1) McKenzie, Janet. Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, Studio International, 22.9.2005. Ref. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, June-September 2005.
The loss of faith in humanity in the late 1940s was such that the human image in art became increasingly difficult to portray. The existential despair expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre in Nausea (1938),1 found a visual counterpart in the images of despair and alienation of Francis Bacon, the expressionism of Oskar Kokoschka and the apocalyptic visions of Arthur Boyd. For the most part, abstraction in the visual arts dominated because, after the horrors of Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, artists found images of humanity impossible to create.
'Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads', in Edinburgh during summer 2005 to coincide with the Edinburgh International Festival, leaves one in no doubt as to the importance of the potent nihilism of one of Britain's most important artists. John Berger, formerly a harsh critic of Bacon, recently described him as the 'prophet of a pitiless world':
He repeatedly painted the human body, or parts of the body, in discomfort or agony or want. Sometimes the pain involved looks as if it has been inflicted; more often it seems to originate from within, from the guts of the body itself, from the misfortune of being physical.2
Images of the abyss, of loneliness and the inescapable suffering of human existence dominate the exhibition, and yet, the 50 paintings at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art stress the dialogue that existed between Bacon and his subjects, and the wider world. In establishing the dialogue, it is possible to experience these images beyond the hideous, expressionistic despair. This is partly because, since the artist died in 1992, sufficient time has passed to make a revision of the significance of his work. In spite of the bewilderment that most of Bacon's portraits express, there is an unexpected affirmation in the choice of formal language and the precision and care applied to the act of painting: the placement of each head, each brush stroke, every subtle hue, the manner in which the figure inhabits the space, the form within the picture plane. There is a common purpose for human existence established in the tradition of portraiture, the primal act of painting that links him in formal terms to the Old Masters, and to the history of art itself. A quiet authority is established by the artist amid the shrieking pain; the curators have echoed this in the elegant hanging of the works and the subtle interconnection of the works within the whole exhibition.
The critic, John Russell, described 'Bacon's Heads' from an existential standpoint as 'a knowing inversion' of what we usually understand by portraiture:
Looking at them, we realise that although European painting includes a great many portraits of individuals in rooms, they are never about what it feels like to be alone in a room: the painter always makes two ... The garbage of the psyche has been put out at the back door; all buttons are done up ... What painting had never shown before is the disintegration of the social being, which takes place when one is alone in a room which has no looking glass. We may feel at such times that the accepted hierarchy of our features is collapsing, and that we are by turns all teeth, all ear, all nose.3
Francis Bacon was born in Dublin, in 1909. He spent most of his life in London, working as a painter from the 1930s. The human figure was central to his work throughout a long and productive career. He died in 1992. No other painter delivered as potent a message of nihilistic despair as Francis Bacon in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s. Viewing Bacon was a mandatory but oppressive experience. His work was truly shocking:
Bacon was a very overt atheist. Maybe this seems irrelevant, but you only have to visit an Old Master painting collection - such as the Doria Pamphilj palace, in Rome, where the Velázquez portrait of Pope Innocent X that obsessed Bacon can be found - to see that oil painting and religion are intimates. All the Madonnas, all those popes. Bacon took the spiritual heart of high culture and stuck a knife right through it.4
The Vatican never openly condemned Nazism. Yet, to place the Pope in a glass booth with a howling face and the top of his head missing was more than just a departure from tradition - it was a Judgement Day with a personal vendetta. Hieronymus Bosch made apocalyptic images where humanity en masse was condemned, but Bacon takes the traditionally edifying form of portraiture and slashes it. His disturbing image is like the burning of a very lifelike effigy, leaving one feeling physical revulsion.
