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Tragedian

Francis Bacon

by John Rothenstein, by Ronald Alley
Viking, 330 pp., $25.00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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