Essays by James Hyman

Francis Bacon - a life in paint

Francis Bacon - a life in paint

 
 

Essay by James Hyman




Francis Bacon (1909- 1992) was born 28 October 1909 in Dublin, Ireland of English parents. The second of five children, Bacon's father was a military man who moved his family to London during the First World War, where he worked in the Ministry of War, living in Westbourne Terrace in West London. After the war the family moved between England and Ireland and Bacon himself to Dean Close School in Cheltenham, where he boarded from 1924-26, frequently running away before moving to London on an allowance provided by his mother.

In 1926 he moved to London and then in 1927 travelled to Berlin with a male friend of the artist's father, who was entrusted with educating the young man. There Bacon was plunged into the decadent nightlife of Weimar Germany, something that after the puritanism of his Irish upbringing had a permanent impact. No less important were the subsequent months Bacon spent in Paris, where, in the summer of 1927, he discovered at the Galerie Pierre Rosenberg Picasso's recent drawings. Picasso's depictions of figures on the beach at Dinard had a profound effect on Bacon.

In 1928 Bacon returned to London where from 1929-1932 he lived in Queensberry Mews in South Kensington. There he worked as an interior designer designing Modernist rugs and furniture, indebted to Le Corbusier and Eileen Grey. From this moment onwards Bacon established a reputation as a designer, being featured in a double-page spread in Studio in 1930 and receiving celebrated commissions including furniture for the kitchen of the politician R.A. Butler and a desk for the writer Patrick White. He also began to paint in oils for the first time, producing works that owed much to Surrealism and Cubism.

In 1930 influenced by his friend and mentor, the Australian painter Roy de Maistre, Bacon held an exhibition of five paintings and four rugs at his studio. Thereafter Bacon turned increasingly to painting but it was another three years before his first significant paintings were exhibited, in two group shows at the Mayor Gallery in 1933. One of these works, Crucifixion (1933), was prestigiously illustrated in Herbert Read's Art Now, opposite one of Picasso's paintings of a bather.

In February 1934 Bacon staged an unsuccessful exhibition of thirteen works in a cellar in Curzon Street in Mayfair. Visiting Paris again in 1935 Bacon purchased a book illustrated with colour plates entitled Diseases of the Mouth and this, together with seeing for the first time Serge Eisenstein's film, Battleship Potemkin, had a profound effect on the artist, led to a tougher figurative dimension. Bacon's path was set and in the years that followed his painful vision of man and his predicament became one of the most recognisable, although horrific, bodies of work of the second half of the twentieth century.

In 1936 Bacon's work was proposed for inclusion in the celebrated International Surrealist Exhibition (1936), being organized for London by Roland Penrose, Herbert Read and André Breton, but was famously judged by the Englishmen to be 'insufficiently surrealist'. Although this rejection may well have been upsetting at the time, it was fortuitous since subsequently it was the Bacon's 'realism' that was at the centre of the claims made for him.

In 1937 London had its first glimpse of what was to come. In January 1937 Thomas Agnew and Sons staged an exhibition of Young British Painters which included a painting that Bacon had only just completed. Entitled Abstraction from the Human Form it depicted a semi-human figure and demonstrated that even before the Second World War, Bacon had not only formulated but also was publicly exhibiting his tormented vision of the world. Already he was using photographs of contemporary events; drawing attention to the mouth; and presenting metonymic segments of the body, which is shown as bulbous and swollen.

A chronic asthmatic from childhood Bacon was declared unfit for military service, spending the Second World War in London, where with the aid of his former nanny, he held gambling parties. By 1942 Bacon was living in Cromwell Place, South Kensington where he began to build from his pre-war imagery to produce his first major paintings, including a work that did more than any other to establish his reputation as one of the most powerful and horrifying painters of the twentieth century: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). Against a fiery orange background, three barely human figures provide a compendium of injuries: the torsos are swollen and deformed, the ribs scarred and dirtied, the heads wounded and bandaged and each mouth strains at the end of a taut spinal column.