The Edinburgh exhibition (it will travel to the Hamburger Kunsthalle this autumn) begins with small single heads from the late 1940s. In these works, the act of painting is immediately felt: the beautifully balanced shapes, the simultaneously interlocking and falling away of forms. The movement and the silence evoked so allude to individual character and to ephemeral emotional states as to be disconcerting. In the small heads, the apparent despair gives way to intimacy and even trust. These are moments caught by impeccable painterly techniques. A likeness to the sitter or individual (for they were often based on photographs, not sittings) is captured in spite of the obvious distortion of features. Bacon exposed the fragility of the individual (especially his friends and lovers), transient moments, and the weakness of flesh. He exposed mortality itself.
There follows a group of large single portraits; some are full length. The core of the exhibition comprises small heads of friends from the artistic and social milieu of London's Soho - Lucien Freud, Henrietta Moraes, Isabel Rawsthorne, and Bacon's lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer. From 1961-62 the portraits are often in triptych format, which enabled Bacon to reveal three aspects of the one individual. 'Bacon compared his small triptychs to 'police records' in which the suspect is photographed in three contrasting positions - right profile, full-face and three-quarter view (left side)'.5 Peter Lacy, with whom Bacon had an often dramatic relationship, dominated the portraits of the late 1950s. Five portraits of Lacy are included in this exhibition. 'Self-Portraits', which date from the 1950s, reveal a range of images of self. In 1975, Bacon told David Sylvester, 'I loathe my own face, but I go on painting it because I haven't got any other people to do'.6
The Edinburgh exhibition includes important loans from many public and private collections. It was selected by Andrea Rose, Director of Visual Arts at the British Council; Richard Calvocoressi, Director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; and Christoph Heinrich, Chief Curator of Contemporary Art at the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Richard Calvocoressi's searching essay, Bacon: Public and Private, examines recent scholarship since Bacon's death in 1992. It has revealed the sources of his imagery and examined his work in the context of 'European high culture'. Calvocoressi lists Michelangelo, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Ingres, Degas, Van Gogh and Picasso as the artists Bacon appropriated and assimilated. 'The motifs and subjects that obsessed him were: papal imagery; curtains and veils; the open mouth; the cage; circular forms, spaces and structures; the male human body; portraiture; mirrors and reflections; the shadow; the Crucifixion; meat and flesh'.7 Bacon also used 'low art' sources: photographs, magazine cuttings, newspapers. He used the sequential photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, 'The Human Figure in Motion' (1887).8 The moment, the chance pose or fluid movement interested Bacon and led him to develop portraits of a fleeting glance or nuance of expression.
David Sylvester, who championed Bacon's work and carried out a series of revealing interviews with the artist, argued that he often chose to work from photographs rather than life because, 'It is easier to make a flat image ... based on the observation of an existing flat image than it is to make a flat image based on the observation of something in the round'.
'In other words', Calvocoressi observes, 'Bacon, who lacked the traditional art-school training of painting or drawing from a living model, found that photographs had already done some of the work of translating three-dimensional form into two-dimensional form for him'.9 Commissioned photographs of friends became aides-memoires. He felt less inhibited when he wanted to distort their faces when they were not present. Sylvester's highly esteemed Interviews with Francis Bacon (1975) became a key source to understanding the complex artist. Sylvester more recently revealed that contrary to the impression given by the artist himself, Bacon did, in fact, do preliminary studies. In one of the later interviews Bacon revealed his aims in painting:
The living quality is what you have to get. In painting a portrait, the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person ... Most people go to the most academic painters when they want to have their portraits made because for some reason they prefer a kind of coloured photograph of themselves instead of having themselves really trapped and caught. The sitter is someone of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their emanation.10
The theatrical nature of Bacon's work is accentuated by formal devices such as his use of the triptych and linear transparent enclosures around figures. 'These paintings are the equivalent in visual art of Bacon's great post-war drama contemporaries - he is the Beckett, Ionesco or Pinter of art'.11 The spotlight in 'Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror' (1968), places him firmly on a stage, a theatre of the absurd. The mirror resembles a painting or even a television screen - art as performance, communication in various forms. Bacon considered that those who found his portraits shocking or offensive, were themselves, cocooned in fantasy, in a world unable to confront uncomfortable truths. He expanded this point:
When I look at you across the table, I don't see you but I see a whole emanation, which has to do with personality and everything else. And to put that over in a painting, as I would like to be able to in a portrait, means that it would appear violent in paint. We nearly always live through screens - a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.12
Time has played a part in the recognition of Bacon's complex work, as extended by recent world events, where the confrontation of terrorism has questioned of our faith in humanity anew. 'Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads' is a major exhibition and with the excellent catalogue, succeeds in establishing a heightened awareness into the work of a true prophet.
