disturbing, because the cruelty was so specific and was suffered by Bacon personally, is the story about his father arranging to have his small son regularly horsewhipped by the grooms — a punishment which reflected the father’s desire to make a man of his sickly boy. just as he forced him to join a fox hunt in spite of the fact that horses and hounds triggered off the child’s asthma. This illness undoubtedly strengthened Bacon’s resolve, once he had grown up. to keep as far away as possible from any kind of animal and, with some rare exceptions, to shun the countryside entirely.

Bacon’s lifelong asthma is an important key to his childhood and to his adult sensibility. For an asthmatic, the simple process of breathing is a struggle, each attack is an ordeal to be overcome, and during Bacon’s childhood little existed to alleviate the protracted suffering.


Nevertheless, asthmatics generally acknowledge that their condition sharpens die will to live, making mere existence — what Bacon called  “conscious life — a pleasure in itself, since it has been so arduous to achieve. The asthmalic tends as a result to have a special fond of optimism, simply in order to surmount a new attack; and once the attack has passed, the optimism does indeed seem justified. Bacon himself referred all the time to his optimistic nervous system (while qualifying it atheistically as optimism about nothing”), and this can be understood more folly in the context of his permanent struggle with asthma.


If this early ordeal gives the asthmatic unusual resilience and reserves of stoicism, it also tends to form a character that appears aloof from the daily miseries of living. A certain unfeeling superiority or ruthlessness certainly characterised much of Bacon’s behaviour in later life, to the extent that many people who came into contact with him failed to see the instinctive compassion and the sometimes startling generosity.


The other, even more dominant factor in the boy’s life, especially as he approached adolescence, was the growing awareness of his homosexuality. Its importance to Bacon’s development, to his later life and to his vision as a painter cannot be overstated: one might reasonably say that, along with his dedicated ambition as an artist, his sexuality was the most important element in his life. Bacon would refer to himself as “completely homosexual", someone for whom no doubt or wavering had ever existed. He himself recounted one banal youthful attempt at heterosexuality — with a prostitute who apparently ate chips while her client attempted intercourse: and he is reputed to have had sex, once and unsatisfactorily, with one of his favourite female friends and models, Isabel Rawsthorne.


These, however, were the exceptions that proved the absolute homosexual rule. “From as far back as I can remember I used to trail about after the grooms at home,” Bacon would say. “I just liked to be near them.” That these grooms, with whom he admitted to having sex in his early teens, were also the ones who horsewhipped him is a tempting conjecture in the light of Bacon’s sado-masochism and the tangibly violent sexuality that suffuses so much of his imagery. If indeed his father, to whom he was sexually drawn, ordered and witnessed the floggings carried out by the grooms, themselves a source of erotic excitement. then the complexity of emotions — of pain, thrill and humiliation — is sufficiently extreme to make any later violence, in life or on the canvas, almost too easy to explain.


Frankness about himself and his “tastes” was a constant in Bacon’s conversation. But although he accepted his homosexuality fully and made no attempt to disguise it, he openly regretted it on occasion. “Being a homosexual is a defect” was the way he put it in certain moods. “It’s like having a limp.”  It is not clear whether his initiation to sex came from the stableboys or from encounters at boarding school; but from around the age of 15, Bacon would have been more precisely aware of the nature of his sexuality than most of his contemporaries


His early schooling was chaotic and intermittent, firstly because of his asthma and general sickliness, and secondly because Francis repeatedly ran away from the schools he had been sent to. “I just couldn’t seem to stay.” was his disarming summary of the situation, and he seemed to imply that his parents were not much concerned whether he received a proper education or not.


In the event, for long periods of his childhood, Francis was simply left to his own devices: as lone as he avoided his father, he could wander about the large house and extensive grounds at will. If he was not trailing after the grooms he was often to be found day dreaming — an activity which remained with him all his life and which (as with the Surrealists who were so central to his development) enabled him to conjure up and “work" on the images he wanted to create. But Francis was always a thorn in his father’s side. It was bad enough that he had choking fits and turned blue in the His face whenever he came into contact with hounds or horses. It was worse when he began mentioning the fact that he might want to become an artist of Will some kind, because that in the captain’s mind, could only signify unmanly decadence and penury. Worse still were the rumours that Francis had been about to be expelled from his school. Dean Close, for “going” with other boys. Relatives had already remarked “how like a girl” Francis could look.


For fancy-dress parties in the family circle, he would appear as an Eton-cropped flapper, complete with backless dress, beads, and a cigarette holder so long it readied to the candles in the middle of the table. Dressed as a curate, his father stared uneasily and said nothing as Francis rolled his eyes, shook his earrings and made all the women laugh; he was too confused to know how to react. But finally, when Captain Bacon came across the effeminate, wayward 16- year-old trying on his mother’s underwear, his self-righteous wrath knew no bounds: Francis would have to go. He had been obliged to leave school. Now he would be “expelled” from home.


Francis Bacon regularly recounted this final break with his father as if nothing could be more hilarious — a particularly absurd chapter in what he called his  “ridiculous and ghastly” life. But his father’s disgust and dismissal wounded him deeply, in away that he was never able to forget. Before his life had really begun, he had been rejected by his own kin and branded an outsider. The extreme humiliation. in someone who even as an adolescent was not un¬ aware of his superior gifts, would find expression in an equally potent rage — which encouraged him to rebel against his father’s world and cause a shock as sharp and enduring as the pain it had given him.


Determined to put as much distance between himself and his punitive father as possible. Francis made for London where he embarked on a bizarre series of brief odd jobs — many of them no doubt coming his way through the homosexual underworld.


“I can’t say I was what’s called moral when I was young.” Bacon said, describing his early stay in London through the autumn and winter of 1926.  “Morality is a luxury that has come on me with age. I think I just did whatever I could to get by. I’d always stolen money from my father whenever I could. And when I got to London I’d often lake a room and not pay the rent. And then, although my parents had always told me that I was ugly, I found that some people were attracted to me and thought that I was pretty at that age. So I decided to do everything to get people to take a fancy to me, and I didn’t very much care what happened after that. I remember once, when I was broke. I got myself picked up by a man in Dover Street He was Greek but he’d been living in London for a long time. And he was obviously a rich man.  “Well, after we had been in his bedroom, he went out into the bathroom. And I started going through his pockets. He must have been watching me in the mirror, because suddenly he came out and said.  “What are you doing Francis?” and I said,  “Well you know what I’m doing”. Then he said. “You don’t have to do that just ask”. And he took me down to a bank and drew out one hundred pounds, which was a very large sum then, and gave it to me. It was a marvellous way to behave, and I’ve never forgotten it.”


Passing encounters of this kind became a staple of Bacon’s first Stay as a young man in London. But he could not count on them to generate enough cash for a way of life that was already characterised by impetuous extravagance: while still an adolescent, he developed a taste for the most expensive restaurants and hotels.


Having learnt a certain amount about cooking from his mother, he put himself forward as a domestic servant and was taken on by a solicitor and his wife who lived in Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury. Francis’s duties consisted of arriving early in the morning to prepare breakfast and clean the house, then returning in the evening to cook the couple’s dinner. Although he enjoyed the cooking, Francis soon got bored and handed in his notice. “I don’t know why he’s going.” he overheard the solicitor saying to his wife, “he never does anything.” Another domestic position came to a rapid end when the new employer found Francis on his evening off having dinner with a friend at the Ritz. However chequered his attempts to supplement his weekly allowance, Francis was succeeding in his main ambition which he called “simply to drift and follow my instinct — to drift and see”.


As Francis drifted through London’s homosexual underworld, with its special glances and its meeting places, its codes and its clubs, his father decided to make one last attempt to stop his son from going completely to the bad. Among ftrs few friends there was a relative on his wife’s side called Harcourt-Smith, renowned for his manliness, who was about to leave on a trip to Berlin. Why not entrust Francis to this man’s man. Eddy Bacon reasoned. With little warning. Francis found himself plucked out of the back streets of Soho and en route with his upstanding uncle to Berlin.







Berlin in the waning years of the Weimar Republic presented the most extreme contrasts of wealth and poverty, high-bourgeois sophistication and Lumpenproleiariat misery. These contrasts were t0 mark Francis for life. But Berlin was. above all. a place of sexual liberation and indulgence. The tough uncle with whom Francis had departed with his father’s blessing turned out to be indiscriminately virile. “My father thought he would change me. But of course it changed absolutely nothing, because a bit later we were in bed together.” Bacon recounted. Unusually tolerant, not to say encouraging, towards all manner of sexual tastes, Berlin had evolved a nightlife capable of titillating the most jaded appetites and satisfying the least conventional desires. Naughiy-girl routines featuring the ubiquitous Josephine Baker or home grown striptease acts were commonplace, and these were supplemented by sideshows of nude dancing and female wrestling.


