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.
The fleshly brushloads rasping the canvas rasp at your tactile empathy. You’re prompted to imaginatively inhabit these heaves of paint, investing them with your own sense of body; and yet how could you? That would mean casting off all your comportment, all your muscular control: you would be skinless, virtually shapeless. To approach these images judders the guts. If nonetheless you stay before them, that is because they are also mysterious. How do those mutated presences behind the reflective glass (a constant of Bacon’s framing procedures) relate to one another? To what on earth else might they refer? Both your discomposure and your curiosity create a keen demand, therefore, for something to hold on to. Obligingly, the gallery label offers the word “crucifixion.”
That helps: reach out for religion, tradition, old church art. So that blubber on the post is some latter-day “study for” Christ’s agonies? Yes, but as you read on—as the channels of curating head you toward Bacon’s pronouncements—you learn that as of the twentieth century, this transfixed body is decisively bereft of divinity; that there is now no redeeming meaning to what a body might undergo, whether in torment or in orgasm; or rather, that meaning now inheres in the act of painting itself, and in the relation it bears to the naked realities of existence, to “facts, or what used to be called truth,” in Bacon’s phrase. For his pictures bear on “the inanity of our situation in the world as ephemeral beings, more capable than other living creatures of brilliant and pointless ecstasies,” as his friend the philosopher Michel Leiris expressed it1 ; they address what his spokesmen generically term the human condition. An encompassing, empowering phrase: equipped with it, perhaps you can regain your equipoise, master whatever threatened it, give it a name. It may even help you to discover in these uncanny images what used to be called beauty.
Master of the initiatory ordeal, master of the revelatory dictum, the atheistic Bacon—club-cruiser, gambler, gourmet, and leather-clad submissive—did as much as any artist to restore the missing quotient of belief to twentieth-century painting. Wieland Schmied is a distinguished devotee. He opens his essays on Bacon’s art with the customary pieties of such writing: humanity’s “agonies on the killing-floor of life,” “the existential anxiety of modern man,” and “the horror and despair that lurk beneath the surface of things.” He moves on to salute the Triptych May–June 1973, done after the death of a boyfriend of Bacon’s, as “the most tortured and desolate rendering of the human condition in the entire history of art.” Hyperbole? Well, I like the warmheartedness. Schmied is a senior twentieth- century-art expert, based in Munich, who became acquainted with Bacon toward the end of the artist’s life. Like Zweite, he takes Kantian calipers to the art, tackling the compositions via remarks such as “the purpose of space is individuation”; but also he can fondly evoke “the youngest 80-year-old I have ever met,” who “moved with a nimble grace, almost skipping as he walked.”
The former rector of the Bavarian Academy brings an Adam-like innocence to his description of a component in a “screaming pope” canvas—“Its appearance suggests some kind of metal frame, but this is not in fact the case: it is quite simply a brushstroke….” (Beware, professor! The trick’s widespread. It’s known as painting. Italics, admittedly, added.) Only he, perhaps, would dare reprimand the artist for failing properly to confront the papal image he was defacing: “That Bacon never saw the original of the Velázquez portrait is regrettable for several reasons….” Yet Schmied is a telling phrase-turner himself:
Bacon’s ideal would have been to paint like Velázquez, using the methods of Pollock…. [His] dream…was that one day he would be able simply to throw a handful of paint at the canvas and a fully formed portrait with a perfect likeness of the subject would emerge of its own accord before his eyes.
That gets close both to the physical grain of the paintwork and to the cultural and historical crisis that Bacon felt he was confronting—even though, as Schmied notes, he had no liking for his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. It comes in a chapter on “The Painting Process and Its Goal” which is in fact as alert and as precise an account of Bacon’s picture-making as I have read. Adhering to Bacon’s creed of existential crisis in no way prevents Schmied from offering an illuminating perspective on his tactics and purposes.