1. Sartre JP. La Nausée. Paris, 1938. See Martin Hammer's discussion in Clearing Away the Screens. In: Hammer M, Bailey P. Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, in association with the British Council, 2005: 18.
2. Berger J. Prophet in a pitiless world. The Guardian, 29 May 2004. Quoted ibid: 15.
3. Russell J. Francis Bacon , London: Thames and Hudson, 1979: 38. Quoted ibid: 17.
4. Jones J. The beast within. The Guardian, 9 August 2005: 13.
5. 'Self-Portraits'. Op. cit: 65.
6. Ibid: 65.
7. Calvocoressi R. Bacon: Public and Private. Ibid: 9.
8. Muybridge E. The Human Figure in Motion (1887). London and New York: Dover Publications, 1955.
9. Calvocoressi R. Op. cit: 10.
10. Bacon to Sylvester, quoted by Hammer, ibid, p.24.
11. Jones. Op. cit: 13.
2) Sally Davies, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, Studio International, 30.10.2006. Ref. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, September-December 2006
The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts seems like a fitting starting point for this fascinating touring exhibition. During the early part of Francis Bacon's career, the collectors Robert and Lisa Sainsbury provided crucial support to the artist as friends, patrons and, eventually, as financial guarantors, and the 13 works that they purchased in the 1950s provide a valuable foundation for this show, which sheds new light on the development of the painter's practice.
In the exhibition catalogue, Michael Peppiatt, Bacon's biographer and guest curator of the exhibition, describes the 1950s as the period in which Bacon 'came of age as a painter'.1 However, this was by no means a time of contemplative development for the artist: homeless, saddled with debt and caught up in a tempestuous relationship with Peter Lacy, Bacon's peripatetic existence could have put a great strain on his ability to work. Nevertheless, Peppiatt portrays this time as the most richly inventive period of Bacon's career, drawing an analogy between these 'Wanderjahre'2 and the artist's search for the appropriate subject matter and technique with which to express himself fully.
Concentrating as it does on this key period in the artist's life, the show cannot help but have a certain biographical emphasis, and Peppiatt's catalogue essay, peppered with anecdotes, acknowledges the continuing fascination that Bacon's life story inspires. However, the selection of work brought together here is no less fascinating. During his lifetime, Bacon was an exacting self-critic, who destroyed, 'lost' and re-bought paintings that he felt were deficient or for which he developed a dislike. Yet it seems that sufficient time has elapsed since Bacon's death in 1992 for Peppiatt to look beyond the standardised canon that the artist fostered, showing works that Bacon would not necessarily have included in a retrospective.
The curator has also sought to illustrate the working processes behind Bacon's oeuvre by displaying some of the archival material, which became available after Bacon's death. In the 'Link' section of the gallery, between the two exhibition spaces, visitors can see an assortment of visual materials recovered from Bacon's London studio by conservators from the Hugh Lane Gallery, including photographs, book plates and magazine cuttings, and a number of drawings lent by Tate. However, Peppiatt has to admit that 'all the sources in the world … will never do more than illuminate the matrix out of which a powerful work of art has emerged'.3 Rather, it is the simultaneous presentation of 50 paintings, including some rarely seen works, which provide the viewer with a detailed insight into Bacon's artistic preoccupations during the 1950s and beyond.