The city’s real speciality was homosexual clubs and cabarets. male and female, and particularly what was most perverse and decadent. Boys parading in outrageous drag and Eton-cropped girls in while tie and monocle set the tone in the fashionable West End


Bacon later claimed that his two months in Berlin had been a period of pure “drifting" of exploring his sexuality. But being unusually perceptive about life in general, he could not have failed to absorb the extraordinarily potent cultural atmosphere ofthe city. “Don’t forger that I look at everything,” Bacon used to point our once he was an established artist and in the mood to tantalise critics writing about his work.  “And everything I see gets ground up very fine. In the end one never knows, certainly l myself never know, what the images in my paintings are made up of.”


The visually alert young would have been conscious of the attention painters were paying to a precise rendering of reality, and he may have visited the influential “Neue Sachiichkeit” (New Objectivity) exhibition at the Galerie Nierendorf early in 1927. The only full-length photograph of this period of Bacon’s life shows a slim youth standing by a statue in the park of Schloss Charlonenburg. on the west side of Berlin. Carefully attired in a formal suit with a neat waistcoat, and clutching a dark homburg hat and gloves in his hand. Francis looks Jess like the roaring boy of his own legend and much more like the gentleman’s gentleman. The hair impeccably parted just to the left of centre, the high white collar and tightly knotted tie all convey an impression of respectability.


Francis’s unde had moved on some time before. “He soon got tired of me, of course, and went off with a woman.” Bacon recounted in mock dismay. “I didn’t really know what to do. so I hung on for a while, and then, since I’d managed to keep a bit of money, I decided to go to Paris.”  When Bacon arrived in the French capital, in the early summer of 1927, no city could have been more seductive. After the architectural dourness of Berlin, with its heavy 19th-century facades, the elegance and excitement of Paris left a lifelong impression on Bacon, causing him to visit the city regularly later on and to live there for a while. If he had chosen to go to Paris, it was because he was aware, like anyone with an interest in the arts at that time, of its pre-eminence as a cultural centre and the undisputed capital of style. He was drifting. to be sure, as far as possible from the constraints of his upbringing; but he was drifting with instinctive purpose towards what he needed most; the awareness and realisation of himself as an artist.


The 17-year-oid boy had already begun to visit the galleries within the first few weeks of his arrival. He appears to have conquered his shyness sufficiently to have gone to certain openings and mingled with the sophisticated Paris art world. It was at one of these that he met Yvonne Bocquentin, a pianist and connoisseur of the arts. Intrigued by Francis’s curiosity and charm, Madame Bocquentin decided to take him in hand. She offered him a room in her comfortable house near Chantilly, a short train ride from Paris, where her husband managed several large estates. She also undertook to give Francis a good grounding in French and to introduce him to all the aspects of Paris she herself found fascinating.


It was the beginning of what Madame Bocquentin’s daughter. Anne-Marie Crete de Chambine, calls an amitie amoureuse. An instinctive sympathy and understanding grew between the elegant femme du monde and the diffident but clearly gifted youth. It was a mother-son relationship with the extra excitement of shared interests and the ambiguity that arose out of the pleasure they took in being constantly in each other’s company. When they were not studying French (which Francis picked up with impressive speed), they would spend the day in Paris, visiting exhibitions and going to concerts or the theatre.


What is remarkable is the uncanny single-mindedness with which the intuitive but barely-educated adolescent homed in an the images that mattered most to him. If Francis had not seen Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin in Berlin, he certainly did so in Paris; in that masterpiece, it was the nurse’s bloodied face and terrified scream in the Odessa Steps sequence which riveted him. Shortly after he settled in Paris, this obsession led him to find a medical book with hand-painted illustrations of diseases of the mouth.


The “beautiful colours” which it showed of the inside of the mouth fascinated him: he bought the book and later kept it to hand in his studio, referring to it constantly when The “beautiful colours” which it showed of the inside of the mouth fascinated him: he bought the book and later kept it to hand in his studio, referring to it constantly when he came to paint his own versions of the human cry. From this point on, however sporadically, he began to draw arid make watercolours by himself, without any technical training.


When the “wild boy from Ireland” returned to London in 1929, he was set on a course that would not only scandalise conventional sexual and social morality. He had something far more subversive to do; to disrupt all notions of what art was and what it could express he instinctive sense of purpose led him to a crucial revelation in Paris; the exhibition of drawings by Picasso which the art dealer Paul Rosenberg put on in the summer of 1927 at his gallery. Bacon repeatedly cited the 1927 exhibition of Picasso drawings as the first definitive catalyst in his development as an artist: “They made a great impression on me and I thought afterwards, well, perhaps I could draw as well.”





IN 1991, on the last occasion I talked to Francis Bacon, he told me “I don’t think I can draw. I mean, if you asked me to draw something. I don’t think I would be able to.” The paintings he produced often have a pronounced linear quality, as if drawn with paint. But Bacon rarely made drawings for their own sake. The study of a raised chair with owls, reproduced here, is dose in style and subject to his paintings. But the other drawing is more surprising. He based it on a 1916 Picasso portrait of the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, whose head had been severely wounded in the First World War. Picasso drew his great friend in a highly controlled, neo-classical style. But in Bacon’s version Apollinaire becomes far more agitated. Bacon reveals a vulnerable figure, who was killed by influenza when Paris was celebrating the Armistice.











              Bacon at Cannyconrt House, the family’s rented home in Co Kildare











Two men, and nanny made three











Day two: The curious ménage a trois that survived Bacon’s chaos

and provided a lover and housekeeper










Within a year of returning to London, Francis Bacon managed to absorb the basic painting techniques he needed, move from watercolour and gouache to oil and organise two exhibitions. He also found a benevolent lover and an eccentric housekeeper who de¬ voted their lives to him.


His female companion was Jessie Lightfoot, who had looked after Francis from his infancy in Ireland and who came closer to him than anyone else in the family. A determined and capable woman, she would have been in her late fifties when Francis returned to London from Paris. The Bacon family had dismissed her once they no longer had need of a childrens nurse, and in the worsening economic climate, when domestic servants were less in demand, she had been unable to find other employment. By 1931. Jessie Lightfoot had moved in with Bacon at his Queensberry Mews studio.


The third member of the odd ménage created by Francis was Eric Hall. During their long, relatively stable relationship. Hall helped Bacon in numerous ways. First and foremast he provided the paternal encouragement and advice which the younger man felt he had so sorely lacked. A patron of the arts. Hall had a comfortable private fortune which he spent freely on his pleasures and interests, and in his company Bacon was able to supplement his erratic, piecemeal education. Together they went to concerts, the cinema and the theatre; and although Bacon had developed his own interests since adolescence, he became more aware of the theatre, and of Greek tragedy and Shakespeare especially, during this period. It is likely, too. that his reading became more sophisticated under Hall’s influence. 

In this belated and unorthodox education special attention was paid to the best food and wine. Eating and drinking remained high priorities for Bacon, and he credited Eric Hall with making him aware of their importance.

It is difficult to know how this curious threesome worked, since Bacon himself made a point of subsuming specific oddities in his life into the larger madness of existence. “My life has been so ridiculous in these ways.” he would say as he recalled a curious incident, “but then all life is really ridiculous — ridiculous and futile — if you (oak at it clearly." However, the simple fact that this domestic arrangement lasted for many years, withstanding all kinds of strain including frequent changes of address, shows how deep the attachment ran. In fact, no other relationship in Bacons life ever approached it in terms of domestic stability and duration. It says a great deal for Nanny lightfoot that she could fit into the emotional and financial chaos Francis whipped up around him. and that she accepted the consequences of his unusual tastes and talents. Francis was manifestly fonder of Jessie than he had ever been of his own mother and it was no coincidence that whenever he wanted an alibi he styled himself “Francis Lightfoot”. An alias came in handy during the years that this odd duo lived together, since they were often as light of finger as of foot.

To provide extra money and also because he enjoyed the excitement and uncertainty it involved, Francis began to advertise himself in The Times — its front page being then reserved entirely for various messages and insertions — as a “gentleman’s companion”. This was a well-known ploy in the homosexual world, and it appealed to Franciss keen sense of die absurd that he could make illegal solicitations through such a respectable medium. “The replies used to pour in,” he recalled with glee years later, and my old nanny used to go through them all and pick out the best ones. I must say she was always right.

Whenever Francis set out to find a new lover, he used artifice to maximum effect From the transvestite bars of Berlin to die male prostitutes on display around Pigalle in Paris, he had seen every device and disguise imaginable. He himself had no fear of appearing outrageous, and his extravagant use of lipstick was a matter of general comment.

What Nanny Lightfoot made of these and subsequent goings-on is not recorded, but it is obvious that she was beyond being shocked by anything that brought in the money. The subject closest to the old lady’s heart was capital punishment: she longed for the day, she (old Francis’s visitors, when the gibbet would be re-erected at Marble Arch, with the Duchess of Windsor as the first public enemy to be hanged, drawn and quartered there.    Pronouncements of this kind, together with the fact that Nanny slept on the kitchen table (there being nowhere else), did nothing to make the Bacon-Lightfoot relationship appear less strange.