In 1945 it was the exhibition of this triptych at a group show at the Lefevre Gallery that established Bacon's post-war reputation. Subsequently, Bacon claimed this as his first mature work, even going so far as to destroy as much earlier work as he could. The result of this was to identify Bacon's work with the Second World War and to provide it with roots in the 1940s, not the 1930s. This had profound implications for readings of the artist's work, not as late flowering surrealism but as contemporary realism.

In November 1949 the Hanover Gallery staged the first one-person exhibition of Francis Bacon. One of the seminal events in post war British culture, this exhibition was a revelation. The exhibition included full-length figures as well as a series of tormented heads which culminated in one of Bacon's most celebrated and confident early paintings, Head VI (1949). A half-length portrait, this was the first painting in what became the most celebrated series of paintings Bacon ever produced: a series showing a boxed, screaming Pope that established Bacon's international reputation. Bacon developed this theme during the early 1950s in epic paintings, which although finished were entitled 'studies' by the artist, which took as a starting point Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Bacon's Pope, enthroned and enclosed by a box, drew attention to the discrepancy between the belief systems present at the time of Velasquez and the contemporary discrediting of authority. They gained potency through the publication of photographs showing the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, boxed behind glass for their own protection.

Most crucially, Bacon's veiling of his imagery led to a fundamental misidentification of his subjects. Paradoxically, although the origins of Bacon's vision lay with paintings of oppressors, including Nazi leaders, the subsequent status of these paintings was dependent on reading these tormented individuals as Everyman figures that represent ourselves: a conflation of oppressor and victim.

The first major essays on the artist date from this period and provided readings of Francis Bacon, which remain largely in place to this day. The two most important were by Robert Melville in the British publication Horizon in 1949 and Sam Hunter in the American Magazine of Art in 1950. The former became the basis for subsequent European responses to the artist, most pervasively that of David Sylvester who became one of the artist's greatest champions, whilst the latter was almost entirely neglected with the conspicuous exception of the critic and curator Lawrence Alloway. Although both pioneering essays derived from conversations with Bacon, their emphasis was fundamentally different. Hunter provided an emphatically British context, including references to Wyndham Lewis, William Blake, Gainsborough, Turner, Sickert and even Beardsley and wrote of the importance of London to the artist. Meanwhile Melville developed a European context for Bacon's tormented vision through references to Dostoevsky and Kafka, to Dali and Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou, to Picasso's 'air of extreme hazard', and to Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin.

Both authors also emphasised the contempory resonance of Bacon's work, a feature that helped him assume pre-eminence in the London art scene of the 1950s. However, whilst Hunter's text and accompanying photograph of Bacon's source material made a direct link between Bacon's paintings and his collecting of photographs of major international events and political leaders, including photographs of Goebells and of Moscow at the time of the Russian Revolution, Melville instead gave a more elevated reading. This lacked such direct references and instead argued that 'Modern Painting has suddenly been humanised,' proposing that Un Chien Andalou has greater visual force and lucidity than anything achieved in the art of painting between the two wars [] only the recent paintings of Francis Bacon have discovered a comparable means of disclosing the human condition.keeping with his belief that the image should act as an assault on the nervous system rather than a stimulus for the intellect, Bacon denied that he did preparatory studies for his paintings, preferring to emphasise the immediacy of chance to generate his images. Bacon's denials that he did preparatory did much to discourage writers from pinning specific sources to his imagery and instead to stress a conflation of sources that extracts his work from being mere story-telling or illustration: a painting may be a portrait of an individual, but rarely is he, or occasionally she, identified. Only after Bacon's death were drawings by, and attributed to, the artist publicised, published and exhibited. Generally scrappy and weak, they were clearly personal notations that the artist did not consider worthy of exhibition but which nonetheless provide a revealing insight into his studio procedure and suggest a greater degree of planning than Bacon's interviews had suggested.