The first room of the exhibition provides an overview of the wide range of subjects that Bacon painted during this decade and it is interesting to see early portraits and familiar studies after Velázquez's 'Pope Innocent X' exhibited next to rare paintings of animals and landscapes. 'Owls' (1956) and 'Figure with Monkey' (1951) are quietly unsettling figurative studies, while 'Elephant Fording a River' (1952) and 'Figure in a Landscape' (1957) explode with uncharacteristic colour and movement. The startling 'Study for a Portrait of van Gogh V' (1957) shows its eponymous subject in a brightly coloured natural setting, casting a strong shadow on the path behind him. This creates a sense of depth, which appears remarkable to viewers more familiar with the claustrophobic interiors of his other work. At the same time however, Bacon was also producing images like 'Study for a Figure VI' (1956-57) showing a man framed by a low ceiling, and the beautiful 'Study of a Nude' (1952-53); a delicate figure suspended or poised to dive at the edge of an imagined space rendered in black, blue and white.
The second room of the show contains a number of portraits and figure studies from the later 50s and early 60s, while the inclusion of 'Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards', from 1984, shows where this work would eventually lead. While the selection of paintings on show here is perhaps less surprising than in the first room, it is still a rich and enjoyable one, with works such as 'Seated Figure' (1961) showing the coming together of Bacon's earlier compositional and technical investigations. Bacon saw painting as 'a mysterious and continuous struggle with chance',4 and his frequent return to certain subjects yielded a wide stylistic variety. Two variations that demonstrate his range are the portraits of Lisa Sainsbury, which are normally dispersed among the Sainsbury Centre's collection. In the 1956 'Portrait of Lisa', Bacon has laid the paint on and then scraped it off, so that the subject is barely present on the canvas, while in the version dated 1957, the paint is laid on so thickly round the eyes and forehead that her face becomes a moulded and gouged mask. This latter approach to portraiture appears again in Bacon's studies from the 1960s of his friends, Isabel Rawsthorne and Lucian Freud. Here, the heavy swirl and strike of the paint transforms brows, noses and mouths into snouts, muzzles, tusks and markings, the primal reading of expression obscuring the figurative appearance of the face beneath.
This invigorating exhibition, which will travel to Milwaukee and Buffalo in 2007, provides a thorough account of Francis Bacon's early practice. It reveals the strength of the Sainsbury Centre's own collection of Bacon works and, in focusing on the 1950s, shows the painter at his most open and experimental, in the process of becoming the iconic artist whose paintings still challenge and compel us today. The exhibition travels to Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin, USA, from 29 January-15 April 2007 and then to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, USA, from 5 May-30 July 2007.
1. Peppiatt M. Francis Bacon in the 1950s. Norwich: Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, 2006: 14.
2. Ibid: 16.
3. Ibid: 10-11.
4. Ibid: 46.
3) Janet McKenzie, Francis Bacon, Studio International, 30.12.2008. Ref. Centenary retrospective, Tate Britain, London
Francis Bacon (1909-1992) at Tate Britain heralds the artist’s centenary in 2009. It is the first retrospective since 1985, enabling a re-assessment of his work, although the exhibitions in Edinburgh, Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads (2005) and Norwich, Francis Bacon in the 1950s (2006) at the Sainsbury Centre have been significant. The present exhibition is informed by the revelation, following Bacon’s death in 1992, of the contents of his studio. His working methods were revealed, especially his reliance on photographs.