As for Eric Hall, he would probably have remained in decent obscurity had he not fallen so conspicuously — and in some ways disastrously — in love with Francis Bacon. His life up until that point appears to have been a model of respectability. After Malvern and Oxford, he had served in the First World War, then worked as a banker and a director of Peter Jones, the department store; later he became a Justice of the Peace and a member of Chelsea Borough Council, showing a strong interest in education and the arts. But his outwardly staid life was turned upside down by his passion for the young, charming and feckless painter. Over the 15 years or so that their friendship lasted, the sexual side presumably became less central. Bacon may well have had other affairs during this time, but it is dear that he depended on Hall’s support — emotional, moral and financial — and remained lastingly grateful to him.

Eric Half remained married but his wife and son were made increasingly aware of the liaison, not least because neither of the lovers made any attempt to conceal it Out of a mischievous desire to epater les bourgeois, the two men once went together to visit Hall’s son while he was at Eton, and took him out to tea, braving the outraged stares of the other boys and their families.

The real victim of the affair, in fact, was Halls sort, Ivan, who became severely deranged, and later blamed Bacon for his mental condition. Bacon himself recalled the episode with more guilt than mirth: “I can see now that the whole thing must have looked very odd. After Eric died, I don’t know whether it was really because of his friendship with me, but the son went completely mad. He used to come round to where I lived and shake his hands at me and shout 'It’s because of you I’m like this!’ Then later, when he was in a hotel somewhere, he jumped out on a woman in the corridor and broke her arm. After that they put him in one of those homes.” Ivan appears in 1953 as a certified patient at Holloway Sanatorium, Virginia Water; unlike Hall’s other dependants, no provision was made for him in his fathers will. Hall and Jessie Lightfoot seem to have coexisted quite happily, though sharing the chaos and countless shifts in fortune on which the young artist thrived can hardly have been a bed of roses. Jessie found contentment in taking care of Francis. She also had a chance to shine during the gaming parties Bacon and Eric Hall organised at Cromwell Place. After taking hats and coats, she made sure everyone had plenty to eat and drink, cheerfully augmenting the house’s takings with her tips. She also kept the flat’s lavatory locked and had to be prevailed on whenever somebody had need of it. Gambling was illegal at this time and, if detected, severely punished. Bacons precaution was to keep four lookouts on the pavement outside dressed as housepainters complete with ladders and buckets. Not only did he and Hall escape arrest, (hey made a financial success of the whole venture. Around 1950 the delicate balance the artist had set up in his life between roaring rebel — atheist, homosexual, drinker, drifter, gambler — and deeply wounded, artistically gifted son no longer satisfied his needs. Vital and healing as the relationship with his two chosen parents” had been over the previous decade, its limitations became more clearly marked as the mature man began to emerge. Franciss real father had been dead for ten years. Eddy Bacon’s presence extended well beyond the grave, but the son had to some extent freed himself from its shadow by bringing out a succession of Heads howling their rage and pain.

The success of these pictures emboldened him aesthetically and emotionally over the next few years to confront the image of paternal authority par excellence, the Pope, and execute a magnificent series of paraphrases — or parodies — of Velazquezs portrait of Innocent X: rarely can a father figure have been pilloried and rejected with such ferocity. In fact Francis rejected all father figures, in life if not in art, around this date. Exactly how the relationship with Eric Hall ended is a matter of conjecture, but it seems likely that the artist tired of it. One suspects that he enjoyed Halls encouragement and protectiveness as well as the relative luxury of their life together. But these advantages had dwindled, along with Hall’s fortune, depleted by obsessive forays into the Monte Carlo casino. As Bacon gained a more secure footing in the art world and began to earn a certain amount of money for himself. Hall may have begun to seem more like an impediment to his foil enjoyment of life. The older man may well have accepted his young friend’s promiscuity, but his constant presence would certainly have made it difficult for Francis to begin another “serious” affair.

“There it is,” Bacon often said once he had recounted episodes from his past “I decided when l was very young that l would have this extraordinary life, going everywhere and meeting everyone. But of course,” he would add, not unguiltily. “I used everybody along the way.”

He may well have had Hall in mind, because although the break between them did not destroy their very real affection for each other, it did leave Hall in an appalling situation. For love of Francis, he had abandoned wife and family, and in the process he had set off or at least accelerated the mental instability of his son. Ivan; he had squandered much of his inheritance, as his will makes plain; and when Francis left him he had nowhere to go. Eventually, he moved into the Bath Club, haunted by feelings of loss until his death.

Ruthless and even cruel though he could be, Bacon never forgot the kindness of others. The caustic or flippant way he referred to the end of their affair did nor preclude a deep remorse. But soon his life was to be shattered by a far greater pain.

Bacons relationship with Jessie Lightfoot had been all-accepting: he of her growing frailty, her lack of education and her manifold oddities; she of his apparent fecklessness, his instability, his godless amorality. So when Jessie Lightfoot died of heart failure, aged 80, Bacon’s world fell apart. His distress made it impossible for him to continue living in the studio he had shared with Nanny and Hall. For several years thereafter, Bacon lived a kind of self-imposed exile, constantly on the move from one rented roam to another. He had been in Nice at the time of Jessie’s death. Was his grief compounded by guilt that he had let her die alone? Certainly the impulse to give up Cromwell Race and live like an urban nomad could be seen as a form of punishment — all the more so since, despite his frequent moves, the artist rarely strayed far from the immediate area and the memories it was bound to evoke.


TOMORROW    Bacon makes his definitive entry into the art world








    Francis Bacon set up a delicate balance in his life between roaring rebel

       — atheist homosexual, drinker, gambler — and wounded, gifted son





The howl of an iconoclast






After a 15-year apprenticeship Bacon finds his voice
















The war years were a period of intense germination for Bacon. Because of his chronic asthma, he was pronounced unfit for active service. The artist nevertheless was acutely sensitive to the suffering he saw around him. The unfulfilled artist in Bacon, who was now in his early thirties, was forced to think in terms of the images he wanted to paint.

 He started with Figure Getting out of a Car. The painting shows a fowl-like, fleshy creature laying its long, bandaged, penis-like neck on a pile of ammunition, which is also unmistakably phallic-looking. The neck ends in a pair of meticulously painted teeth, bared in a snarl: and the whole spectre uncoils out of an open car drawn from one the artist had seen in a news photograph of Hitler’s arrival at a Nuremberg rally. This impressively aggressive image, which was probably painted in 1939-40. was recorded by Peter Rose Pulham, a photographer of the period and a friend of Bacon’s, in the artist’s studio in 1946: shortly thereafter. Bacon repainted the canvas almost entirely, so that ’ everything hut the bared teeth of the biomorph vanishes beneath a mass of vegetation. Only the Nazi car survives more or less intact, and the new version, with its toned down but more insidious atmosphere of threat, was entitled Landscape with Car.

The snarling, bandaged “penis demata" of the original image directly predicts the middle panel of the Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, the work that announced resoundingly Bacon’s definitive entry into the art world. Similarly, a Study for a Figure, painted later in the war, that belongs to the “abandoned” canon of Bacon’s works, dearly foreshadows the left-hand panel of the triptych in its crouched position, its outstretched head and the great, diagonal, upward sweep — whether of flesh or fabric — from which it juts. A third abandoned image, sketched out in oil on composition board during the Petersfield interlude, consists of little more than a head, its upper half shadowed by a peaked cap. its lower split into a scream. Floating over a mess of random marks and such vestigial forms as a ghostly sketch of a hand, the mouth acts as a precisely defined exit for the inchoateness of the picture. The outpouring from this dark orifice neatly rimmed round with teeth conveys a specific threat, since it was clearly inspired in part by photographs of the Nazi war leaders. One likely source for the unfinished Petersfield image was a Picture Post snapshot of Goebbels, his mouth wide open in full public harangue. that Bacon kept in his studio for years.

Hindsight undoubtedly helps to disentangle die many elements that went into the making of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Yet even now, a half-century later, nothing really prepares the viewer for the triptych’s rawness, as it glowers from the mid-century with the memory of injury and the prophecy of more evil to come. What sets the Three Studies apart is its scale and its deliberateness. The searchings of 15 years’ sporadic apprenticeship come to a dramatic conclusion. It is as if, freed from self-doubt and inhibition, the artist had been goaded into making a statement of exacerbated authority. If Bacon may be said to have found his own voice in these ‘ panels, it is the scream of his open-mouthed monster on the right. But the basic questions continue to return, after decades of attempted interpretation. What does this howl mean? How did these ungainly, menacing figures come about? What gives the whole triptych, with its roughly delineated space and suffused orange background, its power as an emblem of brute suffering, ravening greed and generalised evil?

Despite the rawness, and for all the artist’s lack of formal education, the work grew out of a higher developed visual and literary culture as well as out of emotional urgency. The most important source for this picture, as for those that led up to it was Picasso. In 1938, at the London Gallery, there had been an exhibition of drawings and collages by Picasso that Bacon would have seen. More significantly, in October of that year, Guernica went on show at the New Burlington Galleries. Bacon absorbed Guernica with the single-minded concentration he had given to the older artist’s biomorphic period. In a sense, the Three Studies was his Guernica, a savage outburst and a decisive statement, albeit not provoked by any specific event or linked to any political cause.