Bacon's international reputation soon grew dramatically. As early as 1948 the Museum of Modern Art bought Bacon's important early work Painting 1946. Then in 1953 he had his first one-person show at Durlacher Bros in New York and in 1957 at the Galeries Rive Droit in Paris. In 1954 he also received major official recognition, representing Britain at the Venice Biennale along with Lucian Freud and Ben Nicholson.

Such events provided an international context for Bacon and consolidated existentialist readings of his work. Indeed from as early as his first one-person show in 1949, the artist was being associated with existentialism, as in a review by Nevile Wallis: 'Bacon's work is the most profoundly disquieting manifestation I have yet seen of that malaise, which since the last war, has inspired the philosophy of Sartre. [There is] a literary parallel in Kafka's nightmares of frustration, which largely owed their inspiration to Kierkegaard's philosophy of despair.' Sylvester, too, provided just such a context for Bacon. In 1952, in his first major essay on the artist, an article for the Listener, he referred to Bacon's enclosed spaces with direct reference to Sartre's Huis Clos quoting Garcin's 'Eh bien, continuons...' and asserting that 'life is hell and we had better get used to the idea.contexts were matched by complementary responses at home. In 1955 the ICA in London held the first Bacon retrospective, presenting 13 paintings. That same year also witnessed an Arts Council retrospective of Giacometti, also in London. This event, coupled with Bacon's show, did much to stimulate figurative art in Britain and to encourage critics to present personal torment as the objective revelation of the human condition. Certainly, Bacon paralleled Giacometti in whose sculptures movement, whether potential or actual, suggests vulnerability and fear. Bacon's decisive, transitional group of paintings of a head that he began in 1948 has striking formal and conceptual links with Giacometti's caged nose, The Nose, of the previous year. Both are concerned with movement: Giacometti allows actual movement while Bacon suggests twisting. Both use boxing to draw attention to the space in which the subject moves: Giacometti provides a box and Bacon an armature. Both emphasise a single element of the face as a metonym of the whole: Giacometti emphasises the nose and mouth Bacon simply the gaping mouth. Both, too, concentrated on the single figure and seek to deny narrative readings of the art work.

Bacon also became notorious for his social life. A focus was the Colony Room drinking club in Soho, which opened in 1949 and whose proprietor, Muriel Belcher, later became one of the artist's subjects. Other regulars included a circle of Bacon's artist friends, among them the figurative painters Lucian Freud, Michael Andrews and Frank Auerbach. Bacon's day began early and despite the incorporation of chance effects in his painting his routine was one of discipline and routine. An exhausting morning of work in his small studio gave way to the release of life as a drinker and gambler in Soho in which he mixed as freely with East End criminals as he did with the landed aristocracy. Bacon's extraordinary appearance - with his moon face and leather jacket - and his life of immense highs and lows contributed much to his status as the leading British artist of the last half century: an extremist in both art and life.

Bacon was celebrated for the emotional impact of his work and his desire to connect directly 'with the nervous system' rather than the intellect. He wanted, he explained, to show the effect, but not its cause, for example preferring to paint the anguished figures at the base of the crucifixion rather than the crucifixion itself. This allusiveness was praised for facilitating the metaphoric potential of the artwork as a revelation of the human condition, although such veiling may also have had a more personal resonance that was fuelled by the artist's own anxiety. Indeed in one of Bacon's most powerful early works, there is an intimation of why the painter's anxiety might have been so acute.

In 1953 in one of his greatest paintings, Two Figures, Bacon presented a darkened room in which two men make love on a bed: the artist, himself, and his lover Peter Lacey. The vertical lines that run down the picture veil the figures and suggest a view glimpsed through a net curtain, thereby placing us outside the room, spying on the men. In this way the painting embodies the clandestine nature of the depicted action at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. In Two Figures anxiety about the state monitoring and constraining the individual collided with a time of acute insecurity for homosexuals. A manifesto painting, Two Figures remained unexhibited until Bacon's Tate Gallery retrospective in 1962.