In interviews, Francis Bacon insisted that he never drew, and that his compositions were intuitive. These claims were refuted by the posthumous revelation of figure studies from the 1950s. Bacon usually commenced painting a figure on to the blank canvas. In 1962 he claimed that the genesis of his paintings came whilst daydreaming. In fact his methods were often more orthodox. The works on paper and lists that came to light after his death indicate that he collected a wide range of material to use as points of reference. The present exhibition, which makes a powerful impact on the viewer, comprises 65 paintings and 13 major triptychs. It is the most comprehensive exhibition to date, which examines the artist’s sources, processes and thoughts. It is accompanied by an excellent, scholarly catalogue; edited by Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens; with essays by Martin Harrison, David Alan Mellor, Simon Ofield, Gary Tinterow and Victoria Walsh.1
Widely regarded as one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, Francis Bacon can also be seen as one of the most powerful and searing commentators of the human condition in Britain since the Second World War, expressing unflinching images of sexuality, violence and isolation. The exhibition is profound, haunting and iconic. Bacon’s philosophy as an atheist is explored: man in a godless world is presented as simply another animal, subject to the same natural urges of violence, lust and fear. In this Bacon personified the age. The loss of faith in humanity in the late 1940s was such that the human image in art became increasingly difficult to portray. The existential despair expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre in Nausea (1938), found a visual counterpart in the images of despair and alienation of Francis Bacon, the expressionism of Oskar Kokoschka and the apocalyptic visions of Arthur Boyd. For the most part, abstraction in the visual arts dominated because, after the horrors of Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, artists found images of humanity impossible to create.
John Berger, formerly a harsh critic of Bacon, recently wrote:
“He repeatedly painted the human body, in discomfort or agony or want. Sometimes the pain involved looks as if it has been inflicted; more often it seems to originate from within, from the guts of the body itself, from the misfortune of being physical”.2 In spite of the hellish drama expressed, Bacon’s work is inspiring in the very dedication to the craft of painting, and the intellectual dialogue created. This is a profound exhibition, at once challenging and awesome. In spite of the bewilderment that can so often be experienced in confrontation with his painting, there is an unexpected affirmation in the choice of formal language and the precision and care applied to the act of painting: the placement of each head, each brush stroke, every subtle hue, the manner in which the figure inhabits the space, the form within the picture plane. A quiet authority is established by the artist amid the shrieking pain, due in large part to the dialogue he has with art from the past.
Bacon’s sources have been divided by various commentators now, to include ‘high art’ sources and ‘low art’ sources. Bacon chose only the most remarkable artists to aspire to: Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Velasquez and Picasso. He also chose inspiration from the modern world: men in suits, modern furniture, dangling light bulbs, gay comic books. He depicted a low-life from gangster boyfriends, heavy drinking and sexually dissipated Colony Room artists and intellectuals, a collision of high and low culture, survival and destruction. Chance played an important role in Bacon’s work – spontaneity was of key importance in a Post-Surrealist context. Although he retained the human figure in his work, he embraced the Abstract Expressionists’ love of chance in art as in life. A primordial energy is central to many works, the Bullfight paintings in 1969 being perfect examples of how Bacon infused the image on canvas with a reckless, fatal movement. Describing the collision of illustration of facts and an expression of the very deepest feelings, Bacon noted: “one wants a thing to be as factual as possible and at the same time as deeply suggestive or deeply unlocking of areas of sensation other than simple illustration of the object that you set out to do. Isn’t that what it’s all about?”3 Bacon had the highest ambition from a young age, claiming that his work should either be in the National Gallery or the dustbin, with nothing in between. His ambition as a painter was to define his existential, atheistic stance in a post-photography world. Bacon was a habitual destroyer of paintings; in 1962 he remarked that over-working was a form of destruction, of clogging. Spontaneity was a vital quality, which Bacon sought to capture.
Francis Bacon was born in Dublin, in 1909. He spent most of his life in London, working as a self-taught painter from the 1930s. The human figure was central to his work throughout his long and productive career. He died suddenly in Madrid in 1992. Time has played an important part in the appraisal of Bacon’s work; his unflinching approach to violence and the human condition is more poignant than ever. In 1973 he attributed his preoccupation with violence and war to the times in which he grew up, interwar Germany and the rise of Sinn Fein in Ireland:
I grew up in an atmosphere of threat for a long time…And then I was in Berlin at the beginning of the Nazi thing, my whole life had been lived through a time of stress, and then World War Two, anyone who lived through the European wars was affected by them, they affected one’s whole psyche to that extent, to live continuously under an atmosphere of tension and threat.4
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, in which the most scholarly essays, explore the lasting significance of his work for the present day. Images of the abyss, of loneliness and the inescapable suffering of human existence dominate the exhibition.