Shaky and intermittent as his first efforts as a painter had been. Bacon now experienced with great gusto the world opening up around him. In a series of inspired accidents. his Painting 1946 was about to materialise, confirming his presence as a disturbing iconoclast in the mild mannered English art world. Bacon was to follow this with a series of Heads, brought together in a one-man show in 1949, that were to establish his mastery of oil paint and his uncanny ability to provoke chance effects within the infinitely malleable medium. The following year, he rounded off the period with a Fragment of a Crucifixion, which showed that his power to shock was in no way diminished by an increasingly sophisticated technique: it had simply become more insidious.


TOMORROW  Francis Bacon falls in love for the first time









Bacon falls violently in love






Day Four: Bacons obsessive affair with the self-destructive Peter Lacy takes him to Tangier,

where the artist, tortured by sexual jealousy, finds comfort in casual beatings in dark alleys















Bacon was near 40 when he fell in love for the first time. He met Peter Lacy m the Colony Room, a newly opened Soho drinking club, and as Bacon described it. Their mutual attraction was anomalous from the start. “What Peter really liked was young boys. He was actually younger than me. hut he didn’t seem to realise it. It was kind of mistake That he went with me at all. Of course, it was the most total disaster from the start. Being in love in that extreme way — being totally, physically obsessed by someone — is like having some dreadful disease. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

Lacy had I he advantage, like Eric Hall before him. Of inherited money, which allowed him for most of his life not to work. Because of this, according to Bacon, he felt the futility of life all the more clearly”. Lacy had also been a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain, and afterwards he became a test pilot for a while. All these things obviously shatter your nerves,”  Bacon ’reflected, long after Lacy’s death. “Most of rite time Peter was terribly neurotic, even hysterical.”

Part of the most intense period of their relationship (which Bacon characterised as “four years of continuous horror. with nothing but violent rows”) was lived — again uncharacteristically for "the artist — in the country, not far from Henley-on-Thames. Bacon recalled Lacy’s invitation to come and live with him there: Of course, he hated my painting right from die 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 comer of my cottage on straw.” He wanted to have me chained to the wall. Peter was very lanky in all sorts of ways. He liked to have people watching as we had sex. But he was so neurotic that living together would never have worked.” Even if 'Bacon did not accept the invitation to move in. he was a frequent visitor, and he even managed to get some work done by setting up a makeshift studio in a conservatory.

Bacon's need to paint, then, had proved even stronger than his obsessive passion for Lacy. In 1953, Bacon completed 21 paintings, the most he had ever painted in a year. It was now that Bacon's obsession with the Pope theme took hold. Study for Portrait became the first in a series of eight fully recognisable pontiffs — caught as if in successive frames on a film. This was the longest series Bacon had ever undertaken, and it confirmed his bent for working in variations on a theme, a practice that came naturally to someone of his obsessive temperament. The first portrait remains the most precisely descriptive, with its steady, mournful gaze, and. As the series continues, so the portraits grow freer, until the figure radiates a kind of wild hysteria. In this respect, it is tempting to think that as Bacon worked he transposed some of his feelings about his alarmingly neurotic lover. Lacy, whose surface calm would suddenly erupt into uncontrollable rage.

When questioned about this series. Bacon replied, jocularly, that he had nothing against Popes, and that he merely “wanted an excuse to use those colours”. In retrospect, this sounds deliberately disingenuous, as if the artist wanted to avoid any explanation. It may be that he himself did not know why he was so obsessively drawn towards depictions of the Pope. but it indubitably went beyond the attraction of a particular colour.

In the Pope, one might say, the two must important elements in life for Bacon, the erotic and the aesthetic, were intertwined, and it seems reasonable to suppose that is why he was drawn to the theme so repeatedly and why it gave rise to some of his greatest images, such as the magnificent Study of a screaming Pope done after the Velazquez portrait in that same productive year, 1953. In this picture, the pleated curtains of the backdrop are made to fail through the Pope’s face, as if its flesh hung in folds: this is a peculiarly Baconian conceit, like the use of safety-pins and blind tassels or, later, lightbulbs and arrows.

Although he enjoyed being physically dominated. Bacon instinctively sought the upper hand in ail his important relationships. He could be whipped and physically abused, but by his toughness and intelligence he kept ultimate control. With Lacy, he had lost it spectacularly. He could withstand the violence and the rows, the scenes which ended with him being beaten up, his clothes destroyed and his paintings slashed: there were sides of it he positively relished. But he was kept, mentally as well as physically, in thrall: being less in love, Lacy seemed stronger and freer, and the pangs of sexual jealousy tormented Bacon as intensely as any Furies he had known. Naturally promiscuous but above all devoted to his own destruction, Lacy kept always slightly out of reach. The folie à deux raged within its own pain and degradation. By the time of the first Van Gogh portraits, it had readied an inevitable impasse. But when Lacy left for Tangier, that did not stop Bacon from following him.

Tangier acted like a magnet for homosexuals during the 1950s. The Moroccan port offered not only acceptance but widespread acquiescence in matters of sexual preference. The sight of crowds of native men in brilliantly coloured jellabas strolling hand in hand together through the town would have been particularity alluring to foreign homosexuals forced to hide their affections.

Bacon’s hangout in Tangier was Dean’s Bar. Dean was a mellifluously spoken black man of mysterious origins who seemed born to run a bar. For Lacy. Dean’s had become a place of near enslavement; and it marked the beginning of his last rapid decline. Whatever his means when Bacon first took up with him in the early 1950s, they had dwindled to the point where he was obliged to “tinkle die ivories" in Dean’s virtually day and night in order to eke out an existence.

“Periodically Peter got very drunk,” recalls David Herbert, a long-time resident of Tangier, “and on one of his benders he took a knife and slashed three-quarters of the paintings that Francis had been working on the previous six months. Francis took it quite calmly; in fact he seemed almost pleased.” The British Consul-General in Tangier, Bryce Naim, became worried because “Francis was frequently found by the police beaten up in some street in Tangier in the early hours of the morning”. Herbert goes on, “Bryce complained to the chief of police and asked to have more police on duty in the darker alleys. A few weeks passed; the beatings continued. Then the chief called on Bryce and said, ‘Pardon, Monsieur le Consul-General, mais il ny a rien à fiaire. Monsieur Bacon aime ca’ ”.


Bacon brought back very little from his lengthy stays in Tangier: he abandoned numerous works in progress and either he or Lacy destroyed most of the others. But the whole atmosphere and the luminosity of Morocco marked him deeply. There can be no doubt that the explosion of strong colours in the Van Gogh series is at least partly attributable to Bacon’s experience of the North African light (just as Van Gogh’s own palette took on a new intensity after his arrival in Arles). In Van Gogh in a Landscape. Bacon has actually used a view of the countryside outside Tangier, which impressed him so much that it later became the sole subject of a wonderfully mysterious painting called Landscape near Malahara, Tangier. Dated 1963 and painted in London, this picture in fact had a deeply persona importance for the artist.1 it was in that landscape that Lacy had been buried


The Tangier interlude and Bacon’s affair with Lacy was to last for another couple of years. “Peter had been very tough when I first knew him. Then he fell for this Moroccan boy, and after he went off and lived in Tangier he lost that toughness. I think it had something to do with the Arab men. He had also always been the most terrible kind of drunk, but by this time he was completely out of control. The boy had left him and so on. Anyway he said he never wanted to see me again. Then one day he just telephoned and said. “From now an. consider me as dead.” And I was very upset, because I had been deeply fond of him. And then much later, he sent this telegram asking me to go out and stay with him again in Tangier, and like a fool I went. Peter wasn’t there when I arrived. But there was this Arab boy, sitting up in a fig tree in the courtyard, and he asked me whether he could pick the figs. I said yes, certainly he could. And in the end he climbed in through the window, and he was terribly good-looking”.

“Then Peter came back and found us both in bed, and he got so absolutely mad he went round and broke every single thing in the place. I had to go out and try and spend the night on the beach”.

“Peter by that time was drinking three bottles of whisky a day, which no one can take. He was killing himself with drink. He set out to do it, like a suicide, and I think in the end his pancreas simply exploded. After that disastrous trip. I had no news of him until that exhibition at the Tate.”

News of Lacy’s death was among the telegrams that arrived to congratulate the artist on the opening day of his Tate retrospective. Bacon had never come to terms with die self-destructive passion that had drawn him to Lacy nor with the latter's rejection of him: and now that he was dead. Bacon was inconsolable. He saw Lacy’s death as a suicide, and he interpreted the fact that it had coincided with his opening as a deliberate extra punishment, as if he had to atone for the violence of his an in personal misfortune. The artist was convinced that the voracious Fury-like shapes on an orange ground that dominated the first room of the exhibition still pursued him.