During the 1950s oranges, reds and blues of the mid 1940s soon drained away from Bacon's paintings to be replaced by dust and darkness. Whereas in pre-war and wartime paintings, the range of colours had been wide and paintings of the mid 1940s had used a strong, dominant orange, from the later 1940s until 1956-57 Bacon instead presented a black realism of dust and shadows. Man is alone in a void.

In 1957 colour returned to Bacon's work in the Hanover Gallery's dramatic exhibition of recent paintings. However this was a show that suggested a crisis of direction for the artist. At a time when American abstract expressionism was for the first time becoming resurgent in Europe, Bacon presented some of the least convincing and most uncharacteristic paintings of his career. The exhibition was dominated by a series of paintings based on a photographic reproduction of Van Gogh's Painter on the Road to Tarascon, which had been destroyed in the Second World War. The black realism upon which Bacon's reputation rested was replaced by heightened colour and the previous use of thin stained grounds and dusty smearings gave way to thick, free, all-over painting. While in Bacon's earlier paintings, despite the suggested movement, there is composure; these latest pictures seemed uncomfortably hurried. The application of paint was slapdash, rather than exhilarating, and the picture surface was a dead-end, not a space to be explored. Fortunately for Bacon's reputation, this moment was short-lived. An option had been tried and rejected and Bacon subsequently derided most of these paintings. However, the lessons he learnt about colour dramatically transformed his work through a series of paintings heralded by Bacon's incredible triptych of Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962), which was the climax of his Tate Gallery retrospective in 1962.

By the time of this retrospective Bacon had moved from the Hanover Gallery to the Marlborough Gallery where he stayed from 1958 until his death. The devoted support and understanding he received there, above all from Valerie Beston, married to the 1962 Tate Gallery retrospective did much to consolidate Bacon's reputation.

From the early 1960s Bacon created some of his most ambitious multi-figure compositions in which, for the first time, he placed at the centre of his efforts the exploration of his themes through the use of a large-scale triptych format, to produce some of his most ambitious paintings.

In 1961 Bacon found a new studio at Reece Mews where he remained until his death. Although he had other studios, it was here that he did the majority of his paintings for the next thirty years. During the 1960s the range of colours widened and Bacon developed the interior settings that had previously been so stark, and introduced an ambiguous psychological dimension. By pursuing the possibilities of the triptych, using three canvases, each separately framed, Bacon allowed his figures to be at the same time related and separated. Several of these figures were based on Bacon's partner, George Dyer, whom he had become involved with late in 1963. In 1965 Bacon painted one of the most powerful of all these triptychs entitled Crucifixion. Controversially, one of the onlookers wears an arm-band bearing a swastika to suggest a more specific contemporary resonance than Bacon otherwise allowed. Over 1965-66 Bacon also gave increasing attention to painting small triptychs of heads. He had painted the first of these, Three Studies of the Human Head in 1953 but now he followed this, one-off, precedent and took up the format again in a memorable series of portraits of friends, including Isabel Rawsthorne, Muriel Belcher and Lucian Freud. Reviewers likened this use of three views of the same subject to police mug-shots of full-face and profile, encouraged by knowledge of Bacon's own use of public photo machines to provide him with source material.

By the late 1960s the settings had become more sophisticated with spatial distortion often turning rectangular boxers into spheres, to suggest subjects trapped in a paper weight. Mirrors also began to play a central part allowing Bacon to combine more than one view of the subject and to chart different forms of fragmentation and dissolution.

An immensely cultured man, Bacon drew inspiration from multifarious sources, sometimes making these explicit, through his use of titles, as in Triptych inspired by T.S. Eliot's poem Sweeney Agonistes (1967) and Triptych inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981).