Francis Bacon at Tate Britain is broadly chronological. Room One, Animal, examines Bacon’s early work from the 1940s where his attitude to humanity is already evident. His bestial depiction of the human figure combined personal feelings of anxiety with broader references to the Second World War. He used reproductions from books, catalogues and magazines. The male figure is used repeatedly in Bacon’s long career; he often includes a scream or shout to reveal the internal repressed and violent anxieties. The open mouth represents the tension that exists between the individual and the broader context of time and place.
Room Two, Zone, examines Bacon’s work of the 1950s where he carried out complex experiments with pictorial space. He described the processes, in 1952, as ‘an attempt to lift the image outside of its natural environment’. This work established his easily recognisable images with boxed figures in cage-like structures. Hexagonal ground planes establish tense psychological zones; the use of shuttering, the vertical lines of paint merge the foreground and background. This is the period in which Bacon came of age as a painter. Yet his personal circumstances were extremely difficult: homeless, in debt and in a tempestuous relationship with Peter Lacy. During this time he searched for and found appropriate subject -matter with which to express his deepest anxiety. In the 1950s Bacon used the painting by Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, (c.1650), as his starting point to explore the insecurities of the powerful. For Bacon, the choice of the portrait of a Pope had nothing to do with religion; as a non-believer he was concerned with the way man behaves to each other. For Bacon the portrait by Velazquez was one of the greatest portraits ever painted for it opened up feelings and prompted the imagination, beyond any real individual or other art work. The colour is magnificent, prompting Bacon to give his own images a sense of tragic grandeur, a sense of authority in painterly terms. The Pope as a unique figure in the world suited Bacon’s ambition to create a powerful image in which power is stripped of its essence.
Room Three, Apprehension, explores the pervading anxiety in all of Bacon’s work. The Cold War anxiety that limited movement and personal freedom was combined in Bacon’s case with the illegality at the time of homosexuality. His sometimes, violent relationship, with Peter Lacy, is captured in the Man in Blue series, which concentrates on a single anonymous figure in a dark suit. Although inspired by the greatest artists from history, Bacon powerful images are achieved by combining the authority of the history of art, with contemporary life. The figure is portrayed in isolation, sitting at a table or at a bar. Like many artists in the twentieth century, including the Italian Futurists, who worked with the figure, Bacon drew from the photographic work of Edweard Muybridge’s, The Human Figure in Motion, (1887) sequential photographs of animals and humans, which Bacon described as ‘a dictionary’ of the body in motion.
Room Four at Tate Britain is devoted to one of Bacon’s most famous and iconic series, of the Crucifixion. He made works throughout his career at pivotal moments. As an atheist Bacon saw the Crucifixion as a particularly poignant act of man’s violence. Brutality and fear are developed in a particularly cruel evocation of the famous religious scene. The ritual of sacrifice is given a new dimension, the brutality emphasised with extreme abandon. Meat carcasses are used by Bacon to diminish the human notion of superiority in the wider scheme of life according to Christianity. In an early interview Bacon describes how existing images breed others. He chose the Crucifixion by Cimabue as a starting point, but readily admits that without all the paintings that have been done on the subject, his could not have produced his own. Often under the influence of alcohol, and prone to drug abuse, and frequently suffering acute exhaustion, Bacon would create Crucifixion images of profound despair. He also juxtaposes fragments of films, such as those of Eisenstein, and isolated stills allowing accident to play a major part in the creative process. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, (c.1944) is a key work and one that paved the way for his use of the triptych format, and numerous later themes and compositions. The bestial depiction of the human figure was central to Bacon’s oeuvre. Displacing the traditional saints in Crucifixion paintings, Bacon later referred to them as Furies from Greek mythology. In interview with David Sylvester in 1966, he was asked about the use of meat carcasses in these and other works. He stated, “Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses”.5 Being human in Bacon’s world was utterly debased. Bacon took works from the history of art that were created within a spiritual context and slashed them to bits. In this he felt completely justified, for the Vatican never openly condemned Nazism. This was Bacon’s vendetta for the hypocrisy played out in the name of God. Where artists such as Hieronymous Bosch created devastating images of humanity in works such as his Judgement Day paintings, Bacon chose the traditionally edifying form of portraiture, which entails a degree of trust between painter and sitter, and destroyed it. His disturbing papal images are like the burning of an effigy, leaving the viewer with a sense of physical revulsion.