In his grief, Bacon attempted several times to bring his dead friend back to a kind of life through the act of portraying him. In both named and unnamed portraits. Lacy seems to be struggling lo surface through the damaging smears of paint that blind an eye or excise an ear. Lacy himself had become part oft he artist's own myth of guilt and retribution. He began to picture himself too. in his first acknowledged self-portraits, in a last spasm of raging pink flesh and black shadow before dissolution. Indeed, from this point in his development when portraits of people became so central lo his work, each portrait wits painted as if il might be the last.






      The doomed and damaged Peter Lacy, left, dominated the younger Bacon, right, and his death continued to haunt the artist in his portraits






Lost’ Bacon painting expected to fetch £1.5m






                                                                       By DALYA ALBERGE


                                                                   ARTS CORRESPONDENT










A PAINTING by Francis Bacon not seen in public for 35 years and known to scholars only from a black and white photograph is expected to fetch £1.5 million at auction. Seated Figure (Red Cardinal), which dates from I960, is one of 20 images from Bacon's Papal series. Most are in museums. After being exhibited in 1961,it was purchased by an American collector and on his death was sold in the 1970s to an anonymous European. The painting's whereabouts remained unknown until its appearance at Christie’s.


The image was inspired by Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope innocent X in Rome. Bacon contorted the image into a threatening, disfigured character that reflected the pain and bleakness of human existence. Brett Gorvy, director of contemporary art at Christie’s, said: "The pope’s face is acid burned and purple-bruised and has the texture of rotting flesh. Frustration, impotence and agony are all registered." The picture will be shown in Antwerp, Zurich. Paris and New York before being auctioned in London on December 4.


Bacon’s meaning, page 18





     Bacon’s  Seated Figure (Red Cardinal), “frustration, impotence and agony”






Francis Bacon and the meaning of life


We have been slow to celebrate our greatest contemporary artist,

says Rachel Campbell-Johnston









Towards the end of the 1950s, rumours began to leak to the outside world that a nest of bibulous painters had been uncovered in Soho. A squadron of critics dashed to the scene, cordoning off Wheeler’s and the Colony Room, corralling Michael Andrews and Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon into a so-called School of London.

But although the label served its purpose in sane ways, focusing attention away from the abstract art of America and towards the figurative painting that was going on in England, it was a misleading one. The artistic explosion had already occurred, launching each of the painters on his separate trajectory. And of these, none was to prove more powerful or individualistic than Francis Bacon.

Bacon’s talent was marked by an imperious solitude. Lucian Freud once described him as the wildest and wisest person he had ever known. Bacon himself said in an interview that he had flouted conventional standards, working on his character to make himself as unnatural as he possibly could.

When an artist pours his talent as much into his life as his art biography becomes an important means of understanding the work. Bacon’s painting — more than that of any other artist of his generation — is illuminated by accounts of his life. Of the handful of biographies that have been published since his death in 1992, Michael Peppiatt’s Anatomy of an Enigma, which has beat serialised in The Times this week, is the most serious and comprehensive.

Bacon did not start painting in earnest until the relatively late age of 35. It was only through his life, he said, that he found his subjects. Among the formative influences were his upbringing, virtually without formal education, in Irish country houses, the decadence of urban life in Paris and Berlin: his drinking, gambling and almost sado-masochistic homosexuality.

But simple correlations between life and art are always reductive, and never more so than in Bacon’s case. His central philosophy was that man is an accident who plays out the game of existence without reason. He dedicated himself to futility with an almost religious fervour. But since life for him seemed in essence so banal, he thought that he might as well make some sort of grandeur of it.

 “I am greedy for life ... for what chance can give me far beyond anything I can calculate logically,” he once said. As a young man staying in Monte Carlo he ended up one night winning £1,600 at the casino. This was then an enormous amount But Bacon did not believe in making provision for the future. He used the money instead to take a villa which he staked with wine and food and friends. Ten days later he had scarcely enough money to buy a ticket back to London.

His attitude to painting was similarly volatile. “All art,” he said, “has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself.” He shrugged off critics who sought to find in his work allegories of 20th-century life. Rather, he was determined to preserve “the vitality of accident”, to create images “with the foam of the unconscious” locked around them. Hurling fistfuls of paint at his canvases, sweeping them with rags, pitching turpentine over their surfaces, he allowed each image to grow spontaneously.

As he attacked and brutalised human appearance, mashing and twisting it in bruised hues. Bacon tried to escape illustrational aspects of the image and evoke instead a “brutality of fact”. His aim, to use Valery’s words, was “to give the sensation without the boredom of conveyance”. He sought to “unlock the valves of feeling” so that the onlooker would return to life more violently and more poignantly.

An example of this was Bacon’s discovery in Paris of a hand-coloured book of buccal diseases which lies behind his fascination with the open, screaming mouth. He wanted to paint its glittering colours, he said, with all the shimmering beauty with which Monet painted landscapes. He was haunted by the images of Muybridge’s photographs, and they became a source of ideas. His passion for the Old Masters of Flanders, Spain and Italy can be traced in many of his paintings. And the Greek tragedian Aeschylus was an inspiration to him — he always regretted not being able to read the Oresteia in the original. “The reek of human blood is laughter to my heart, was one of the lines he liked to quote, and became a focus for his themes.

 Ultimately it is the visceral beauty of the paintings that matters. This year Paris seized the initiative, staging die first large-scale retrospective of Bacon’s work, since his death. It has attracted some 5,000 visitors a day. Although Peppiatt’s biography is a welcome addition to the body of work on our greatest contemporary artist, we have been too tardy in celebrating modem British genius.






Bacon figure may be £1.5m











A PAINTING by Francis Bacon which has not been seen since 1961 is to go on sale at Christie’s in London in December. Known only from a black and white photograph in a 1964 catalogue, Seated Figure is expected ro sell for £1.5 million.

The portrait, known as the Red Cardinal, was one of a series which Bacon painted between the late 1940s and the early 1960s. He died in 1992. The painting is based on Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X.

Bacon’s interpretations of Velázquez has been described as a transformation of the crafty and smug prince of the church into a threatening, even depraved, modern image.

The last Bacon painting of similar provenance to come on the market was sold at Sotheby’s for £1.8 million in 1991, when the market was at its lowest.




            The Red Cardinal, by Francis Bacon, to be auctioned in December




s cardinal steps into the light








A major portrait from Francis Bacon’s famous Papal series, in which he transmuted papal images into visions of insanity, has come on to the market for the first time in decades.


Seated Figure (Red Cardinal) has been known to experts only from a black and-white photograph and has not been seen by the public for 35 years. Its sale at Christie’s on 4 December  for an estimated £1.5m  is hailed as a return to confidence in the art market.


Bacon painted Seated Figure in 1960. It resided in an American collection until the 1970s, and was then bought by a European collector.


Bacon died in April 1992; a new biography by Michael Peppiatt, Anatomy of an Enigma, details the artist’s love affair with Peter Lacy, and tells how many of his works were destroyed. 








                  Out of the shadows:  Bacon’s Seated Figure (Red Cardinal), 

                 unseen public for 35 years, which is expected to fetch £1.5m  









The Brutality of Fact




Visiting Paris and then Kendall in Cumbria for two of this summer’s most exciting exhibitions, Martin Gayford considers

the achievement of Francis Bacon ad Lucian Freud, painters committed in their different ways to a sense of reality.






Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud are two pillars of post-war British figurative painting. After Bacon’s death it was widely thought that Freud would succeed him as top British painter. They painted each other — Freud creating on extraordinary image of Bacon, stolen a few years ago in Germany; Bacon painting Freud, from photographs, frequently. Both are subjects of important exhibitions this summer. Beyond that, they are painters who have little in common, perhaps, except a commitment to transmit the facts in paint. That and a tendency to attract critical misunderstanding.



At the moment, Bacon fills the main exhibition rooms at the Pompidou Centre. How many other British artists would be accorded similar prominence in Paris? Turner and Constable, no doubt, and Henry Moore, and that’s about it. To most art lovers in continental Europe the above is a comprehensive list of significant art from this island, and Bacon is a key element in it: the twentieth-century English painter. But, back in his own country, Bacon is not necessarily awarded so much honour.

Several critics have come out over the last couple of months with admissions, that, frankly, they can’t see what all the fuss is about. To many people, not necessarily philistines, Bacon remains what he was to Mrs Thatcher; the man who painted those horrible pictures. This impeccably hung and selected exhibition offers an opportunity for an interim assessment of Bacon’s reputation. How good was he really?

The case against him comes in two parts, one moral and one aesthetic. Let’s take the moral first. According to this, his view of the world was too warped for his paintings to count as major art. Bacon, the line goes, was a Johnny One-note of art, offering a repetitive Hobbesian diet of visual nastiness and brutishness. Bacon’s vision of human existence therefore requires, in the words of the late Peter Fuller, a moral refusal’; life simply isn’t like that.

To this Bacon had an answer. In the course of his interviews with David Sylvester, he described his aims as an artist thus:

I’ve always tried to put things over as directly and rawly as I possibly can, and perhaps, if a thing comes across directly, people feel that that it is horrific... because people tend to be offended by facts, or what used to be called the truth.