Adhering to Bacon’s dicta can, however, lead to doctrinal somersaults. One of the commonplaces of all the texts under review is that this work is not “illustrational.” The point stems from the artist’s interviews with David Sylvester, in which he posits an ideal of painting that makes a radically direct impact on the viewer, bypassing all rationally organized procedures for recording appearance—“without the brain interfering with the inevitability of the image,” as he expressed it. If instantaneity is of the essence, then structures of time will be blown away, as Schmied pithily asserts: “Bacon is not a story-teller, but a destroyer of stories.” Yet then he goes on to read triptych after triptych as a “sequence of events,” busily inferring internal relationships between their figures. Michael Peppiatt, as Bacon’s biographer, not surprisingly does the same. He supplies a lowdown on that big 1962 triptych—I annotate:
Read very briefly from left to right, it appears to recount Bacon’s expulsion from the family home by his father [for borrowing his mother’s underwear: father and son being the male silhouettes] through a traumatic sexual encounter [the squirm on the mattress]…to an inverted Crucifixion (no doubt of Bacon himself) in the last panel….
This interpretation of “humiliating exile and suffering” is one the art historian Martin Harrison also accepts in his book In Camera: Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting. In fact narrative paraphrases abound wherever you look: the Violence of the Real catalog captions are glutted with them.
Is this all a crass traducement of Bacon’s art? I don’t think so. The point is that his talk of transcendent immediacy was an aspiration, a handsome modernist reverie, at odds with equally strong countervailing instincts. His pictures can judder the stomach, yes, but they are also adept at mystifying; they tease the viewer’s imagination as much as they assault it. The abrupt handiwork he uses to conjure up figures—an interplay of quick-snatched curls and streaks with down-driven, explosive splats—gets increasingly overlaid, in the course of his career, by finicky texturings with powder pigment and fine bridging lines; for the prevailing direction of his art is toward aesthetic suspense. Increasingly, he dangles those clotted bodies in clean-planed interiors that hark back to his early experience working as a modernist designer; and always he keeps them removed under glass.
Seen in the light of this aestheticism, Bacon’s paintings become no less interesting, but they do become less icon-like. Is it really essential to assent to a certain crisis-tinged doctrine of the human condition in order to appreciate what this particular artist is offering? A touch of irreverence might give us more room to enjoy his fiendish ingenuity; moreover, to distinguish the indisputable inventions of genius that issued from Reece Mews from the numerous non-events—among the latter, the cover image of Schmied’s book, a dry, affectless specimen of Bacon’s old-age aerated manner. (Incidentally, the publishers have also shortchanged Schmied by printing his text in an insultingly small font.)
It is in this broadly revisionist, canon-shuffling spirit that Michael Peppiatt worked on the exhibition of 1950s paintings now touring the United States. The accompanying volume, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, forms a kind of postscript to Peppiatt’s 1996 biography, reverting to the period just before his own acquaintance with the artist began. Yes, we know that Bacon was a great reiterator, with that one set of Crucifixion studies succeeding the other (and yet more in his later years); but, says Peppiatt, the long interval between the two reveals him also as a plural-minded, restless, and reckless experimentalist. And indeed, it proves fascinating to follow the master of mangled flesh as he tries his hand at portraying Lady Sainsbury directly from life (quite against his normal practice); at essaying vibrant expressionistic variations on a self-portrait of van Gogh walking in Provençal sunshine; or conjuring up vistas of an African elephant fording a river, or of the Great Sphinx. Some of these ventures are blurted and botched, others—such as some mid-1950s figure studies, immersed in deep blue—unexpectedly beautiful: the extraordinary originality of Bacon’s obsessions shows through throughout.
The 1950s, writes Peppiatt, were a period of turmoil for Bacon. In 1951 the recently arrived celebrity of the London art scene loses his one surviving fixture from his Irish childhood, the light-fingered Jessie Lightfoot—a nanny-turned-retainer who had taken to shoplifting to provide for the bohemian ménage that her former charge kept up with his lover Eric Hall. Distraught, he abandons both this address and this partner and spends years flitting through the gay demimonde, from country cottages to bordellos in Tangier, with no fixed studio. He falls into a grim love affair with the owner of a collection of rhino whips, who wished to keep him “chained to the wall, living like an animal on a bed of straw.”
