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The Cunning of Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon in the 1950s

catalog of the exhibition by Michael Peppiatt
an exhibition at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, May 5–July 30, 2007.
Yale University Press, 200 pp., $50.00

Francis Bacon: The Violence of the Real

catalog of the 2006 Düsseldorf exhibition edited by Armin Zweite, with Maria Müller
London: Thames and Hudson, 256 pp., £32.00

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

The item is among the several thousand catalogued in 1998 during the clearing of a smallish workroom in Reece Mews, Kensington, London SW7. This room was occupied by the artist Francis Bacon from 1961—when he turned fifty-two—till his death in 1992, thirty-one years later. For six years Bacon’s studio lay in an undisturbed limbo, but in 1998 negotiations between the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, which houses one of Ireland’s leading collections of modern and contemporary art, and Bacon’s partner and heir John Edwards resulted in its entire contents (not only each scrap of paper, but even the paint-encrusted walls) being packaged and transported to the museum. There they were reassembled in a purpose-built display room, in exactly the disorder in which Bacon had left them in London. In this manner the painter (whose English father bred horses in Ireland) returned to the land of his childhood. The Hugh Lane’s curator, Margarita Cappock, reviews and analyzes the attendant inventory in her copiously illustrated volume, Francis Bacon’s Studio.

Mostly Cappock has papers to describe. Her team found printed pictures ripped not only from medical textbooks but from news magazines; trampled snapshots of Bacon’s friends; quick sketches for compositions; crumpled, scribbled agendas for imagery (“flesh-coloured shadows, “bed of crime,” “meat seen in a box”). There were weathered volumes of wildlife photography and art books reproducing Velázquez and Ingres. All these had been cast down among champagne cases, paint rollers, brushes, pots, and cans over the course of three decades, mounting up and moldering in ragged drifts around a walkway to the easel. On worktables, uncapped paint tubes had fused into mountainous conglomerates. By the walls and windows and also underfoot, a hundred slashed canvases lay strewn, with holes where faces once had been. Earlier photographic records indicate that a circular mirror with pocked silvering—a relic of the painter’s prehistory, his attempts while young to work in interior design—was one of the few items that had always stood proud of this dismal, dusty morass.

There is something giddying about the systematic resurrection of such an environment in another city, three hundred miles away. When the would-be cultural guerrilla A.J. Weberman coined the term “garbology” in 1971, he was teasingly dignifying his habit of sneaking around celebrities’ refuse in a quest for telltale signs of ideological duplicity. (Had Bob Dylan turned from political protest to heroin addiction? Had Muhammad Ali been snacking on pork? Surely, sooner or later, the used needle, the emptied meat can would turn up!) Garbology has since been taken into the fold of academic respectability by archaeologists who recognize in it a fast-track variant on their own science. Object-based information is the great desideratum, from their perspective: distaste and decorum only form the fuzziest of qualifying considerations.

Naturally, professional archaeologists were involved in bringing Reece Mews to Dublin—Cappock includes their draftsman’s floor plans of the clutter in her documentation. And yet turning over remnants as soiled and sad as that scrap of paper with the abscessed mouth, one is brought back to the sense of trespass that Weberman was playing with in a less information-fixated age. Is it really our business to be snooping around here, in another man’s trash? What crime do we suspect him of? This Dublin high-tech display complex with its meticulously simulated chaos, this book that so forensically analyzes its constituents: doesn’t it all amount to a loss of human proportion?

Well, there is a crime of sorts to be accounted for. That medical textbook, picked up in Paris in 1927 when Bacon was a teenager on the run from his father, would eventually supply a cue for the triptych with which he made his mark on the London art scene in April 1945. In the central canvas of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, the same gaping mouth has been grafted onto a head on a lithe snake neck, descending from the body of a plucked turkey, with a white bandage over its eyes: this mutant being perched on a pedestal inside an expanse of glaring orange (see illustration on page 6). No one encountering that blind, voracious phantasm—whether in a London gallery at the traumatic moment when the Holocaust’s horrors were just becoming public knowledge, or even now, reproduced in any primer of modern art—has found it easy to forget. But Bacon was far from done with his oral prompt. Those forced-apart teeth helped to catalyze the series of “screaming popes” that cemented his reputation during the 1950s. Echoes of them repeatedly punctuated the rushing, slithering flesh-flurries he specialized in painting during the following decade, as he settled into Reece Mews and into a niche of international renown far beyond that of any British contemporary.

