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 …

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