This tale of life lived on the edge—with its interwoven strand of steely artistic determination, which eventually brings Bacon to the stability of Reece Mews—makes for flavorsome reading. Peppiatt portrays his old friend with easy authority, acting at once as an ad hoc psychologist (as in his reading of the Crucifixion triptych) and as an insouciant phrase-twirler—“a drunken, farded sodomite,” he dubs him at one point, an “affable, elegant boulevardier” at another. In truth I think the exercise is slightly overextended, even if it brings a number of unfamiliar Baconological minutiae into the public domain. It was interesting, however, to read how Bacon used what Peppiatt calls his “magpie eye” when he descended in 1959 on St. Ives, the Cornish base of what was then Britain’s leading school of abstractionists.
Bacon liked to dismiss abstraction as “watered-down” art, telling Sylvester that his taste for it was mere “fashion.” But he himself was keenly alert to fashion, and in the late 1950s the wind of “color field painting” was blowing in from New York: heavy-laden angst was becoming passé, making way for the broad uninflected surfaces of Barnett Newman and his like. Three months on Britain’s western coast, far removed from his customary urban bolt-holes, saw Bacon filching a slick new flattened presentation from the colorists around him—such as Patrick Heron—whom he affected to disdain.
From this point onward his art took on an expansive, deadpan hauteur, as the former flailing, abrupt obsessive got subsumed within the persona of the prince-guru of Reece Mews. This is the self-restyling that Peppiatt’s Bacon in the 1950s is attempting to pick away at; though in fact the transition is described with deeper art historical grounding in Martin Harrison’s In Camera. It is Harrison who, thanks to a wonderfully well-informed, retentive eye, is able most effectively to locate Bacon’s painting within the broader development of twentieth-century visual culture. Harrison’s researches are closely tied to Cappock’s sifting of the studio papers, while showing a shrewd mistrust of the clues that Bacon chose to present to his public. “The layers of obfuscation surrounding a great artist are only just beginning to be penetrated,” Harrison writes. His inquiry takes him to some considerably obscure places in the backwaters of British painting, but it also clarifies how this artistic act, which has struck so many viewers as utterly sui generis ever since 1945, relates to more familiar reference points.
As I interpret Harrison, Bacon starts out in art under the shadow of Picasso, the great figure-obsessed breaker-up of figures. Also fixated on the human figure, he regards the prospect of further pictorial fragmentation—the path that leads to Pollock’s abstraction—as a downward detour for art. Up on the heights stands Velázquez, the supreme interpreter of human appearance. But there’s no straight path that heads that way. Because—and this is what Degas and still more his British disciple Walter Sickert teach Bacon—the recording of human appearance has now been taken out of human hands. Through and through our culture is pervaded by mechanized picturing; we can only insert our art within that process, like the Atlas-Manuel’s draftsman inserting his retouchings between the photograph and the chromolithograph.2
That, rather than any facet of twentieth-century public history, is for Bacon the cultural crisis that matches the spiritual crisis occasioned by God’s failure to continue existing. It’s a crisis that calls for Picasso’s aggressive, disfiguring tactics, redoubled in ferocity as he clenches and throttles the lineaments of the reproduced image he has picked up off the studio floor, as he spatters it with gouts of white and red. Only that way, heading down rather than up, via inverted crucifixions and hollowed-out popes, is there hope of touching on what Velázquez touched—which is “what used to be called truth”; which is synonymous with what Bacon still calls art.
That, very roughly, seems to be Bacon’s minimal rationale. Harrison’s examination of how Bacon developed, practiced, and then modulated it is far more richly informed and imaginative than this résumé can convey. It returns the reader to the sheer variety and inventive cunning of Bacon’s paintings, which people will probably still be poring over long after his particular theory of the human condition in crisis has become a footnote in cultural history.
May 10, 2007
Quoted in Francis Bacon: The Violence of the Real, p. 218, from Leiris, Francis Bacon: Full and in Profile, (Rizzoli, 1983), p. 45. ↩
Schmied tells a relevant story: “On one occasion Bacon had a picture brought back to the studio after seeing the transparency made by the gallery’s photographer. There was a blue in the reproduction that he particularly liked, but it was lacking from the original and he wanted to add it in as an afterthought.” See Schmied, Francis Bacon, p. 80. ↩