Room Five Crisis, focuses on the period 1956-1961. Bacon travelled widely in Monaco, France and Africa, mostly with Peter Lacy. He used new methods of painting, choosing thicker paint, strong colour, often violently applied. Using a self-portrait, The Painter on the Road to Tarascon (1888) by Vincent Van Gogh, as his source and inspiration, Bacon painted works that were criticised for their ‘reckless energy’. With hindsight the energy and drama in these works was necessary in introducing chance into the painting process itself.
Room Six is the Archive in the Tate’s exhibition, based on the revelations made by scholars after Bacon’s death. The source material found in Bacon’s studio revealed his reliance on photography and other sources that had not been fully examined during Bacon’s lifetime. There were photographs of athletes, film stills and reproductions of works of art. Further, his practice of commissioning photographs of his friends by John Deakin was fully realised, and formed an important component of the exhibition in Edinburgh, Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, (2005). Bacon also took many photographs himself, preferring to draw from photographs, for they were already two-dimensional images. In his studio there were also lists of potential subjects and preparatory drawings, which Bacon had denied making, preferring to emphasise the spontaneous nature of the act of painting directly onto canvas.
Room Seven Portrait, is important given the findings in Bacon’s studio. In descriptions in interviews, most famously those with David Sylvester, Bacon describes his intention to reinvent portraiture. He drew upon the works he admired of Velazquez and Van Gogh. His abiding concern was how a painter should create portraits in an age dominated by photography. He distorted the sitter’s appearance in order to extract a greater, more complete likeness, informed by internal issues of personality and mood. George Dyer his lover is depicted with a mixture of affection and contempt. Three Figures in Room, (1964) expresses a range of human characteristics including absurdity, pathos, and isolation.
Room Eight Memorial, is dedicated to George Dyer, Bacon’s closest companion and model from the autumn of 1963. Two days before the opening of Bacon’s exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971, Dyer committed suicide. The void created by Dyer’s death, under such tragic circumstances prompted Bacon to produce a number of works in his memory. The large-scale triptych suited the grand nature of Bacon’s statements, enabling him to isolate and juxtapose simultaneously. The energy in these works is overwhelming. The depths of despair experienced in the loss of his lover, are expressed with consummate skill and heartfelt anguish. Bacon told Sylvester shortly after Dyer’s death: “You don’t stop thinking about them; time doesn’t heal” He referred to his repeated depiction of homosexual copulation as a form of exorcism. Although he regretted its ‘sensational nature’, he was compelled to paint, Triptych, May-June, 1973, “to get it out of his system”. As well as repeated posthumous images of Dyer, he also made numerous self-portraits.6
Room Nine, Epic, examines the work Bacon produced in response to poetry and literature, particularly the work of T.S Eliot. Bacon was emphatic in wanting to make works that evoked the meaning and mood of the written word. They were not illustrations.