So Bacon, in his own mind, was by no means a master of modernist grand guignol; on the contrary, he was a sort realist. His work was an attempt ‘to make images off my nervous system as accurately as I can, images which would affect the viewer, ‘more violently and poignantly’. True or false?

It seems to me that this exhibition substantiates Bacon’s opinion of his own work. Bacon was not an expressionist, but a painter who was out to capture how real people looked, and included in the way they looked, inevitably, were the feelings they gave me. He did this, however, in a highly idiosyncratic way. Many great figurative artists over the last 100 years — from Cézanne to Kossoff, Auerbach and Freud — have slogged their way through to a fresh vision by working directly from mature. Others have used drawings or photographs.

Bacon worked from his memories. He used photographs, true, but the resulting image did not look photographic. Bacon looked at photographs, as he explained, to jog his memory — as one would look up a word in a dictionary. It was the memories he was after. That explains a great deal about his paintings — their slightly dream-like quality, the impression they sometimes give of being not quite there, and at the same time tremendously vivid. There is an ectoplasmic feel, for example, about the Three Studies of the Human Head from 1953, one of his best paintings of the period, which is easily comprehensible as a memory — a powerful, possibly drunken memory — rather than an image of a sitter in front of the artist. These phantoms summoned up in the studio naturally often had a crepuscular, spectral quality.

In conversation with Sylvester, Bacon accepted the description — by Michel Leiris — of himself as a ‘sort of realist’. But he went on immediately to point out that

realism has to be reinvented. In one of his letters van Gogh speaks of the need to make changes in reality, which become lies that are truer than the literal truth. This is the only possible way the painter can bring back the intensity of the reality he is trying to capture.

And that ‘reality’, as he explains again and again, will no longer come, he believes, from a literal representation, but only from radical distortions.

These, with luck, might capture the ‘emanation’ of a person, the ‘pulsations’, their ‘energy’. And it really was luck he depended on. He played a game of chance with paint. Bacon’s method involved the exploitation of fortuitous smudges, blots and spatters, sometimes thrown at the canvas, to reveal unforeseeable, novel ways of conjuring up face and features.

Indeed, the wilder these become, the more like the sitter, in the deeper sense, the result might be Bacon wonders to Sylvester, why, of two portraits of Michel Leiris, the one that looks more radically unlike the sitter is actually more like him. Leiris had a round face, as does the duller of the portraits (not in the Paris show), the one which is most life-like in Bacon’s sense, has a long thin head. How can this be?

It is noticeable that Bacon generally leaves some figurative ’handle’ by which the image can be decoded, as first, a human head, then the image of a particular person. Thus, in at least two out of each trio of portrait studies of Isabel Rawsthorne, the subject’s distinctive brow-line is clearly there; with Muriel Belcher it is the profile which is identifiable (the Pope hung opposite seems to have acquired her nose0. With Leiris, it is the left eye which dominates the portrait of 1976  which is one of Bacon’s most remarkable.

Thus Bacon tended to make his portraits by retaining certain key ingredients of the subject’s appearance while intuitively rearranging the rest. In this way he could find an image that brought to mind the person in question far more strongly  ‘violently’  than a more literal depiction. It was the wildness and the rawness that made the image more immediate and hence more lifelike.

At the same time, the rearrangement of human features into swirl and blur powerfully suggests that the subject is a living, breathing creature constantly moving and changing, slowly dying. In this way Bacon found an equivalent in paint for the impression that his friends and lovers made on him It is worth noting that he considered himself novel not in his technique as a painter but his ’sensibility’.

I always think of myself not so much as a painter but as a medium for accident and chance... I don’t think I’m gifted. I just think I’m perceptive.

Probably Bacon did have a heightened sensuous awareness of his surroundings. He was an unusually energetic individual, completely unable to relax, and also an asthmatic who would consequently have a vivid sense of the precariousness of life.  Clearly he had, too, an overpowering sense of the animal nature of man. Most of us scarcely think of ourselves as made up of muscle, which is meat. Bacon clearly never lost that awareness. He was always surprised, he said, when he went into a butcher’s shop, not to find himself hanging up on a hook. This visceral sense of the beast in man evidently struck Bacon as both alarming and touching — ‘violent and poignant’—   because it is linked so clearly with mortality. Thus there is a feral blur —  as if of something caught in the act of pouncing — not just about his paintings of animals, but also about his pictures of people.

As a young man he was tormented for months, he recalled, by his realisation of mortality, and the meaninglessness of life ‘till I came to, as it were, accept that here you are, existing for a second, brushed off like flies on a wall’. This sounds bleak, but his outlook did not exclude energy, creativity and defiant relish Bacon once described his attitude as ‘exhilarated despair’ — with equal emphasis on both words. ‘After all, as existence is so banal, you may as well try and make a sort of grandeur of it.’ In a way, he was a perfect Nietzschean superman — cheerfully accepting the meaninglessness of life.

Once you’ve adjusted to his idiom it is obvious that many of his pictures have great beauty, particularly colouristically. The earlier rooms of the exhibition are filled with rich romantic colour and shadowy romantic gloom. And for all the emphasis on lavatories and vomiting, his naked depictions of George Dyer often have an air of nobility. The figures in the centre and right sections of the triptych Three Figures in a Room (1964) are examples of this. In the course of the interviews, Sylvester remarks that he suspects the influence of Michelangelo in some of Bacon’s nude figures There certainly seem to be echoes of the ignudi from the Sistine Chapel. There are other naked figures in Triptych — Studies of the Human Body (1970) and Lying Figure in a Mirror (1971) which put one in mind of Henry Moore (the Studies have been connected Bacon’s unexecuted projects for sculpture).

But to see such relationships you have to get over the shock value of Bacon’s idiom. In fact, his distortions are no more radical than those employed by many twentieth-century artists. Thus Turning Figure from 1962 has a good deal in common with the running figure by the Futurist, Boccioni. Bacon’s heads are often dissected into curving planes in a way that brings to mind the Cubist Picasso.

The difference is that with Bacon there is a far greater sense that his figures are actually made out of living flesh. Indeed, one or two give the impression that the sitter has been rearranged along modernist lines with a chain saw. And of course on occasion — as in the central section of the Triptych Inspired by T S Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes’ — the human body reduced to meat, blood and severed tubing. Perhaps Bacon’s peculiarity was to be both a modernist and a realist.

From time to time, then, in Bacon’s work there is real horror  though that is not on the whole his most successful mode. He is generally at his best when when being his own special kind of realist  in the portraits and straight figure studies. Two of the most triumphant of those are the full length portraits from the ’60s, George Dyer on a Bicycle and Isabel Rawsthorne in a Street in Soho. There is a distinction in Bacon’s work between the works which are essentially based in life  even if in life reflected in memories and photographs  and those which are essentially fantastic. Into the first category go, obviously, the portraits, and the figure paintings of George Dyer and Henrietta Moraes.

Then there are paintings such as the stunning Three Studies of Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, with its unforgettable leering, guffawing sightless bird-like Fates. These seemed to have been compiled partly of images that ‘dropped into’ the artist’s mind, as he put it, partly of images that suggested themselves as the work proceeded. The difference is that those works that came from life maintained their strength until the end: the Study for Self-Portrait — Triptych (1885-86), with its air of desolate resignation is among his most moving images of people.

But Bacon the Boschian fantasist did not wear well. The Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion and a few others from the ’40s have a compelling poetic force (far greater than the rather hysterical screaming Popes). But as time went on, the purely imaginary works coarsened. Three Studies for a Crucifixion of 1962 is already teetering on the edge of absurdity for all its sensational impact. The hunched figure on the bed in the central panel, all teeth and spattered gore, is close to the cartoon world of Scarfe or Steadman (doubtless two Bacon followers). The two silent watchers on the left are more impressive. The later triptych can be weaker still — perfunctory in technique, too, thanks to the spray can. The little bird-like creature with mammalian paws in the left section of Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981) is no longer grim, terrifying and unforgettable, but a preposterous, bright-eyed escapee from a surrealist pets’ corner.

This brings us to the second charge against him that the paintings simply do not work as art. In conversation, the late Clement Greenberg complained that he found Bacon ‘too crisp’, by which I think he meant that the works  remained too thin and linear, insufficiently realised in solid juicy paint. David Sylvester wrote in 1962 of the way ‘the intensity that Bacon achieves in certain passages of a large number of the canvases has not been sustained throughout the whole area of any them’.

In the later work there is generally a jarring dislocation  between the figures executed in meaty swirls of oil paint and the crisp, clear, brightly coloured settings which are close to geometric abstract painting. Although he professed little interest in Matisse, one wonders how much he might have been influenced by the latter’s Red Studio which hung in the Gargoyle Club in Soho, one of Bacon’s haunts. In that painting space is created out of flat patches of colour in a very similar way to Bacon’s practice of the ’60s and ’70s.

