Violence and Sensation: Francis Bacon and the Remaking of Appearance

5 September - 4 October 2008

To coincide with Tate Britain's major Francis Bacon retrospective, James Hyman Gallery presents an exhibition of Francis Bacon and some of the most powerful figurative artists of our time to explore the impact of the greatest British painter of the twentieth century.

James Hyman says: As this exhibition demonstrates, Bacon's legacy was not stylistic so much as conceptual: an encouragement to take risks, an art of extremes, a heightened sense of mortality.Hyman Gallery will also be presenting a series of rarely seen prints by Francis Bacon. 

As with Bacon, all the artists in this exhibition combine an awareness of the vulnerability of the body with the suggestion of actions upon it. Hockney and Kitaj's early paintings, made at the beginning of the 1960s, make obvious Bacon's impact on young painters, even those more usually associated with Pop art, who were engaged in radical ways with the possibilities of figure painting. This impact continues in the paintings and drawings by which Tony Bevan and Hughie O'Donoghue established their reputations.

The exhibition includes works on loan and for sale. It is the third in a series on British Figurative Painting staged by James Hyman Gallery, following on from Auerbach, Bacon, Freud, Kossoff (2000) and From Life. Radical Figurative Painting from Sickert to Bevan (2003). 
James Hyman specialises in British Figurative Art, and is an acknowledged expert and author on Francis Bacon. His book The Battle for Realism: Figurative Art in Britain During the Cold War (1945-60) was nominated for a prize and is published by Yale University Press. He is the author of the Francis Bacon biography for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 

James Hyman explains the ideas behind the show:
In a conversation with Michael Clark, Francis Bacon spoke of the way that 'violence can unlock all kinds of areas of feeling and possibility'. For Bacon violence and deformation of the human form were ways of making the presence of the subject more immediate, a means of providing a jolting sense of reality, an attempt to rouse the viewer from complacency. Our new exhibition, Violence and Sensation, follows this lead in exploring the varied legacy of Francis Bacon both as a risk-taking painter and as an example of extreme commitment to the reformulation and representation of the human predicament in the contemporary world.

Bacon was a beacon of light for radical figurative artists working under the shadow of American Abstract Expressionism. Just as no artist engaged with the representation of appearance can work without addressing the way that photography has forged our view of the world, so no artist concerned with reinventing the human form can do so without responding to the achievements of Francis Bacon. As Bacon, himself, explained: 'To me, the mystery of painting today is how can appearance be made. I know it can be illustrated, I know it can be photographed. But how can this thing be made so that you can catch the mystery of appearance within the mystery of the making. I'm always trying through chance or accident to find a way by which appearance can be there but remade out of other shapes.

For the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, in his 1981 book, Francis Bacon - The Logic of Sensation, the key was Bacon's combination of chance and control to create a heightened reality that addressed the violence of life. Francis Bacon spoke of 'the brutality of fact' and Deleuze associated Bacon's violence with 'colour and line, a static or potential violence, a violence of reaction and expression.' This is a theme explored in the exhibition Violence and Sensation.

Bacon's day was long and began early and, despite the spontaneity, his routine was one of discipline. Similarly his painting is a lesson in control and chance, structure and improvisation. As Bacon, himself, commented: Great art is deeply ordered. Even if within the order there may be enormously instinctive and accidental things, nevertheless they come out of a desire for ordering and for returning fact onto the nervous system in a more violent way.exhausting morning of work in his small studio gave way to the release of life in Soho and the conviviality of the Colony Room, the celebrated private members drinking club. Colony Room regulars included a circle of Bacon's artist friends, among them Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and, later, Michael Clark. The club even became the subject of one of Michael Andrews's most famous paintings, The Colony Room I (1962), now in the collection of Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, and the exhibition includes a rare drawing by Andrews of its interior.

Francis Bacon was a regular at the Colony Room from its opening in 1949 and its proprietor, Muriel Belcher, later became one of Bacon's subjects. In our exhibition it is appropriate that one of Bacon's Colony Room confidants, the artist, Michael Clark should depict not only Bacon, himself, but also Muriel Belcher. In remarkable drawings and paintings, Clark captures the tender introspection that lay behind the subjects extrovert public personas. An intimate small painting captures Francis Bacon, whilst a bigger painting movingly bestows grandeur on Muriel Belcher ill in bed.

Bacon's reputation also owes much to the emotional impact of his work and his desire to connect directly 'with the nervous system' rather than appeal to 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 allowed Bacon to gain praise for facilitating the metaphoric potential of the artwork as a revelation of the human condition.

Bacon's sphere of influence was large and pervasive, especially among art school students in the 1950s and 1960s. At one point Bacon even had a studio at the Royal College of Art and his impact is clear in the work of alumni such as David Hockney and R.B Kitaj. Both these artists may be more commonly associated with Pop art but Bacon's impact on their early paintings is, at times, overt. Hockney's paintings of the early 1960s with their male protagonists and fleshy, dusty surfaces such as Little Head (1961), included in our exhibition, clearly reveal Bacon's legacy even if their mood is highly idiosyncratic. Meanwhile Kitaj's major early painting, The Bells of Hell (1961), which is also in our show, suggests an American artist coming to terms with post-war Europe through a response to Bacon's reformulation of the figure. The left-hand side of the picture shows an American cowboy, robust and intact, with the cockiness of a comic-strip hero, in marked contrast to the right-hand side that was clearly influenced by Bacon in its grimacing heads and broken bodies. In other ways, Michael Andrews and Frank Auerbach, in the ambition and radicalism of their painting, also suggest Bacon's impact as a source of provocation as well as stimulus. As Michael Andrews once commented to the photographer, Bruce Bernard, another Colony Room habitué: Francis really appreciates the magnificent scale of the artist's problem to express a world view... the necessity for ruthless extravagance in his rejection of everything that is not entirely to the point.

This impact continues in the paintings and drawings by which Tony Bevan and Hughie O'Donoghue established their reputations in the 1980s and early 1990s. As with Bacon, for both of them the male figure is at the centre of their world view and female protagonists are the exception. The artist's awareness of his own body is a crucial dimension and a strong male physicality is married to a sense of vulnerability. Bacon's presence is palpable in the poses of Tony Bevan's insecure figures, often set against black or crimson backgrounds; in Bevan's emphasis on the weakest points of the body such as the neck and wrist, and in the contrast between the softness of flesh and the hardness of the architectural setting or furniture to which it relates. Meanwhile, Hughie O'Donoghue's large charcoal drawings build from the art of the National Gallery and at times have a dramatic vertical fall of light that achieves a veiling effect reminiscent of Bacon's black realism of men emerging from behind curtains.

Ultimately such paintings demonstrate that Bacon's legacy was not so much stylistic as conceptual: a focus on the body, usually male; a heightened sense of mortality; an encouragement to take risks; an art of extremes and, above all, an art of incredible individuality.