For me realism is an attempt to capture the appearance with the cluster of sensations that the appearance arouses in me. As for my latest triptych and a few other canvases painted after I read Aeschylus. I tried to create images of the episodes created inside me. I could not paint Agamemnon. Clytemnestra or Cassandra, as that would have been merely another kind of historical painting when all is said and done. Therefore, I tried to create an image of the effect that was produced inside me. Perhaps realism is always subjective when it is most profoundly expressed.7
Bacon felt a great affinity for poetry, perhaps more so than contemporary art. He appreciated a wide range of poetry ranging from the work of Aeschylus, W.B Yeats, Federico Garcia Lorca, Ezra Pound, William Shakespeare and especially T.S. Eliot. From Aeschylus’ Oresteia Bacon found an evocative image: “the reek of human blood smiles out at me”.8 In turn Bacon admired T.S. Eliot’s recasting of Greek tragedy, seeing in it an appropriate model for modern society. Bacon appreciated Eliot’s preoccupation with, ‘mortality, the pathetic futility and solitude of life’, and the manner in which he located ‘those existential conditions within a specific set of modern circumstances’.9
Bacon’s description of the tightrope between abstraction and figuration can also be used for poetry. “You have to abbreviate into intensity”, he remarked, also an apt description for Eliot’s poetry. Bacon chose painting to assuage the futility of life as he saw it. “I think that man now realises that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game within reason... You can be optimistic and totally without hope”. Later, he said, “I think of life as meaningless; but we give it meaning during our existence”.10 By contrast, Eliot had a Christian faith and belief in an afterlife.
The use of triptych, Bacon insisted was its resistance to narrative: “it breaks the series up and prevents it having a story, that’s why the three panels are always framed separately”. Yet the sequence created by three canvases side by side could equally create a story through the interrelatedness of the three images and specific references within each. Specific intended meaning is always speculative in Bacon’s work. The triptych emphasises Bacon’s fascination with theatrical devices to observe the human condition. Likewise Eliot’s Wasteland, ‘describes specific scenes and events but does not tie them to a single story’.11
Room Ten Late, examines the last decade of Bacon’s life. The confrontation with mortality was an abiding theme in his work, having lost key figures in his life already. In 1993 he stated: “Life and death go hand in hand …Death is like the shadow of life. When you’re dead, you’re dead, but while you’re alive, the idea of death pursues you”.12 The very black paintings made in the 1970s which confronted the death of George Dyer, gave way to more contemplative works, with a palpable restraint and composure. In several paintings he draws on his admiration for the work of the nineteenth-century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Numerous reproductions of Ingres’ work were found in his studio, which he combined with incongruous images from sporting figures. Bacon also employed a controlled element of chance by throwing paint at the canvas. The aftermath of violence, blood gushing from a victim onto the pavement, for example, Bacon found exhilarating. Blood on Pavement, (c1988) is presented with the artist’s extraordinary detachment. “Things are not shocking if they haven’t been put into a memorable form. Otherwise, it’s just blood splattered against a wall.”13 The theme of detachment from violence and suffering is achieved throughout Bacon’s oeuvre, from an early Wound for a Crucifixion (c.1934) to the Bullfight works in the 1960s to Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres, (1983). The last paintings are the antithesis of Bacon’s early frenzied works, and have been criticised for being formulaic and lacking in tension. They have a monumentality and order, yet returning to the same themes that had occupied him for forty years. His last triptych of 1991 returns to the issue of sexual struggle, which permeates much of his life’s work. His most private feelings are laid bare, and to which he referred in 1971/3, “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 trying to say anything”.14
1. Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens, Francis Bacon, Tate Publishing, London, 2008.
2. John Berger, “Prophet in a pitiless world”, The Guardian, 29 May 2004.
3. Gale and Stephens, “On the Margin of the Impossible”, op.cit., p.26.
4. Quoted by Stephens, “Epic”, op.cit., p.218.
5. Quoted by Matthew Gale, “Crucifixion”, ibid, p.137.
6. Chris Stephens, “Epic”, ibid, p.214.
7. Ibid, p.216.
8. Gale and Stephens, op.cit., p.26.
9. Ibid, p.26.
10. Ibid, p.26.
11.“Epic”, op.cit., p. 213.
12. Rachel Tant, “Late”, p.233.
13. Ibid, p.233.
14. Ibid, p.237.