In October 1971 the Grand Palais in Paris staged a major Francis Bacon retrospective that was dominated by these triptychs. Sadly the event, which should have been one of the triumphs of Bacon's life, was marred by tragedy: on the eve of the Opening, Bacon's partner George Dyer committed suicide in their Paris hotel room. Bacon commemorated Dyer's death in ensuing paintings including a triptych entitled Tripytch in Memory of George Dyer (Nov-Dec.1971).

From 1974 Bacon had an apartment in Paris, such was his love for the city and its culture. He did little work there but established deep friendships and the leading French intellectual Michel Leiris became one of the artists most articulate champions. In 1974 Bacon met John Edwards, with whom he formed a close paternal relationship and Edwards was later named as his sole heir.

In 1975 the Metropolitan Museum in New York staged the exhibition Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings 1968-74, the first time that a contemporary British artist has been shown by the museum. The same year David Sylvester's interviews with Francis Bacon were published for the first time, an immensely revealing document of the artist's concerns that provided insights not only into his own art and times but also that of the past.
By the 1980s Bacon's career had become one of major accolades, exhibitions and tributes. In 1983 a first retrospective of Bacon's work was held in Japan travelling to Tokyo, Kyoto and Nagoya. In 1985 the Tate Gallery held its second major retrospective of the artist, an exhibition that then travelled to Germany, to the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart and the Nationalgalerie in Berlin. In 1988 even the Soviet Union staged a Bacon retrospective, an almost unprecedented honour for a Western artist that was balanced by transatlantic acclaim the following year, when a major exhibition was held in America, travelling to the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, the Los Angeles County Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

By this time one of the striking features of Bacon's oeuvre had become the consistency of his vision and the rigour with which he focused on his themes. Nonetheless, Bacon also occasionally made surprising, powerful statements on subjects that were otherwise peripheral to his concerns. In the 1950s Bacon painted memorable depictions of animals, most movingly in paintings of 1952 and 1953 of a prowling dog and of the early and mid 1950s of a caged chimpanzee. Also, although landscapes are virtually absent from his oeuvre he did produce a turbulently evocative painting of dusty ground and windswept trees entitled Landscape near Malabata, Tangier (1963). Two extraordinary paintings of the 1980s, both set in indeterminate indoor-outdoor spaces provide a remarkable climax to this little pursued theme: the smudgy Sand Dune (1981) and the ejaculatory Jet of Water (1988). Together these paintings not only drew attention to the artist's brilliant handling of paint but also provided a riposte to any Romantic vision of nature or natural forces.

In the 1980s the increasing use of paint applied by airbrush, in addition to paint brush, allowed for innovative textural effects and a new quality to Bacon's grounds. Certainly, there were spectacular successes, especially his portraits of John Edwards of 1986-88, but there was also growing criticism of the artist with accusations that his work had become formulaic, was less engaged and lacked tension.

An indication of how far Bacon had come is indicated by his decision to paint a second, larger version of his seminal early painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). This new version, Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988) replaced the poignantly scruffy original with an altogether grander, more imperial version, something Bacon had long wished to do. The result was not without critics who felt that the grander dimensions and slicker painting technique of this second version had resulted in pastiche, which robbed the original of much of its charge.

Nonetheless Bacon continued to provide new insights into existing themes, through increasingly spare paintings in which he pared down the settings and concentrated on essential anatomical details. In Triptych 1991, Bacon's last triptych and his final great statement, there is a tremendous sense of desolation and loneliness. Much of each canvas is left bare and a defining feature is the dark square against which the figure is set: an engulfing void with intimations of death. A few months later, on 28 April 1992 Bacon died in Madrid where he had been visiting a friend. Britain had lost one of its greatest painters and the world one of the most disturbing artists of the modern age.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon. Full face and in profile, Phaidon, London, 1981; Tate Gallery, London, Francis Bacon, 1986

David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, third enlarged edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 1987

John Russell, Francis Bacon, revised and updated edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 1993

Centre George Pompidou, Paris, Francis Bacon, 1996

Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon. Anatomy of an Enigma, London, 1996

James Hyman, The Battle for Realism, Yale University Press, 2001

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