The difference is that he used such space to offset his figures. He talked about the way he used an ‘armature’ to frame the images in his paintings  by which he presumably meant those cage-like or furniture-like constructions that often turn up. He also spoke of how ‘I would like the intimacy of the image against a very stark background. I want to isolate the image and take it away from the interior and the home’. The result was to trap his figures like so many specimens in the lab (how much influence did Bacon have on Damien Hirst’s vitrines?).

There is a worrying disjunction between two kinds of painting and two kinds of special illusion. The way the figures are painted descends ultimately from the baroque illusionism of Rembrandt and Velazquez, their settings from Matisse and geometric abstraction. But that, arguably, is part of Bacon’s expressive purpose. It dramatises the contrast between messy, organic, mortal man and his clean, dead, manufactured environment.

It is less easy to acquit Bacon of the charges of repetitiousness. After the early surreal period of the Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, and the succeeding period of screaming Popes, the classic Bacon man — and sometimes woman  evolved. The format to an extent became standardised; there was perhaps a limit to what he could do. For his people  painted with distortion, smear and spatter — to stand out with the effect of heightened reality he wanted, they needed to be set against a stark backdrop. But his painterly energy clearly focused on the head or figure — the background being merely so much neutral scene-setting. To have painted with that freedom all over the surface would have led to a very different sort of result — something more like a de Kooning.

When all such allowances have been made, however, there is a sameness to his work which perhaps resulted from its lack of direct contact with reality. Towards the end there was a clear falling off. But repetitiousness is a common fate of late twentieth-century artists of all varieties  figurative, abstract, conceptual. Late twentieth-century painters do not throw off one masterpiece after another like masters of the seventeenth century.

Bacon produced perhaps twenty images that look sure to last. That, by contemporary standards, makes him a very significant figure. He created a genuinely fresh way of seeing human beings. Even so, as he said himself, it takes 75 to 100 years for a reputation to settle down. ‘Time is the only great critic.’





Bacon sliced






THOUSANDS of copies of a book on Francis Bacon, the overrated British artist, have been withdrawn from the bookshops. The reason: one of his best known works, the Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh, has appeared in the book, called Francis Bacon — Anatomy of an Enigma, upside down.

It is a permissible blunder given the oddness of the painter’s work, which is confusing when not absurd. For obvious reasons, the author Michael Peppiatt and his publishers, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, have attempted to hush up the mistake.

“Who told you about this?” a very surprised Peppiatt inquired when I called. “Nobody’s actually spotted it yet.”

Peppiatt, who wisely blames the printers for the howler, sees a commercial opportunity, however: “I am disappointed, but I think it will make the book a collector’s item.”





Bacon for the Bavarians




Bacon survey makes its way to Munich





David Sylvester’s comprehensive survey includes works which Bacon himself tried to destroy







The current survey of Francis Bacon’s paintings, curated by David Sylvester and already shown with great success at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (see The Art Newspaper No.60, June 1996, p.7), is opening at its second and final venue, the Haus der Kunst, Munich (until 26 January 1997). For this new occasion, there are ten substitutions so that the exhibition will have a slightly different personality, but it remains the most comprehensive study of the artist’s work to have been undertaken in eleven years and displays seventy-nine paintings, including seventeen large and six small triptychs, as well as five preparatory drawings in ink or crayon, the existence of which Bacon had strenuously denied.

Another unprecedented curatorial decision is the inclusion of three surviving oil compositions and two gouache studies dating from 1933-36, a period which the artist had attempted to eradicate from his biography, but which forms a fascinating and distinctive preface to his mature career.

The most significant additions to the second leg of the exhibition are: “Study for portrait of Van Gogh VI” (ex-catalogue, Arts Council of Great Britain), which will be united with version III of the same series (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden); “Three studies of figures on a bed” (cat.64, private collection); and a second large triptych, “Crucifixion” (cat.43, Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich), which includes, in its right wing, the haunting detail of a naked figure wearing a swastika armband.

This single act of pictorial flamboyance underlines the delicious paradox of presenting Bacon’s work in the halls formerly reserved for the National Socialist art favoured by Hitler and his colleagues. For Bacon was attracted to the glamour of violence as it was perpetrated by the Nazi party and yet would have been persecuted as a prime exponent of the “Entartete Kunst” which Hitler sought to discredit in the infamous exhibition of degenerate art staged in Munich in 1937. 






Life with thugs  






FRANCIS BACON: Anatomy of an Enigma

    by Michael Peppiatt, Weienfeld & Nicholson £15.99




      FRANCIS BACON used to say that what he wanted to capture in a portrait was all the pulsations of a person. This portrait of him is a speaking likeness. It is especially telling on the subject of his most unattractive fault, his controllingness. It is also very telling about the agonising long love affair in which he was for once controlled by the other person — the ex-fighter pilot Peter Lacy. Lacy died a year before Peppiatt met Bacon with a view to getting him to talk to about himself and writing down what was said for later use. The enterprise worked, for his account of the affair with Lacy is based purely on what he was told.

      When it came to Bacon’s other highly destructive long relationship, the one with George Dyer — a petty crook with a drink problem — Peppiatt was often a witness at close quarters, and here his report is still more moving. It brings back what a profoundly nice and utterly hopeless creature Dyer was and the depth of Bacon’s despair in trying to cope with him when he was alive and that of his remorse after his suicide. When Bacon first took up with Dyer after Lacy’s death he told me: I don’t care whether they’re upper-class thugs or working-class thugs so long as they’re thugs. Dyer may have been a thug in the bedroom — or may not — but as a member of the criminal class he was a Ferdinand the Bull.

      The publication of Peppiatt’s account of the Bacon-Dyer affair is extremely timely inasmuch as the BFI and the BBC and David Puttnam have been showing some determination to bring into being a feature film about that affair to be called Love is the Devil. If they will only read this book and get a scent of how Bacon and Dyer actually behaved and talked, they may realise before it’s too late that they’ve been backing a squalid travesty.

      In other respects the book is not timely. It shows several signs of having been rushed into print, presumably in order to cash in on a currently hot subject. For one thing, it could have done with more rigorous editing. It is shamelessly repetitive, and while that may help over serialisation, it’s a bit of an insult to buyers of a book. Then there’s the problem of the quality of the writing. It can be effective (even if ungrammatical) when Peppiatt concentrates:

      Yet there can be little doubt that Bacon’s interest in the open mouth was due in large part to its sexual suggestiveness; and that the cry itself is an example of pure ambiguity, betokening rage, pain, fear or the pleasure of release without the slightest degree of differentiation. It is this enigmatic combination which fascinated the sado-masochistic artist. It was the one moment at which human nature could be perceived wholly naked, undisguised by civilised restraint; the spasm that made man indistinguishable from beast. For Bacon, whose genius dictated the shortest way to the heart of existence, the cry was the one indisputable moment of truth.

      But on the whole the writing has to get by through the strength of the author’s obsession with the subject. Still, it would have been worthwhile to take another look at the passages which are too embarrassingly pedestrian, like:

      Outside the studio, Bacon dressed immaculately. Even when he wore a sweater with jeans and a leather jacket, the clothes were of the best quality; and his suits impressed many of his contemporaries by their expert tailoring.

      Or too vulgar, like:

      It was at Ann Fleming’s that Bacon got to know a whole segment of London society including such ubiquitous personalities as the poet Stephen Spender and the legal wizard Lord Goodman, who later defended the artist against charges of drug possession. These frequentations, with or without a Teddy boy in tow, certainly did no harm to Bacon’s career.

      Further work might also have corrected some of 20-odd factual errors. For instance, there is a failure to pick up on Bacon’s own error in believing that he first saw Eisenstein’s Strike, which so much impressed him, before the War, rather than in the 1950s. Other examples are that Louise Leiris wasn’t exactly Kahnweiler’s daughter and that Isabel Rawsthorne, though at first a professional model, didn’t give all those sittings to Giacometti because she needed money: she was married then to a highly-paid foreign correspondent.

      Such mistakes tend to arise because Peppiatt’s knowledge of the art world is sketchy. For example, six million dollars is a high but not an astronomical auction price for an outstanding painting about two metres by five by a leading international artist. Mention of a Mr and Mrs Bomford as the surprising owners in the 1950s of 19 Bacons signifies unawareness of their fascinating existence as eccentric collectors who also owned a private racing stable with a string of National Hunt horses whose star was the great Colonel Bagwash. There is no mention whatever of Blaise Gauthier, the inspired prime mover of the Grand Palais retrospective in 1971 of which Peppiatt makes so much, nor of Lilian Somerville who, as art commissar of the British Council, not only gave Bacon a show at the Venice Biennale in 1954 but had the cheek to give him the best room in the pavilion and, under protest, Ben Nicholson a back room. And he writes about Bacon’s complicated dealings with Erica Brausen of the Hanover Gallery in ignorance of published details as to how he double-crossed her. In short, Peppiatt needed time for more thorough research.

      Some of the gaps in the book are strange. Dennis Wirth-Miller, who for the last 40 years of Bacon’s life was his closest friend, and Nadine Haim, probably his closest friend in Paris, get three passing mentions between them. It seems arbitrary whether people who mattered to Bacon are there or not. Among those missing are Peter Watson, Joan Leigh-Fermor, Janetta Parladé and Gilbert de Botton and several artists he was friendly with, such as John Piper, Richard Hamilton, Mark Boyle, Clive Barker and Karel Appel.