There was nothing particularly covert, however, about his use of the image. Bacon himself spoke about his passion for the Atlas-Manuel, with its “beautiful” pictures of diseased mouths, in the course of a 1966 interview. He was talking with David Sylvester, a formidable London art writer who became his chief critical advocate. The eloquence with which Bacon expanded on such singular reference points was one of the reasons Interviews with Francis Bacon, published in book form in 1975, became a major art text of its time. That volume offered its readers photos surveying the already legendary studio muddle. Cappock’s book provides further shots taken across the decades, including a couple from 1974 which set against it an impeccably natty artist, all dressed up to hit the drinking clubs or gaming tables that habitually completed his daily round.

The more you get used to this milieu and the mentality behind it, the more you sense that the pomaded fifty-four-year-old in the Jermyn Street shirt would himself have been controlling the shutter by proxy. He would have been exactly aware of the image he was giving out: he is said to have rejoiced in this “compost” around him, from which his images had sprouted. Have you been snooping around some private citizen’s refuse? No, you have been granted a glimpse inside a monarch’s palace. Arguably, Reece Mews was not simply a style statement, but the artist’s lone work of sculpture—Bacon’s equivalent to Duchamp’s Étants Données, the installation that was only made available to the world after the artist’s death. And if he was the master operator throughout, obscurely willing the studio’s relocation from beyond the grave, then what of that scrap you took for a clue: Was it merely a decoy, a plant? Is it your credulity that those paint-smeared fingers have been gripping?

These thoughts occur because Bacon’s own accounts of himself, to a remarkable degree, continue to dominate the literature on him. Interest in Bacon shows no signs of abating. Among the various Bacon exhibitions of the last two years, “Francis Bacon: The Violence of the Real” in Düsseldorf and “Francis Bacon: Paintings from the 1950s,” which originated in Norwich, England, and is now traveling the United States, have each generated substantial catalogs, the latter including a long essay by Bacon’s biographer Michael Peppiatt. The curator of the Düsseldorf show, Armin Zweite, concludes his text with the remark that when it comes to Bacon’s art, “continued efforts are called for to explain the process and the product,” and this injunction is certainly being heeded.

Besides Cappock’s account of the studio, there is Francis Bacon: Commitment and Conflict, a new general study by Wieland Schmied; and Martin Harrison’s In Camera: Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, an extensive examination of Bacon’s use of source materials. All these publications have worthwhile aspects. (It should be mentioned that Cappock’s book is elegantly drafted, commandingly knowledgeable, and offers many telling local insights.) It remains the case, however, that whichever you read, the lines that sing out and stay in the mind are Bacon’s own. “To unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently,” for example, and “realism has to be reinvented.” The Düsseldorf Violence of the Real catalog functions as an extended, highly learned gloss on those Bacon dicta, with Zweite trying to ground them in texts by Kant, T.W. Adorno, André Breton, and Gilles Deleuze. And yet after bearing with his studious philosophizing it is to their loose gestural pungency that you long to revert.

Bacon’s continued hold on the meaning of his own art is quite distinctive. If you turn to his initial artistic inspiration, Picasso—or for that matter to that other great post-Picasso painter, Jackson Pollock—you meet artists who habitually, for most of their careers, refused to offer verbal sops to interpretation. Writers on Picasso and Pollock contradict one another vigorously and incessantly; when it comes to Bacon, the commentariat is docile and orthodox. What is it that engenders this pattern of viewer behavior?

Let us imagine a first encounter with a Bacon from what most agree was the heyday of his art. You round a gallery partition and meet the Three Studies for a Crucifixion of 1962 (now in the Guggenheim Museum, New York), glaring six and a half feet tall in fields of orange and red (thus reiterating, more expansively and slickly, the layout of the near-homonymous Three Studies from seventeen years before). To the left, you register the blobby silhouettes, floating like bacilli in blood, of two walking males, with paired sides of a beef carcass transecting the foreground. At the center, a far fiercer image arrests you: a bed seen end-on, its striped mattress swelling and drooping, on which there lies a knot of whirling, skimming brushmarks, pinkish-yellow and black, splattered with blood red and ejaculatory trails of white. The knot’s loops don’t quite untie into distinct limbs, yet a set of parted teeth confer on it a face. Loudest of all is the creation to the right: a winding gloop of black and blubber-pink that slithers down a post to a puddle and a ring of bones at its base, with a ripped-open ribcage and below it a screaming, eyeless head—yet further parted teeth, the acutest detail of the whole convulsive ensemble being a single canine tooth isolated against the mouth’s black hollow.

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