      As to artist friends who are present, Peppiatt could have been much more precise on Bacon’s complicated and volatile views about the work of Freud and Auberbach and Michael Andrews. Nor is there enough about his views on dead artists. Nothing is said about the admiration he constantly expressed in the 1950s for Bonnard and the Soutine of the Céret period, admiration that related to the development of his own painterliness.

     I called the book a portrait earlier because it is only a draft for a biography, not a definitive Life the publisher claims it to be. I do hope that Peppiatt will find the time and energy and funding to produce a fuller version of this essential book.

 David Sylvester’s latest book is About Modem Art (Chatto & Windus £20).











The painter in pain


Martin Gayford on the fascinating character of Francis Bacon





“You see,” Francis Bacon was wont to remark, “I myself and the life I’ve led happen to be more profoundly curious than my work.” There is a tantalising challenge to the biography of Bacon: he is of interest not only as, arguably, one of the major artist of this century, but also as a man fascinating and unique in himself.

Bacon was a dandy of nihilism, a gambler, a sado-masochistic homosexual and near-alcoholic who lived deliberately as close as possible to the edge. “Only too much is enough” he would insist when others questioned whether yet another drink was altogether wise.

Since his death in 1992 there have been two book-length biographies of Bacon (at least one more is forth coming). This new book is the third, and so far, by a long way, the best — although Daniel Farson’s memoir remains the liveliest evocation of Bacon as a Soho character. Michael Peppiatt, the author, has two vital qualifications for the task of writing about Bacon: he knew the painter well for many years, and is a practicing art critic who has clearly pondered Bacon’s work deeply.

Even so, there is a provisional air about sections of the book. Much of what is said about Bacon’s early life remains in the hypothetical realm of  “could well have”, and “might have”. More crucially, much of Mr Peppiatt’s  interpretation of the work, and what was rally going on in Bacon’s mind, is speculative. But this is an inevitable consequence of Bacon’s personality.

Part of the existential game of chance that, for Bacon, constituted human life, was constant mutability. He was a wearer of masks — almost literally, since he had a life-long habit of using make-up. Apparently the most open and outrageously uninhibited of men, in reality Bacon controlled the image he presented to the world with great care. During his lifetime, the publication of several books about him was prevented, in some cases by legal action.

Evasive by nature, Bacon also delighted in contrast, moving rapidly — often in a single evening — from alcoholic Bohemia to the Ritz, from East End thieves’ dens to intellectual dinner parties. With these different groups he was, it seems, to some extent a different person. “Francis Bacon”, Michael Peppiatt writes, “was always more complex than he appeared even to his closest friends. He showed certain sides of himself to some people, but all of them to no one.”

All this adds up to something approaching a biographical mission impossible. The difficulty of pining Bacon down is compounded by the thinness of his literary remains. The painter’s brilliant conversation naturally disappeared into the air, to be reconstructed only if his auditors’ hangovers permitted. Like many of us today, Bacon wrote few letters, and what survives consists in part of postcards and telegrams. Otherwise there are interviews, films and memories. This leaves the biographer with far less to work on than is the case, for example, with the indefatigably self-recording Bloomsberries.   

Michael Peppiatt succeeds in giving a more rounded picture of this multi-faceted artist than we have had before. Inevitably, he goes over a good deal of the same ground as the previous books, but there is plenty of new material in Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. Also, Peppiatt has more to say about Bacon’s psychological make-up, art and intellectual interests than his predecessors.

He lays stress on Bacon’s sado-masochism (which led to innumerable injuries, from which the resilient painter rapidly recovered). “To what extent,” Peppiatt wonders, “were the Crucifixions — and indeed the whole flayed population of Bacon’s pictures — the voluptuous product of a strong sado-masochistic fantasy?” Bacon’s father, an irascible horse trainer, apparently had Francis horse-whipped by grooms, and later threw him out of the house when he was discovered dressed in his mother’s underwear.

Here, indeed, may be the key to the painter’s connection of sex and pain, guilt and violence. But, a the title of this book indicates, Bacon remains enigmatic — which is just as he would have wished.

Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma by Michael Peppiatt Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20





Hiding from the glare of morality




FRANCIS BACON by Michael Peppiatt  Weidenfeld, pp. 366





Francis Bacon was one of the most arresting personalities in post-war Britain. Few others can hold a candle to his striking affirmation of individuality. He conferred on British art its sharpest international edge, raising its profile beyond the earthy sobriety of Moore and the genteel anxieties of Sutherland. His direct influence as a painter was always dangerous but his example as liberator and free spirit was cherished by a wide range of artists

Although the vision Bacon bequeathed is somewhat narrow and the tally of his innovations restricted, he created an instantly recognisable Bacon-scape that has captured successive generations. That particular perfume of catastrophe founded on a repertory of salient images, mostly hit upon in his early years, stood him remarkably well over nearly half a century. Such images were continually transformed by the circumstances of what he called his 'extraordinary life'. He was an unmitigatedly autobiographical painter who cannibalised events, friends, lovers and places almost before they were dry on the page of his life. Inevitably his personal history will go on being scrutinised for any key that might unlock the potent imagery of his work.

From several, mostly recent publications, we already know a good deal about Bacon. Michael Peppiatt’s biography has two advantages — he knew his subject for over 25 years and he knows something about art. Of these new books, his is the most reliable. He may not have that affinity with the gilded gutter that was Daniel Farson’s trump card or the contextual sweep that upholstered Andrew Sinclair’s 1993 biography, but he has laborious merits of his own. Future books on Bacon will owe him a solid debt.

As he grew older and more celebrated, Bacon tailored his life story with all the economy of the sharp Italian suits he liked to wear; much of the established local colour — the gambling and drinking and fetishistic sexuality - comes from other people’s reminiscences. Not unreasonably, Bacon felt that giving away too much ,source material’ would bring down a screen between his work and its public (he once burnt two sacks of documentation which the Tate Gallery was after). Peppiatt unravels layers of meaning in the paintings in a consistently illuminating way. Whether or not his interpretations are correct is another matter: his tidying mind tends to underestimate those elements of chance and accident which weave themselves into an artist’s work. Bacon himself was self-protectively disingenuous about the origins of his imagery: not many painters would account for a swastika armband on a figure by saying that a red accent was needed at that particular point on the canvas. As for his biography, although Bacon was often frank about what he did vouchsafe, he had a reticence about revealing personal detail, especially when one remembers how much of his life was lived beyond the pale of the law and outside conventional morality.

From the start, Peppiatt established Bacon’s extreme individuality and personal magnetism. He sifts facts from legend in the early years to achieve the most convincing portrait yet published of this dissolute, amoral, asthmatic, immensely intelligent sprig of a well-to-do, unattractive English family living in Ireland. To escape his punitive and anti-social father whose only advice to his son was 'If anyone talks to you, run and get the police', the teenage Bacon began several years of self-education in London, Berlin and Paris. A weekly allowance from his mother was supplemented by short-lived domestic jobs, thieving and the generosity of older men. In 1929 we find him established in a mews in South Kensington as a swish interior decorator specialising in modernist steel and glass furniture. He began to paint and draw, diffidently exhibiting in the 1930s and 40s works in which sensationalism and high camp contributed to his blazing images. He was nourished by selected Old Masters, by Van Gogh and Picasso, by wide reading (Peppiatt is good on the influence of Eliot, for example), by the cinema and news photographs, by his masochistic sexual preferences, and above all by his being constantly on the look-out for 'the dog beneath the skin'.

From the early 1950s which saw the screaming Popes, grimacing heads and men in claustrophobic rooms where curtains are closed and blinds down against the prying glare of orthodox morality, Bacon’s professional career went from strength to strength. More feted in Europe than in the United States, he became one of the few post-war painters who inched forward the European figurative tradition in an era of triumphant abstraction. In Britain he was viewed as an isolated and subversive artist: his lines of compatibility snaking out to Giacometti and Fautrier, Picasso and de Kooning, were frequently underestimated. The ambitiousness of the true dandy and the longing for aesthetic certainties of a man obsessed by transience and nihilism came together to produce some of the unforgettable images of post-war art. Peppiatt is good on Bacon’s ill-starred lovers and their effect on his life and work. Less happy are his portraits of Bacon’s circle, those friends and models who were essential to his existence and to several of whom Bacon was lavishly generous. Peppiatt’s long residence in Paris gives conviction to his picture of Bacon in the capital he loved, but his evocations of Soho are lacklustre, partly because his style is serviceable rather than vivid. For pertinent illustrations, much needed in a book that examines a mass of the artist’s work, we must look elsewhere: they are in black and white, one is upside down and several are printed in reverse or with a triptych’s panels in the wrong order. But a bonus is the painter’s reported conversations with his tenacious Boswell. They are authentically Baconian in their 'exhilarated despair'.